Everyone could see the blood.
Illinois’s Alex Legion had just elbowed Novak above his left eye while the two battled for a rebound midway through the second half at Crisler Arena on Jan. 4. Novak, leaving behind a trail of blood, was escorted to the Michigan dressing room, while holding a towel to a gash above his left eye. His return to the game looked doubtful.
But Novak has never been the type of player to let anything get in his way. And he wasn’t about to start.
Six stitches later, Novak reentered the game with just over five minutes remaining in regulation.
He simply wasn’t going to miss the rest of the game.
“That wasn’t even an option,” Novak said. “I just went in and said, ‘Stitch it up as fast as you can, and here I go.’ ”
Young and outsized
Like most second graders, Novak enjoyed playing sports in the park. But his playmates were a little larger than most.
An only child, the Chesterton, Ind. native filled his summers going to Hawthorne Park, within walking distance of his childhood home. He played all sports with his neighbors and friends: basketball, football, baseball and soccer. But in second and third grade, some other friends joined on the basketball court.
Local high schoolers asked Novak to fill an extra spot to play.
“I was small,” Novak said. “I just remember there were guys who would be dunking.”
His mom, Dana, a teacher at Chesterton High School and former high school basketball player, knew the boys from school and trusted they would take good care of her son.
Once, Novak side-planted on the gravel during a game. Instead of laughing and teasing him, one of the boys drove him home on his moped.
He’s now a 6-foot-5 guard but often asked to guard players three or four inches taller like Michigan State forward Delvon Roe or Illinois forward Mike Davis.
In last Friday’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal loss to Illinois, Davis used his four-inch advantage to score 22 points and grab 10 rebounds. But Novak scrapped for seven boards of his own, including three on the offensive end.
It’s impossible to grow four or five inches and gain 20 pounds. But Novak has learned how to even the playing field.
As the coach of the local fourth grade Amateur Athletic Union basketball team, Novak’s father Dave barely taught offense. In fact, his teams ran just one set play. The rest was hustle, aggressiveness and defense.
Novak’s father, who played one year of varsity basketball at Purdue-Calumet, coached Novak and some of his future high school teammates a little differently than most AAU coaches. Dave said he taught defense for 70 percent of their practices.
“He didn’t get mad about missing shots or not shooting the ball like a lot of dads do,” Novak said. “He was just (mad) if you didn’t dive, didn’t take a charge, not playing help-side defense.”
Dave’s methods worked. His teams won three consecutive AAU Indiana state championships after fourth grade.
When those boys began playing for their grade-school teams, Dave recalled that Novak’s new coach was very impressed.
“Coach asked me, ‘How did you get them to play defense like that? We can’t get any other team to do it,’ ” Dave said. “By that point, it was all they knew. I don’t know if you can flip a switch on them.”
What if Dave’s players didn’t play tough defense?
“Besides getting screamed out … it would scare us a little bit,” Novak said. “Other than that, he’d probably just take us out of the game.”
Around the same time, Novak attended former Indiana coach Bob Knight’s summer basketball camps. Knight, affectionately known as ‘The General,’ was a god to many basketball-obsessed locals during his 29 seasons in Bloomington. Known for his blatant toughness and demanding style, Knight is a hero to some and a nightmare to others.
Who was tougher?
“I’d say on a consistent basis, I’d have to go with the General,” Novak said. “My dad came very close to Bobby Knight’s status with me a few times. I’m going to have to go with a draw most of the time, but I think sometimes, my dad, he came close.”
Dave now makes the three-hour drive from Chesterton to attend many of Michigan’s home games. He’s not at all surprised to see Novak dive face first for a loose ball, and Novak said he credits his toughness to Dave’s teaching and coaching.
“Mainly the hustle plays, the loose balls, never giving up on the rebound, keep going after it, keep it alive for one of your teammates,” Dave said. “Other than that, I didn’t teach him a lot of the athletic, skill part of the game.”
Those skills helped him move on to the next level.
After Novak’s eighth-grade team capped a perfect 23-0 season, he approached Chesterton High School coach Tom Peller. Novak told Peller he wanted to play varsity as a freshman. That spring, Novak scrimmaged with Peller’s senior-laden squad.
It didn’t take long for the juniors and seniors to see Novak’s potential.
“They respected him right from the get-go,” Peller said. “It wasn’t like ‘Oh, here’s an eighth grader.’ They heard about him, but once they saw how hard he played — he was diving on the floor, hustling, he was getting rebounds.”
Novak earned a starting spot his freshman year and stayed there until his final game as a senior. He left as Chesterton’s all-time leading scorer, breaking the 55-year-old record.
“If there was a bad play that he made the mistake, instead of whining, he would just play harder and better,” Peller said. “So many kids nowadays, say ‘oh it’s my fault’ or they blame the ref or pout. He would just jack it up another notch.”
During those four years, his competitive edge was well-known, but his future was uncertain.
After Novak averaged nearly 16 points per game during his freshman season, Division-I Valparaiso, just 10 minutes from Chesterton, offered him a full scholarship.
Since his childhood, Novak dreamed of playing at a Big Ten school. Not necessarily Indiana, where his family’s allegiance lies, but a big-name place.
Valparaiso just wasn’t it.
Novak declined, and Crusader coach Homer Drew filled his available scholarships. It would be a while before Novak’s dream school came knocking.
The summer before his senior year of high school, everyone on coach Mike Adams’s high-powered Indiana Elite AAU team had a scholarship offer — except Novak.
The Indiana Elite had the exposure, the tournaments all over the country and the notoriety to attract coaches from the nation’s top Division-I schools.
And Novak showed he was a worthy competitor.
