About the Guest
What is the key to successful parenting? Steve and Lorri Zeller, whose sons all played in the NBA, talk about their parenting challenges and successes. The Zellers tell how they emphasized academics and character first, and encouraged their sons when they started showing some skill for basketball. Faith, they say, had everything to do with their parenting as they prayed to be good role models for their boys.
Steve and Lorri ZellerSteve and Lorri Zeller are the parents of Luke, Tyler, and Cody Zeller. Steve serves as the Vice President of Basketball at DistinXion, a non-profit organization founded by the Zeller family that integrates character and sports training to help build family relationships; Lorri serves as the Vice President of Administration. Steve graduated from Iowa State University with a B.S. in Animal Science, and Lorri attended Coe College where she graduated cum laude with a major in Business Administratio...more
Steve and Lori Zeller talk about their parenting challenges and successes. Faith, they say, had everything to do with their parenting as they prayed to be good role models for their boys.
Bob: When you raise three sons and all three of those boys win the honor of being Mr. Basketball in the state of Indiana during their senior year in high school, you’re going to hear from some college recruiters; and it can get intense. Here is the father of Luke, Tyler, and Cody Zeller—Steve Zeller.
Steve: Even when the boys were being recruited and going to a Division 1 school, that was a tough thing because you’d go in there—and every college said they were the greatest thing since sliced bread. But when they came home—we called it our safe place—we did not talk about recruiting unless they brought it up. We talked about movies; we talked about anything other than that just because they wanted a family life.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, April 1st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. If you have a son or a daughter who is excelling in sports, you’ll want to hear today from Steve and Lorri Zeller about how to keep your focus on the most important things as you raise your children.
We’ll talk about it today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. No, I should do it more like this [using a sports announcer’s voice]: “And welcome to FamilyLife Today! I’m Bob Lepine. I’m here with the record-scoring guard—
Bob: —“the small forward”—
Dennis: —“tiny / tiny forward in basketball.”
Bob: —“from Ozark High School, who still has the high-point total for the Ozark team, Dennis Rainey. Dennis, welcome to today’s program!”
Dennis: It’s good to be back, and I’m no longer a freshman.
Bob: I’m turning on the sports announcer voice because we’re talking about—we’re talking about parenting and sports today; right?
Dennis: And we have parents here, who are the proud parents of three—count them—three NBA basketball players. Steve and Lorri Zeller join us. Steve/Lorri, any other families ever been able to boast that they had three boys playing in the NBA at the same time?
Steve: We’re not aware of any. We’re sure there are—we’re not aware of any.
Dennis: Well, the Zeller boys made quite an impact—and are still making an impact. Steve and Lorri have written their story of Raising Boys the Zeller Way. I guess I’ve got to ask you: “What is the Zeller way?”—Lorri?
Lorri: Yes, I think the Zeller way is—we talked a little bit before about putting academics first and character. Our book is kind of an owner’s manual for parents to read—and understand that we’re not perfect parents—but we learned a lot along the way. I think, as parents, we’re all on the same team, where we all want to raise great kids—and that’s the goal for a lot of us. We wrote this book because we have had some success with who our boys are today. But yes, they are great basketball players on the court; but they are also strong believers. They are men of high character, and we’re really proud of that—
—for who they are off the court.
Bob: Your son Tyler is currently playing for the Boston Celtics and Cody is currently playing for the Charlotte Hornets.
Bob: And Luke was the pioneer—he’s the oldest. Steve, he had to fight his way into the NBA—came out of college / played for Notre Dame—was not drafted / wound up playing overseas—Japan/Lithuania. His dream to play in the NBA—I’m sure there were a lot of days he looked and thought: “What am I doing in Lithuania? Maybe, I just need to go home and work for Oscar Mayer like my dad did.”
Steve: [Laughter] He definitely persevered. He persevered in everything he did and how hard he worked at it. As he always says, “If you give up, you never know what was over the next step of the horizon.” He always had two dreams, and one was to play in the NBA. The other one was to start a basketball camp where he was able to help / be able to give back to kids. And he was able to achieve both of those.
Bob: Steve, I’m thinking about moms and dads who are raising kids today who are showing some skill in basketball / in football—
—whatever the sport they are playing is. The reality is most of those parents are raising kids who are not going to wind up in professional sports. No matter how good the kid looks in high school, the odds are still not with them that he’s going to be a pro-player; right?
Steve: That’s right. A small percentage actually makes it to the pros. When we were raising our boys, we never even—it really never even crossed our minds that they would be professional players. We were more worried about the academics and what they were learning from the sport that they were playing because sports teach so much character. They teach teamwork. They teach how to listen to an authority figure / how the fans are going to respond—and all the criticism that you get and all the praise that you get—and how to handle all that. That’s what we used sports for—is we used it to be able to help us be able to build the character.
