Practicing Thursday at famed Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the 1986 movie “Hoosiers” was filmed, was a first for most of the Charlotte Hornets.
Except for center Cody Zeller, of course.
In grade school, Zeller had a now-famous babysitter who would take him to Hinkle to hoop it up. Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was then an assistant coach at Butler.
Butler was recruiting Luke Zeller, Cody’s oldest brother and then a high school freshman in Washington, Ind. Cody tagged along on recruiting visits until it got boring.
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“When they’d go into the academic stuff, well, I’m in fourth grade and I don’t care what Luke is going to major in,” Zeller recalled. “So coach Stevens would take me out of the meetings and bring me to Hinkle to play H-O-R-S-E.”
Butler never managed to sign one of the three Zeller brothers – Luke, Tyler or Cody, but at least in the case of Cody, it was a close call. Cody was attracted to playing for Stevens and to the atmosphere and history at 10,000-seat Hinkle, built in 1928 and at one time one of the country’s largest basketball arenas.
Ultimately, though, Zeller chose Indiana and coach Tom Crean.
“A great tradition here, a great basketball environment here. It was definitely a heavy consideration for me,” Zeller said of Butler.
“I was close to coming here for college. They were in my top three. I had a lot of respect for coach Stevens when he was here. They’d just come off two national championship runs, (but) they were still in the Horizon League and I wanted to play on a bigger platform against the best competition.”
Zeller has improved dramatically of late in his third NBA season after the Hornets selected him fourth overall in the 2013 draft. That was partially due to starting at center while Al Jefferson recovered from knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
It appears Zeller’s NBA future might be brighter at center than power forward.
The thing coach Steve Clifford has come to admire about Zeller is his persistence in working on his weaknesses.
“He constantly makes progress because he’s smart and he works,” said Clifford, whose Hornets (29-27) will try for their sixth win in seven games Friday at Indiana (31-26). “The things he doesn’t do well he always tries to correct. He’s in a great routine. He has the right approach to keep getting better.”
Zeller played in several high school games at Hinkle. His school, Washington High, won three state championships in a state deeply in love with the sport – whether that be the Indiana Pacers, the Hoosiers or high school basketball.
“My high school gym holds 7,000 in a town of 12,000 and we’d sell it out occasionally,” Zeller recalled. “Basketball is everything in this state, so I definitely had a big appreciation for it.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell