The Man Child: Zach Peters is a Great Basketball Player – and Why That Doesn’t Matter

What do you do with your 15-year-old son when he stands nearly 7 feet tall, is one of the best basketball players in the country, and can drive a golf ball 300 yards?

photography by Matt Nager

Garrett Peters was good. A 6-foot-5 post player, he was good enough on a basketball court that former Dallas Maverick Mark Aguirre took him on as a pupil (Aguirre is a friend of Garrett’s dad, Tim). Good enough to make the varsity squad at Plano Senior High as a freshman and start as a sophomore for a team that would go on to win the state title in 2006. Good enough to show up on college recruiting lists, the ones that virtually guarantee a full ride to a Division I school.

But there’s that one cruel little word: was.

Garrett wasn’t around for that championship season and never got to see what scholarship offers might have materialized. While playing during a spring game—a glorified practice, really—Garrett broke his leg. It wasn’t the kind of injury that leads to a few months off your feet and playful messages scrawled on a plaster cast.

“He came down on a kid’s foot with a rebound,” his father says. “Then another big kid, a 300-pounder, clipped him. It was Joe Theismann.” He’s referring to the grisly fracture, broadcast for the world to see during a Monday Night Football game, that ended the former Washington Redskins quarterback’s playing career. “Just snapped it in half. From the sound of it, we thought lumber had snapped. They had construction out front. Unbelievable freak accident.”

That accident, and its aftermath, was a nightmare for Garrett filled with surgeries and broken hearts. But, in a way, it was the best thing that could have happened to his younger brother Zach.

It’s 8 o’clock on a drizzly Thursday morning in late February 2008. I’m in a gym at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano because Zach Peters, 14 at the time, was just named the No. 1-ranked eighth-grade basketball player in the country. Yes, they start that young. And, yes, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound kid running up and down the court like a greyhound, all sinewy muscle and silky outside stroke, is that young. It’s actually Zach’s second swim through eighth grade. After he dislocated his hip while on a family vacation in Cancun (Jet Ski mishap), his parents decided to hold him back a year and school him and his younger brother, Evan, at home with the help of tutors. That would also give them time for the grand trip to Europe they’d never been able to string together. With the boys being home-schooled, they could recast it as a study opportunity.

 “That’s our goal, to do history—to do Rome, Paris,” says dad Tim, the CEO of software company BIAP Systems. The trip is a few months out. “We talked about that same trip with Garrett. But we had to play in this tournament and that tournament, had to do this, this, and this, couldn’t miss this. That’s kind of what’s different. So these guys have a lot to thank their older brother for.”

A few years ago, young Zach’s lofty status in the college recruiting world would have consumed the Peters family. That’s what happened with older brother Garrett, and—no offense—Garrett wasn’t nearly as physically gifted as Zach. There was always the next AAU game, the next tournament, the next select team trip, the next skills camp, the next training session. Everything outside of basketball ceased to exist.

But now it’s Zach and not Garrett on the court. Four years have passed. And I find I have come up here not to talk about the No. 1-ranked eighth-grade basketball player in the country. We’re here to talk about why, to the Peters family, that ranking isn’t as important as it once was.

“The minute Garrett broke his leg and we realized, jeez, we worked so much for basketball and it can all go out the window, you know, rankings mean nothing anymore,” Tim says. What matters now: letting the kids be kids, and letting the basketball take care of itself. Garrett wasn’t allowed to play other sports, because it might have interfered with basketball. Zach, on the other hand, barely has time in his schedule for all his non-basketball pursuits. In fact, while watching Jeff Webster—who played forward at Oklahoma, and inherited Peters family coaching duties from Aguirre—run Zach and youngest brother Evan through a vigorous workout, basketball is about the only sport Tim doesn’t bring up in conversation.

