No ‘Outside Noise’: Zylan Cheatham vows to stay off social media
Zylan Cheatham was just one practice into his final collegiate season; it was already time for reflection. His mom, Carolyn, sent him a photo of what she called “his trophy wall.”
One by one, each item -- pictures from his first graduation to high school and action shots of him playing basketball -- told a story. Each a shared moment, a marker in time through the winding path Cheatham and Carolyn have navigated.
"I said, ‘Look how far we’ve come,’” Carolyn said she texted Cheatham. “‘We started and we’re almost at the end. This seems like it’s going to be a good year for your play and enjoy yourself.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, mom, just me and you.’”
Hours earlier, before the text came in, the Arizona State forward strutted off the Weatherup Center court. With his signature smile and infectious laugh as evident as ever, he walked in the film room turned media gathering spot, fielding questions about new-look Sun Devils and his excitement level to play after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
But I had other questions.
That morning, Cheatham sent out a tweet to his over 3,000 followers, notifying them they would have to wait a while to receive another update from him. It was a bit surprising from someone who tweeted, on average, multiple times a day.
Last day on social media for a minute...— Zylan Cheatham (@1KingZ4) September 25, 2018
“I don’t want any outside noise. I don’t want anything standing in between me and my guys. I just want to dial in,” Cheatham said. “Instinctively, scrolling up and down a timeline or your news feed you’re going to get various opinions about what people think about our team, what people think about me. I don’t need in my mind.”
Cheatham did something similar this summer, completely removing the popular social media app from his phone for the entire month of June. But he’s never gone through an entire training camp or season without the app.
To some, that’s a footnote with diminutive importance. The gesture, though, signifies something larger.
This is Cheatham’s last go-round, his last shot at playing college basketball, at proving himself to professional teams. At possibly playing in front of his friends in family in his beloved home state of Arizona.
He swerved through an unenviable path to have a shot at all of that, as well. Deleting twitter (as he plans to) is one small motion that encompasses this season’s importance to him.
“I really want to focus on the task at hand; focus on the guys we have in our locker room and expanding and meeting our expectations,” Cheatham said. “Cutting off stuff like that is just my way of focusing up and dialing in.”
But Twitter is good for some things. In a sense, it’s a time capsule into the minds of its users at any given time. Cheatham’s timeline is flooded with his general observations and thoughts, sometimes so philosophical it’s tough to figure out what he’s talking about.
But they provide context into his experiences from South Mountain High School to Arizona State.
My mentality been so different lately...🤷🏾♂️— Zylan Cheatham (@1KingZ4) September 5, 2018
As I showed Cheatham his tweet from just a month ago, he needed no time to think back to when he sent it. He remembered his thoughts on that day, in part, because they’re still the same.
“I’ve matured,” he said. “There was a lot of things I saw as important like maybe it could even be something like likes on Instagram, anything that doesn't mean anything to me anymore. I’ve matured so much to the point that I don’t let little things phase me.
“I see life from a different perspective and it’s benefitted me ever since I started thinking that way.”
Cheatham comes off mature beyond his years. Now 22, he’s a college basketball veteran. “I’m not a young dude no more,” he joked. But that time has shaped his current mindset. It’s a fresh, humble perspective molded by experiences.
He said he reflects on events in his life, examining how all of them have affected him -- how each shaped him into the person he is today. It’s a level of consideration that most don’t have the hindsight for.
“It’s stuff that, in the moment, I couldn’t understand,” Cheatham said. “It seemed like the worst thing ever. ‘Why is this happening to me? Why me?’ And then looking back at it, it’s like, man, that built so much character in me. Like now, I know the difference. I know how it feels. It’s shaping me into the man I’m becoming.”
One of the early “Why is this happening to me? moments came during Cheatham’s senior year of high school. He received a call telling him the NCAA wasn’t going to accept any of the classes he took while at Westwind Prep his junior season.
Cheatham transferred to the basketball-centric prep school after two seasons at South Mountain. Carolyn had heard the rumors the entire year about similar scenarios playing out. Someone sent her an article which laid out the concerns about the school’s credibility and academics transferring to an NCAA university.
Cheatham tried to reassure her the entire time.
He was like, ‘Well, mom, they’re saying because this is a new coach and he has a totally different program,’ they thought that would be enough,” Carolyn said Cheatham told her.
