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Teaching character a family business


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IT was their senior year at Notre Dame when Hope Grame was talking to her friend, Luke Zeller, about his dreams.

“It seems like yesterday,” said Grame, who later became Mrs. Hope Zeller when she married Luke. “He had three dreams. To have a wife and a family. To play professional basketball. And to build a camp that would help him to create a new generation of high-character athletes.”

She was impressed that her future husband, who now plays for the Austin Toros of the NBA Development League and spent a season in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns, could think beyond his own basketball career.

“I remember thinking, ‘There is more to this guy than basketball,’” Hope Zeller said. “It wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about the Zellers.”

Luke Zeller’s dream became a reality in the form of the DistinXion basketball camp, which travels to various towns, mainly in Indiana, to teach kids about both basketball and character.

The next stop for the camp is April 4 to 6 at the Boys & Girls Club in Seymour. The camp is for boys and girls in second through eighth grades.

Cody Zeller, who plays for the Charlotte Bobcats, and Tyler Zeller, who is with the Cleveland Cavaliers, have joined their brother in planning and developing the camp. Their parents, Steve and Lorri Zeller, have assumed the “hands-on” role of actually directing each camp.

The Zeller boys attend as many camps as possible considering their schedules. But the emphasis is not on star power but rather the message.

“Last year our biggest complaint was that the boys weren’t there,” Steve Zeller said. “We had people coming in two years ago who were carrying basketballs and jerseys (for autographs).”

While the Zeller boys ended up in the NBA, the camp’s emphasis has been on doing the right things along the way.

“Luke had spent so many years in AAU basketball,” Steve Zeller said. “He wanted to give back and teach work ethic. I grew up in Iowa, and we never had much; but mom and dad (Joe and Fern Zeller) taught us pride. So teaching character always has been in Luke’s heart. He took ideas that we kicked around and submitted a business plan (at Notre Dame). We talked about it so much that we started to believe it would happen.”

The first year the Zellers did the camp, they taught 38 kids in three camps.

“That was five years ago,” Steve Zeller said. “It actually started in our (Washington) backyard before Luke got married. We sat around with our computers and talked about it. From there, it just took off.”

“But we wanted to take baby steps. In our second year we had 238 kids. This year, we are expecting 3,800.”

Steve Zeller said that Cody’s decision to attend Indiana University was a boon to the camp. “And a couple of other things fell into our laps,” he said.

Whether it is Steve or Lorri Zeller delivering the message, or their sons, the camp has become popular because it talks to both participants and their parents about life off the court as well as on.

“We definitely don’t do just basketball,” said Columbus East senior basketball star Allyson Bunch, who worked at DistinXion camps last summer and plans to do the same this summer. “We talk about life. We talk about not giving up, about treating everyone equal and about being the best you can be.

“The Zellers love it, and they are talking about life. They sit you down and try to get the word out. I love teaching younger people, and this has been awesome.”

Steve Zeller said the DistinXion staff is picky when trying to select staff members to work with the kids.

“High character is one of the things that Allyson has,” he said. “She is a hard worker who is dedicated to the game. She is great interacting with the kids, who can relate to her.

“And our ultimate goal is to have anyone who comes to our camp meet individuals who will leave a lasting impression on their life.”

He knows that the kids who attend his camps might not be able to reach the NBA, like his sons.

“Everyone has a role in life, and basketball teaches you about life,” he said. “You need the fundamentals. You need to work hard. You need to have teammates.

“The team is stronger than the individual. It’s the same thing in life.”

This will be the second DistinXion camp in Seymour. A camp will be conducted in Bloomington on May 16-18 and in Nashville on July 7-9.

Steve Zeller, who spoke last June at a Columbus Christian fundraiser for a new gym floor, said he is working out details to bring the camp to Columbus in the future.

Hope Zeller, who serves as the camp’s vice president of marketing, said her family’s goals are all about giving back.

“We want to make a positive impact on the next generation,” she said. “We love what we do.

“Those who know Luke know he has a lot of big ideas, big dreams. But I don’t know that he thought the camps would happen to this scale.

“He has the type of parents who whatever their kids want to do, they are going to support them. This was never about basketball. They wanted to support Luke.”

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