Stevens: Cody Zeller 'broke my heart' not picking Butler

Stevens: Cody Zeller 'broke my heart' not picking Butler
November 12, 2013, 7:30 pm
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BOSTON — Even now when the subject's brought up, Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has to let out a little sigh as he reminisces ever-so-briefly on the one that got away.

That would be Charlotte Bobcats rookie Cody Zeller, a player Stevens admits he recruited "harder than any other player" when Stevens was the head coach at Butler and Zeller was a consensus top-20 recruit nationally who wound up attending Indiana University.

"No single recruit broke my heart more than him," Stevens told CSNNE.com. "I recruited him really hard, personally."

Stevens has known Zeller ever since the 21-year-old rookie was in grade school and Butler tried to recruit his older brother Luke who eventually signed with Notre Dame.

"I would go on some of the recruiting visits," Zeller told CSNNE.com in a phone interview. I would be around them when they were talking basketball, stuff like that."

But at some point, the conversations eventually shifted towards academics which was Zeller's cue to do what all grade school kids would do - find a nearby gym.

And that's where the Stevens-Zeller bond was forged.

Stevens, a Butler assistant at the time, would take the youngest of the three Zeller boys (the middle son, Tyler, played collegiately at North Carolina and now plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers) to the gym and they would take shots before eventually getting into a game of H.O.R.S.E.

Even then, Stevens was impressed with Cody's shooting touch.

"He's really good," Stevens said. "And I think he'll get better because of his effort. He can shoot the ball more than he has probably shown. I've seen him shoot since he was a fifth grader, so I know he can shoot. The other thing he does, he runs the floor like a gazelle. He has a lot of physical ability, but he has a huge motor."

And that motor has actually been used at times by Stevens to illustrate on video what he's looking for from his big men.

"I've already shown my team a clip of him in transition because I think he runs as hard as anyone who plays basketball," Stevens said. "I showed it to them three games ago, so it wasn't about prior to this game. This is the sense of urgency you need to play with."

And it is that non-stop effort that made Stevens want him so desperately to be part of the Bulldogs program at Butler.

Zeller said the bond that the two had formed over the years, didn't make his decision to become a Hoosier any easier to make.

And then there was the dreaded phone call to tell Stevens that he was not coming to Butler.

"It was such a tough, tough phone call to make," Zeller said. "I called him just a few minutes before I told the public. I owed him that.  It's a hard thing to do, but it's the right thing to do."

Zeller added, "He took it well. He was a class act. Like I said, it was a really tough call to make."

Stevens wasn't sure what to expect when he realized the call was from Zeller.

"Those are the hard things," Stevens said. "You do everything you can to recruit. You see how that person can impact your program. But at the same time you're happy for him because he's a good kid. He ended up having a great career at Indiana."

In his two seasons with the Hoosiers, Zeller established himself as an All-American who would have likely been a top-10 pick (possibly even number one overall) after his freshman season.

You get the sense that even after all these years, missing out on Zeller hasn't been fully flushed out of Stevens' system.

When asked how long did it take to get over losing him, Stevens grinned, and then grinned again, and said, "It took a while."

Stevens added, "It was more out of respect for what I knew he would be doing. I thought he was a really, really special player."

He comes from a good bloodline for basketball players. His oldest brother Luke played for the Fighting Irish and later went on to play for the Phoenix Suns.

And his other brother Tyler plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, so it's clear all three have some serious basketball skills.

Having been around all three for years, Stevens won't go there when asked about which one is the best.

"I hate to say this. I love Luke and I really like Tyler, too," Stevens said. "But I kind of thought that ... his dad told me one time, he said the third one should be the best one. I'll never forget that. Because it's up to the other two to bring him along well."

But the question, which of them is the best?

"I don't know which one is the best," Stevens says and then adds, "but I know he (Cody) is really good."