COLUMBIA — The time between when Zach Rockers catches a pass and when Zach Rockers shoots is often so short it looks like he’s not even thinking.
Ask any shooter and they’ll tell you that’s the key. That too much thought can only result in frustration, the emptiness of an air ball, the clanking of a rim. Shooting is a simple process.
NAIA national tournament opener
Columbia College Cougars (33-0)
vs. Oklahoma City University Stars (17-10)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Municipal Auditorium, 301 W. 13th St., Kansas City
But Zach Rockers' shot was on his mind following his Cougars’ American Midwest Conference tournament semifinal win over Williams Baptist on March 2. The sophomore marksman, who leads Columbia College with 74 3-pointers this season, went just 1-for-9 from 3-point range. It was one of the Cougars’ most important games of the season, and one of Rockers' worst performances of the year. He needed a fix.
The gym sits nestled behind a grade school in St. Martin, Mo., on the property of a Catholic parish founded in 1885. The biggest celebrity in the town of just more than one thousand is the pastor, Father Ed Schmidt. When he walks through the school every child says hello.
Inside, green and white curtains match the color of the scoreboard and filter light through windows on the renovated gym's east side. Gray carpet lines the walls, better for the children to run into than stone. Massive aluminum air ducts wrap around the ceiling of the gym like a snake. A new wood floor waits beneath six hoops and three sets of bleachers.
"You used to be able to set a ball in the center of the floor, walk away from it, and it would roll to the other side all by itself," Schmidt said.
That was when Zach Rockers used to play here, and when opposing teams complained.
"We called it the automatic ball return," Rockers said.
It’s the day after the semifinal game. Sunday is often a day off for the Columbia College men’s basketball team. A lot of Sundays Zack Rockers goes back home. He relaxes. He goes to mass. He eats his mom’s roasted chicken and Jello.
“Just being a family,” his father, Gerard Rockers, said. “That’s not going to last forever.”
But there’s no time for that today. The AMC tournament championship is in two days time. Rockers needs his stroke back by then. “We need to shoot,” he tells his dad. And they head to the gym.
Zach Rockers hasn’t been here in months. But today he and his father are playing H-O-R-S-E. When the son misses, his father reminds him to follow through on his release. The green scoreboard is blank. The rims are forgiving.
“He’s been my shooting coach ever since I was like, one year old, I guess,” Zach Rockers said of his dad.
Many of those lessons happened here. Gerard Rockers had a key, and he’d take his son there early or late, whenever he wanted, which was all the time. When Gerard Rockers forgot his key, Schmidt would let them in no matter the time. In the summer, St. Martins was where they went to beat the heat. In winter, when it snowed, they grabbed shovels and dug out the doors.
“The door would be locked and nobody would be in school, I thought that was the coolest thing,” Zach Rockers said. “I was the only kid in school and I was getting to play basketball with my dad. I always wanted to go back to school and shoot all day long.”
It's March 5 and the Columbia College Cougars are cutting down the net at the Arena at Southwell Complex after defeating Park University in the AMC tournament final. Zach Rockers is smiling after hitting four 3-pointers in just 13 minutes, none more important than a no-hesitation dagger with six minutes left that put the Cougars up by 10 and stomped out a Park comeback for good.
The celebration has just started, and he’s already thanking people: his coaches for their encouragement and his dad for reminding him to follow through.
For saying it so much, for so long, that he no longer needs to think about it.
“That’s what dads are there for,” Zach Rockers said.
“I’m no shooting pro,” Gerard Rockers said a few days later. “But nobody knows your kids like you do.”
Two afternoons later the undefeated, AMC Tournament champion Cougars are finishing up practice with a team-wide game of knockout. Zach Rockers stands on the sideline after being eliminated, hands on his hips, watching Devin Griffin nonchalantly knock out Marcus Whitt and win. The team huddles up, confirms plans for practice the the next day, and disperses. Thirteen of 15 Cougars walk away. Zach Rockers and a teammate grab a ball and keep shooting.
“There’s nothing like the peace and quiet of being in an empty gym,” Gerard Rockers said of shooting with just his son and the echo of his dribble for company.
Soon the teammate leaves, and all Zach Rockers has is that echo. Jump, release, follow-through. Repeat. He gets his own rebound.
This is different than St. Martin’s was. The court is bigger, the floors don't slope and the rims, depending on the day, have the capacity to be cruel.
But he tries not to think about it. Shooting is a simple process that keeps on going.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.