Commentary

Two families, two paths to success

The Zellers and Plumlees hail from small-town Indiana, but charted different courses

Originally Published: September 9, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The Zeller and Plumlee families have a lot in common.

An Indiana mailing address. Ghastly grocery bills. Difficulty finding big-and-tall clothes in small hometowns. Roll-your-eyes knowledge of almost every recruiting pitch known to man.

[+] EnlargeMiles Plumlee
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeMiles Plumlee and Tyler Zeller might play for rivals, but their families share a common bond.

They have parents who played the game, and kids who play the game better.

They are tall moms and dads with three gigantic boys each, all growing up at roughly the same time -- more than 41 feet of Division I basketball talent, graduating from high school between 2005 and 2011.

"We're all kind of tall people," said Perky Plumlee, patriarch of half the boys in this story. "There is a genetic component to this that can't be overlooked."

But this isn't a case of being tall and that's all. There is talent to go along with the height. Pretty soon they'll have six full scholarships at elite programs. And the two families have three national championship rings -- with several more years to add to that total.

What they do not have in common are the paths they chose for their children to reach basketball stardom.

The Zellers are heroes in their hometown of Washington, Ind.

The Plumlees are strangers in their hometown of Warsaw, Ind.


When the Zellers and their three young boys were moving to Washington from Minnesota, house shopping was fairly easy. They chose the first home they were shown that had a basketball goal.

Lorri Zeller is 6 feet tall and was a player at Division III Coe College in Iowa. Her brother, Al Eberhard, was a star at Missouri in the 1970s and played several seasons in the NBA. Husband Steve, a plant manager at Perdue Farms, is 6-foot-4 and was a walk-on football player at Iowa State. As a basketball player in high school, he once pulled down 30 rebounds in a game.

Having blessed their children with the genes to be tall, the hoop was mandatory. And the driveway games became legendary.

"Somebody would come home bleeding," Lorri Zeller said.

As the boys grew, Steve would beat on them with a football blocking pad to make scoring difficult. And on a wall in the garage, they marked all their heights. The current measurements: Luke, who played at Notre Dame and last season played professionally in Japan, is 6-10½ and wears a size 18 shoe; Tyler, currently a junior at North Carolina, is 7 feet and wears a 19; and high school senior Cody is between them at about 6-11 while wearing a mere size 16.

Washington -- a town of about 12,000 in the southwest corner of the state -- has been blessed with some fine hoops-playing siblings in its time. But nothing like these three.

When they retire the number at Washington High School, it will be fairly easy. One fits all.

Luke Zeller wore No. 40 when he led the Hatchets to the 2005 Indiana state basketball title -- winning the Class 3A championship game on a fairy-tale shot from near midcourt. Tyler Zeller wore it when he led the school to the 2008 state title. And Cody Zeller, star of this year's state champs, wears it as well.

[+] EnlargeLuke Zeller
AP Photo/AJ MastLuke's miracle 3 in the state title game cemented the Zellers as legends in Washington, Ind.

By next spring they could all have another jersey in common: The Indiana No. 1 uniform worn by the state's Mr. Basketball in the annual all-star series with the state of Kentucky. Luke and Tyler won the award, and Cody will be a leading candidate this season.

That would be unprecedented in Indiana history. In fact, only two other sets of brothers have won the award -- twins Dick and Tom Van Arsdale shared it in 1961 and Billy and David Shepherd took home the honor in 1968 and 1970, respectively.

Washington High has a fairly rich basketball history: The Hatchets won single-class state titles three times between 1929-42, they sent 1979 Mr. Basketball Steve Bouchie to IU to play for Bob Knight, and their gym seats more than 7,000. But in terms of exposure, it's a long way from Indianapolis and other large population centers.

Yet even in these transient youth basketball times, the Zellers say they were never tempted to look elsewhere.

"Indiana is a wonderful place to play high school basketball," Lorri Zeller said. "We wouldn't think of going anywhere else."

When asked what the local reaction would be to transferring elsewhere, Cody smiled.

"I couldn't imagine," he said.

The Plumlees don't have to imagine such a thing. They've lived it.


Perky Plumlee stands 6-7 and played college basketball at Tennessee Tech after growing up in Lafayette, Ind. His wife, Leslie, is 6-1 and played at Purdue. Despite their Indiana ties, there will never be a chance for a Plumlee to be named Mr. Basketball in their home state.

Not after Perky made a decision several years ago that ignited an uproar in basketball-mad Warsaw. He shipped his two oldest boys, Miles and Mason, out of town and out of state -- all the way to Christ School in Arden, N.C.

Perky freely admits this was an athletic-based decision. Miles was a 6-7 junior getting limited playing time on a mediocre Warsaw High team. Same with Mason, a 6-7 freshman. The two boys were making national names for themselves on the AAU circuit, but they couldn't crack coach Doug Ogle's starting lineup.

Some other players left the program around that time, but none caused the ripple of public debate the Plumlees did.

"It was a very public thing," said Perky, a lawyer. "There were certainly people who were very critical of us. They couldn't understand why a family would make that decision. But I don't think our decision impacted anyone other than our family."

