March/April 2012 Joshua Cooley
“Luke Zeller the Shot”
Go ahead: YouTube that phrase and watch the video clip. Then just try to keep the goose bumps at bay.
The footage is from the 2005 Indiana High School Athletic Association’s (IHSAA ) Class 3A championship basketball game at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. It’s been viewed, at last check, more than 91,000 times...and for good reason. It features a moment nothing short of Plumpian.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Bobby Plump—the kid who hit the most famous shot in Indiana basketball history. With apologies to Bobby Thompson and whoever started the American Revolutionary War, Plump’s heave was the “shot heard ’round the world,” at least for those in the Hoosier State. His buzzer-beater in the 1954 Indiana high school championship at Butler Fieldhouse propelled tiny Milan High past mighty Muncie Central and into basketball lore, eventually being immortalized in the 1986 classic film Hoosiers.
Fifty-one years later in downtown Indianapolis, just 5.8 miles south of Butler Fieldhouse, now Hinkle Fieldhouse, another shot reverberated throughout the land. This one rolled off the long fingertips of Luke Zeller.
You’ve probably heard of Zeller, especially if you’re from places like Washington, South Bend, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Terre Haute or Kokomo. His shot was big, huge...Plump. And it sparked a sudden and powerful phenomenon in the Hoosier State: Zeller Mania.
Today the craze is as vibrant as ever, thanks to all three of the Zeller boys: Luke, Tyler and Cody. And in a place where basketball fanaticism sweeps through the plains each year like a tornado, the silo-tall Zellers are in the eye of the storm.
Luke, who initially made the San Antonio Spurs’ roster this season and played in the NBA’s D-League through January, started it all, but he’s had plenty of assists from his brothers. As March Madness gets underway, Tyler, the middle sibling, is aiming for a second NCAA championship as a senior forward at mighty North Carolina. And then there’s baby brother Cody, who, as an Indiana freshman, has taken the Big Ten Conference by storm and helped return the swagger back to Bloomington.
“In Indiana, they’re superstars,” said Southern Indiana FCA Area Representative Dave Hudson. “When you say they’re famous in Indiana, you don’t know how famous they are. If IU fans get a whiff of this article, they’re going to want it. Everybody in Indiana knows their family and their faith.”
And there’s the kicker: The Zellers’ hardwood fame is only the beginning of the story. Theirs is a tale of gospel-centered living in the midst of fame. With Christ-like humility, they are dropping jaws and winning hearts across the country.
Introducing Indiana’s reigning First Family of Basketball.
MEET THE PARENTS
To trace Zeller Mania back to its origins, you have to start with pigs—lots of pigs. And some cows, beans and corn. You have to travel deeper into the heartland, where the skyscrapers and asphalt jungles of America fade away into swaying fields of green and golden-brown. You have to go to Springville, Iowa (pop. 1,074). That’s where Steve and Lorri, the Zeller brothers’ parents, grew up.
The Zeller and Eberhard families were salt-of-theearth folks who tended God’s creation Monday through Saturday and attended church every Sunday. Steve was the youngest of 12 Zellers in a Catholic family. Besides farming an 80-acre plot, his parents worked other jobs to help pay the bills. They lived off the land—literally—eating from their own gardens and beef stock.
Meanwhile, Lorri Eberhard was the youngest of three children in a Lutheran family, which had a 360-acre farm five miles away.
Steve and Lorri met in elementary school and became high school sweethearts. In 11th grade, Lorri, who was 10 months older and a grade above Steve, asked him to the junior-senior prom.
“The only way he was going to go was if I asked him,” Lorri said. “He always jokes that I robbed the cradle.”
Both were quite athletic. At 6-foot-4, Steve was a three-sport athlete in high school and briefly walked on to the football team at Iowa State. Lorri, at 6-foot, played basketball and softball at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. She in particular benefited from basketball bloodlines, her parents both notable athletes and her oldest brother, Al, having played four seasons with the Detroit Pistons.
