Growing Up ... Tyler Zeller

March 6, 2013
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Cavaliers rookie Tyler Zeller came to the pros after one of the most decorated careers at one of the most decorated programs in college hoops. Before that – like his older brother, Luke, who plays for the Suns, and younger brother, Cody, who’s expected to be a Lottery pick in June – he was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball.

In his rookie season, Zeller got his first start in late December against the Celtics and has been in the starting lineup ever since. He’s taken his bumps and bruises, but he’s still the league’s third-leading rookie rebounder and has had some big games against some big opponents.

In today’s Growing Up, the rookie from Washington, Indiana talks about competing with two basketball-savvy brothers, his loaded AAU team, his family’s courageous pet and, of course, his first dunk …

I played a lot … of sports, growing up. I tried pretty much everything. I played football in third grade, broke my wrist – then played another two years.

That was …a rough day. I got yelled at. I went to the wrong field. The football field was 20 minutes away. We drove there, it was the wrong field. We drove back, that field was wrong. So we went back again, finally got there at halftime. I broke my wrist in my first play of the game.

So I played … football, tried soccer for about two years and played baseball until eighth grade. I ran cross-country in seventh and eighth grade and played tennis my freshman, sophomore and junior year in high school. I tried everything out.

I actually wasn’t big into … basketball until my freshman year of high school. It was something I did because my friends played.

In seventh and eighth grade … I was OK. Freshman year, I got cut from JV and played on the freshman team. And I was only the third-leading scorer on the freshman team. I thought it was fun to play, but I wasn’t serious about it. After that, I started getting more serious about it, kind of randomly.

I wasn’t a basketball … lifer, growing up. My younger brother and my older brother always have been.

Part of the reason that I tried … everything else was that I was always “Luke’s little brother” – and I always wanted to do something different. But eventually, I just kinda fell in love with basketball.

Luke wasn’t extra-tough on me … back then. I was kind of a shy little kid growing up; I kind of kept to myself. I’d go work out every once in a while, but I could have a great day playing in the room by myself. As I grew up I got more outgoing.

Once the three of us … got into high school and college, though, we’d really go at each other.

We still go back to Indiana … and go at it. We don’t record it, we don’t talk about it, but we’ll get after each other and play hard. And as soon as the game is over, we give each other advice. ‘Hey, do this, it’ll help you.’ But yeah, during the game, we’re brutal; we’re going to go after one another.

It’s tough to say who’s … the most competitive among us. Cody’s kind of the ornery one who pokes and prods at you, he tries to get you frustrated. Luke’s the oldest child, so he’s gonna go hard and still try to do everything right. And I’m just a person who hates to lose, so I’m gonna go do whatever I can to win.

It was just us three boys … but we had a foreign exchange student from Chile that lived with us for three months. So we call her our sister.

Both of my parents were … very good athletes. My mom played basketball at Coe College. My dad played basketball in high school and played football as a walk-on for a year in college.

My dad said … he once had 30 rebounds in a high school game, but we’re still looking for the stats on that. We don’t believe him. And we’re trying to find out his shooting percentage in that game. So we’re not really sure on that one.

We grew up on … an acre of land, but we know the people who owned 50 acres behind us. So we had all the land we wanted. It was wooded. We had a little pond in our back yard. We’d go out there and fish. There were snakes in our back yard.

The best killer … of snakes in our house was our cat, Patches. Our cat used to kill them all the time. She’s killed a couple six-, seven-foot snakes and – you know how cats are – she dragged them to the middle of the garage to show us. She’s dead now. But she was unbelievable.

It was fun … growing up like that. Going out, camping out. I love being outdoors although I live downtown now, so it’s hard. But I still love being outdoors.

I had a pretty dramatic … growth spurt. I was 5-10 going into seventh grade and 5-11 coming out of eighth grade. Then, I was 6-8 going out of ninth grade. So I grew around nine inches in a year.

My parents were ready … for it. Luke was, like, 6-8 in eighth grade.

I’ve had so many … great coaches in my life. I have to give a lot of credit to an AAU coach I had in sixth and seventh grade, J.C. Hulls. His son, Jordy Hulls, plays at Indiana.

He coached our AAU team and … he always teases me, because I was terrible when I played for his team. And the year after I left, I got pretty good. He was like: ‘All this stuff I taught you, you’re finally starting to use.’ He gave me a great foundation.

I was on a really good … AAU team back then. We had some kind of crazy record. One website called us the best AAU team in the country.

That team had … guys like Walter Offutt, who went to Ohio State, transferred to Ohio U. and had 32 against us last year in the tournament. We had Zack Novak, who went to Michigan. Emmanuel Negedu, a 6-8 guy with 48-inch vertical who went to Tennessee, had heart problems and transferred to New Mexico. We had DeAndre Liggins, Lewis Jackson, who played at Purdue for four years and Matt Roth, who led the nation in 3-pt field goal percentage last year.

We also had … a couple And-1 guys. We had a 7-foot guy who could jump out of the gym. He could grab the rim and his toes would touch the ground. He wasn’t great. He was just huge.

My dad also did a great job … getting me in the gym and working with me. He always said if someone had taught him the fundamentals, he could have been really good. So that was his goal: to teach us.

And, of course, there’s my … high school coach, Gene Miller. He’s in the Indiana Hall of Fame already. He got inducted this past year. He’s now won three state championships. I won one. Cody was with me my freshman year, and then Cody won two.

I definitely remember my first … dunk in an actual game. It was the summer after my freshman year. Somehow, I got a steal up top. I came down and dunked with two hands. And I think I was 0-for-2 going into that moment, so it was a big deal to be able to make it. I’d already missed two.

Our team went nuts, but … not everyone did. Everyone else thought I should have done it a long time ago.