Despite Cheatham completing all of his courses with a 3.2 GPA and turning in every assignment “I ever did to the NCAA,” it still ruled his entire junior academic year incomplete -- an entire year of progress and work washed away in an instant. He transferred back to South Mountain, forced to take his senior year of classes on top of the junior slate the NCAA said didn’t count.
“I was a mess because I was like, ‘Oh no, this can’t be happening.’ But him, he never skipped a beat,” Carolyn said. “Not one day did he say, ‘Mom, I feel like I’m targeted or feel like I’m being wronged.’ None of that. He’s so focused, he knows what he has to do and what it’s going to take to be where he wants to be.”
I try n have a positive impact on everyone I interact with...— Zylan Cheatham (@1KingZ4) September 6, 2018
Cheatham strives to have others leave encounters with him and say to themselves, “Man, that kid I met, he’s a very positive person. He had a good impact on me.” It’s been branded into his DNA.
Countless situations arose where he could have allowed that attitude to slip into the shadows.
The 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward didn’t let it. Not because the heavy class load came while he was still being recruited. Not because he had to stay at school his senior year as his friends walked out at noon. And, shockingly, not for his insane academic schedule.
“I’m going to class from 7(o’clock) in the morning to 3:30, then from 4(o’clock pm) to 7(o’clock pm), then practice,” Cheatham said. “And then on top of that, I had two online classes. And that was my whole senior year. Even after my senior year, my summer, I still had like four online classes.”
Cheatham was enduring that extensive workload, too, without a guarantee the NCAA would clear him.
“That was so stressful,” Carolyn said. “But I felt that we were going to get a blessing with it because he deserved it. He’s not a bad kid. He was doing was at the gym all the time, doing his workouts. He stayed on the right track with it but it was very stressful.”
The four-star forward, who was ranked No. 78 nationally by Rivals, committed to San Diego State on October 27, 2013, over Arizona State, New Mexico, and others. He joined a stacked 2014 Aztecs’ recruiting class that included four stars Malik Pope and Trey Kell, along with three-star guard Kevin Zabo.
But, while Cheatham was back in Phoenix finishing up his classes with the hopes the NCAA would clear him, that trio was in San Diego, capturing a presumed leg-up.
“They’re all working out; they’ve been getting accustomed to the environment,” Cheatham said. “They’ve been doing all of this stuff and I don’t know if I’ll be able to accept my scholarship – I’ve got every JuCo in the country calling me. Mentally, I’m just like, ‘Why me? What am I doing wrong?’
“Then I get a break. The NCAA clears me two days before I’m set to start school. I didn’t get approval until August 23rd and school started August 25th.”
Everybody a leader til it’s time to do what leaders do...🙇🏽♂️— Zylan Cheatham (@1KingZ4) September 6, 2018
Cheatham’s been there before. He walks into a lifeless gym on day three of workouts. Bodies are aching, morale is low and energy is dormant.
“That’s the time when a leader is supposed to kick it to the next level,” Cheatham said. “And I’m sure a lot of my guys can vouch for me. It’s been 6 am on a Sunday workout and I’m in the gym blasting my music, dancing, punching guys, just getting guys going.”
Moving Cheatham out of the gym is a much tougher proposition, just ask his mom.
While he was finishing up his classes, Carolyn began to worry about her son. She watched as Cheatham juggled school, recruiting and training, fearing that at some point he could burn out.
“He’s in the gym, he has a ball in his hands all the time. He went to the gym like every night” Carolyn said. “And I’m telling him, ‘Son, you need to give it a break. Just wait until you get there (San Diego State) and you’ll have all the time in the world,’ and he never stopped.”
As is often the case, mom was right.
“I’ve been working out but my foot is kind of bothering me,” Cheatham said. “Get out there, I’m like, ‘I’m going to get some X-rays before the season starts, just to be safe.’ Fifth metatarsal is completely broken.”
“He called me like, ‘Mom, I’ve got to have surgery,’” Carolyn said. “I was like, ‘What?’”
Just as fast as the NCAA had wiped away his junior year, it looked like an injury was going to do the same to a large majority of his freshman campaign. When the timetable of at least a three-month recovery was determined, Cheatham had to meet with SDSU head coach Steve Fisher.
It was the conversation he feared.