In 1992, seven years after getting married, Steve and Lorri settled down in Washington, Ind., which is where they remain. Steve is a manager at a Perdue Farms turkey processing plant, and Lorri has worked as the athletic department secretary at Washington High for the last nine years.
Starting with Luke in 1987, Steve and Lorri’s sons were all born within a 6-year span. And, like their parents before them, the Zellers took their kids to church every Sunday, no questions asked.
Compared to some of their friends, the boys’ upbringing was strict. Curfew at 10 p.m., respect your elders, no drugs or alcohol, treat girls with respect, etc. Some of the rules were spoken, others weren’t, but the Zeller boys were fully aware of Mom and Dad’s expectations.
Love, however, never got lost in the rules.
“My mom showed me unconditional love that I don’t know I’ve ever seen in anyone else,” Luke said, “and my dad was a model of being a Christian man and standing your ground.”
'COOL HAND LUKE'
The eldest of Indiana’s First Family of Basketball was born on April 7, 1987—just eight days after Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers beat Syracuse for the 1987 NCAA championship.
Luke’s skills developed quickly, and by the time he reached Washington High, he was already generating considerable recruiting buzz. Following his first varsity game, he received Division I scholarship offers from Purdue and Iowa—as a freshman.
Four years later, in 2005, he had committed to Notre Dame and been named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American. But his local fame was about to swell nationally.
Washington reached the 2005 state championship game with a 26-2 record, but with 1.8 seconds left in overtime, the Hatchets trailed Plymouth, 72-71. During the game’s final timeout, Luke looked straight at Coach Dave Omer and asked for the last shot.
“I don’t know whether I’ve watched Hoosiers too many times or if it was just a divine thing,” Luke recalled, “but I told Coach, ‘Give me the ball. I’ll score.’”
“I definitely believe in relational ministry and the need to share the most important relationship we have: the one with Jesus Christ.” – Luke Zeller
The 6-foot-11 forward caught the inbounds pass from the baseline, took one dribble across half-court and launched a prayer with a defender’s hand in his face. Conseco Fieldhouse’s capacity crowd of 18,345 leaned forward in their seats as the ball traveled its long arc, then exploded into euphoria.
On the local cable TV broadcast, the game’s announcers went wild. “We said it would take a miracle,” the play-by-play man exclaimed breathlessly, “and the miracle’s name is Luke Zeller!”
“We had some friends who said they were driving by Conseco and heard this eruption of cheers, and that’s when Luke hit the shot,” Lorri said. “It really was that loud. Everyone was in shock.”
Replays of the shot looped repeatedly on local and national TV. ESPN dubbed Washington’s senior star “Cool Hand Luke.” Media outlets debated how Luke’s shot measured up to Bobby Plump’s five decades earlier.
Zeller Mania had begun.
“The entire thing really was like something out of Hoosiers,” Lorri says. “That’s just the best way to describe it.”
After high school, Luke headed to Notre Dame where his experience was more of a contrast, the majority of his playing time coming off the bench. Yet, it was his faith that really developed and helped him see God’s handiwork amidst the trials.
“It was an incredible experience,” said Luke, who had put his faith in Christ at age 14. “It was tough at times, but it developed me into the man I am today. It wasn’t the path I thought I’d be on, but sometimes you have to be broken down and built back up.”
Since then, his professional career has been the kind of journey even Odysseus would be proud of. After playing for the Chicago Bulls’ 2009 summer league team, Luke signed with a professional team in Otsu City, Japan, where he played for 10 months and experienced several unique and even humorous cultural differences. For instance, rather than providing their players with shuttle services or cars, the team opted for bicycles.
“It was kind of embarrassing,” said Luke’s wife, Hope, who traveled several times to Japan as his fiancé. “Here was this big white guy on a little bike with a basket, a bell and a light. In Japan, you’ll get pulled over if you don’t have a light on your bike.”
