- Zak Showalter was born to be a Wisconsin Badger, raised by a father who played for legendary coach Bo Ryan at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville.
Bo Ryan snarled. Zak Showalter practically swooned. Ryan hollered, and other freshmen wilted. Showalter eagerly waited for more.
Yes, the senior guard admits now, the legendary Wisconsin coach can be intimidating. He empathizes with those who have been on the receiving end of a Ryan rant, while acknowledging it is sort of what he lived for growing up.
Most walk-ons at top 25 programs show up because they’re desperate to be part of the team, content to ride the bench while stars take most the minutes. Showalter, who will start his 65th consecutive game for the Badgers Thursday night against Iowa, is a different story. He was born to be a Badger, raised by a father who played for Ryan at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville. Ryan won four national championships at Wisconsin-Platteville, though Steve Showalter, who played from 1984-88 and was part of Ryan’s first recruiting class, was not on any title teams.
By the time Steve’s boys, Zak (now 22) and Jake (21 and a junior at UW-Platteville), started playing, Ryan was coaching at mid-major Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Steve bought season tickets and, between shuttling the boys to their youth practices and games, tried to make it to see the Panthers as much as possible. Zak’s first memory of Ryan is attending a Wisconsin-Milwaukee game with Steve, and climbing on his dad’s shoulders to try to catch a t-shirt flung from the floor (he missed, and says he is still somewhat upset about it).
Shortly after Ryan took the Wisconsin job in 2001, the Showalters became regulars at the Badgers' annual father-son camp. Each summer in Madison, the Showalters would go through layup lines together during the day, and play cards at night, having pizza delivered to the Wisconsin dorms to get the full college experience. Along the way, Steve shared stories of playing for Ryan with his boys, detailing the tough, gruff coach who made sure you understood it was his way or the highway, but also that he would help you become the best young man, and player, you could be.
"Bo IS Wisconsin basketball,” says Steve, a retired police officer who coached both his boys at Germantown High. “In this state, kids dreamed of playing for him, and dads dreamed of having their kids play for him.”
By the time Zak was a rising senior at Germantown High, he had caught the attention of numerous mid-majors, but had no scholarship offer from Wisconsin. Then, late that summer, as Ryan lounged on the Jersey Shore for vacation, he called Zak and said he had a spot for him, as a walk-on.
“I knew he wanted to be a Badger, but I made sure I didn’t build him up or make him any promises,” says Ryan, who retired from Wisconsin in December 2015. “But I remember Steve telling me once, ‘Coach, he would crawl to the Kohl Center to play for you.’ I said let’s see how it plays out and sure enough, his team just kept winning. I’ll tell you what, the Showalters are winners.”
Steve and Zak laugh thinking back to that conversation with Ryan, admitting that yeah, one call is pretty much all it took. Once Bo said Zak would have an opportunity to earn a scholarship, Zak called the mid-majors recruiting him—South Dakota State, Drake, North Dakota State and Dayton, among others—and told them he was headed to Madison.
He graduated from Germantown as one of the best players in the state, jumpstarting a 69-game win streak that started his senior season and carried on for two years after. Showalter averaged 22 points, 5.5 assists and four rebounds per game as the Warhawks went 28–0, winning the state title. He felt good about joining the Badgers because Wisconsin has a rich history in walk-on success stories, mainly in football NFL draft prospect Dare Ogunbowale, a former Wisconsin running back, is one of Zak’s best friends, and used to be his roommate.
Outsiders doubting him made Showalter that much more committed.
“I know I’m not the ideal high Division I player,” says Showalter, who checks in at just 6’ 2”, 185-pounds and is not gifted with supreme athleticism. “A lot of people didn’t see me fitting here but I did, and I wanted to prove people wrong.”
When point guard Josh Gasser, who has a reputation for finding his way into every Wisconsin basketball story, tore his ACL before the 2012–13 season, Showalter had to pick up those minutes and was actually awarded a scholarship. He appeared in just 22 games that year, but proved to be a valuable role player.
“He’s not quite as big, but he played like his dad,” Ryan recalls. “All tenacity and guts."
Showalter went back to walk-on status as a sophomore in ’13-14, redshirting the season the Badgers made their first Final Four under Ryan. Those first few years as a reserve, Showalter shined on the scout team. “He’d have some days where we couldn’t stop him,” Ryan says. “I mean, (Frank) Kaminsky and Gasser were scratching their heads like, ‘What the heck, this kid is scoring on us?’”
Showalter came off the bench in every game as a redshirt sophomore in ’14–’15, playing a key role in Wisconsin’s run to a second consecutive Final Four. And last season he moved into the starting lineup full-time, averaging 7.5 points and 3.8 rebounds. He increased his three-point field goal percentage from 16.7% to 34.6%, and led the team in free throw percentage, at 80.4%. This season, Showalter has developed into the Badgers' defensive stopper, routinely guarding the opposing team's best player. Last week at Michigan, he locked up Wolverines guard Derrick Walton, holding him to just five points on 1-of-8 shooting. Walton had averaged 23 points over the previous five games before running into Showalter.
When Zak left for Madison he told his dad, “I just wanna help them win, I wanna show people that Wisconsin can be a winner.” He assured Steve he would be happy just being a part of the team, that he didn’t need to score a certain number of points or play a certain number of minutes to feel valuable. That Zak has proven to be an integral on-court player just makes Steve that much prouder.
“It’s one thing to sit in the stands and see the look on your kid’s face when he’s announced as a member of the team,” Steve says. “But to be there in the arena, or watching on TV, and your kid is announced as a starter for the Wisconsin Badgers, and you’re from Wisconsin and you see the smile on his face? It doesn’t even seem real.”
For Zak, everything has come full circle. He now works at the father-son camps he attended with his dad. After years of hearing what it was like to play for one of the best coaches in college basketball, Zak played a role in helping that coach earn another line on his resume with back-to-back Final Fours. And his favorite memory as a Wisconsin fan, he’s now experienced as a player.
Zak was a junior at Germantown in February 2011, when No. 14 Wisconsin hosted undefeated and No. 1 Ohio State. Jared Sullinger and the Buckeyes arrived in Madison with a 24–0 record but left with their first loss after the Badgers rallied from a double-digit deficit to pull off a 71-67 stunner. Zak was in the crowd that day, visiting a friend who went to school at Wisconsin, and took part in rushing the floor when the final buzzer sounded. “Being in that atmosphere, that’s when I decided, OK, I need to find a way to experience this as a player,” he says.
Then, his freshman year against No. 3 Michigan, Ben Brust hit a three with 40 seconds to go in overtime to pull the upset. Showalter participated in that celebratory court storm, too, this time in a Wisconsin jersey.