by David Cassilo / @dcassilo
When Cody Zeller was 2 years old, he was a bit of a macropodaphobic—he was scared of kangaroos.
It all started with a Zeller family trip to a zoo in Illinois. A day of innocent exploration for young Cody took a traumatizing turn when he found himself face-to-face with a wallaby that was the same height as him. He did not like this. He did not like it one bit.
“I had nightmares about it for a while,” Cody, who turns 20 in October, says today.
But he didn’t let his fears stop with wallabies. He decided he didn’t like kangaroos too much either. When he got home, he saw phantom kangaroos everywhere. He told his parents there were kangaroos hiding under the table, around the corner and in his closet. He could not sleep.
“He probably just said it to stay up late,” says his mom, Lorri Zeller.
These days you won’t find many wallabies, kangaroos or even people close to Zeller’s 6-11 height, and you’d have to search even harder to find one that plays basketball the way he does.
“He’s the best big we saw all year,” says New Mexico State head coach Marvin Menzies, who lost to Zeller and Indiana in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Every day, Zeller wakes up to Travis Tritt’s decade-old song, “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive” because for him, well, it is.
In the span of a freshman year, he has helped turn around the Indiana Hoosiers, developed into a potential No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and become the final piece of the puzzle that makes the Zeller family the Mannings of basketball centers.
Really, each day is a great day to be alive when you’re Cody Zeller.
The early great days started in Washington, IN, a town about 60 miles to the southwest of Zeller’s new home in Bloomington.
Washington, like many other Indiana towns, is crazy for basketball. It has a relatively sparse population of 11,500, but its high school gym can hold more than 7,000.
“Basketball has always been important to our community and to our whole area,” says Washington mayor Joe Wellman. “The Zellers solidified that interest.”
Every Zeller is an athlete. His mother played Division III basketball at Coe College, and his father, Steve, was a walk-on football player at Iowa State.
The oldest son is 25-year-old Luke, who plays in the D-League for the Austin Toros. The most talkative of the three Zeller boys, Luke has a magnanimous personality, and is the ringleader of the fam.
Then there’s Tyler, a 22-year-old former North Carolina Tar Heel, who was just drafted in the NBA Lottery. The most reserved of the three, he’s also the tallest at an even seven feet.
And the youngest is Cody. He’s a blend between his two older brothers’ personalities, and he developed a prankster mentality to keep up with Luke and Tyler.
The three Zeller boys won four state titles, three Mr. Basketball honors in Indiana and all received scholarships to play Division I basketball. They also all finished in the top-three of their high school class.
So is this the perfect athletic family?
“People ask, ‘Did your kids ever fight?’” Lorri says. “Of course they did.”
Once when Tyler was about 11 years old, he rode his bike into the back of the Zeller’s car and broke a tail light. His parents asked him how it happened and Tyler told them he didn’t know. It didn’t take long for Cody to cry out, “Tyler did it!”
“I’m sure Tyler tattled on me once before so I had to repay him,” Cody says.
There was tattling and a fight here and there, but above all, this was a basketball family, and his brothers taught Cody the sport.
“I could play against them whenever I wanted to,” Cody says. “They would show me different stuff that they had learned.”
Watching his two older bros go through the recruiting process also taught him a thing or two about the college game. He wanted to keep things simple when it was his turn. That meant no long, boring trips through Missouri, Kansas and Iowa like his brothers had done.
“I really don’t want to do that,” Cody told his mom. “I like football so let’s go to some football games this fall.”
Despite trips to gridiron games at Michigan and Ohio State, Zeller narrowed his choices down to three schools known for their basketball—North Carolina, Butler and Indiana.
The Hoosiers were a very bad team at the time. They won just 10 games the year before. Head coach Tom Crean’s job was possibly on the line. Indiana needed Cody.
In November 2010, just before his senior season, Cody was ready to decide. He chose his high school gym as the venue.
The third Zeller college decision received the most hoopla. There were four or five media members covering Luke’s choice and close to 10 covering Tyler’s, according to Todd Lancaster, sports editor for The Washington Times-Herald.