After returning stateside, Luke participated in the Bulls’ summer minicamp, got married, played in Lithuania for three months, got drafted by the NBA D-League’s Iowa Energy, and was then traded to the Bakersfield (Calif.) Jam, where he played during the 2010-11 season. Last fall, Bakersfield traded him to the Austin (Texas) Toros, after which he spent three weeks with the San Antonio Spurs on a non-guaranteed contract before returning to Austin. Then, in January, he was released by the Toros due to an injury.
“I’m going to write a book someday,” he said.
While Luke’s future on the hardwood remains unclear, he and Hope are keeping busy off the court devoting much of their time to running DistinXion, Luke’s non-profit organization that offers character-based basketball camps and tournaments for kids throughout Indiana. It’s just one way he is using his talents to point others to Christ, as each camp features a chapel service and presents the gospel.
Active in FCA at Notre Dame, Luke also recently shared his testimony with an FCA Huddle at Bloomfield (Ind.) High, impressing Hudson with his candor and speaking ability.
“He was great,” Hudson said. “Any questions the kids asked, he answered. He’s a very strong guy.”
“I feel like basketball has always been a platform God has given me and the rest of my family,” Luke added. “I always try to treat people as special, like God would. I definitely believe in relational ministry and the need to share the most important relationship we have: the one with Jesus Christ.”
THE QUIET MAN
The dents in the bedroom wall—still visible in his parents’ home—offer convincing proof: Being Tyler Zeller wasn’t always easy.
As his older brother was transforming into one of the nation’s top college prospects, Tyler, who is not quite three years younger, was trying his best to follow in Luke’s massive size-19 footsteps. The NERF hoop on the door in the boys’ bedroom offered a proving ground where good-natured games often turned dangerous. Furniture now covers at least one large blemish on the wall.
“I have to go out and play as hard as possible and give glory to God. He’s the One who gives me strength and guides me.”
– Tyler Zeller
“Mom knows it’s there, but we covered it up,” Luke said. “There’s a spot where Tyler’s head went through the wall. Well, it didn’t go all the way through, but there’s a dent. He just wasn’t going to score the winning basket.”
Tyler’s relationship with Luke didn’t always involve damaged drywall. In fact, it was quite the opposite. When Tyler was a freshman at Washington, Luke directed him to a Bible study, where the Holy Spirit began stirring in Tyler’s heart. The following year on a retreat, Tyler’s head knowledge of Christ turned into a saving faith.
At about that same time, Tyler, a late bloomer in basketball, was becoming Zeller-esque on the hardwood. As a senior, the 7-footer led Washington to another state championship and earned Indiana’s Mr. Basketball title and McDonald’s All-American honors, just like Luke had.
He signed with powerhouse North Carolina, where he was a reserve his first two years, including the Tar Heels’ championship season of 2008-09. He became a full-time starter last season, joining freshman forward Harrison Barnes in leading the team in scoring average (15.7 ppg). In the NCAA tournament, where North Carolina reached the Elite Eight, he exploded for 103 total points, marking the second-highest output ever by a Tar Heel in four NCAA tournament games.
“I have to go out and play as hard as possible and give glory to God,” Tyler said. “He’s the One who gives me strength and guides me.”
Life in Chapel Hill, with the Tar Heels’ storied history and yearly hullaballoo doesn’t always jive with Tyler’s shy personality. He is the opposite of Luke, being more mellow and analytical.
“Their personalities are very distinct and easily recognizable,” Hope said of the brothers. “For Lorri’s 50th birthday, everyone wrote letters about how she had influenced them. Cody’s was a mixture of funny, sweet and caring. Luke’s was very expressive and more dramatic. But Tyler’s was simple and straight to the point: ‘You’re a wonderful mother. I’m grateful for you.’”
Still, Tyler will gladly put up with media and attention in Chapel Hill for a second NCAA title.
