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How Tennessee Players Are Supporting Zakai Zeigler After A Fire Destroyed Family Apartment

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ATHENS, Ga — Tennessee freshman point guard Zakai Zeigler was not like himself in the Vols’, 75-68, win at Georgia Tuesday night.

The freshman scored in single figures (2 points) for just the second time in the last six weeks, but the resilient freshman’s play on the floor is not the story of his week. 

“Tough night for Zakai,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said postgame. “You all know what he went through after our game (against Auburn on Saturday), his mom losing everything after a fire up in New York. First time that he really hasn’t been the Zakai that we’ve known from Day 1. It’s been a very emotional day. He saw his mom here for the first time since the fire. It’s been a tough couple days for him.”

The stern faced freshman isn’t one for dramatics, saying earlier this season that all the time he spends on campus is at his dorm, class and Pratt Pavilion (Tennessee’s practice facility).

Zeigler has become a Tennessee fan favorite in his short time in Knoxville thanks to his tenacious play and tumultuous path to Rocky Top.

Tennessee center Uros Plavsic talked on Monday about how the Tennessee basketball team becomes a family for international players playing far from home. 

“That’s the biggest part about being here,” Plavsic said. “It feels like this is your family. There’s nothing different that I feel at home from what I feel here, honestly. See Olivier and his mom surprise him, honestly, it made me cry.”

The Vols’ are utilizing the family atmosphere and togetherness Plavsic discussed to help their young teammate.

“It’s really tough for him,” Tennessee forward Josiah-Jordan James said. “I hate it for him and his family because no one deserves to go through that and it’s really tragic. We’ll just try to be there for him as brothers — forget the basketball part of it — we’ve just lent a helping hand. He’s my roommate so I’m with him a lot. Basically 24/7 if we’re not at class. Just trying to keep him distracted, but I know it’s really really on his mind a lot. Just trying to — in any way I can — brighten his day. We do almost everything together day-in and day-out. I don’t know. It’s been really tough. He’s handled it really well and it’s great to see his mom was at the game today, and hearing about what the university is able to do to help them has been really good and a bright spot at a really dark time. Just hate it for him. Hate it for his family, but he knows everyone in that locker room — coaches and players included —  are there for him.”

“I think just supporting him,” Tennessee forward John Fulkerson said. “We can’t really put ourselves in that position because it’s not really happened to us, but just to know what he’s going through and being there supporting him, being positive for him and really whatever he needs, whenever he needs it. That’s what we’re trying to do for him.”

A similar situation happened to James’ family last year when his family’s home in Charleston burned down. The junior is leaning on his experiences to provide as much comfort to his roommate and teammate during this extremely difficult time.

“In a way but there’s nothing you can really say or do to kind of take the pain away,” James said of his family’s situation helps him provide support. “Those are memories that he’s made in that place and it’s just gone. I’ve gone through what he’s gone through and I know it’s really tough, but, like I said, when it happened to me, players and coaches they really really lent a helping hand. They gave me space but also comforted me if that makes sense. It wasn’t the first and only thing they wanted to talk about, and I know he doesn’t want to talk about it a lot so I just try and keep him distracted and try to keep a smile on his face and know that I’m always there for him no matter what.”

From a monetary standpoint, Tennessee will announce a plan to help the Zeigler family after the fire destroyed all of their belongings in their Queens, New York home soon.

“We’ll have more details tomorrow, when we do it when we get back,” Barnes said. “His mom came down tonight and she’s here, she’ll head to Knoxville. We’ll have more details on exactly what (we can do). Our administration did a terrific job. Once they got the news they jumped on it and got after it. Been doing what they have to do to get things in order so that we can help.”

Zeigler and the Vols return to the court Saturday for their regular season finale against Arkansas. Tip-off from Thompson-Boling Arena is set for noon ET.

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