“When Cody did it, there were like 25 camera crews and 80 credentialed people there,” Lancaster says.
Indiana was the choice. Fans copped his jersey before he even played a game in Bloomington.
“People in Washington had them made pretty quickly even when I was in high school,” Cody says.
By the time Zeller began college, he was an Indiana folk hero. As a member of his AAU team, the Indiana Elite, he destroyed Kentucky-bound Anthony Davis.
“We played them and won by 25 points,” says Indiana Elite head coach Mark Adams. “I thought Cody was the best person on the floor then.”
But most importantly to the Indiana faithful, he was a hometown boy who wanted to stick around.
After the turmoil caused by former head coach Kelvin Sampson’s NCAA violations and the early departure of Eric Gordon, the Hoosier faithful deemed Zeller their savior—an Indiana native who understood the program, didn’t care about the recent past and was happy to be there.
“He just enjoys where he’s at and who’s with him,” Luke says. “He lives carpe diem.”
Despite five NCAA Championship banners collecting mites in the rafters, the Hoosiers won a combined total of 28 games in the three seasons prior to Zeller’s arrival.
In their first season with him, they won 27. “It just feels like the energy is coming back to Bloomington,” says Joby Wright, a rapper from Bloomington, IN, who made a song called “The Big Handsome Anthem” about Zeller.
From rap songs to jerseys to posters, Hoosiers fans adore Zeller not just because they can identify with him, but also because he can identify with them.
”When kids approach Cody, he says, ‘I see me when I look at them, and I want to spend time with them,’” Luke says.
Zeller averaged 15.5 ppg and 6.4 rpg and led the Hosiers to their first Sweet 16 since 2002. Along the way they started 12-0, and knocked off No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State at Assembly Hall.
“In college, he might not have dominated every game, but in every game he impacted it and made us a better team,” says Austin Etherington, a teammate of Zeller’s.
At 83 inches tall, Zeller is without question a center. But while his brothers are most comfortable close to the basket, Cody’s ability to alter his attack is what helped bring wins to Bloomington.
“He plays like he’s about four inches shorter in terms of his versatility,” Menzies says.
He can run the floor and drive as well as a guard and extend his shooting range. As a post player, he can establish position on the blocks and finish at a high rate. Last season he shot 62.3 percent from the field.
Zeller is also a coach’s dream—a player who learns quickly and does what he’s told.
“You looked him in the eye, and you told him what you needed,” Adams says. “You never said it twice, you never had to repeat it and you never had to remind him.”
Put it all together, and you’ve got a player that many scouts are projecting as the possible No. 1 pick in the 2013 Draft.
“Now that he has the chance to be the No. 1 pick, it makes him work ever harder,” Etherington says. “It’s something that he is looking forward to.”
Zeller wants to be a complete player. He says he is working on his perimeter game and improving his rebounding, passing and post moves.
For Zeller, seeing his name at the top of a mock draft isn’t enough.
“It doesn’t mean anything right now,” he says. “If it’s still that way this time next year, maybe it will be different.”
Zeller might not know where he will be in a year, but he’ll always have a home in Washington. But despite being what the Kardashians are to Los Angeles, no one really bothers the Zellers in their hometown.
“They don’t feel smothered in Washington,” Lancaster says. “A lot of people can’t wait to get out. I have a feeling that in a lot of ways they can’t wait to get back.”
He and his two brothers try to return to town as often as they can, but as Lorri says, “The five of us are together twice a year if we’re lucky.”
The last time they all got together was Christmas, 2011. With the late start to the NBA season, Luke was there. Tyler and Cody were on winter break from school. Steve and Lorri had off, too.
“We’re definitely a close family,” Cody says. “We make the most of it when we’re around each other.”
Even with three NBA-quality centers at the dinner table, Christmas is no different than anyone else’s. There is food, and there is laughter. There are things to be thankful for, and there is family.
“We hardly ever talk about basketball,” Tyler says. “We’re just normal kids and a normal family.”
There are no NBA scouts, no college coaches and no Hoosiers fans running around with a No. 40 on their jersey.
It’s just the Zellers. Well, and maybe a kangaroo hiding beneath the dinner table.