“I’ve enjoyed it extremely,” said Tyler, who, along with Cody, helps Luke and Hope with DistinXion whenever his schedule allows. “The atmosphere down here really is great.”
North Carolina Head Coach Roy Williams believes Tyler can play in the NBA for at least a decade. But, he also predicts that the senior will also thrive beyond the court regardless.
“Twenty years from now, he’s going to be successful in whatever he does,” Williams said. “He’s not going to be one of these guys who blows millions in a year or makes a lot of money and sits around on the beach. He’s going to help people. He’ll be very productive in society. His character is beyond reproach.”
No Facebook page is ever safe around Cody Zeller.
At home last summer, Cody, the youngest and most mischievous of the Zeller boys, noticed his mom’s Facebook page open on her computer. His lips slowly curled into a smile. The next time Lorri saw her profile, it included the following post: “I love all my sons but especially Tyler, since he’s adopted.”
“He’s very creative,” Lorri admitted.
Cody’s pranks are rarely extravagant or expensive. He simply enjoys turning everyday moments into laughs, especially when he can use his height as an advantage.
When he was Lorri’s student aide at Washington High, he often hid her desk supplies in the ceiling tiles. And now, whenever Luke and Hope are staying with Steve and Lorri in Washington,
Cody likes pointing the shower head toward the wall so Hope, who is 5-foot-2 and can’t reach it, has to ask for help. Cody also enjoys giving gag gifts at Christmas. One year, before Luke and Hope got engaged, Cody gave Luke a box entitled “Dating Survival Kit.” Among the items were deodorant and a note encouraging Luke to talk to Cody for romance tips.
“In actuality,” Hope recalled, laughing, “Cody had never had a girlfriend at the time, so he probably didn’t have a clue.”
You couldn’t say the same for him in basketball. He showed promise early on, even if those bedroom NERF games didn’t go so well. It’s tough being a young oak among mature redwoods.
“I was actually the point guard of my seventh and eighth grade teams,” he recalled. “I had to learn to shoot because I couldn’t go inside on my brothers.”
“Luke and Tyler were big influences. It really helped for them to pave the way.” – Cody Zeller
The blessings Cody received from his older brothers, however, outweighed the physical pain, as he credits Luke and Tyler with helping him eventually accept Christ as a high school upperclassman.
“Luke and Tyler were big influences,” Cody said. “It really helped for them to pave the way.”
As Cody’s walk with the Lord matured, so did his basketball skills. A 6-foot-11 low-post force, he graduated from Washington in 2011 as a three-time state champion, a McDonald’s All-American and Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, making the Zellers the only trio of brothers to win the prestigious award.
He also helped change the fate of Indiana University basketball. After former head coach Kelvin Sampson was released in February 2008 following NCAA rules violations, the Hoosiers fell on hard times. Sampson’s successor, Tom Crean, initially struggled to attract top recruits to Bloomington, and the onceproud Hoosiers went an almost-unthinkable 28-66 in Crean’s first three seasons.
But in November 2011, when Cody chose Indiana over North Carolina and Butler, it marked Crean’s first five-star recruit and signaled a drastic shift ahead for the Hoosiers.
“The entire state was waiting to see what he’d do with his college decision,” said Indiana Assistant Coach Tim Buckley.
Now, Assembly Hall is rockin’ again. Sparked by Cody, the team’s leading scorer at 14.7 points per game (as of this story’s deadline) the Hoosiers won their first 12 games—including stunning upsets of No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State—and surged into the national rankings.
“He’s not your typical freshman,” Buckley said. “He has a maturity about him. He has a sense of awareness and a basketball IQ and things that usually take a few years to develop.”
Like most freshmen, Cody wasn’t quite sure what to expect this season, but he’s certainly enjoying the ride.
“It’s definitely been fun,” he said. “I’m still a freshman, so I still have a lot to learn. But I’m glad to be able to come in and make an impact.”
