Zaria “Ziggy” Richards was well known for the comfort and joy her big hugs delivered. Whether it was a family member, friend or someone she just met, Ziggy’s welcoming smile paired with her famous bear hug had the power to change anyone’s mood in an instant.
“For the most part, every person she met she gave them this big smile and this bear hug,” Willie Richards, Ziggy’s father said. “I called her Ziggy Bear. That’s who she was to me. She always had a way with words, and if it wasn’t her words, it was her posture towards someone.”
Ziggy, a former Rudder girls basketball player, soon became a staple in the community through her love of basketball and her passion for helping others.
She died on Nov. 11, 2019, surrounded by her family after going into organ failure hours after being admitted to the hospital. She was 19 years old. Her organs failed as a result of her type 1 diabetes, which Ziggy was diagnosed with at 9 years old.
“It was a normal day,” Willie said. “Everything was going well, and just that one day she wasn’t feeling good. My wife took her to the hospital, and I went over to the hospital. We talked to the doctors a little bit, and the doctors were doing their procedures. About a couple hours later the doctors told us she wasn’t responding [to tests].”
Ziggy was born in New Orleans on Feb. 15, 2000, joining her father, mother Yolanda and older brother Willie Jr. The Richards moved to Bryan days before Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in August 2005 with their newest addition to the family, Ziggy’s younger sister, Cameron.
Ziggy started playing basketball when she was 9 for a local Amateur Athletic Union basketball club. Her time in AAU fostered her love for the game, and she eventually became a coach in the organization as a senior in high school. Ziggy practically grew up on the sideline of a basketball court watching her brother Willie Jr. play since he was 7 years old. She never missed a game.
Willie said Ziggy and her siblings bonded over their shared passion for basketball, especially during the NBA season when their favorite player, LeBron James, filled the TV screen in their living room. When Ziggy wasn’t watching the NBA, she kept up with Baylor and Texas A&M women’s basketball. Although Ziggy had dreams of playing for Baylor one day, the Richards family often made it to Reed Arena to cheer on the Aggies.
Willie and Yolanda enjoyed watching basketball with their children, but they loved watching their children on the court even more. The duo has only missed two games in the last seven years between their three children. Willie said they’ve attended The Armory more times than they can count. Willie Jr. played football and basketball for Rudder, while Ziggy and Cameron played for the Lady Rangers basketball team.
The sisters got the chance to play together during Ziggy’s senior year and Cameron’s freshman year. Cameron, a sophomore shooting guard for Rudder last season, said playing together created a stronger bond between the two because they saw each other almost all the time. During the end of her senior year, Ziggy coached Cameron’s 16U AAU team, which gave the sisters a new dynamic as coach and athlete.
“As my coach, she actually pushed me harder,” Cameron said. “When we were teammates, she kept a lot of things to herself, but she was more critical when she was my coach. She would try to make me better each practice, and she would tell me anything to help me push myself.”
Ziggy was always pushing her players to perform at their best. After being coached by Rudder head coach John Shelton and his then-assistant coach Justin Phillips, Ziggy wanted to mirror their coaching styles and would often watch practices and ask the coaches for advice.
“I remember one time I walked in the gym when she was coaching them,” Shelton said. “And I said, ‘Don’t let them fly, Ziggy,’ and she said ‘Coach, you know better than that.’ She had them running. She worked them hard.”
When Ziggy wasn’t coaching or playing basketball she was going to the movies with Cameron hoping for a good scare. Willie said Ziggy loved watching scary movies and often watched the Scream series when she had time.
Desire to help
After graduating from Rudder, Ziggy attended Blinn in hopes of transferring to Baylor and pursuing a career as a physical therapist.
Ziggy also worked at Sonshine Station, a Christian childcare learning center in Bryan. Working as both a coach and a childcare worker confirmed what her family already knew — helping others was Ziggy’s biggest love in life, even more than basketball.
“She kept hope that she would play in college, but it was between her height and the struggle with diabetes,” Willie said. “But she had a passion for helping people, whether it would be younger people or people her age. During her junior and senior year she aspired to be a physical therapist, and that passion derived from having knee surgery when she was about 11.”
Diabetics often have trouble playing competitive sports because they have to maintain their blood sugar, but Ziggy didn’t let her health limitations keep her from dominating the basketball court for almost 10 years.
