November 22, 2023
UAPB’s Zaay Green is happy and healthy after conquering adversity
'It felt unreal and unusual being back home, working a job, unable to play basketball'
Zaay Green experienced life without basketball.
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff graduate guard never imagined she’d be working 10 hours a day at a gas station, working the register, stocking supplies, and closing the store. Yet, that was Green’s reality during the 2022-23 academic year while she was home in Duncanville, Texas, rehabbing from her second torn anterior cruciate ligament injury.
“My thought process while working at the gas station was very different and mortifying,” Green said to The Next. “It felt unreal and unusual being back home, working a job, unable to play basketball and be around the team and coaches. I knew I would eventually return to campus, but being back home for that long was difficult to adjust to at times. Every day I walked to work, I said to myself, I am not going to be doing this for long. I just knew I couldn’t wait to be playing next year.”
Green, who took all her graduate classes online last year, confidently believed she would return to her sneaker-squeaking sanctuary even during those challenging early morning shifts. It’s why Green purposely attacked grueling rehabilitation sessions with ferocity. She knew each painful day was one step closer to returning to the basketball court.
The 6’2 Green — a legit WNBA prospect — is happy, healthy, and home.
In her first game action in 607 days, Green opened the 2023-24 season by scoring 26 points against Oregon State and 24 points against Oregon in a pair of road setbacks. During UAPB’s first victory of the season, a 118-51 triumph over Texas A&M-Texarkana last Saturday, Green finished with a triple-double of 23 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists.
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“I was always nervous because I was wondering if I would be the same player I was before the second ACL tear,” Green said. “After the Oregon State game, I felt like I picked up where I left off and didn’t miss a beat. I feel like the same player but one who is stronger and smarter.”
Green is averaging 24.3 points per game on 52.4% shooting, along with 7.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists for the 1-2 Golden Lions, who battle Tulsa on Friday night in the Van Chancellor Classic this weekend in Katy, Texas. UAPB also plays Mississippi State on Saturday and Clemson on Sunday. All three games will be broadcast on ESPN+.
Working at the gas station was the latest challenge for Green, who has been a portrait of resilience.
Green’s story has many layers.
There have been significant injuries and two transfers.
Start with the two torn ACLs, one in each knee.
The right one went two games into her sophomore year at Tennessee after she started 24 games and averaged 9.3 points per game, which resulted in her earning Freshman All-Southeastern Conference (SEC) honors. She tore the left one last year during a pick-up game on campus following a debut campaign at the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in southeast Arkansas, in which she was named the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Newcomer of The Year and the All-SWAC First Team honors after averaging 15.6 points per game.
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“I came down on my leg when I went up for a layup, and as soon as that happened, I knew something was wrong because I couldn’t walk on it,” Green said of her second ACL tear. “I was devastated and heartbroken, but everything happens for a reason, and only God knows the true meaning.”
Between those injuries, the former blue-chip recruit, ranked 10th by ESPN coming out of Duncanville High School, spent a frustrating year at Texas A&M, where she played 17 games and averaged nine minutes. After scoring in double figures 15 times at Tennessee, Green scored in double-digits once as an Aggie.
“I needed a new start, and being here was the perfect start,” Green said. “I didn’t connect with the coaches at Texas A&M, and I felt like they didn’t see my potential. I remember telling the coaching staff (at Texas A&M) that this wasn’t the best place for me to be right now. They offered to help me through the transfer process. I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t playing. I played 17 games and felt like I could’ve played more. So, I took my talents somewhere else.”
She’s found peace after transferring from Texas A&M.
Green ended up at UAPB, Arkansas’s second oldest public college or university, thanks to her Dallas Elite AAU coach Corey Haywood, who had a great rapport with UAPB head coach Dawn Thornton. He recommended to Thornton that she should bring Green into her UAPB program.
Thornton, who has strong Dallas recruiting roots, was already familiar with Green. A few phone conversations later, Green was signed, sealed, and delivered to UAPB without even taking an official visit.
“Zaay is very resilient to push through everything she’s endured,” Thornton said. “She’s easygoing and has a big heart. She’s one of the hardest workers we have on the team. She loves basketball. I never met a kid who loves basketball more than her. Highly competitive and doesn’t like to lose ever in anything. If she loses, she will keep playing until she beats you. Her work ethic is unmatched. Her talent and skill set are elite. When you’re among the Top 10 coming out of high school, you’re supposed to be drafted.”
A fountain of inspiration, Green is blessed that her goal of playing professionally in the WNBA is still a reality after everything she’s suffered through.
She can get to the basket with a variety of moves, finish through contact, drain the midrange shot, and stroke it from 3-point distance. A generational force who has built strength from adversity, the cerebral Green is always in control on the floor. She has scored double figures in 25 of the 29 games she’s played for the Golden Lions.
“I love it here,” Green said. “The community is great, and we know we also mean something to them. They support us well. Being at an HBCU is special. The hospitality from the Black community is awesome. The cafeteria workers love our team, and we love them too.”
Green’s most significant impact at UAPB has been behind the scenes with her teammates.
Last year, as UAPB advanced to the SWAC tournament championship game, where it lost to Southern, Green consistently texted her teammates’ words of encouragement and offered feedback before and after each contest. Even though Green was home, her presence was still essential to UAPB’s success.
“She’s a very helpful person,” said UAPB senior guard Coriah Beck, a First Team Preseason All-SWAC selection whose dad, Corey, was a member of the 1994 national champion Arkansas Razorbacks. “She boosts us up all the time. One day after practice, she placed the balls on the rack. She does so many other little things that people don’t see. She’s a great teammate and a competitive person. Even though she’s a bucket, she also knows how to find her teammates. It’s fun playing with her.”
UAPB was picked to finish third in the SWAC Preseason poll behind Jackson State and Southern. However, with a healthy and confident Green leading the way, the talented Golden Lions have the potential to win the SWAC.
Green’s basketball roots were instilled in her by her parents, Zoderick and Yolanda, who played at Stephen F. Austin. She started playing at four years old. Her dad was her coach when she was younger. He trains her now and was instrumental in helping Green through her rehab last year.
“Basketball has taught me so much throughout the years,” Green said. “I have been able to help and mentor younger kids that have the same dreams I have. Playing on the levels that I have, a lot of opportunities have been given to me. I’d love to be a coach and help young athletes get to the next level and accomplish their dreams.”
Green, who earned her undergraduate degree in general studies, loves to eat, stream content on BET Plus, and shop. She also would like to work in sports marketing once her hoops career concludes.
Those early mornings provided a humbling perspective she didn’t know she needed at that moment. Now, Green appreciates every moment of the sport she loves, from the roaring crowds to the long bus rides to the monotony of getting her ankles taped to being around her teammates.
Green’s story has a few more chapters remaining. Through all the setbacks, Green has persevered and displayed grit. While leading UAPB to the NCAA Tournament would be the ultimate ending for Green, competing at a high level and having fun on the hardwood is her biggest triumph.
“It’s been a roller-coaster for me,” said Green as she reflected on her collegiate journey. “It seems like something has always happened to me. It’s shaped who I am. I am proud that I am still going.”
Written by Rob Knox
Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by SI.com, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.