Luke Zeller wasn’t much different than any typical oldest brother. He liked to rag on younger siblings Tyler and Cody every chance he got. If he could show them up on the basketball court outside the family home in Washington, Ind., so much the better.
But he also had to live by the No. 1 canon from his father Steve, who learned it from his father while growing up in small-town Iowa in the 1970s.
“Grandpa’s rule was that you could pick on each other or mess with each other all you want,” says Luke, the 2005 Indiana Mr. Basketball winner as a player at Washington High School. “It shows you guys are close to each other and comfortable with each other. But if I ever hear you didn’t stick up for your brothers, you’ve got to answer to me when you get home.”
The three Zeller boys got their share of blessings: all of them standing at least 6 feet 10 inches tall surely helped on the court. But something in addition to talent turned Steve and Lorri Zeller’s home into one of the most significant in Indiana’s rich basketball history. Maybe it simply was the fact that they had each other’s backs, or that the oldest would provide the proper example for the next in line.
“They were always competitive growing up,” Lorri says. “We might have pizza for supper, and they would turn it into a contest as to who could eat the most slices. And I definitely think they looked to Luke and what he did and fed off that.”
Luke, Tyler, and Cody all won Mr. Basketball honors. They all led the hometown Hatchets to Class 3A state titles and were ranked in the top five of their respective classes as seniors. They all went on to excel at the highest levels of college basketball — Luke, now 25, at the University of Notre Dame; Tyler, 22, at the University of North Carolina, where he is wrapping up his senior season; and Cody, 19, one of the nation’s top freshmen this season playing at Indiana University.
“They’ve got great character about them,” Washington coach Gene Miiller says. “They’re humble. They just have great values and they’re not ashamed to live those values.”
None of the three Zeller sons are Hoosier natives. Steve and Lorri were high school sweethearts while growing up in Springville, Iowa (population: 1,074). He stood 6 foot 4 inches tall and played three sports on the prep level before graduating from Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. She was a 6-foot basketball and softball player at NCAA Division III Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Al Eberhard, her older brother, was an all-Big Eight forward at Missouri in the 1970s who later played in the NBA.
The couple moved frequently when Steve began his career in the food processing industry: Luke was born in Iowa, Tyler in California, and Cody in Minnesota before they moved to Southwest Indiana in 1993 so Steve could take over as the manager of the Perdue Farms plant in Washington — a job he holds to this day.
Lorri began teaching classes at the local YMCA and volunteered for everything she could at the boys’ schools. They found a welcoming church in Good Shepherd Lutheran. For a young couple accustomed to small-town life, it was pretty close to nirvana. Little did they realize at the time it would turn out to be the perfect climate for three star basketball players.
“We never considered leaving,” says Lorri, who works as secretary at the Washington High School athletic office. “It’s home for us. It was the perfect fit.”
The tradeoff to living in a small town is the lack of privacy. There is little room to hide, especially when growing up in a family approaching the status of basketball royalty. Steve and Lorri were determined to use that to their advantage.
“I remember Luke, in his freshman year of high school, saying, ‘Everyone in this town knows what I do,’ she says. “‘I go to McDonald’s or the grocery store and everyone recognizes me.’ I told him that if you think you live in a microscope now, just think about what you’re doing wrong and think of all the attention you’re going to get.”
Message received. There are no rumors in Washington of the Zeller boys being late for class, much less causing trouble on a Friday night.
“You would look up in the stands and there would be 5,000 or 6,000 people there and I could probably tell you the stories of 80 percent of them,” Luke says. “Basketball is a really special thing there, and the fans made it even more special. In a small town like Washington, they back you when you have a tough game. That’s not always the case in some places.”
Luke’s place in Indiana basketball history was secure when he made a half-court shot to give Washington a 74-72 overtime victory over Plymouth High School in the ’05 Class 3A title game. He was never a star or even a full-time starter at Notre Dame. His career highest scoring average was 4.9 points per game his senior season.
He graduated with a degree in management entrepreneurship and now plays for the Austin Toros of the NBA’s Developmental League. He also is the founder and president of DistinXion, a nonprofit organization that uses sports to teach character and leadership development. (DistinXion will host a camp at the Downtown YMCA August 10-12.)
“He was the leader,” says Lorri, noting he was the valedictorian of his senior class at Washington. “Luke is a real social person. If he walks into a room full of people, he will have shaken hands with everyone there and learned something about every one of them.”
Tyler won the ’08 Mr. Basketball award while leading the Hatchets to another state title. He was slowed by wrist and foot injuries during his first two years at North Carolina, but capped a superb junior season by averaging 25.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in four NCAA Tournament games and also earning first academic all-American honors last year.
Lorri calls Tyler the most focused of the three. Miiller, who took over at Washington in June 2005, before Tyler’s sophomore season there, says his success was probably the least expected.
“He had a nice game against Barr-Reeve in our first game of his sophomore season, and some lady comes up to Lorri and says, ‘I didn’t know you had a middle son,’” Miiller says with a laugh.
“He didn’t have all that publicity. Everyone talked about Luke in junior high. Everyone talked about Cody. No one talked about Tyler. That little chip on his shoulder made him work harder to be a better basketball player.”
Finally, there’s Cody, who quickly has become the most popular man on the Indiana campus after leading the Hoosiers’ resurgence this season. That came after leading Washington to 3A state titles in 2010 and ’11 and earning Mr. Basketball honors last year.
“Cody just went with the flow,” Lorri says. “We dragged him around to all of their AAU games and all of their college recruiting. He just sat back and observed. He’s seen so many different things, and he just kind of internalized that.”
It can be exhausting to be the parents of the three Zeller boys. The drives to see their sons play are much longer now. Even when they visit Tyler in North Carolina, Steve and Lorri usually drive because they say it’s easier than making a two-hour drive to the airport in Indianapolis or Louisville, Ky.
“Sometimes, we’re just amazed by the blessings that we’ve received,” Lorri says. “We’re just trying to soak it all in right now. We’re just trying to see as many games as we can and enjoy the moment. We know it won’t last forever.”