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ASU Basketball: Cheatham opens up about family tragedy prior to Pac-12 opener with Utah

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The Sun Devil forward will be playing with a heavy heart

Andrew Palla/House of Sparky

Zylan Cheatham entered the ASU media room as he often does after games and practices on Wednesday, speaking with a string of reporters inside Wells Fargo Arena.

He answered questions about ASU’s upset loss to Princeton, he discussed how the team hoped to improve, and he discussed his interactions with head coach Bobby Hurley. He did so with the same infectious smile and attitude he often has on the court.

Then he delved into a topic that took a much higher precedent over anything related to basketball. He began to talk about the tragic loss he had been dealt on the same evening that ASU lost to Princeton.

It was a blow that was much greater than anything that occurred on a basketball court that day. He talked about his younger brother, who was shot, and died soon after on Saturday evening.

Just after ASU fell to the Tigers, Cheatham received a phone call from his father just as he returned home from the game. It was a message to let Cheatham know his brother had received a gunshot wound, and he should come to the hospital immediately.

Cheatham sat and waited for hours before doctors came to the family and announced the worst possible news. Cheatham’s brother, Wanyaa Stewart, had died. He was 22-years-old.

“He was so young, so full of life. He hadn’t even experienced anything yet,” Cheatham said. “It’s unbelievable to think about it, but he was always so proud of me and what I was doing. He always wanted me to keep going and make something out of myself with basketball. It was something I’d always strived for.”

Cheatham had seen his brother just four days prior on Christmas. The two siblings, who were brothers on Cheatham’s father’s side and separated by 10 months, went to school together in seventh and eighth grade.

They spent the night at each other’s houses, they swapped clothes, they played Pokemon together, and they shared a love for sports.

A South Phoenix native, Cheatham went on to play at Westwind Prep Academy during his teenage years, causing him to live away from his hometown. His brother stayed in South Phoenix where some problems began.

“I got away from the south side and that is where he continued to stay. Unfortunately, he got into gangs and just kind of running with the wrong people. It was a very unfortunate situation,” Cheatham said. “He chose that path and it was really tough accepting it. Even knowing what he was doing, you just never expect this to happen. When it did, it’s just devastating. I have had many sleepless nights over it.”

On the night of his brother’s death, head coach Bobby Hurley appeared at the hospital to support Cheatham and his family.

The next day, Cheatham was at practice, even though Hurley wanted to give his veteran forward as much time as he needed to deal with the hardship.

“Being that basketball is so therapeutic to me, when Hurley came to the hospital, his main thing was he wanted me to take some time and get my mind right,” Cheatham said. “He definitely didn’t expect me to show up the next day for practice. That’s what I did because being out on the floor, being around my guys, being in a position to get better is that hour, hour and a half, two hours or whenever we are out on the floor, it offers me a time to just take my mind off of everything and just focus on the game I love. It’s almost like people go to the beach or read books. My happy place is on the court.”

A San Diego State transfer, Cheatham’s move back to the Phoenix area has provided him an opportunity as a key asset on a high-caliber Pac-12 basketball program, and it has allowed him to be within close proximity of family.

As Cheatham continued to progress in basketball, his brother often gave space between himself and his sibling as they grew older, understanding the danger that Cheatham could become associated with.

“The thing is, because of the life he was living and just the people he was involved with, he respected me enough to kind of keep our distance,” Cheatham said. “It was just not safe to be around each other as much.”

Even then, Stewart kept tabs on the current ASU star, commenting on Instagram posts or telling him he was going to make it out to a game soon.

On that Christmas where the two brothers saw each other, Cheatham and Stewart took pictures together and they were planning an upcoming Pac-12 conference game for Stewart to attend.

Discussing his loved one, Cheatham still found time to reflect positive light on the grievous aftermath of such a tough situation. He didn’t reflect with sadness. Rather, he looked back to what he told Stewart on Christmas Day.

“On a positive note, the last thing I did say to him was ‘I love you’,” Cheatham said. “I went out on good terms with him. We were on talking terms and I am just excited that I got to express that as last words.”

The bereavement of his younger brother isn’t the only adversity Cheatham has faced in his life, either. Earlier in 2018, he also lost his cousin and one of his best friends.

Through it all, he has kept the same communicable smile, and the same passion and love for the game. Just before Cheatham told his story, Hurley addressed the media and called his forward one of the players on his “Mount Rushmore” of players he has coached, and his professional career later on looks bright.

“If I was coaching an NBA team, he is the kind of guy who I would want on my team,” Hurley said.

ASU kicks off conference play this Thursday against Utah. Cheatham will be on the floor wearing his signature headband while likely sparking the crowd with a rim-rocking dunk or a high-flying swat.

And on that headband, and on his shoes, Cheatham keeps the names of the loved ones he has lost. He has his cousin’s name, his friend’s name, and now he will add his brother’s. It’s what ignites his contagious energy on the floor.

One may think that Cheatham was overwhelmed with emotions while describing his story. They’d be wrong. Not once did he shed a tear or choke up, nor did he lash out in anger or frustration over the people he has lost. Instead, Cheatham sat and smiled while reflecting on stories and memories of his brother.

It’s a story that makes him who he is, and leaks into his vigor on the basketball court. Next Saturday while ASU plays Stanford, Stewart will have his funeral.

Understandably, Cheatham said there is a “very good chance” he misses the game. He added that the day is likely going to be the toughest of his life.

Whatever happens through Pac-12 play, Cheatham will honor his lost loved ones. Despite some troubles, he wants people to know who his brother truly was, and how he should be remembered.

“He was such a good kid. So many people, they have this misconception. Unfortunately, there’s this environment that he was in and the choices he made, to become basically a victim to that environment and get involved with gangs,” Cheatham said.

“It threw me for a loop when I found out the stuff that he was involved in and the life that he began to live because I knew that’s not him. That’s not the type of person he was. We played football, we did all that type of stuff...That’s the brother that I have in mind and I think about him and the times we had as innocent as we were when we were younger, as opposed to what he is being judged for and his later years.

“That’s our biggest memories to me is just when we were kids, just being childish. Doing what kids do. He has a special spot in my heart obviously, and I’ll keep him in mind, always.”