Most people who meet Tianyi Zha outside of the gym don’t recognize him as a slam-dunk champion.
Zha, a junior from Changzhou, China, is 5-foot-10 and his hands are too small to palm a basketball, but appearances are not always what they seem. Just ask New Orleans Hornets point guard and three-time NBA all-star Chris Paul.
Why Paul? He’s the one who chose Zha’s video submission as the winner of the 2010 Powerade Dunk Domination contest, sending Zha to Columbus, Ohio, as a judge for the dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-American Jamfest 2010. Zha said his friends were shocked when he told them he had been chosen as the winner.
“I think they never thought I would win this thing, because there was some pretty impressive dunkers. They were way better than me,” Zha said. “Once I told them I won, they couldn’t believe it.”
His friends weren’t the only ones who were surprised when they learned that Zha was a slam-dunk champion. Even some of his fellow judges at the dunk contest in Columbus were surprised to find that the kid sitting at the table with them could get above the rim.
“I remember [former NFL running back and fellow judge] Eddie George asked me, you know, what I think about this whole dunk contest. I was like, ‘I can dunk too,’ and he was like, ‘No you can’t,’ ” Zha said. “Once he saw the video he was like, ‘Oh man, that was crazy.’ “
At the competition, Zha said he was distinctly unimpressed by many of the high school All-American competitors in the dunk contest.
“I could have probably got into the final four, if they let me dunk,” Zha said. “A couple guys, they didn’t even make a dunk for the first round.”
Zha, who came to GW in the spring of 2008 after transferring from Wichita State, had been playing basketball since he was 10 years old, but only began dunking after a new workout regimen made him strong enough to dunk. His first dunk, a two-handed slam off a bounce, was memorable enough that Zha still remembers the date: July 22, 2008.
“It was just after we played basketball,” Zha said. “I’d tried it many times before that but never got it. Then on that particular day, I got it with ease.”
Nowadays, when Zha throws down dunks in the Lerner Health and Wellness Center, it’s not quite as big of a deal to him as it was when he started. Onlookers, however, never cease to be amazed.
“They just give me really crazy faces, like, ‘Oh that was unbelievable,’ ” Zha said. “Somebody came to me and said, ‘Oh, man, you’re Asian. You’re not supposed to dunk. That was insane, can you do it again?’ “
“That’s the thing I don’t understand,” said Zha’s friend Ronald Michel, who also works at HelWell. “He doesn’t play very often, but when he does, it’s impressive. You have to stop and watch him.”
While his story hasn’t garnered Zha much attention in the States, he became somewhat of a celebrity back home in China after prominent Chinese newspapers and websites picked up his story. Zha said the morning after the stories ran, he woke up to 120 new friend requests on his renren.com page, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook.
“It’s kind of different,” Zha said. “You can do like a regular dunk in China to be a superstar, but it’s not gonna happen in the States, right? Because a lot of people are athletically gifted. It’s kind of like a huge deal in China, but it’s not in the States.”
Despite not being noticed too often around Foggy Bottom, Zha said people in China, as well as many Asian students around GW, find his story particularly impressive.
“I think the media in China, and people, they see my story as like an inspiration, I guess,” Zha said.”Sometimes after I dunk, some other Asian players, they say stuff like, ‘Thanks for representing us.'”