THE NEW KID
When it comes to gaining perspective on the Zellers, Hope, perhaps, is the ideal source.
Before marrying Luke, she was on the outside looking in, seeing if this was the man—and the family—for her. And she admittedly entered the relationship with no clue about hoops or the Zellers’ fame in Indiana. In fact, she knew virtually nothing of Luke when they met as seniors at Notre Dame.
On that particular day, he had bought a PlayStation basketball game.
“Don’t you play basketball?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Don’t you get enough basketball if you play it?” she continued.
“Well, it’s different,” he responded.
“OK,” she thought. “Whatever that means.”
As they started dating, Hope marveled at how so many people wanted to shake Luke’s hand and get his autograph. The first time she visited Washington with him, she cringed at the fishbowl atmosphere.
“It was weird to me that so many people knew them and respected them for being really good players of a game,” Hope said. “In my mind, this was just a game.”
Now, after being married to Luke for 19 months and living with Steve and Lorri for a time while Luke was playing overseas, she’s become the Zellers’ biggest enthusiast.
“These men are wonderful, God-fearing men who have respect for others and are really great with people,” Hope said. “The Zellers, no matter where they are, whether they’re in front of a crowd or in their living room, are the same people. It’s an honor to be in a family so rooted in the Lord. It’s a lot to get used to—the basketball aspect—but I couldn’t be more grateful to be part of such a loving family.”
Zeller Mania claims another fan.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Many questions remain to be answered regarding what’s next for the Zellers. Will Luke stay in the States or try his skills overseas? Will Tyler or Cody hit a wild, game-winning shot in the NCAA tournament? Could some or perhaps all of them compete against one another professionally one day?
Regardless, they’ve already done so much—most notably using basketball to touch lives for Christ. As Hudson says, “They are truly a great family and ambassadors for Him.”
And whether you live in small-town Indiana or not, that’s definitely something worth cheering for.
|BRINGING IT HOME: More than a Game|
When you play with purpose, sports take on new meaning. Just ask Luke, Tyler and Cody Zeller. For them, basketball is only one part of their bigger purpose of bringing glory to Jesus Christ.
What about you? Do you have a reason for competing that goes beyond the scoreboard, or are you trying to fill your life with value by achieving titles and records? If the score is your whole purpose, you’re in for a letdown. No matter how much you achieve on earth, it will never be good enough. Someone will always break your records or score more points, and eventually those medals will wind up collecting dust.
Don’t you want to live for something more—something that lasts? You can! In fact, it’s why you were created.
According to the Bible, you were created by God for a purpose: living in a relationship with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. Through this relationship, God wants to fill the longings of your heart with His unconditional love and grace. If you accept His invitation, you will no longer have to look to the world for significance. You will instead experience the freedom of being loved just as you are, regardless of the stat sheet.
How do you begin a relationship with God? It starts by understanding His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ.
The Bible says that all of us have sinned and fallen short of His holy standard and thus have incurred a debt of sin. Instead of requiring that we pay the price for our sins on our own, He sent His Son, Jesus, to pay it for us by dying on a cross and rising to life again. In order to receive His death as our atonement, all we must do is believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God and accept His sacrifice in our place.
Once we acknowledge Christ as our Savior, we can then begin a relationship with Him and learn what it means to be guided by Him daily in love, forgiveness and the promise of eternal life.
If that sounds good to you, start a relationship with Him today! Turn to Him in prayer and ask Jesus Christ to come into your life as Savior and Lord and then begin pursuing a relationship with Him, engaging with Him through praying and reading His Word and by participating in fellowship with others who share your faith. It’s truly a decision you’ll never regret and one that will bring fulfillment to you in ways that no sports achievement ever can.
Have questions? Go online to morethanwinning.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call FCA’s National Support Center at 1-800-289-0909.
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Courtesy of Lorri Zeller; Mike Dickbernd–U Athletics; Jeffrey Camarati/UNC; Notre Dame Media Relations