I’m remembering a story of Tyler. He went to North Carolina—was recruited by North Carolina. He plays the first year as a freshman at North Carolina. His second game—his first game he scores 18 points. Second game, he goes down and breaks his wrist. When a reporter tried to catch him to say something negative—and he [reporter] said: “Tyler, it’s been reported that this could be a career-ending wrist injury. What will you do?”—he [Tyler] said, “Well, I’ll obviously be successful at something other than basketball.” It was a proud moment, from a dad’s standpoint, knowing that we had taught him that basketball wasn’t his life / that’s not his identity. There are other things that identify him.
Dennis: So, talk to me about how this character is shaped by faith—faith in God and what the Bible teaches. How did you guys transmit that to your sons?
Lorri: I think our faith had everything to do with our parenting.
I think it’s the basis for what we used as we raised the boys—and just being devout, and being a person of God, and doing those things that are the right choices. A lot of it was by example; but obviously, we make mistakes along the way too. I think you just try to be role models, and be there for them, and guide them along the way as they shape their own belief.
Bob: Steve, you talked about the positive character things that sports can teach; but sports can also be an atmosphere where young men aren’t acting with character—where, in fact, the lure is to live the fast life / to live the high life because you’ve earned it / because you’re a sports star. How did you keep the boys grounded and not off partying when their friends are saying, “Come on! You’re the star!”?
Steve: I really believe that what we did is—we taught them that there are bigger things in life than just sports.
And with that, if you look at God and the things that He does for you—and that’s really my prayer for the boys—is that God has given them a platform / and what platform He’s given Lorri and me—that platform as well—I just pray, every day, that He gives us the wisdom to be able to use that platform to where He wants us to use it.
Dennis: And the nature of sports, especially when you achieve the kind of level of success all three of your sons—which is so remarkable—it takes a lot of self-focus and discipline on your own athleticism / training—focused upon how you’re performing. How do you train a young man, in the midst of that, not to think the whole world revolves around him?
Steve: It’s a challenge in a lot of ways, but the big thing that comes out of that is to talk to them. I think Lorri and I did a lot of that as far as keeping the communication open. I think it’s so important for parents to be able to communicate with their kids and don’t get caught up in it yourself.
We didn’t talk about just sports.
As a matter of fact, even when the boys were being recruited and going to a Division 1 school, that was a tough thing because you’d go in there—and every college said they were the greatest thing since sliced bread. But when they came home—we called it our safe place—we did not talk about recruiting unless they brought it up. We talked about movies. We talked about anything other than that just because they wanted a family life. They didn’t—they wanted to be able to get away from it.
Dennis: One went to the University of North Carolina; another to Notre Dame; and then, the last one went to Indiana?
Dennis: And I understand, Lorri, making that handoff and launching that arrow to college—which is what the Bible compares children to / “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior.” The arrow can’t stay in the quiver.
Dennis: The arrow’s got to be launched into battle. [Laughter] That was not an easy handoff for you.
Lorri: No, I think it’s really hard, especially for moms; you know? They’re your babies; and handing them off to college, whether they are playing a sport at college or not, it’s a big leap.
You know, I knew for our first one—Luke going to Notre Dame—I knew it was going to be a big jump, but we just knew he was in great hands. We felt good about him going there. And five hours away—it was drivable. We were going to see some games. So, felt okay about that. We also still had two boys at home. Then, it was Tyler’s turn to go. He went to North Carolina. The first time we put him on a plane and sent him away, I’m like: “I’m not okay with this! This is not what I wanted.” [Laughter]
Bob: I’ve said many times that it was easier for me to handoff my daughters in marriage than it was to drop them off at college—
Bob: —because college was the defining change in the relationship—we’d been together every day for 18 years.
Bob: Now, you’re not together every day; and you [don’t know] what’s going on or who they are talking to.
With that in mind, I’m thinking about—especially for those kids who do have some athletic ability—when they are starting to think about a college program or they are being recruited for a college program—as parents—to know a little bit about: “Who is this coach really? What is his program all about really?” How do you scout that out, or did you scout that out for your boys? And was that influential in the decisions they made about where they went to college?
Steve: We did a better job with the third one than we did with the first one.
Steve: God has blessed us with having the ability to be able to have three kids get recruited. We did not do well with the first one.
Dennis: Well, now, wait a second. I’ve got to interrupt! [Laughter] Because, earlier, you shared a story—when your sixth grader went to play AAU basketball, you scouted the coaches / you scouted the team. So, it was important to you in finding a great coach for your sons to play for.
Steve: And we did do the research for that. I’m glad you interrupted me on that. What I found was that I was still in awe because I’m talking to Notre Dame, I’m talking to Kansas, I’m talking to all of the big schools—the IU’s. I got excited because I’m being a fan.
