As the tallest player on his youth basketball teams, Dave Zarzynski played on elite travel teams in feeder programs that led him to a starting position on the varsity basketball team at Buffalo Grove High School.
So it seems perfectly natural for the 27-year-old to go to work every day at the United Center, where he is a key member of the Chicago Bulls creative services' team of artists.
Zarzynski helped redesign the Bulls home court this season, came up with the logo for the Windy City Bulls D-League team that plays in Hoffman Estates and designed the colorful warmup jerseys that NBA players wore to honor the flamboyant style of Craig Sager, the Batavia native and popular sports reporter who died in December.
"It's pretty cool," Zarzynski says of his career with the Bulls, a team he's loved since he was a little boy watching Michael Jordan lead his fellow players to six NBA championships in the 1990s.
"I remember watching the '97 and '98 finals with my parents on the couch," says Zarzynski, who also played baseball and football in high school. While Jordan, of course, was his favorite player, Zarzynski also rooted for Scottie Pippen and Dennis "The Worm" Rodman. In addition to feeding his interest in basketball, those Bulls players inspired Zarzynski's true talent.
"I used to draw the NBA players," he says. "I drew caricatures of Jordan and Pippen and Rodman's head with a worm body."
The older Zarzynski got, the more his art ability surpassed his basketball skills.
"I played intramurals in college, and that's when I realized I couldn't go any further," he says of his career on the court. But armed with a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design from the University of Iowa, Zarzynski landed an internship with Bulls.
"He was our first ever intern, and it became evident after about three weeks that we needed to hire him," remembers Jon Shoemaker, director of creative services for the Bulls, who lured Zarzynski from a job as a graphic designer in Wheeling to work for the Bulls as a full-time creative services coordinator in 2014.
"Like Jimmy Butler, Dave took a pay cut to be here," jokes Shoemaker.
The team of Shoemaker, Zarzynski and Jeff Pitcock, manager of creative services, works on about 1,000 projects each year, including designing posters, T-shirts, banners, bobbleheads, programs and "even the court itself," Shoemaker says.
The art team made several cosmetic changes to the United Center court last year, changing fonts and colors and increasing the size of the iconic Bulls head at center court while removing the image of a basketball that had been part of the logo.
When the Bulls launched a team in the NBA Development League last season with games at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, a blank slate awaited the creative services team.
"Dave spearheaded that. It was his baby, and he did an incredible job," Shoemaker says of the Windy City Bulls logo and court.
"It was still a team effort," says Zarzynski, who earned a reputation on his high school basketball team as a hardworking, hustling 6-foot-1 player who often took on a role of guarding the tallest player on the opposing team.
When beloved sportscaster Sager died of leukemia Dec. 15, the NBA honored him with a warmup jersey that Zarzynski designed as a freelancer for 500 Level, with a portion of the proceeds going to the SagerStrong Foundation, which supports families fighting leukemia.
"It was just cool to see all these people across multiple networks wearing that shirt," Zarzynski says, explaining how his shirts spread beyond NBA players and cheerleaders. "Billy Crystal was wearing it. Cedric the Entertainer was wearing it. (Recently retired Cubs catcher) David Ross was wearing it."
All the Bulls players wore the jersey. "They're all nice guys," Zarzynski says of the times the artists interact with the athletes.
"I'm still a die-hard Bulls fan," Zarzynski says. "I've been surrounded by basketball my whole life, and now I've finally come full circle."