Story by Kathy McPherson, Content Marketing Writer/Editor
There’s a quaver in Zakia VanHoose’s voice when she says, “A coach can do so much for you.”
VanHoose is talking about Joli Robinson, the women’s basketball coach who “took a chance on me” when she offered the 20-year-old New Yorker a scholarship to play at North Carolina Central University in the late 1990s.
“I tell her, even to this day when we talk, she saved my life. I get so teary on this because I just felt like there weren't a lot of options. I could have been dead or in jail or just …”
The Middle School coordinator for Durham Academy’s Extended Day program had a phenomenal career playing with the Lady Eagles from 1998 to 2002 and was inducted into the NCCU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2021. VanHoose played in more NCCU women’s basketball victories than anyone and is the only woman in school history to amass more than 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 300 steals.
But life started out rocky for VanHoose. When she was just two weeks old, VanHoose’s father took the infant to his mother and asked her to raise his daughter.
“We lived in Rochester, New York, and it was pretty much me and her,” VanHoose said of life with her paternal grandmother. “… I grew up in the projects and it was almost all boys, not a lot of girls, and they became family. You know, one thing about — we call it ‘the projects’ in New York — it took the whole village. The village raised all the kids. So if we needed something to eat, we'd just go to the neighbor's house and eat while my grandmother was at work. They would come to my house, we would go back and forth.”
It wasn’t until VanHoose was 10 or 11 that she began playing basketball, “and it kind of clicked that I was really good. But at family functions, hanging and being with my family, we played softball all the time. So I was kind of shocked that basketball took off. Softball was the bread and butter that I thought would get me out of the projects.”
She played basketball at Corning [New York] Community College after high school but left because she was unhappy with the coach and didn’t like trekking to class in an area that averages 47 inches of snow each year. Back home to Rochester, she played in 3-on-3 basketball tournaments. “That was really big in New York: Streetball, basketball is called streetball,” VanHoose explained.
When an uncle said he wanted to take a bunch of basketball players to North Carolina, VanHoose was all in. The weather was warmer there and “this is vacation for us, we’ll come down and have fun,” VanHoose reasoned.
It was a Friday night, and the girls from New York “played and played and played with the Central team and a bunch of girls from all over,” VanHoose remembered. “It was kind of like a tryout, but we didn't know, we thought we were just coming to come.” She was non-committal when Joli Robinson called the next morning and offered her a scholarship to play at NCCU. “I’m like no, what are you talking about? I’ve got a job, a life, all this stuff.”
But when VanHoose got back to Rochester and told her grandmother about the scholarship offer, “She was like, ‘Oh, you’re going. Oh, we’ve got to figure a way.’”
Her grandmother’s words struck a chord. When VanHoose was growing up, “It was so hard to watch my grandmother just try and do what she can. She never wanted public assistance. She never wanted anything. Her fight and her flight, it was just so powerful to me. We didn't have a lot and the way she struggled, I just figured I was going to struggle. And when Joli signed me, I was like, you know, you saved my life because it wasn't about education, it wasn't about anything. It was about getting out and doing better. … She took a chance on me.”
VanHoose was almost 21 when she came to Durham to begin her freshman year at Central. “The whole basketball team was on one hall. It was like family, it was beautiful. … And it was amazing to be with a bunch of women and girls. Freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors just taking care of each other. It was awesome. I thought it was the best year of my life. Teammates.”
VanHoose chose to major in parks and recreation with a minor in therapeutic recreation because she liked summer jobs as a camp counselor when she was a teen and owning a sportsplex was, and still is, a longtime dream. “The power of play, I love it,” she said.
After graduation she did showcases for the fledgling Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA); taught physical education at Durham’s Central Park School for Children; worked with after-school and summer programs at Duke School; played basketball overseas in Amsterdam; coached basketball at Davidson Day School, where she was named conference coach of the year; and then returned to Durham for graduate school at NCCU.
VanHoose came to Durham Academy in 2016 as Middle School coordinator for Extended Day, working with students after the school day has ended, and she continues to take classes toward a graduate degree in public administration.
A quote from NBA basketball legend Kobe Bryant is a North Star for her: “The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they choose to do."
VanHoose believes that “working with kids [in Extended Day], you get them at a different level or a different space, an unfiltered kid. When they come to us, and no matter how their day is or whatever's going on in their day, they just get to let their shoulders down. … You don't have to keep it all together for me. I just want you at your authentic self. I want to pass on to them that education is one thing, but being your authentic self and just being whoever you want to be and being able to inspire people. I think that's what I do, and I think that's what I love. These kids just, you know, they're just so uptight, all kids. It's like, it's OK, just be. I want to let them know that I'm here to do that, let them have a safe space and be OK.”
There’s a “Zen Room” where the Middle Schoolers can do homework and play quiet games; an Extended Day room with air hockey and a big pool table that moves outside when the weather is nice; and lots of outdoor space for basketball and other activities. It’s a bit like the days when kids used to play in their neighborhood after school.
“That's probably why I love Extended Day so much, because growing up we always could go on to playgrounds and play and do all that fun stuff,” VanHoose said. “But nowadays, it's like we’ve lost neighborhood play. You know, it's hard to just go outside with a bunch of people and hang out.”
In addition to her work with Extended Day, VanHoose serves as a diversity coordinator for the Middle School as a member of DA’s Diversity, Equity and Engagement team. Her wife, Danielle Johnson-Webb, is director of equity and community engagement at Cary Academy.
The couple love to travel. They like to go somewhere warm for winter break — this year, that was Belize — and they plan to head to Paris, Amsterdam and Iceland this summer.
When VanHoose can do anything she chooses, hanging out with friends is near the top of a list that includes going to new restaurants, playing and watching sports, and watching cooking shows.
“I like people,” VanHoose said. “If we go back to when I was living in a dorm, and it was so many women and all the girls, I love that. I feel like I need to be with people. I'm such an extrovert. I need them. They feed me.”