“He wants me to redshirt,” Cheatham recalled. “‘No coach, I don’t want to redshirt.’ It breaks my heart, I don’t want to redshirt.”
Fisher was concerned a quick return would see Cheatham reinjure his foot and be sidelined even longer, Carolyn said. She tried to help her son understand the benefits sitting back, watching and learning may allow him in the future.
Not trynna be the next nobody! The best Zylan Cheatham I can be! ‼️— Zylan Cheatham (@1KingZ4) September 20, 2018
Even though he’s said he tries to pattern his game after LeBron James, Cheatham doesn’t want to be the next LeBron James. He doesn’t think anyone should want that. “It kind of, in my opinion, shies you away from your own path,” he said.
He recalled a quote from James in which the NBA superstar talked about wanting his son to carve out his own path rather than mimic what he did.
“He was like, ‘I can’t walk the path for you. I can give you the guidelines but at the end of the day you’re going to have to do it on your own,’” Cheatham recalled James saying. “I want to be the best Z I can be. And that’s unique because I’m the only Z.”
Indeed, he is. And so is his circuitous path.
Standing in the Weatherup Center hallway, a grin came back to Cheatham’s face. He was playing out the alternate scenario where he didn’t redshirt his freshman season at San Diego State. Back then, he didn’t have the foresight to understand the full scope of the situation.
“Now looking back at it, we had J.J. O’Brien, Malik Pope, these guys at the four spot that, coming back in conference, I probably wouldn’t have gotten many minutes over them,” Cheatham said.
“So, now looking back on it, if I wouldn’t have redshirted, I wouldn’t have had no opportunity here. This wouldn’t be a thing. When you look back and reflect, it’s just like that’s a character builder.”
In his two seasons at SDSU, Cheatham started 48 of the 69 games he played for the Aztecs, averaging 8.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest. In both seasons, however, the Aztecs fell short of the NCAA Tournament.
Just over a month after the Aztecs’ March dreams fell short, Cheatham announced his intentions to transfer from San Diego. On August 24, 2017, he, like James, announced he was headed home, back to the Valley to play for Arizona State.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Cheatham told Devils Digest when he announced his transfer. “It was 100 percent basketball related, just a basketball move for myself. I didn’t really like the role I was playing and how I was being played.”
WE WANT BAMA NOW 🤟🏾🤷🏾♂️🤷🏾♂️🤷🏾♂️— Zylan Cheatham (@1KingZ4) September 9, 2018
Cheatham was in the Sun Devil Stadium student section when the Sun Devils knocked off then-15th-ranked Michigan State earlier this year. He started chuckling when he saw this tweet again -- partly for its preposterousness and partly for how many people it pissed off.
But that’s Cheatham. The guy who became arguably the Devils’ biggest supporter as he sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules won’t half-heartedly support anything, especially big decisions.
By the time he told his mom he was leaving San Diego State to go play at ASU, he had “already pretty much made up his decision,” she said. He was equipped with full plans and reasons, knowing there would be some hesitation.
“I was like, ‘No, son. Really? I thought you were happy,’ and he’s like, ‘No, mom. I’m not. This is what I want to do.’ And I’m like, (pausing for a second in between letters) ‘OK,’” Carolyn said, recalling the conversation with Cheatham about transferring.
“He had his pros and cons about it and his main thing was that his grandmother hasn’t seen him play in person, at all. That’s his main thing: His family can see him play, not just on TV but they can come to the games.”
Just like they did when he was at South Mountain.
It’s a homecoming that started to make more sense as Cheatham began showing off a few of his tattoos.
The Arizona Diamondbacks ‘A’ logo was on his right bicep. On his right forearm, the words ‘Bird Land’ were inked in cursive. Just above that, too, was the top of South Mountain, equipped with its recognizable TV Towers.
When asked if she was from Arizona as well, Carolyn started beaming through the phone.
“We’re natives,” she said. “Born and raised.”
Cheatham grew up 20 minutes away from Wells Fargo Arena, where he will likely start for Bobby Hurley and the Sun Devils this season. He oozes state and school pride that few others can claim. And maybe he said that ASU wants Alabama.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s seen crazier things happen when someone’s counted out.
“I wanted to instill that I’m fearless,” Cheatham said. “Like, why not. We could beat Bama; we could beat whoever. Put anybody in front of us.”