“They told me that she had diabetes when I first got to Rudder, but she practiced as hard as anybody,” Shelton said. “If they hadn’t told me that, I wouldn’t have known because she just kept working.”
Ziggy was a shooting guard and forward for Rudder. Shelton and Phillips said that although she averaged only six points and three rebounds per game, Ziggy’s role on the team was more than tallying stats. Instead, her calming nature and willingness to learn made her an asset to the team and to teammates.
“When something needed to be done or said, Ziggy was always that person,” Phillips said. “She was more like a mom to all the girls. They all looked up to her and respected what she had to say.”
Ziggy’s dedication to her team and the relationships she made with teammates built a family that continues even after her death. The most recent example of Ziggy’s basketball family coming together was in the fall of 2019 when the team — two weeks into the season — decided to play against Killeen Ellison just a day after Ziggy’s passing. Cameron said the team came together during this moment because it’s what Ziggy would have wanted.
Although the team lost 64-42 to Ellison, it didn’t stop the Lady Rangers from dedicating the rest of the season to Ziggy and eventually going on an 18-game winning streak after the loss. Rudder made it to the Class 5A regional quarterfinals and finished with a 29-8 record.
Loved by all
Ziggy continued to be honored throughout the basketball season with game day memorials from local teams including A&M Consolidated, College Station, Navasota, Normangee and Franklin. Willie said seeing other teams celebrate and honor Ziggy touched the Richards family, especially the tribute by Consol during its first meeting with Rudder on Jan. 7 at Tiger Gym.
Consol head coach Wendy Hines said she wanted to celebrate Ziggy’s life in the best way possible. Although Hines only saw Ziggy on game days, she knew she was a light to others.
Before its matchup with Rudder, Consol displayed a slideshow on the scoreboard monitor with photos of Ziggy, along with a moment of silence and a midcourt team circle that included both teams praying and remembering their mutual friend.
Hines said she was happy to honor Ziggy and give one of Ziggy’s best friends, Mariya Scott, a chance to celebrate her life.
“The first thing I thought about was Mariya Scott, Victoria Sheffield and Jessica Ransom, the seniors who knew her,” Hines said. “But I was very proud of the girls in how they dealt with it and I think that really meant something to them to be able to get together [and celebrate Ziggy].”
Scott, and another close friend of Ziggy, Rudder senior Deondra Young were announced as the first recipients of the Zaria “Ziggy” Richards Basketball Memorial scholarship in April. Willie said the recipients of Ziggy’s scholarship would have to possess the same drive and determination she had, while also being kind and passionate teammates.
For most seniors, a scholarship is a chance to alleviate financial costs in college, but for Scott and Young, receiving Ziggy’s scholarship was more than extra money or a helping hand. It’s a chance to honor their friend during the next step in their life. Young is set to play basketball at Sam Houston State and Scott will play at Hill Junior College in the fall.
“It’s really amazing,” Young said. “[I’m honored] that people in that committee think of me like that. Ziggy was my best friend. She was really happy and very funny. For people to compare me to her is amazing for me, and it’s truly a blessing to receive this scholarship.”
Though Scott played for another school, she knew Ziggy well.
“I am honored to be one of the first recipients to get awarded Ziggy’s scholarship,” Scott said. “She was a sister to me, so being able to remember and honor her in that way is special.”
Ziggy’s memory will also be remembered in other ways through the Rudder girls basketball program. Shelton said the team will be retiring her No. 44 jersey in the fall, making Ziggy the last varsity player to wear that number. The Lady Rangers will also rename their Heart Award after Ziggy.
In hopes of raising money for the scholarship in her honor, the Richards and their friends created the 44 Committee and will put on the Ziggy Richards Basketball Memorial Scholarship Fund Tournament on May 30-31 at The Armory. The tournament is open to the public and will feature local teams as well as teams from Houston, Dallas and Waco.
It’s still uncertain if the tournament will continue as planned due to concerns of the coronavirus, but the Richards family is still holding out hope they’ll have the chance to honor Ziggy through her favorite sport.
While Ziggy made an big impact on the basketball court, how she treated others is what her family and friends look back on the most. To friends she was the ultimate teammate and motivator. To coaches she was hardworking and always willing to learn, and to her family she was a great sister, daughter and friend who could light up the room at any moment.
“She was there for everybody as a friend, and she was one of the smartest players that I’ve ever coached,” Phillips said. “She was a lovable person and an angel on earth.”