“Basketball is actually something that I can’t say I’ve always loved to play,” admits Tyler Zeller, the seven-foot center for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. “Back in junior high and growing up, I always played because my friends played,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly good at it. My freshman year I got cut from varsity and JV, so I played on the freshman team.”
Still, Zeller’s humble beginnings in the sport haven’t prevented him from making quite a name for himself, beginning with his success at the University of North Carolina. He was a first-round draft pick last year and is growing into his role with the Cavs despite an early-season injury that had him temporarily on the bench.
However, Zeller’s growth into an NBA rookie didn’t happen overnight. He describes the path to his current reality as a journey involving family, challenges, competition and unwavering faith.
A family legacy
Zeller’s basketball-loving parents couldn’t help but share their passion for the game with their three sons. In the small town of Washington, Ind., the three brothers – Luke, Tyler and Cody – spent countless hours together at the gym, each eventually playing for Division I programs. Tyler’s older brother, Luke, played at Notre Dame and is now with the Phoenix Suns. Younger brother Cody, who plays at Indiana University, is forecasted to be an early-round draft pick.
“We’ve had a lot of competitions,” Zeller says. “We go in the gym, we get after each other – we can be very competitive. It can be very intense, but as soon as we step off the court it’s nothing but love.”
“We’ve always said that we’re going to pick on each other or make fun of each other, but as soon as somebody else tries to, we’re going to stand up for each other,” he adds.
Zeller is also quick to mention the crucial role his parents have played in his life. “My family’s been great to me all the way through. I’ve got to give my parents a lot of credit for making me the person I am today. They disciplined me when I was little, but they also loved me at the same time,” he says. “They continue to look after me, to be able to help me in any way.”
“It’s something everybody dreams about going through”
Zeller’s feelings about basketball changed significantly during his sophomore year of high school, when he began to discover his talent in the sport.
“I started playing AAU and traveling, and I really just fell in love with the game,” he recalls. “I could go to the gym when I was bored or when things weren’t going right. It was my way to get away from everything.”
By his senior year, his talent was obvious, and he began fielding calls from college teams around the country.
“The recruiting process is crazy,” he says. “It’s something that everybody dreams about going through, but it can also be a little hectic at the same time. You’ve got to make sure that you stay focused on basketball and that’s really what you’re there to do. That’s what kept me going, and in the end I was able to pick pretty much any school I wanted to go to.”
Zeller chose North Carolina, a decision he says he’s never regretted, relishing the pressure that came from playing for a top-level program. He feels he benefitted from the opportunity to deepen his knowledge of the game.
“In college we always joked that in high school you can show up and score 30 or 40 points and it was nothing. But in college you’ve got to learn how to mentally prepare. You’ve got to know the other team’s plays, you’ve got to know the person you’re guarding – what they do, what they can’t do and how to beat them,” he says.
“What got me through was knowing that God had a purpose for everything.”
Although Zeller speaks fondly of his days at UNC, injuries created challenges. The first was a broken wrist his freshman year, which kept him on the bench for about eleven weeks.
“Really what got me through was knowing that God had a purpose for everything,” he shares. “Looking back, my freshman year I gained 20 pounds that helped me a lot down the road. I was able to become a better player, and I was much stronger. It became a blessing.”
“My sophomore year I got hurt again,” he continues. “It was kind of the same thing – I knew that God had a purpose for it. I don’t know exactly what the purpose on that one was, but it helped me to appreciate everything that I have.”
Faith in God is a theme throughout Zeller’s story, something he says his parents established in him but that has become his own over the years.
“[My parents] brought me up in church. As a little kid you draw pictures and everything, but over time you start to develop an appreciation for it. You start to pay attention and [your faith] starts to grow,” he shares.
“I really came to faith my freshman year [of high school]. My brother took me to a couple of Bible studies and to a Christian camp. It’s where I got to know Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I really embraced that as my own – what He did for us – how He died on the cross and took all our sins away and gave us the life that we shouldn’t be able to have.”
“Being competitive and Christian can go hand in hand”
Zeller’s faith isn’t something he reserves only for Sunday mornings. He says it affects every part of his life, including basketball.
“Being competitive and being a Christian can go hand in hand,” he says. “You’ve got to go out and play hard and compete, but you’ve also got to do it in a Christian way.” The key, he says, is understanding how to win and lose in the right way.
“If you lose you can be hard on yourself, but you don’t want to go curse up a storm, hit somebody and all this. When you win you don’t rub it in someone’s face. You’ve just got to make your actions (speak) about who you are and what you can do,” he explains.
“I play for Christ every game. I know that He’s helping me, giving me everything I have.”
Passion and purpose
As Zeller looks to the future, he is eager to keep learning and growing with his team.
“Being a part of the Cavs right now is a work in progress. It’s a long process, and I don’t really know completely what my role is going to be yet. Hopefully over time I continue to grow and continue to become a better and better player,” he says.
It would be easy to assume that the injury this fall would discourage him in these efforts, but the more he shares, the more obvious it becomes that Zeller has a greater purpose on his mind.
“I’ve always said that basketball is what I do, not who I am,” he says. “My passion is basketball, but my purpose is to be able to spread the (message of Jesus Christ). Basketball gives me a platform to do that.”