It's a heck of a time to be a Zeller.
Cody is set to become a NBA draft lottery pick tonight, with buzz escalating that he might be a top-5 choice. Tyler is coming off a solid rookie season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Luke seeks an NBA return after his league debut last season for Phoenix when he's not running DistinXion, the family non-profit organization designed build character and basketball skills. A camp is coming to Fort Wayne on July 9.
What's the secret to the Zeller success?
Competitive spirit, Luke Zeller said.
Oh, yes. Some brutal Nerf ball games.
“I still remember, we couldn't have been very old, of playing 2-on-2 games with our dad,” Luke said. “We had a Nerf hoop in our bedroom. Games got very competitive. Dad doesn't back down, either.
“It was game point. Tyler was going in for a shot, there was a little bit of a bump and his head hit the wall.”
“Little,” it seems, is a matter of perspective. Tyler hit with enough force to smash a hole in the wall. That led to the obvious, dad-is-fine-with-it solution:
“We got a poster of Reggie Miller and put it over the hole,” Luke said. “It stayed on that spot for about 10 years until I graduated from high school. That's when Mom found out.”
“Mom” is Lorri Zeller, who was a good enough athlete in her day to play basketball and softball for Coe College in Iowa. Her husband, Steve, played football and basketball at Springville (Iowa) High School, and, according to Luke, still holds his school record for rebounds, with 28.
“We're not sure if he counted them himself or not,” Luke said with a laugh. “We give him a hard time about it. We say he must have shot about 15 percent for the game, and just rebounded all his own shots, like doing a tip drill.”
Basketball skill extends to Lorri's brother, Al Eberhard, a Missouri standout who played for the NBA's Detroit Pistons for four years.
Cody is generating the biggest Zeller headlines at the moment -- he's worked out for 10 NBA teams, with draft possibilities ranging from Orlando at No. 2 to Oklahoma at No. 13 -- although all the brothers have contributed to this year to remember.
Tyler was the No. 17 in last year's draft after an All-America career at North Carolina. He signed a two-year contract for a reported $3.2 million total, with an option for two more seasons for a total of $4.3 million more. As a Cleveland rookie he averaged 7.9 points and 5.7 rebounds.
Luke wasn't drafted after a solid career at Notre Dame. He played for pro teams in Japan and Lithuania before spending two seasons in the NBA's D-League, including winning a D-League title with the Austin Toros in 2012 after averaging 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds. He signed for a NBA minimum salary of $473,604 last season with the Phoenix Suns. He averaged 1.2 points in 16 games before being released in February. He's working to sign with another NBA team this coming season.
“People always ask how cool it is and how awesome it's been this year, and I use the same answer,” Luke said. “It was just as awesome when I was playing 7th grade junior high basketball and Tyler was in 4th grade Y ball and Cody was in 1st grade Biddy Ball.
“Basketball has been a big part of our lives for a long time. Now other people think it's a big part. For us we're still playing basketball the same way. We're still the same people. We're about as normal as you're going to find. We're just small town country Indiana people who enjoy simple things like everybody else. We just happen to be able to pursue a dream in basketball.”
Tyler and Cody played tennis as well as basketball at Washington High School in southern Indiana. Luke ran cross country. All three were named Indiana Mr. Basketball while leading Washington to state championships.
While Tyler and Cody are considered among the nation's best running big men, Luke conceded nothing.
“I was faster than them then. I don't know if I'm faster now.”
“OK, I don't know if I was faster then, either. I ran to stay in shape for basketball. I wasn't any good. In cross country, we called ourselves the pack in the back. We were more excited about the practices when we had track sprints than we were about running three miles.”
Now the excitement focuses on Cody's draft scenario. He is one of 10 players invited to the “green room” to watch tonight's draft from the Brooklyn's Barclay Center, where the draft will be conducted. ESPN will broadcast it. He's posted a poll on his twitter account so followers can vote on which of three suits he'll wear for the evening.
For the last month Cody has been living with his agent in Los Angeles when he wasn't traveling the country for team workouts. He joked on Indianapolis radio station 1070 the Fan's Dan Dakich Show that, “As of right now, I'm homeless, unemployed and a college dropout.”
Cody, who skipped his final two years of college to enter the NBA draft, won't be unemployed long. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said he wouldn't be surprised if Cody is one of the first five draft picks.
“He's going to be a very good NBA player,” Bilas said. “He's the best of the Zeller trio. He's a crazy good athlete.”
As far as the DistinXion Camp in Fort Wayne, it's a three-day event divided into three groups: 2nd to 4th grade, 5th and 6th grade, 7th and 8th grade. It will include brief character sessions as well as basketball development. All three brothers hope to be there, although that will depend on their schedules.
“All three of us are all over the place right now,” Luke said. “We try to make the camp schedule as much as we can.”