Surprise family reunion for basketball's Zemgulis during commencement weekend

May 06, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After nearly 1,500 days, 136 basketball games, countless practices and one undergraduate degree, former Nittany Lion basketball forward Deivis Zemgulis’ collegiate career in the United States is officially complete. Returning to his native Lithuania, he’ll be bringing back many memories from his experiences as an NCAA Division I student-athlete at one of the top universities in the world.

On Sunday, May 5, Zemgulis walked across the stage to accept his bachelor’s degree in food science from the College of Agricultural Sciences in the Bryce Jordan Center. The stage set up not far from where the BJC court baseline and basket would be, the same arena where he played, practiced and hung out with his teammates.

The night before, Zemgulis’ host family from Maryland, Blaine and Toyja Somerville, the American family with whom he lived when he studied and played at St. Mary Ryken High School, planned to meet him at the Nittany Lion basketball office. Less than two months earlier, the same group had gathered to honor Zemgulis and his classmate Josh Reaves in their last game on the court at Penn State, a victory over Big Ten Conference foe Illinois.

Similar to that day, there were handshakes and hugs as Zemgulis would see head coach Patrick Chambers, associate head coach Keith Urgo, assistant coach Kevin Freeman, and recruiting coordinator Nick Colella. On this day, it would be the last time, at least for a while.

Zemgulis received an even bigger surprise from Chambers when he arrived to find his parents, father Vytautas and mother Gitana; brother, Aurimas; and sister, Gabriele, waiting for him. It was the first time he had seen them in person in four years. Chambers had arranged for the family’s travel to see their son, and brother, receive his degree, and see the place he called home when he wasn’t home.

“I was in shock,” said Deividas “Deivis” Zemgulis. “When they told me they have another surprise, I was wondering what could it be, but when they opened the door I froze like a statue. At the beginning I thought it was another camera crew member, because I could not believe it was really them, I had to look twice to get back to reality, and the rest was history.”

Deivis Zemgulis commencement surprise with coach Pat Chambers

Graduating Penn State men's basketball forward Deivis Zemgulis received a surprise from coach Pat Chambers when he arrived at the Bryce Jordan Center to find his parents, father Vytautas and mother Gitana; brother, Aurimas; and sister, Gabriele, waiting for him. It was the first time he had seen them in person in four years. Chambers had arranged for the family’s travel to see their son, and brother, receive his degree. 

From FaceTime calls and conversations in Lithuanian, text messages and selfies from the BJC, bus rides and road trips over four years, to this moment — Zemgulis, smiling ear-to-ear, surrounded by his family, host family, and basketball family. This precious memory shared by many  — graduation celebration photos and a family reunion — all at once.

And with basketball and family he will still be surrounded. Once he arrives back in Kaunas, Lithuania, he hopes to explore a professional basketball career in his homeland and work with his father’s business.

The traits he brought to Penn State and the knowledge and experiences he gained on the court and in the classroom will serve him well, in whatever path he chooses.

“Deivis has been the teammate everyone can count on — he gave everything he had to his team, during practices and to his academic work,” said Chambers. “Commencement represents the culmination of what he accomplished the last four years in the classroom, and to helping this program improve. We’re going to miss him.”

In addition to the memories he has of Penn State, Zemgulis will bring some hardware back home to Lithuania as well: a National Invitation Tournament championship ring, a Big Ten Conference Sportsmanship Award, two Academic Achievement Awards, and Penn State’s 2018-19 Coaches Award.

Presented at the team banquet in April, Zemgulis earned the Coaches Award as the student-athlete who best exemplified the characteristics of a Penn State basketball player. An unselfish individual who sacrificed his own personal accolades for the betterment of the team, he approached Chambers and relinquished his spot in the senior day starting lineup in the final game of the season as the Nittany Lions needed the conference victory to secure a bye in the Big Ten Tournament.

With 28 seconds left in that final regular-season game, Chambers called a timeout and put Zemgulis in. Seconds ticked down as the Nittany Lions were playing defense on the side of the court away from their bench. Sophomore guard Jamari Wheeler pulled in the defensive rebound, brought it up court and passed the ball to Zemgulis, who took a 3-point attempt, but it did not fall. Wheeler grabbed the rebound and sent the ball back to Zemgulis for another try.

Zemgulis did not disappoint, connecting for the long trey as the game ended, and his teammates celebrated with him.

Zemgulis might be remembered most for that one play, but there were so many others fans did not see, at practice, or other times, encouraging his teammates and living the role of the servant leader. He was always described as a player who could, and was willing, to do it all — and what was needed — to help his team improve.

He started in three games in his Penn State career, including the Nittany Lions’ win over No. 13 Ohio State at Value City Arena in January 2018. He played critical minutes in that contest, scoring five points with a rebound and an assist in the victory, one that propelled Penn State to win four of its next five games.

More success and more wins came — the Nittany Lions would finish with 26 wins, the second-highest total in program history, and by late March, they would be cutting down nets in Madison Square Garden as 2018 NIT Champions. A little more than a year later, Zemgulis will bring home his most valuable trophy, his degree from Penn State. Now that his tassel has moved to show his new status as a graduate, Zemgulis’ life will change once he leaves Penn State and Happy Valley, but his life has changed because of Penn State and Happy Valley.

Last Updated May 06, 2019