Behind the jersey: Kent State junior point guard Kevin Zabo


Kent State junior guard Kevin Zabo dribbles the ball up court against Bowling Green State University at the M.A.C. Center on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Kent State lost in overtime, 84-83.

Tanner Castora

Editor’s note: Tanner Castora is a redshirt sophomore men’s basketball player and a journalism major. He provides insight and commentary as a student-athlete.  

Character is a journey, not a destination — or Le charactaire est un sejour, et non une destination, as they may say in Kevin Zabo’s hometown of Gatineau, Quebec.

Zabo, a junior point guard for the men’s basketball team, is averaging 5.4 points per game, 1.3 rebounds per game and nearly two assists per game in 18 minutes of playing time a night. While his journey to Kent State has been lengthy and unforeseen, that doesn’t mean the junior hasn’t learned from each step.

Zabo’s father, Zephyrin Zabo, was born and raised in the Congo, and his mother, Jacqueline Mukama, came from Rwanda. The two met at school in the late ’80s.

A decade later, the family — Zephyrin, Mukama and their first born child Alexandre — fled to Canada amidst threats of war in the Congo and surrounding countries.

In 1995, Zabo was born in the family’s new home of Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Although Zabo’s father played more soccer than basketball in high school, he was an avid fan of the NBA. At a young age he introduced Zabo to the game of basketball.

“When I was real young, my dad bought me this mini hoop in the house with a basketball,” Zabo said. “Apparently, that’s all I wanted to do. We would always play on that and we would always watch NBA games together.”

Kevin and his family moved 208 miles west to French-speaking Gatineau, Quebec, when he was four years old. If you ask him today what he refers to as his home, this will be your answer.

It became apparent early on that Zabo had a unique talent.

In his new hometown, there was a YMCA league for young ball players, but the organization had established an age restriction: Kevin was only five at the time, but only those seven years old and up could play.

Initially, the league accepted Alexandre but not Kevin. Zabo’s father convinced the YMCA that Kevin would have no problem competing in the league. 

“Right there and then was when I knew I could really play. From then on I would always play up (with older kids),” Zabo said.

You could say the rest is history, or perhaps, the first step of a never-ending journey.

By seventh grade, Zabo played for De L’ile High School in his hometown, where he won two championships before he finished the eighth grade.

Shortly after, he played AAU basketball for QC United, a well-known club team that held connections to many higher ranking high school coaches. Well-recruited by high school coaches, Zabo ultimately chose St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts, 383 miles southeast of his beloved hometown.

The St. Mark’s basketball team was a different type of animal. The talent level had risen. He joined players recruited by national college stalwarts like Duke University or the University of Arizona. Nik Stauskas, selected eighth overall in the 2014 NBA draft, played for the team.

Nonetheless, Zabo started at point guard as a freshman, despite a language barrier: spoke French, not English, until the seventh grade.       

“In seventh and eighth grade, we would take English as a second language type of class, like how people take Spanish here,” he said. “In eighth grade I started watching American movies. But when I came to the States, I really knew no English. I was never scared, I was excited. I wanted to go to the States, I wanted to speak English.”

When his freshman season of hoops ended at St. Mark’s, it was time for the AAU circuit to begin in the spring. Not only is AAU vital to young men looking to play basketball in college, but it’s also the easiest way to be seen by college coaches. That spring, he joined the top AAU team based out of Canada, and Zabo — like he did in high school — would play up a few age groups.

The team, CIA Bounce, was loaded with talent again: His teammates consisted of Tyler Ennis, who was a first round pick in the 2014 NBA draft and now a member of the Houston Rockets; Andrew Wiggins, who was the first overall pick of the 2014 NBA draft and now a budding superstar for the Minnesota Timberwolves; and Anthony Bennett, who was selected first overall in the 2015 NBA by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It was a can’t miss opportunity, but other obligations would oftentimes create a road block for Zabo. St. Mark’s had finished the season with a 27-3 record with Zabo at the helm, but the school required student-athletes to play a sport during each season. Zabo played football in the fall, basketball in the winter and tennis in the spring.

His goal was to earn a Division I basketball scholarship. It was important to be with his AAU team during the weekend of tournaments, yet there would be weekends he was stuck playing tennis instead.

“I felt like it was slowing me down, ” Zabo said. “I wasn’t there to play football and tennis. I was a basketball player.”

Subsequently, Zabo decided to transfer to Montrose Christian School, 413 miles southwest of St. Mark’s in Rockville, Maryland. At Montrose Christian – where NBA star Kevin Durant played – Zabo again earned the role of starting point guard.

Zabo guided the team to a semi-final berth in the 2012 National High School Invitation and finished with a record of 22-3. Zabo would only stay at Montrose Christian for one year however, as he and his family decided it was best for him to move on from Montrose Christian after the season.

Another step in the journey was on its way.

