- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
At some point in the middle of the night, the first cellphone alarm went off.
Three minutes later, the second chimed. And then the third, fourth and fifth, all strategically pinging and beeping at three-minute intervals.
Roused from her sleep, Lorri Zeller thought only one thing: "Cody."
On Facebook one day this past summer, Lorri's page read, "I'm so thankful for my boys, especially Tyler because he's adopted."
"I started getting all these messages, 'Oh, we didn't know Tyler was adopted.' Well, he's not," Lorri Zeller said. "I leave my Facebook page open, and Cody went in and wrote like it was me. I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, Cody.'"
There is a freedom in being the youngest child in a family. Unburdened by the parental expectations typically heaped on the starter-kit eldest kid, the youngest can afford to look at life with a little more whimsy.
The day he signed with Indiana, Cody Zeller was labeled no less than the program's savior, the player who would yank the Hoosiers out of the black hole that swallowed the program up and return IU to the promised land of NCAA wins and storied success.
That's an albatross sitting on top of an elephant's worth of pressure for any 18-year-old to shoulder, let alone a kid raised in Indiana and schooled in the tradition of IU basketball.
So how does Cody handle it?
He pranks his mom. He zings his brother. And he occasionally holds a guy's parrot while posing for a picture, then tweets, "I'm making so many new friends at IU! Mom will be so proud because she was quite worried that I'd be a loner."
Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand, Mark Twain once wrote.
Armed with his what-me-worry attitude, dry wit and prankster's mirth, Cody might very well be the perfect man to save Indiana. He is 83 inches of goofball, a basketball monster who is averaging 14.2 points and 6.4 rebounds and has delivered the goods, spearheading Indiana's run to a 15-1 record and No. 8 ranking.
And he's about as affected by it all as a typical teenager.
"I realized that an Indiana kid playing for Indiana was going to be a big deal," Cody said. "But it doesn't really bother me. I'm just a normal kid. I'm no big deal."
A sign greets drivers crossing into Washington, Ind. Along with a hearty welcome, it lists the hometown basketball heroes who have been named Mr. Basketball, the Hoosier equivalent of an Oscar and Miss America crown, and, up until a year ago, it read: Steve Bouchie, Luke Zeller, Tyler Zeller.
Cody Zeller rode by that sign nearly every day of his high school career, a daily reminder of exactly how high his brothers had set the bar for him.
And his reaction? A casual shoulder shrug. He'd tell his mom he didn't vote, so all he could do was play hard.
I realized that an Indiana kid playing for Indiana was going to be a big deal. But it doesn't really bother me. I'm just a normal kid. I'm no big deal.
--Indiana freshman Cody Zeller
To understand how impressive such a casual reaction is, you have to appreciate how big basketball is in Washington.
The southern Indiana town is quintessential Hoosier, with a high school gym built to host state playoffs with a capacity of 7,000.
On good nights at the Hatchet House, the home team will fill the place. Bad nights? Maybe only 4,000.
Kids there grow up not wanting to play basketball as much as naturally progressing toward it.
"Basketball in Indiana is unlike any place else in the world," Cody said. "People grow up loving the game, playing the game. You could play a pickup game in high school and it's crazy. It's never relaxed."
In such a culture, a family like the Zellers is practically royalty.
Lorri's father, Marvin Eberhard, won a state title in Nebraska in 1942. She herself played at Division III Coe College in Iowa ("My mom still has a nice little jumper," Cody said), and the 6-foot mother would serve as a post-up defender when Luke was young and in need of a little help.
Lorri's brother, Al Eberhard, was a 1970s Missouri star who went on to the NBA.
Cody's dad, Steve, was a three-sport high school star and walk-on to the Iowa State football team and claims to hold the family record for most rebounds in a game. "He says he had 30 in high school," Cody said. "I'm pretty sure it's because he missed every shot and rebounded them all."
And then along came the boys, a trio of literal and figurative All-Americans.
Luke, the "pioneer" as Lorri jokingly calls him, didn't just hit the game winner in Washington High's 3A state title game as a senior; he sank it from midcourt, immediately sealing his place in the town's lore, a tall tale come to life. Luke left for Notre Dame as the Hatchets' all-time leading scorer, second in rebounds, Mr. Basketball, a McDonald's All-American and class valedictorian with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
Four years later, it was Tyler's turn. He didn't hit one game winner; he hit 43 of them, setting an Indiana scoring record in his own 3A championship senior season (he piggybacked as a freshman on Luke's title, too), to earn his own spot on the Washington welcome sign as a local Mr. Basketball, the drive-thru All-American title, plus a Gatorade National Player of the Year honor.
Academically, he was a little sloppy. An early A-minus spiraled his GPA down to a measly 3.97.
And then along came Cody, the last in line, the last chance for Indiana. So far, IU was 0-for-2 -- two Zellers, no Hoosier.
By the time Cody won his second of what would be three state titles in his junior season, fans were lining up outside the Hatchet House for autographs or stopping him in the grocery store to make suggestions about his college choice.
Most everyone thought he'd look pretty good in a pair of candy-striped pants.
"Indiana had been down," Washington High coach Gene Miiller said. "So everyone was aware of how huge it would be for Cody to go to IU."
Brothers are like built-in ego poppers, there to remind you that, no matter how important the rest of the state might think you are, you're not a very big deal inside your own house.
So Cody's college decision was a statewide obsession? It was the same for Luke, ditto for Tyler. No sympathy here, kid.
"We don't comfort each other," Tyler said. "We have tough love in our family."
The boys grew up as fiercely competitive as they were successful.