Zach is a “really good quarterback,” Tim says, adding that he’s getting a little too big for the position and will probably end up as a wide receiver. At any rate, Tim says, Zach prefers middle linebacker, “because he likes to hit.” He can drive a golf ball more than 300 yards without trying too hard, even though his swing had to be rebuilt from scratch after he grew more than a foot over the course of two years. His short game is where he truly excels, since pitching and putting are tailor-made for his soft touch and above-average hand-eye coordination. Those attributes also serve Zach well around a Ping-Pong table, by the way, as does his ambidexterity. What else? Oh, he was a good soccer player until he had to quit, since something, at some point, had to give.

“You just have to start narrowing it down: well, he can’t play soccer, baseball, and football and basketball,” Tim says. Right. Forgot. Zach plays baseball. He’s a pitcher. And guess what? He’s good at that, too. As an aside, Tim mentions that Zach could probably go to Stanford—for math, not sports. Rounding out his future college application: he baby-sits handicapped kids on Friday nights, and he’s learning to play “Purple Haze” on guitar.

So, then, a question: is there anything at which Zach does not excel?

His father, from his bleacher seat in the gym at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, stares out at the court. Tim pauses a full 10 seconds before quietly replying, “He’s been pretty blessed.”

 

Watching Zach on the court, it’s easy to forget how young he is. He has a man’s game and a man’s body to match. He’s not a gawky 6-foot-9. “He’s got kind of a Herschel Walker thing,” his dad says. “We don’t have him lifting weights yet. God kind of gave him a body. He was just kind of born with muscles.”

But when Zach steps off the court, he is every bit his age, just a shy 14-year-old who likes hanging out with his friends and going to see horror movies. His longest answer to any question is “yes,” and that only beats out all the other responses because the self-conscious laugh that follows lasts a little longer, and he kicks the toes of his size-16 sneakers a few more times. That is why Garrett’s injury saved his life. Imagine a kid that young wilting under the glare of a spotlight for another four years.

Don’t be mistaken. The Peters family desperately cares about Zach’s future, on the court as well as off of it. Basketball is still a big part of the picture; they only widened the frame a bit. They’ve spent part of this home-schooled year touring colleges—USC, UCLA, Kansas, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas. Zach has met all of the big-time coaches. They’ve also walked the campuses, checked to see where the dorms are, what student life is like. They want that D-I scholarship, but they also want this new live-your-life approach to carry on as long as possible.

“Four years from now, when whatever college coach gets him, then it’s a job,” Tim says. “So how do you keep this from not being a job? That’s why there’s got to be more in life.”

That’s why the family finally got off the treadmill so many parents find themselves on, slaves to select teams and year-round schedules. They still participate, but on their own terms. That’s why Zach has barely picked up a ball—a round, orange leather one, at least—in months. They aren’t living for basketball anymore. Just living. 

And Garrett? Not everyone got to have a happy ending.

“I’m not for sure we would say he’s over it,” Tim says. “He’s still having surgery on his leg. His younger brother is having a lot of success—you know, that he thought he would have.”

 

Epilogue: it’s 10 months after that workout. Since then Zach has filled out even more, adding another inch and a little more muscle. As his father predicted, he ended up playing wide receiver for Prestonwood Christian as a freshman, scoring a pair of touchdowns. Before that, over the summer, he played basketball on a couple of select teams and met with more coaches, including North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Illinois’ Bruce Weber. Everything is still going to plan—the new plan.

Well, everything except the trip to Europe, which slipped out of the Peters family’s grasp yet again. It was all booked, and everyone was ready to go, but Tim found himself in a business deal he couldn’t get out of. “I owe them a trip,” he says.

Garrett is in California now, after a few years at Oklahoma State. He had his last surgery on his leg seven months ago. He’s healthier than he’s been in more than three years. More to the point, he’s happy now. He lost one dream. Now he’s working on another.

Despite how well everything seems to be going, Tim Peters won’t pretend he has it all figured out. He still has another four years to get through with Zach, and then there’s Evan, a fifth-grader, to consider. He could be Zach or Garrett, or he could be something else entirely. Who knows what will happen? After all, last year his wife accidentally backed over Zach in the Suburban and they had to rush him to the hospital. There are freak accidents everywhere.

So for now, there is life outside of basketball. Garrett taught them that.

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