Steve: And with the second one and the third one, I became a dad. I started researching and started understanding. I, point blank, asked the coach these certain questions. I would go and visit them and watch them during a practice. All I did [earlier with Luke] was—I let the coach—because I was kind of in awe—kind of dictate instead of, as I always say: “When you’re being recruited, you should run the process. Don’t let the process run you.”
Dennis: You didn’t stop being a dad on the last one. And you’re saying you kind of stood in awe of, maybe, some stardom of those programs when you should have stayed fully-engaged, as a father.
Bob: We’re talking to Steve and Lorri Zeller, whose sons, Luke and Tyler and Cody, have all played or are playing in the NBA today. They’ve written a book called Raising Boys the Zeller Way.
And I think the point you’re making—if a young man or a young woman is going to be involved in athletics at the college level / even at the high school level today—their coach and the program they’re going to be in may be the most influential person in their life—or the most influential aspect of their life—during the time that they are competing; right?
Steve: That’s right. Luke, actually, helped—once again, being the pioneer. He taught the other two—he said: “There are three things you need to look for. The first thing is get to know your teammates because you’re going to spend a ton of time with your teammates. The second thing is get to know your coach because you’re going to spend a lot of time with the coach. Then, the third thing is make sure that the college has your major or the academic.”
Now, I’m not saying academics was third on the list, but it was third on the list once you got in there and picked out—because they knew they were going to play basketball. So, they knew they were going to be in academics.
Bob: Well, and the reality is—most kids, who play at the collegiate level—that’s it for them. If they don’t have a degree—something that they liked studying and that they are interested in—they’re not going to be able to make a living out playing basketball. They’re going to have to figure out what the next job is.
There was no guarantee for your boys, even though they’re seven-foot tall, that the NBA was just going to throw open the doors for them. In fact, as you said, for Luke, it took a while for him to crack through the NBA. So, having a life planned for yourself that doesn’t involve the NBA—back to Tyler’s answer when he broke his wrist—“If this is the end of my basketball career, I’ll be successful in something else.”
Steve: People ask us: “What’s your most memorable moment? I mean, your boys were McDonald’s All-American; they won state championships in Indiana—
Bob: Mr. Basketball.
Steve: —“Mr. Basketball, played in Division 1.” Lorri and I will tell you our most memorable moment was Tyler’s senior year at North Carolina. He was named Academic All-American for basketball for the whole country.
Lorri: So, they selected five for the nation. Tyler had called me—he said, “Hey,”—we talked for about ten minutes—and Tyler said: “Hey, the media is going to come out today. I just wanted you to know first that I’m going to be an Academic All-American.” I’m like: “Oh, Tyler, that’s really neat. Didn’t you get that last year?” He said, “Yes, as a junior, they pick five for the country.” He was like: “Yes, I was on that team; but this year is a little different—I am number one. I am the Academic All-American for the nation.” We were like, “Wow!” That was really great, and Steve was going to tell his quote.
Steve: One of the things he did was—he started his quote.
At the beginning of the quote, he talks about how he did this, and he’s the first one at North Carolina and such a prestigious college. I’m beginning to think, “Man, he’s gone back to—it’s ‘I…’ ‘I…’ ‘I…’ ‘I...’” But just when I had that thought cross my mind, he says: “But as important as this is to me, it’s probably more important to my mom and dad. And I just want to thank them for taking the time—all those times that they spent with my brothers and me—spending those times going over all the academics, and teaching us that the basketball would stop dribbling someday; but academics would take us through the rest of our lives.”
Dennis: This story we’ve heard actually sounds so ideal—you wonder where your struggles came. And Steve, I know for you, based upon the father you had—you were one of 12 children growing up in a pretty poor family in Iowa.
Your dad didn’t demonstrate a lot of love for you; and when it came time for you to demonstrate love and to say, “I love you,” to your boys, that didn’t come natural for you either.
Steve: No, it didn’t. And Lorri will tell you, as far as the—it was a big struggle because Luke—and I think one of the things that I emphasized with this story is that you can learn just as much from your kids as you can teach them. One of the things that I learned from them—and Luke would—I remember nights, going to bed / putting Luke down for bed. He would say, “I love you, Dad,” and I’d go, “Yes”; and that would be it.
Lorri would coach me through it and say—and I’d say, “Hey, I know he knows I love him because my dad didn’t have to say it; and he knew it as well.” Well, to this day, now, I say, “I love you,” every chance I get to be able to say it to those boys. I give Luke and Lorri—but Luke especially—
—a lot of credit for that—being able to teach me that you need to hear it. You need to hear it, and it needs to be said.