If they weren't attacking the overmatched over-the-door hoop ("That was one sturdy door," Cody deadpanned) or the net in the driveway, they were going for blood at the Hatch. Lorri is an administrative assistant in the athletic department at the high school, so the boys have a key.
Basketball was the sport of choice, but it wasn't the only thing the Zellers made a sport of. When there are three boys around a table, a pizza dinner is a competitive sport -- who can eat the most, who can eat the fastest -- and board games are not for the faint of heart.
Just this Christmas, Lorri concocted the Zeller Family Trivia contest, awarding prize money/Christmas gifts to the winner.
"They really went at it, arguing over answers," Lorri Zeller said. "The best part was Luke's wife, Hope, won. The boys couldn't believe it. They were hollering, 'But she just joined the family!'"
With the Zellers, competition never bred contempt. The boys are extremely close -- Cody and Tyler speak on the phone frequently, especially now that they share the common war story of college basketball.
Instead, competition bred excellence.
Cody may very well wind up the best Zeller, but that could be due as much to his backyard education as to genetics.
Luke, older by five years, took no mercy on his kid brother, and his constant beatdowns only made Cody tougher and more comfortable in the body-smashing world of the low post.
Tyler, taller and heavier than Cody, forced him to find ways to shoot over his bigger brother, helping Cody to develop some finesse moves.
"Cody has never had a problem asserting himself," Tyler said. "He'll go play against anybody and compete against anybody. When it comes to basketball, he's done just a fantastic job of learning from us, trying to become the best basketball player he can be."
It is that combination of brawn and touch that attracted so many coaches to Cody. They loved that he had great hands and mobility for a big man, came armed with a nifty jump hook, and could score with his back to the basket and rebound.
More than anything, people talked about Cody's high basketball IQ, one fed by a lifelong family lesson.
Cody would have been a huge get for any program. For Indiana, he would be manna from the gods, not just because he was talented but because of his address.
"Everybody knew he was the big piece," Miiller said. "If he were to go to IU, he'd make them better but he'd also help them recruit other kids, especially other Indiana kids. He'd be a huge boon."
Tom Crean was painfully aware of how critical Cody was to his own success, but even more to his program's.
Given the unenviable task of rebuilding the Hoosiers' reputation and program, Crean understood intuitively that winning was paramount but winning with Indiana kids was equally critical.
"We needed an impact player, but we needed an impact player from the state," Crean said. "The way basketball is so revered here, the level of success the program had had and the coaches before you have had, you have to have Indiana kids. People want to come to Assembly Hall and watch Indiana kids succeed, and this program had gotten away from that."
Knowing the older players already were lost to him when he was hired, he targeted the younger ones immediately, keying especially on Cody.
Crean naturally liked Cody's basketball skills, but it was more than that. He liked how the kid practiced, how hard he worked, how accommodating he was to his teammates and how humble he was to everyone else.
Coming out of the NCAA ashes, Indiana needed a marquee player to rebuild the program, but more, it needed someone whose character was as strong as his ability.
That was Cody. The Zeller family has managed a minor miracle, raising three Division I basketball players without ever falling into the murky recruiting waters.
From Luke to Tyler to Cody, there have never been any hangers-on or middlemen involved in the process, just Lorri and Steve and their boys. "They're just good people," Miiller said. "It was so refreshing. If everybody could recruit kids like him, it would be easier for all of us."
Although Tyler already was at North Carolina and Roy Williams wanted Cody to join him in Chapel Hill, Cody liked the idea of forging his own path, one that was merely a 60-mile ride up the road from home.
He committed to Indiana in the fall before his senior season, setting off nothing less than a hallelujah chorus across the state.
He called an anxious Crean, who endured more than a few sleepless nights worrying about what Cody would decide, and shared the good news.
Well, sort of.
"He called me and said that he had to call the two schools he wasn't going to; it was really hard for him to do that, but he had to," Crean said. "So at that point, your heart just sinks and you get that awful feeling in your stomach. Then he says, 'The good news for you is you're not the coach at one of those two schools."
On Luke Zeller's wedding day, his kid brother swiped his wallet. Well aware that Luke kept his insurance card behind his ID, Cody swapped the placement of the two before quietly returning the wallet to Luke.
At the postnuptial brunch the next day, the groom was a good 90 minutes late. He couldn't find his ID and therefore couldn't get his car back from the valet. "Cody is definitely the comedian of the family," said Tyler, about whom Cody once wrote on Twitter, "This year for Halloween, I'm thinking about wearing a #44 North Carolina jersey with big ears, a big nose and clown shoes."
But he is more of a sly prankster than a look-at-me jokester, happier to zing someone than make a big production out of it.
Which is sort of how he plays basketball. He doesn't preen or showboat. He couldn't care less whether people notice him as long as they notice the final score. "What people don't understand is just because he plays with more control doesn't mean he doesn't play with emotion," Crean explained. "He just doesn't play emotionally."
Except that although Cody might prefer the soft lights to the bright ones, there's no way not to make a big production out of what he has done for Indiana.
Indiana is back. That is beyond arguable now.
Cody isn't doing it alone. Although he leads the team in scoring and rebounding, he's getting plenty of help from a cast that has finally found its moorings offensively and defensively. But it is not a coincidence that IU has found solid footing in the season that Cody arrived. He is exactly what the Hoosiers have been missing, a stud player who keeps other defenses honest.
"He makes people around him better," Crean said. "But he's also the kind of kid you can laugh with him or at him. He doesn't mind. He's very real. There are no airs, no persona and no image. He's just who he is."
To most people, he's the savior of Indiana basketball.
To Cody, he's just a kid holding a guy's parrot for a picture.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1. Robbi Pickeral contributed to this report.