“Especially in summer ball, you don’t really see a lot of guys diving on the floor in the summer,” Adams said. “And that was the way he played.”
Adams speculated that it could have been Novak’s ability to do everything on the court — rebound, shoot and drive — that led coaches to question where he would fit into their system.
Add that to being a standout four-year starter on the baseball team, and many coaches didn’t know what to think.
“He was a hell of a baseball player,” Adams said with a laugh. “If I was going to tell him to concentrate on something, it might have been baseball.”
Playing collegiate baseball crossed Novak’s mind, but offers were not on the table. And his heart just wasn’t in it.
But he wasn’t about to complain.
Novak entered his senior year at Chesterton without a clear future — no scholarship offers and no definite answers.
“I said, ‘I know you love basketball, but you have to look out for what’s going to be best for you,’ and he didn’t want to hear any part of that,” Dave said. “He just told me, ‘I’m going to have a great senior year.’ ”
To add insult to injury, after being named to two local newspapers’ top-five players lists after his junior season, he was left off both preseason All-Area top-five lists.
But instead of getting angry, complaining or playing selfishly, Novak just wanted to get better.
Early in the season, Chesterton traveled to Michigan City. Michigan City’s top player, Jarrod Jones, already had a scholarship offer to Ball State, and was named to the same preseason all-area team that had passed over Novak.
Novak asked Peller for the matchup.
“I remember him talking, saying, ‘Coach, this game is real personal to me,’ ” Peller said. “We were all pissed off that Zack wasn’t on the (All-Area) team. We thought, ‘This is absolutely ridiculous these papers left him off.’ ”
And the matchup with Michigan City was ridiculous, too. Novak exploded for 31 points and 14 rebounds. Jones was just 5-of-14 from the field.
“That’s the point — I just remember that kind of just sparked me,” Novak said. “It was motivation for the rest of the year.”
Where do I sign?
As January of his senior year rolled around, Novak was still unsigned. While fighting for every rebound and loose ball, Indiana’s third-leading scorer still didn’t have any big-time offers.
“He would talk to me many times about this, how disappointed he was,” Peller said. “I said, ‘Zack, we can’t control what other people do, but we can control what you do. Let’s just go out and play as hard and as well as we can. And that will speak for itself. They don’t know in your heart like I do all the intangibles you bring. But eventually, somebody will notice it.’ ”
Oakland noticed in early winter. Golden Grizzles’ coach Greg Kampe offered Novak a roster spot on his team.
Valpariso, which is in the same conference as Oakland, responded with another offer.
But Novak wanted the big team and the big stage, and his patience finally paid off.
Michigan assistant coach Mike Jackson came across Novak’s name. Assistant coach John Mahoney, who recruits the state of Indiana, checked him out.
Mahoney liked what he saw and passed his notes to Michigan coach John Beilein.
On March 9, 2008, Novak verbally committed to Michigan. He signed on Apr. 16.
“I could not have written a better script,” Dave Novak said. “Coaches — there’s no way I could not have picked a better one. It’s comforting to know you sent your kid away to Coach Beilein.”
Around the time Novak was making his decision, a local columnist suggested he should choose Valparaiso.
The columnist at the Indiana Post-Tribune was clear: “Novak could be The Man at VU. He’d be just another freshman at Michigan, scratching and clawing for his chance.”
At Michigan, Novak has scratched and clawed for loose balls and rebounds.
But he has been more than “just another freshman”.
Proving his worth
Against Minnesota on March 7, the Wolverines were just 101 seconds from a win that many thought would seal their place in their first NCAA Tournament in 11 years.
Down five, the Golden Gophers put up a 3-pointer and Novak went after the long bounce at the top of the key. His feet landed firmly on the court and his hands securely on the ball. Michigan retained its lead.
Everyone notices his sharp shooting, but little plays like this have made just as much of a contribution.
Last season, Beilein’s team often looked lethargic in games. The Wolverines frequently had lengthy scoring droughts, and players got down on themselves en route to a program-record 22 losses.
But his refusal to let up in games is palpable. In last Thursday’s 60-50 loss to Illinois, the Wolverines trailed by 20 points and a blowout seemed inevitable. An embarrassing loss on the Big Ten Tournament stage could have hindered their NCAA Tournament hopes.
Novak responded with five straight points and a few crucial rebounds that led to a 13-2 late Michigan run.
“He’s just exactly what the doctor ordered as far as a guy who is just a nuts and bolts, blue-collar, lunch bucket, whatever you guys want to call him,” Beilein said. “He just does a lot of the garbage stuff that we need to get done.”
Novak does it without a lot of media recognition, but his teammates certainly notice his intensity.
“If he doesn’t get a number or reach his goal of what he’s trying to do, he gets upset,” sophomore forward Manny Harris said. “He’s just tough on himself because it’s important to him, he knows he’s supposed to do it.
“I can’t pinpoint it. It’s not a frustration where it’s an angry, go crazy. He’s just mad at himself, and you can see it in his face sometimes.”
Novak will turn 19 in May. He’s still younger than many freshman basketball players when they enter college. Despite his age, coaches see that he expects perfection from himself.
“He gives us a level of toughness,” Jackson said. “Toughness varies in different guys. I just think he has a passion about how he plays everything and it doesn’t change. It’s consistent, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes.”
In less than a year, he has proven to his coaches and teammates that he won’t give up. He’s never satisfied with the status quo — he’s always focused on pushing himself.
He might have gotten the scholarship at the big school, but he hasn’t forgotten the work ethic that got him there.
“I’m just competitive,” Novak said. “I want to win at everything. That’s always been the biggest thing with me. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing in the YMCA where there’s nobody there or playing (at Crisler Arena) where there’s 14,000 people in the crowd. I don’t want to get beat.”