Preparing for recruitment

Zabo headed to Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, 507 miles northeast of Montrose Christian School, and would be the final stop in Zabo’s high school career.

Over his two years at Brewster Academy, he played with nine teammates who went on to play at major Division I schools, most notably Chris McCullough, who became a first round draft pick in the 2015 NBA draft. Zabo started at point guard both years for the Bobcats, and helped conduct them to a 33-0 record and capture the New Hampshire State Championship.

His high school and prep career had come to an end, but now laid before him his most important step in his journey: college.

Heading into his senior year of high school, Zabo considered four offers from Illinois, West Virginia, Iowa State and San Diego State. Zabo wanted to go where he felt the most wanted.

“Most of the schools I felt it was, ‘OK, if we don’t get this point guard to sign with us then we’ll take you.’ I wasn’t feeling that. San Diego State was different,” Zabo said. “San Diego State was aggressive, they made me a priority. To me that’s a no-brainer, no matter what school it is.”

He signed with the Aztecs, who were coming off a 31-5 season that culminated with a Sweet Sixteen berth in the NCAA Tournament.

The 2014 season looked to be a promising one with most of their core players back, and early in the 2014 season, Zabo was in the Aztecs’ rotation logging minutes.

Before conference season started, he came down with a sprained pinky toe and was forced to miss two to three weeks. This proved to be a huge detriment to Zabo, as by the time that he was back and healthy, conference season had already started and the rotation was set.

Zabo was no longer a part of it.

“I loved San Diego State. Great experience, great school, but I felt like it was about timing and the timing was just wrong,” Zabo said. “I wanted something different than what they wanted, I was kind of impatient with things. I understand where coach was coming from in cutting down the rotation, but me as a freshman, I was impatient.”

After praying on it and discussing it with his family, Zabo decided at the end of the season that he would be transferring from San Diego State.

Zabo had a couple of options: He could look to transfer to another Division I institution and sit out that entire year of basketball and then deem his redshirt as his status and not lose a year of playing eligibility. Instead, he chose the other option: attend a junior college, play immediately and have a shot at being re-recruited by Division I schools for the following year.

This step in his journey was more like a leap of faith.

1,770 miles northeast of San Diego is Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. In many regards, the two cities could not be more contrasting. San Diego is just a stroll from the beach, but Ottumwa is surrounded by corn fields. San Diego’s population is booming with well over a 1,000,000 people, while Ottumwa’s is sitting in the 20,000 range. San Diego’s average temperature is a soothing 64 degrees, while Ottumwa’s is a chilling 22 degrees.

Zabo was aware of this reality, but he said it didn’t bother him.

“It was a crazy transition, but to me, it was whatever,” Zabo said. “It was really about basketball; I was very happy to be there. I just wanted to play ball.”

The recruiting process was set to start all over. After a successful season at Indian Hills where he averaged seven points a game on 47 percent shooting, Division I coaches came calling again. At one point, Zabo narrowed his options to Wichita State, Memphis and Iona.

But this is where Zabo ran into trouble.

Wichita State accepted a commitment from another point guard before Zabo pulled the trigger. They no longer had a spot for him. He thought Memphis might be a possible landing spot, and a Memphis coach flew out to Iowa to see and talk with him.

However, a few days later, the coaching staff had parted ways with the university. Zabo then took a visit to Iona, a small Division I school in New Rochelle, New York.

A day or two after his visit, though, they took a commitment from another point guard. It was already April, and national signing day was approaching in less than two weeks. Things were looking bleak.

Meanwhile at Kent State, former starting point guard Kellon Thomas, who had averaged right around 30 minutes a game the previous season, informed the coaches he would be transferring for his final season of eligibility to play closer to his home in Indianapolis.

“We knew we needed to bring in another point guard because (sophomore) Jalen Avery was really the only true point guard on our roster,” said Kent State coach Rob Senderoff.

Coincidentally, Kent State already had a commitment from Zabo’s Indian Hills teammate, Jerrelle DeBerry. DeBerry has since transferred from Kent State to Utah Valley.

“I had gone to see another kid on Kevin’s junior college (team), Jerrelle, so I had seen Kevin play,” Senderoff said. “I think Kevin was looking for an opportunity where the point guard was graduating and he would have an opportunity to play. It was a rather quick recruitment.”

It’s amazing where a round orange ball can take you – just ask Zabo. His journey took him to two neighboring countries, two opposite coasts, five different states and 6,856 miles total.

Zabo would go on to sign with Kent State, his leap of faith proven right, his journey continued. His latest step has brought him 613 miles east from Ottumwa, Iowa, to Kent, Ohio.

“I felt like it was a sign,” Zabo said. “There’s no way all that happens, then the next day I have an opportunity like this, crazy.”

Tanner Castora is a contributor for The Kent Stater, contact him at [email protected].