Nevertheless, a whole lot of people took sides, many of them writing letters to the local paper, the Warsaw Times-Union. Some thought Perky was an egomaniacal dad who overrated his sons' ability. Others thought the Plumlees were justifiably showing a lack of confidence in Ogle's coaching.

"It was a pretty wild time, to say the least," said Times-Union sports editor Dale Hubler.

It culminated in a real-life scene from "Hoosiers": a packed public meeting at one of the local elementary schools to discuss Ogle's viability as the Warsaw basketball coach. Ogle kept his job and earlier this year led the Tigers to a state runner-up finish in Class 4A.

But the Plumlees have certainly vindicated their decision, difficult as it was.

"Down in our gut we felt like we were making the right choice for them, but it was hard," Perky Plumlee said. "They were with us all the time. You don't just move your children 600 miles on a whim. When we dropped them off, both my wife and I had tears coming down our cheeks."

Miles/Mason Plumlee
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMason (left) and Miles Plumlee already have a national championship at Duke. They'll be joined by younger brother Marshall in 2011.

Miles repeated 11th grade at Christ School to mature physically. With he and Mason both in the lineup -- and growing -- they won state titles two years in a row. Miles signed a letter of intent with Stanford, and Mason verbally committed to Duke.

When Trent Johnson left Stanford for LSU, Miles decommitted and joined Mason in choosing Duke. Not that there needed to be any further validation of taking a scholarship from Mike Krzyzewski, but the brothers got one in April anyway. Standing 6-9¾ (Miles) and 6-10¾ (Mason), they played key roles on a Blue Devils team that won the 2010 national title back home again in Indiana.

And now little brother Marshall -- actually the tallest at 6-11½ -- has joined the family movement from Christ School to Duke. He committed to the Blue Devils in July, before beginning his senior year of high school.

"It's one of the times in your life when you have to make a very selfish decision," Marshall said. "I've struggled with that, because I'm not a very selfish guy."

Back home, the perception of a selfish family is fading.

When Miles and Mason were in Warsaw this summer, they did an autograph session. It was well-attended, spurring many folks to believe that the community of about 14,000 in north-central Indiana can now embrace its absentee sons.

"I wouldn't say the town is going to put up a sign saying, 'Welcome to Warsaw, Home of the Plumlees,'" Hubler said. "But I think people understand now."


Their high school paths have never converged, and they've had to go to Tobacco Road to meet up in college. But the Plumlees and Zellers have gotten together on home soil in the summer over the past couple of years. Cody and Marshall have been teammates on the Indiana Elite AAU team.

That's given their parents plenty of time to compare notes on the joys and challenges of raising six star basketball players.

"It's really enjoyable to visit with them," Lorri Zeller said. "We share our experiences."

When Cody and Marshall took the court in Indianapolis at the beginning of the July recruiting circuit, a who's who of college coaches was watching. Among them: Indiana's Tom Crean, Louisville's Rick Pitino, Illinois' Bruce Weber, Florida's Billy Donovan, Kansas' Bill Self, Ohio State's Thad Matta, California's Mike Montgomery, Butler's Brad Stevens, UCLA's Ben Howland, North Carolina's Roy Williams, West Virginia's Bob Huggins and Krzyzewski. That's a dozen guys with Final Four experience, and five with national championship rings.

On that day, they saw Zeller showcase the versatile arsenal that could make him the best player in his family. (ESPNU's analysts rank him the No. 20 senior prospect nationally.) He started the game with a baseline jump hook, a dunk in transition and a 17-foot jumper from the top of the key. Cody was up 6-0 all by himself.

Marshall didn't show as much, but his best playing days are almost undoubtedly ahead of him. (ESPNU ranks him the No. 42 senior prospect.) At Duke he'll have time to grow into his frame and develop his game.

[+] EnlargeCody Zeller
David Dixon/Natural TalentWill top-20 prospect Cody Zeller join his brother at North Carolina or stay home in Indiana?

But Marshall does have one advantage over Cody at this point. He's made his college decision.

The five boys who have made college choices have one thing in common: None has chosen the most accomplished and tradition-rich program in their home state. Indiana is 0-for-5 with the Zellers and Plumlees.

The Hoosiers were not a factor with Luke Zeller, and were up to their pinstripe warm-ups in scandal when Tyler was being recruited. They offered all three Plumlees, but Miles and Mason were not interested because of the fallout from the Kelvin Sampson disaster.

But Marshall seriously considered his offer from Crean, and Zeller is even more serious. He's cut his final three schools to Indiana, Butler and North Carolina.

And if there was pressure on the Plumlees to stay put in high school, you can imagine the pressure on Cody to stay put for college. Especially with fans clamoring for Crean to deliver his biggest in-state signee yet at Indiana.

"I'm the one who has to live with the decision," Cody Zeller said.

The decisions made by the six tall young men from Indiana in recent years have almost uniformly turned out well. But that didn't make them easy. And despite all that the Zeller and Plumlee families have in common, they've taken very different roads to basketball glory.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espn4d@aol.com.