Full name: Zakaria Berkane
Residence: New York
Years in Mo’ Motion: Three
Favorite Basketball Player of All-Time: Kobe Bryant
Note from Mo: I met Zak three years ago when our head of coaching said, “We have a coach from Algeria who loves basketball and he’s trying to learn English. Some of the kids may have a hard time understanding him, but he wants to get better, and I think he’ll be very good.” I went in to meet Zak, and I understood him quite well. Maybe it’s because I learned about his story as a karate champion from Algeria who loved gold-school hard work, which for Zak, required him to do his karate training on cement. Zak also played basketball as a youth from high school, during college, and as a semi-pro player up until he badly injured his hand, which required surgery and ruined his chances of being recruited. He pivoted in another direction after his hand healed, and he’s never looked back. As a New York Open Karate Champion, who trained at his gym, not a dojo, while working two jobs, Zak is one of our best coaches when it comes to physical conditioning and agility. Parents have said they love how much better he’s become at communicating, and his passion for teaching is everything they would want their child to see. We are happy that Zak came to us to learn, grow and develop, which is something we hope for all of our coaches, staff and participants.
How long have you been working in sports programs?
I have done three months of an internship at a high school back in 2011, teaching (soccer, basketball, volleyball…), but technically I started here in NYC in October, 2014.
What do you love most about these experiences?
Honestly everything about them–even the stress I get from it! But mostly coaching basketball in NYC was something I had never thought of doing in my life. I am living a dream basically.
What was the greatest moment of your career as an athlete?
Winning my first national title in karate and playing the Algerian Cup Semi Finals in basketball – the closest I got to the trophy. I started practicing karate at the age of 6 or 7, back in Algeria, Africa in a city called Batna. I do remember my first dojo with green carpet covering the whole floor, as having a Tatami (mats on the floor ) was too expensive, so we basically practiced barefoot on a cement floor covered with 1 cm moquette. I remember every single fall I took on that floor , it hurt more then the hit that caused me to fall; the building was old, the ceiling leaked every time it rained, we had no heat, and it was so cold in the winter to the point I could not feel my toes.
What is your greatest challenge as an athlete?
My greatest challenge as an athlete was more mentally/psychologically — losing after working hard for a few months, trying to keep up, winning the previous time and trying to keep the title for the next one, dealing with bad injuries, trying to come back and be in shape.
What is the No. 1 thing you try to get across to your players/athletes?
Hard work, hard work, hard work. I believe in the saying that all kinds of success start with hard work. Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.
What other fun things do you like to do in your free time?
In my free time I play sports, mainly soccer, surf, and basketball. I also like to read and get to know people from different nationalities and different backgrounds.
Who influenced you the most in your athletics, and in what ways?
My mom was an athlete and she always pushed me to do sports. Looking at her medals I always wanted my own. My karate sensei – I grew up in his dojo – was like my second dad (I spent more than 17 years with him). He made me believe I will be a champion one day and it did happen. My mom and sensei gave me the tools to become who I am today.
My dream was to play for my national team, and representing my country and club in international competitions, but this dream was crushed because of corruption and regionalism of the Algerian Federation. At 18 years old, I just started to realize how unjust it was – training all year long on cement (which I did for all my life), putting in all that hard work, and getting crashed because of the racism and corruption in Algeria.
During this time I had been playing basketball – it was my second love, actually. I had my karate teacher put a basketball rim inside our dojo. I would show up at least 30 minutes early just to shoot around and play basketball before karate practice started. I used to play on teams, and apparently I excelled my last year as a junior so the best basketball team in my city approached me with a (semipro) contract. It wasn’t a lot of money, but for an 18 year old kid and an agreement to let me still finish my studies, it was huge. At that time I stopped karate, my sensei (karate teacher) was sad but understood that I had to move on.
Can you describe your first day at Mo’ Motion?
My first day at Mo’ Motion, I remember it was a Sunday morning at MS-44, I was called for a tryout and I was asked to do a drill for boxing out. I was stressed. It was my first time teaching something in English which is my 3rd/4th language and everything was new to me. It was quite a challenge.
If you were to describe Mo to someone, what would you say? (Don’t worry, she can take it!)
If I would describe Mo to someone, I’d say she is an accomplished woman – hard working and confident. I don’t know her very well but she seems like she’s done what she always wanted to do. She might go crazy on you from time to time 🙂 … but with all the stress she goes through to make things work, no one I know has every blamed her! She is definitely caring, and she makes herself available to help anyone.
What do you think is the most important skill an athlete can have?
The most important thing that an athlete should have is a positive, strong mindset. In any career, whichever sport you play or practice, there will be bumps and obstacles to overcome. I have never heard of a great athlete who got it easy. After all, for what someone could face, he has to have a strong will to come to practice and work harder than ever. I am not a big believer in talent. Yes! Talent exists, but is everyone who plays in the NBA talented? No! If you are athletic enough with a good mindset I believe you can make it.