Bob: You may not be aware of the fact that Dennis has written a book called Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood that’s all about young men embracing character, and courage, and being adult men—growing up and being godly men. That’s been turned into a video series—it’s a ten-part video series.
And Dennis, I’m just sitting here thinking about those parents, who are raising young men who are student athletes: “If you’re not cultivating the character side of your son or your daughter as they grow as athletes, you’re headed for real danger with that young man.”
Dennis: Or you’re raising them in academics—it doesn’t really matter. The same issues of character face all of us. And character is doing the right thing when nobody is watching; and it’s walking with God and obeying Him and having Him as you witness and as your—
—as the One you love / you love the most.
And it’s interesting you mention my book, Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood. I had one last question I wanted to ask you both. It’s one of my favorite questions to ask, but I want Bob to tell listeners how they can get a copy of the Zeller’s book. Then, I’m going to come back. I’m going to give you some time to think about it because I want you both to think about what the most courageous thing you’ve ever done in all your life.
And just to give you a little help here, as well as to stall a little bit—[Laughter]
Bob: —on your behalf.
Dennis: —on your behalf—courage is not necessarily found on a battlefield, although it’s found there; but it’s doing your duty in the face of fear. So, I’m going to come back and ask both of you: “What’s the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?” Maybe, your sons will listen to these broadcasts; and they’ll hear something they may have never heard before. [Laughter]
Bob: I was going to ask them to share the shots from the highlight reel for each boy.
I just wanted to know, “What’s your favorite play that you’ve ever watched your son…”—but maybe, we’ll get a YouTube of that or something up there.
Dennis: Well, there was one in the book—wasn’t it virtually half-court to win the state championship?
Steve: Luke did it—
Steve: —with 1.8 seconds left—down by one shot / a half-court shot—
Dennis: That gives me chill bumps! [Laughter]
Steve: —in overtime!
Lorri: Just look it up on YouTube.
Steve: —in overtime.
Dennis: —in overtime.
Bob: I’ll tell you what—we’ve actually found it, and we’ve got it posted on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. So, listeners can go there—they can see the video from YouTube—it’s called “TheShot.” It’s about a minute long, and you can see Luke make that clutch shot to win the Indiana High School Basketball Championship.
You can also order—while you’re on the website—order a copy of the Zeller’s book, Raising Boys the Zeller Way—order online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
Order the book from us online, or give us a call.
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Dennis: Well, it has been fun to talk to the parents of young men who are like trees—7’0” tall—playing in the NBA. Love it! Love the story of how your family has made a tremendous contribution to our nation. And I just—I gave you a few moments here to think back over your lives and answer a question: “What’s the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?” Lorri, I’ll let you go first.
Lorri: It was a very difficult time in our relationship—with Steve and me. I got a phone call one day at the athletic office. Steve had been having some health issues; and he said, “Are you sitting down?”
I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, I have a valve in my heart that is going to have be replaced, and I’m going to have to have open-heart surgery.” And I said, “Oh, okay; when is this going to happen?”
We didn’t know it then—but within two weeks, he was in the hospital, replacing a valve that—didn’t know he had it—it was something he was born with but had just gotten worse as he got older. You were probably—what?—45, I think, when we went through that. And it was tremendously difficult. Of course, we surrounded ourselves with prayer and with family, and the Lord blessed us again. And he’s fine now; but it was tough.
Dennis: Thinking of the 23rd Psalm.
Lorri: Yes; yes, absolutely.
Dennis: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
Lorri: Exactly, and I think what speaks to me the most about that Scripture is—
—it talks about walking through. I think the operative word there is through the valley of the shadow of death. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to stay there / that you’re going to stay in that valley—but that you’re going to walk through it. We all go through times that are tough and that you have to be courageous. So, I think that really speaks to me—that there are times that you’re going to be afraid. I was afraid I was going to lose my husband, and I did have to be courageous.
Steve: Mine is also with a health issue. My dad, which I’ve talked a lot about—in 1972—which I would have been about 11 years old—he was told he had an aneurysm. We had lost two of my uncles and my grandmother with an aneurysm that year, and he went in and had it checked. It was in his head, and it was ballooned to the point where it was ready to break.
And they took him to Rochester, and I’ll never forget—I was in the upstairs, in a bunk bed. I remember getting out of the bunk bed.
I went to the middle of the floor / got down on my knees—and it was the night before my dad’s surgery—and I prayed. It was really the first time I remember praying in a prayer that wasn’t just a recital of things I had been taught. Dad, obviously, came through the surgery. It’s just a moment in my life that I felt like it took a lot of courage; but I also realized, “Just turn it over to God and let Him deal with it.” I just had a lot on my shoulders, as an 11 year old; and I was able to give it to Him. That’s kind of what’s helped me through the rest of my life—you know: “Just give it over to Him.”
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