NASHVILLE, Tenn. - With the confidence of a coach and the passion of a preacher, Zach Lipson has spent much of his teenage years telling anyone he meets about his plans to join one of the nation's elite college basketball programs.
It didn't matter to him that he'd never played a minute of organized hoops. Or that he stood little chance of ever being more than 4 feet tall. He still gave the same speech to just about everyone he met, whether he was chatting at a dinner table full of strangers or sitting across from a skeptical guidance counselor.
He was born with a spinal deformity, so he already had overcome long odds. What was to stop this Nashville resident from proving people wrong once again?
|Zachary Lipson's passion has him headed to Kentucky as part of the basketball program.|
Lipson's story proved inspirational enough to earn him a spot as a student-manager at Kentucky. He is expected to live at Wildcat Lodge - the same building that houses the players.
That represents a stunning turn of events for someone who has overcome more obstacles in his 19 years than most people face in their lives.
Lipson was born eight weeks premature and weighed less than 2 pounds. He required CPR in the delivery room. He has undergone more than 30 surgeries. And if that weren't enough to make him curse fate, Lipson also has a twin brother who is healthy. Lipson doesn't need to wonder what might have been: He has a walking reminder in his home.
Lipson has resisted the temptation of self-pity. He instead has faced every challenge with the same upbeat approach that has helped him serve as an inspiration to friends, family members and classmates. Kentucky's latest recruit won't develop into the next Tony Delk, but he just might become the next Tony Robbins.
"I wouldn't be the speaker I am today without my deformities," Lipson said. "I've used them to make myself a stronger human being. That's a very radical idea. That's how I want to be an inspiration to people.
"I want to tell people you don't have to fall and beat yourself up over your problems. You can take them and help them make you stronger. You can turn a losing situation into a winning situation."
Born to inspire
He wasn't always this upbeat. Lipson remembers being teased by grade-school classmates who didn't know any better, and he occasionally would look at his brother and wonder why he couldn't be blessed with a healthy body.
|Former Vanderbilt star Drew Maddux calls Zachary Lipson a student assistant coach.|
"I learned humility at that point in my life," Lipson said. "I realized my true purpose here on Earth is to share the gospel, to share my story and to be an inspiration to people."
That's when it dawned on Lipson that he wouldn't get to live an average life. He was being called to do much, much more. He would tell his story to anyone who would listen. He doesn't consider anyone a stranger.
"I noticed when we go to places, if we were sitting at a table, he'd end up not sitting at our table," said Lipson's mother, Susan. "He'd be sitting at a table with people who he didn't even know. He'd get to know them, talk to them, encourage them. They'd say, 'Wow, what an amazing story. I can't believe what he's been through.' "
He eventually found a way to spread his message through sports. Lipson grew up hating athletics because his health problems prevented him from playing organized sports or from joining his classmates in playground activities. His attitude changed after he took over as a student-manager for the football team at Christ Presbyterian Academy, the Nashville school he attends.
He caught on so well that he also became the student-manager for the basketball and soccer teams. And he made himself into the best manager a school could possibly have.
When a coach wanted him to do something during a game, Lipson would sprint to wherever he needed to be. He commanded such respect that CPA basketball coach Drew Maddux never called Lipson a manager and instead labeled him a "student assistant coach."
"He's like one of my sons," said Maddux, who played basketball for Vanderbilt from 1994-98. "I've really grown to love Zach."
Not only did Lipson perform the typical managerial responsibilities of fetching water and collecting equipment, he also gave locker-room speeches and even assisted Maddux in advance scouting.
Lipson's pep talks were so legendary in the Nashville high school ranks that officials at rival school David Lipscomb High asked him to give an inspirational speech to their entire student body.
Lipson fell in love with his manager jobs so much that he wanted to continue on what he considered the best and biggest stage of all - the University of Kentucky. But he considered this goal more than just a dream; he saw it as his destiny.
"People describe me as a passionate person," Lipson said. "I have such a love of life. What better basketball program than the University of Kentucky, which has so much tradition and passion? I think that's what was drawing me there."
|Zachary Lipson has given some legendary pep talks in Nashville.|
But for all his obvious intelligence, Lipson still lacked the necessary grades and test scores to get into Kentucky as an out-of-state student. In fact, when he mentioned his goal to a college counselor, she indicated that wasn't a realistic possibility.
"She said he needed to look at Plan B," Susan Lipson said. "Well, there was no Plan B for him. I saw how he took his knuckles, gripped his chair and said, 'I will go to Kentucky.' "
Lipson did everything in his power to improve his grades. He spent his lunch hour studying in his school's locker room and took countless hours of ACT preparatory courses. All that extra work allowed him to qualify academically. Then, a remarkable chain of events brought his goal within reach.
Kentucky fired former coach Billy Gillispie after the 2008-09 season and replaced him with John Calipari, who in turn hired Martin Newton as the school's director of basketball operations. Maddux's father, Ray, and Newton's father, former Vanderbilt basketball coach and Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton, were friends and had helped found "The Rebounders," a club for former Vanderbilt basketball lettermen.
In addition, before being hired at Kentucky, Martin Newton had worked for Nike alongside Tim Thompson, a former Vanderbilt player and one of Maddux's closest friends.
Maddux used his connections to get Lipson an opportunity to work at Kentucky's basketball camps last summer. Lipson wasted no time making a name for himself with his work habits and his indefatigable spirit.
"I had never been to Lexington," Lipson said. "I didn't know anyone. I was a little ... not shy but a little afraid and nervous because I'd never been to the campus before. But I worked, helped out in the team camps and put my name out there."
Lipson apparently made quite an impact. Kentucky utilizes about six to eight student-managers each season and annually receives at least 50 applications for those positions. Lipson's application stood out.
"Zach's story is a unique one, not only because of what he's overcome in life but also because of his passion for Kentucky basketball," Newton said. "This is a young man who absolutely loves University of Kentucky basketball. He lives in Nashville. His mentor is Drew Maddux, a guy who played at Vanderbilt. Yet it never squelched his passion for Kentucky basketball.
"The combination of the type of person he is, the things he's overcome and his passion for Kentucky made it a really easy choice."
Student-managers are an integral part of just about every program across the country, but that's particularly true at Kentucky, where longtime equipment manager Bill Keightley played such a vital role that an honorary jersey in his name hangs from the Rupp Arena rafters.
The student-managers work the same hours as the players. They're present for team practices and weightlifting sessions as well as participating in more menial activities such as laundry duty.
Lipson is ready to perform these tasks to the best of his ability, but he also believes he can offer something extra. He wants to encourage Kentucky's players and his fellow classmates the same way he has inspired just about everyone else he has met.
"The biggest thing I'm looking forward to is working with people," Lipson said. "I feel like I'm going to be a big impact in their lives. I'm going to influence the way they think and look at things. I can show someone a positive influence.''
And if Calipari ever needs someone to help out with a pep talk, he won't have far to look. He need only turn to his new manager, who can go into painstaking detail on how various financial moguls made their fortunes or discuss the personal traits that caused Winston Churchill to succeed and Adolf Hitler to fail.
Better yet, he simply can tell the story about his improbable path to Lexington.