Harrison’s Chris ‘Z’ Ziemianski helps kids grow through basketball
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that features Alle-Kiski Valley residents and the notable things that they do.
People who play guard in basketball are known for seeing the whole court and making an assist so the team can succeed.
Which is what made it natural for former Highlands Golden Rams baller Chris “Z” Ziemianski to answer an official’s call for help at a game in the winter of 1983.
Late Legendary WPIAL official Kirby Decroo was short a ref at a ninth-grade boys basketball game at Highlands Intermediate School and picked Ziemianski out of the stands.
“He said, ‘You played the game. I think you’ll be OK. You mind giving me a hand?’ ” Ziemianski said. “He’s the one that got the ball rolling for me and planted that seed in my head. After that I said, ‘I’d really like to do this.’
“The rest is history.”
Ziemianski, 64, was born and raised in Harrison . He lived there most of his life, aside from a few years in Fawn .
Ziemianski played basketball for Highlands all through junior and senior high school, graduating in 1973. The team won a section title in 1972.
He’s now in his 36th year as a WPIAL referee and has officiated thousands of boys and girls games.
Although standing just 5 feet 6 inches tall, his presence on the court is gigantic.
The years of experience have taught him an effective approach with players when enforcing the rules.
“You get more response from a young kid when you treat him the same way you’d like him to treat you in return,” Ziemianski said. “The difference in the game back then to nowadays is the speed. Kids are so much quicker and so much faster, but it’s the same game.”
Ziemianski works out at least three days a week and monitors his diet to keep up with the players.
“Lots of fruits and vegetables and have to drink lots of water,” he said. “(When running on the court) I always work to get a good angle. You have to get back in the proper position to make a call.”
Mr. Z can also be found in the off-season wearing the black-and-white stripes helping out local summer basketball programs such as Kings of the Court, a ninth grade and older league in New Kensington.
“He was one of the few that could handle it,” said Ian Benson, one of the league founders. “He knows how to deal with the players. He knows when to say something and who to say something to. Mr. Z’s been reffing my games since I was 7-years-old.”
Benson, 31, of New Kensington graduated from Valley High School in 2006. He is one of many who played the game under Ziemianski’s watchful eye.
“I’d say 95% of the young men here all respect me because I reffed their dads, and when they played biddy ball, seventh grade, eighth grade and all through their high school career,” he said. “They basically all know who I am.
”Some of the guys I played in high school, I’m (reffing) their grand kids.”
Ziemianski wants players to remember something the next time they get mad at an official.
“We’re all out here doing the best we can,” he said. “We may make one side happy one time, and make another call and make the other side’s happy. All you try to do is just be fair and consistent.
“I think when the kids sense that’s what you try to do, you see the kids playing good clean basketball. … You’ve got to be a gracious winner just as much as a gracious loser.”
“Z” said he has no plans to retire and still gets as excited to ref the next game as his did the first.
Officiating was not Ziemianski’s only job. He worked for 32 years at Allegheny Ludlum’s Brackenridge Works in Harrison in the continuous caster department.
He helped pour hot steel into a large mold, which went through a liquid cooling station and eventually became slabs.
Ziemianski has a son, Jordan, 25, a Freeport Area High School and Duquesne University graduate who lives in Nashville, Tenn.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .