He is known as "Ziggy" and some of the things he has done in pursuit of basketball and academic excellence -- sometimes bordering on fanatical, according to his coaches -- are called "Ziggyisms."
After almost three seasons at George Washington University, 6-foot-10 Mike Zagardo admits that he has driven himself too hard in the past, channeled his energies in the wrong direction.
All that extracurricular running, sometimes with a 25-pound weighted vest, tired him toward the end of his first two seasons. Once he played only 12 minutes in the second half of a game, took his shower, went back to his dorm, put on gloves and a sweatshirt, and went out to jog four miles in subfreezing weather "just to stay in shape."
"I wouldn't have believed it," said GW Coach Bob Tallent, "except that Bob Lindsay, his roommate, saw it happen and told me about it. I still think about it: 2 in the morning and 10 above zero."
Last season, Tallent took steps to thwart Zagardo's zeal. He confiscated the weighted vest, which took its toll on the center's legs. This season Zagardo and Tallent agreed about the extracurricular running. There would be none.
Instead, with Tallent having returned his weighted vest, Zagardo spends 30 minutes after each GW practice doing defensive slides, a drill that Tallent calls one of the most hated by players. Zagardo does it with 25 pounds attached to his 210-pound body.
"I don't know if it's worth playing basketball anymore or doing anything if you don't improve on it," Zagardo said in explaining his hard work ethic. "Half of the fun is seeing yourself get better at what you're doing."
Zagardo's redirected energies appear to be working. One Villanova University press release recently called Zagardo "the dominant center in the Estern Eight." He outplayed James Bailey of Rutgers, a preseason All-America, in their first fame this season. His legs feel alive 18 games into the season, although infuries to other players have decimated Colonial hopes for 20 victories this season.
Nevertheless, with hopes that Lindsay's return from a knee injury will rejuvenate the Colonials, the junior offers a typical Ziggysim about his 8-10 team.
"You've got to peak at the end of the season and we haven't done that in my two seasons here (GW was 13-5 and 11-5 only to fall to 14-12 and 15-11 respectively), the way our league is set up, you win six straight games and you're in the NCAA semiginals."
That may sound like wishful thinking, yet to many people -- including a number of major college recruiters -- the thought that Zagardo could compete against the Baileys of this baskegtball world was also wishful thinking in their minds.
In the latest Eastern Eight statistics, Zagardo ranks first in shooting percentage (60.0), second in rebounding (10.3) and third in scoring (17.8).
Now, there is the outside chance that Zagardo will be drafted after his senior year or at least play in the European pro leagues for a couple of years before attending medical school. In fact, Zagardo probably will play in Italy, since both his parents are of Italian descent and therefore he would not count on an Italian roster as an American.
"Instead of saying to myself I really want to paly pro ball, what I really think of is improvement," Zagardo said. "If improvement leads to playing pro ball, that's fine. But the main goal of all the work is self-improvement."
In doing it his way, Zagardo has been the most intense player the coach has ever enountered, Tallent said.
Around the GW campus, his fellow players see freshman Paul Gracza developing as a protege of Zagardo. That is a compliment to the freshman from Annadale High. Yet, Zagardo sees one major difference in Gracza and his own days as a freshman.
"He's a little more fun-loving," Zagardo said. "He doesn't take the thing as dead serious. I was almost psychotic about it. My freshman year was so depressing because I did take everything so serious.
"Sometimes I look on sports in a way that's unhealthy and I've curbed my ways a little bit. I wished I looked on sports like Gracza does. He really has fun out there just enjoying the game. I enjoy the game when I'm doing well and know I'm getting satisfaction out of it. He enjoys the game itself. Me, I get satisfaction out of doing my job well."
Zagardo will tell you that just because he has stopped running doesn't mean he is taking the game less seriously. Tallent recalls a recent game in which Zagardo, one of the team's best foul shooters, missed three consecutive free throws.
The Colonials won this night and, afterward, Tallent decided to pull Zagardo's leg in the locker room.
"I was kidding with him," the coach recalled, "and asked him way he missed three in a row.
"But he answered very seriously: 'Well, what I was doing... I was taking my right hand off the ball a little earlier than I normally do...'"
Tallent, who was a great natural shooter, relishes every moment with Zagardo, a completely self-made player. He recalls many Ziggyisms, going back to the first start of his freshman year:
It was the night before the game against Connecticut at Storrs and Zagardo was occupying the room directly above Tallent's. It was 3 a.m. and Tallent heard pounding on the ceiling. "I thought he was up there pacing the floor because he was nervous about his first start," the coach said. "He was taking cold showers to stay awake so he could study."
The summer of his freshman year, Zagardo took apart the school's "leaper" machine, his father rented a U-Haul and they transported it and reerected it in the basement of Zagardo's Timonium, Md., home. His mother called and told Tallent, "Bob, you've got to come and pick it up.The noise is driving me crazy." Last summer, Zagardo bought his own weights and a squat machine, did isokinetics and improved his vertical leap by four or five inches.
Tallent recalls driving across Memorial Bridge about 11:30 p.m. another night. "I see this big guy, with this weighted vest on. I'd been to a bar and had a couple drinks. I said, 'No, it can't be.' So I waited for him. The guy caught up with me. I said, 'Zig, what are you doing?' He said, 'Just keeping in shape, coach.'"
Early this season, Zagardo was having trouble rebounding. "Coach, I can't rebound anymore," Zagardo said to Tallent, "I've lost all my fundamentals." So Tallent stationed him under the hoop, told him, "I'm going to shoot. Get your hands up. Everything that comes off the boards, you rebound." The next game Zagardo got 17 rebounds. "It was nothing I did," Tallent said, "but he said afterward, "Coach, those drills did it."
Howie Garfinkel, who runs a basketball camp and publishes a rating sheet on high-school players, thinks Zagardo is one of the best counselors he's ever had. The reasons: Zagardo does not complain about being assigned an 8 a.m. station nor does he complain publicly about the food, as everyone else does. However, Zagardo said, "I didn't bitch to him, but I did to other counselors. But I came back and I weighed 220 pounds (a gain of 10)."
For all his intensity, Zagardo also shows a gentleness on the court. In one recent game, he knocked over a player, offered his hand to help the fellew get up and asked, "Are you all right?"
"I'm intense, but I don't lose awareness of peope around me," Zagardo said. "I don't have the reputation of being a dirty player, but of a hardnosed player. It would hurt my feelings if I went out and hurt somebody even if I didn't do it intentionally."
Not that opposing players have not tried to do exactly that to Zagardo, a ploy that worked in past years. Early in the first Rutgers game this season, Bailey lodged an elbow in Zagardo's mouth. In the past Zagardo would have folded. This night, he scored 20 points and pulled down 10 rebounds, compared to 16 points and nine rebounds by Bailey.
Zagardo is rebounding better, passing better (especially since teammate Tom Tate gave him a few tips about using peripheral vision) and, despite his acknowledged slowness afoot, is working on a pivot move offensively, instead of relying entirely on a power game. would finance the high costs of medical school nicely.