No matter how small he is in stature or how big the challenges may be, the “little guy” at Nashville’s Christ Presbyterian Academy has equaled just about all of them.
Anyone who has attended one of CPA’s basketball games over the past four years has certainly seen Zach Lipson, the small fellow who is the team manager. He moves around the bench, giving the players water, towels and — often — words of encouragement.
Zach is a senior at CPA. He is barely 4 feet tall, and his body is wracked by a lifelong spinal condition that has made even the most basic movements difficult.
Despite the odds, Zach will hit the big time next year. The 19-year-old has accepted a scholarship to the University of Kentucky, where he will serve as an equipment manager on the basketball team. That’s a vaunted position at UK: Former manager Bill “Mr. Wildcat” Keightley, who died in 2008, was honored with a banner in the hallowed rafters of Rupp Arena.
A defect at birth left Zach with, among other hardships, stunted growth and an ensuing multitude of operations, X-rays and trips to the hospital.
“I was born with some spinal problems, causing a growth defect,” Lipson said. “Doctors told my parents there was a 98 percent chance I would die.”
Zach estimates he has undergone more than 30 surgeries over the years to help correct spinal and vertebrae problems, as well as other physical defects. His arms are a bit long, grown out disproportionately to the rest of his body.
“I’ve had problems with my colon, and I also have some hip problems,” he said. “One of my legs is a little longer than the other.
“It was really tough early on. I hated kindergarten. I could hear kids in a movie theater line telling their parents, ‘Oh, look at the little midget.’ Some things were very hurtful,” he said.
Triumphantly, though, he doesn’t deal in self-pity.
His twin brother Jordan, older by five minutes, is in excellent health and physically normal by any standard, as is his 17-year-old younger brother, Gabriel.
“Zach is the most disciplined person I have ever met and is very goal-oriented,” said Jordan, who plays football and soccer for CPA. “Things that are so easy for me are so hard for him. Although I may have some athletic gifts, there are things he is much farther along in than I am. We share a strong bond in our love for sports.”
An auspicious beginning
Things took a strong turn for the upside just before Zach’s freshman year at CPA.
“Zach came to our fall practices, and here he was, bringing water and towels to our guys when they came off the floor,” said Coach Drew Maddux. “He did the same thing at football and soccer practices.
“Eventually I asked him if he wanted to be our basketball manager. We’ve developed a wonderful relationship over these four years. His is the first locker in the dressing room,” Maddux said. “We have four things we have in common: We like great steaks, good looking suits, polished shoes and love basketball.”
“I had to take a sports credit for school,” Zach explained. “I love sports. But I knew because of my situation I was never going to get a chance to play. This gave me a chance to be around sports a great deal.”
Zach nabbed his UK scholarship from a field of hundreds of applicants. He has met and spoken with Coach John Calipari. “Coach Cal came here to school, and my heart was pounding before I met him I was so excited,” he said, adding in understatement: “It went well.”
Next year he will move into Wildcat Lodge, which houses the Kentucky basketball players. It’s a lofty dream come true.
“A lot of things had to fall into place for that [Kentucky scholarship] to happen. I think it was God’s will,” Zach said. “Last year, with the hiring of Coach Cal followed by the hiring of Martin Newman, the son of [former Kentucky athletic director and Vanderbilt coach] C.M. Newton, in the admissions office really helped me,” he said. “And Jason Edwards, who was at Kentucky and a CPA counselor, sent my applications to Kentucky.
“I had to take the ACT test three times before I passed it, and I had to take two 40-hour tutor sessions, but I made it,” he said.
Jordan said his brother approached academic difficulty the same way he’s taken on his physical ailments.
“When he found out that his grades may not be good enough to get him into college, he studied and applied himself so diligently, he got almost all As,” said his brother, who is headed to the University of Alabama.
‘I would take my body the way it is’
It may surprise some that Zach is so sanguine about a life that might find a weaker man deflated and defeated.
“When people ask me about my growth defects and if I would like to be some muscular guy with big abs, I tell them I would take my body the way it is,” he said. “It’s brought me closer to my family.”
Among other things, Zach relies heavily on his faith.
“I am a servant for God. This is what was given to me at birth, and it has presented me a forum to relay my message,” he said.
Zach is a bright and articulate communicator who has also become an accomplished speaker. So profound is that message, in fact, it moved Lipscomb High coach Mike McPherson to the point of asking Maddux after a game last year if he could invite Zach to give a motivational talk at his school.
“Over the years, we kind of got to know each other, and I found out he was a spiritual person,” McPherson said. “His talk was very moving and uplifting. He was a very poised speaker, and it was obvious he spoke from the heart. It was well-received.”
Lipscomb University baseball coach Jeff Forehand was so moved by the speech, he offered Zach a scholarship to the university as a manager. After some heartfelt conversations with his parents, though, Zach decided Big Blue was his calling.
“He’s an unbelievable inspiration around school, and it’s amazing all the hardships he has overcome over the years,” CPA athletic director Mike Ellson said. “And he’s headed up to be around his love, Kentucky basketball.”
Not one to be pigeonholed, Zach’s interests run the gamut. For instance, he’s a self-confessed history buff who has traveled to some 25 foreign countries, mostly in Europe, places he said have given him a full understanding of different cultures, “and helped get me out of my comfort zone.”
He plans to major in business at UK, with an idea to start his own company after graduation. And there’s one more thing: Zach plans to run for president of the United States one day.
Don’t bet against him.