Former IU center Cody Zeller was enjoying another productive season with the Charlotte Hornets when the NBA season came to a halt on March 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zeller, who is in his seventh NBA season, was averaging 11.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 23.1 minutes off the bench for the Hornets.
On Sunday, Inside the Hall spoke at length with Zeller about the shut down, his thoughts on the possibility that play will resume, what he’s been doing to stay busy over the last month, IU basketball and much more.
Our full conversation is available below:
Inside the Hall: The night the Jazz-OKC game was postponed, the Hornets were playing in Miami. As that unfolded, did you know what was going on during the game or did you not find out until after? And what was your reaction in that moment?
Cody Zeller: When we got to Miami, I think it was a Wednesday night we played there, so when we got there on Tuesday, we had a team meeting about the protocol for taking extra measures to stay safe and learned that if one of us got it (COVID-19), we would be quarantined for 14 days. It was kind of the first time that we had heard of the protocol for the coronavirus and how to avoid it. So that was Tuesday and we were already hearing preparations for the virus. I remember talking to one of our trainers before the game and we played Wednesday at Miami and then our next game was Friday back at home and we were taking bets on whether there would be fans at our game on Friday. I think the Warriors had announced that they were going to play with no fans so we thought that was the worst case scenario. So I remember talking about that before the game. We went out, played and we played well and got a good win in Miami. One of our better wins this season. We didn’t hear anything about it. Our start time was earlier than the Jazz game so all of that happened mid game. We didn’t hear anything about it until I walked off the court and our equipment manager was in the locker room and he had the tweet pulled up that showed that the NBA had been postponed. So I heard about it and was flooded with all of this news as we walked into the locker room and heard it was postponed. We didn’t know how drastic it was going to be. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to fly back to Charlotte or were they going to keep us in Miami? Or could we leave the locker room? Whatever it was, we didn’t really know how it was going to go from there. It’s been crazy ever since.
ITH: Did you go back to Charlotte the next day? Was there talk of quarantine at that point?
Zeller: We flew back to Charlotte and luckily we hadn’t played the Jazz in a couple of months and then we found out about some of the Pistons guys. That was the thing, I think the NBA had to make the decision they did just because obviously on the court we are sweating all over each other and screens and boxouts and everything else. So if one guy gets it, it is going to spread pretty quickly. Luckily we hadn’t played any of the teams that had positive tests. They gave us a couple of days off just because they were trying to figure out what was next. They finally called a team meeting and initially they said we could still go in and work out at the facility but there could only be a one to one ratio. Either a coach on the court or a trainer in the training room or a strength and conditioning coach in the weight room. So you’d have like two guys in the weight room, two guys in the training room and a few guys up on the court at once. So we did that for about a week and I was going in just to lift weights but they’d have to disinfect the weight between every set. So you’d lift a dumbbell ten times, put it down and they had to disinfect it before set number two. It was a little extreme and now it’s a week or ten days later and I think they finally made the decision to just shut down all of the facilities in the NBA. I think we knew that it was going be longer than a couple of weeks. So that’s when I headed back to Indiana. Just road tripped home.
ITH: Are you in Washington now? Or Bloomington?
Zeller: I was back and forth between my parents in Washington and Luke’s in Bloomington. I was back and forth between the two. But I just drove back to Charlotte a couple of days ago. I had been in Indiana for a few weeks and I was getting stir crazy so I just drove back. It’s like mid-70s here, little nicer weather. And I’ve got some stuff I can do here at the house. I got some dumb bells here at the house. I can work out, I can run around my neighborhood, do stuff here. I’ll spend a week or two here and if we still aren’t back to working out, I might road trip back to Indiana. I’m trying to stay busy.
ITH: From a basketball perspective, what have you been able to do in terms of workouts and staying in shape?
Zeller: Not a whole lot basketball wise. There’s a little gym at a church back in Washington. I got some shots up there. It’s nothing fancy. It’s got one of those plastic tile floors so I’m not doing much cutting or stuff. It was just enough to get some shots up. But at the same time, I’ve played 65 games and it’s a long NBA season so my body can take a little bit of a rest, a little bit of time off. I’ve still been able to run to stay in a little bit of cardio shape and lift weights. I haven’t been able to do much on the court basketball stuff, but I think I’m in a fine place conditioning and strength wise.
ITH: From a players perspective, what’s the appetite to get back to playing this season? Whether it be some of the ideas that have been thrown out regarding playing in the same city or quarantining the teams, what has been the discussion on that among the players and what are your thoughts on it?
Zeller: I think it’s tough. I think a couple of weeks ago, China tried to restart their season and they were checking everyone’s temperature but it wasn’t a good enough indicator because there were guys that had it with no symptoms and no temperature. So they shut down the league right away again. I think makes me a little bit more pessimistic that we are going to be able to get back to playing. I think what we need is the quick result home test kit which is either just being developed or they are still a couple of steps off. Not only do they have to develop that test, but they have to produce it enough to where we aren’t taking it from hospitals or people that need it more than us. So that makes it seem like it’s still a few steps away. I’ve heard the idea of a little bubble in Vegas or whatever it is, keep us isolated in a hotel and play games there, but it all seems a little far off in my mind. I hope that we can get back to playing. I don’t know what that would look like for us, specifically. If we have to have a little bit of a training camp or two or three weeks to get us back into shape and rhythm. For us, a team that is not going to be in the playoffs, are we going to play three, four or five games and then the playoffs start and we’re done? Or what would that look like? I hope that we can have some type of playoffs. One of my former teammates that I’m close with, Marvin Williams, we bought him out. This is maybe his last year of his career. He went to the (Milwaukee) Bucks and he’s been there the past month or two. There’s guys like that, I just want the best for them. I want to give them one more chance at making a deep run into the playoffs. I don’t know if they’ll have that chance. It’s really unfortunate, but we’ll see what happens.
ITH: As far the season the team was having in Charlotte, it appears to be a bit of a rebuilding time there. When you are not having success on the court as a team, does it get difficult on a game-to-game basis when you aren’t working towards a playoff spot? How do you fight through the negativity when having a losing record and little hope of making the playoffs?
Zeller: It’s been one of the toughest year for me mentally more than anything else because like you said, we are in kind of a transition period where we have a couple of veteran contracts. 45 million dollars come off the books after this year. So the front office has kind of invested in the younger guys. Those guys are the ones that have played all of the minutes this year. We might be able to squeeze out a couple of more wins if we play some of the veteran guys and put all of our eggs into winning, but the season has been more about a transition period and rebuilding for the future. So that part has been a little bit frustrating especially because the core group of guys that I’ve spent most of my career with, a lot of those guys are gone. Kemba (Walker), Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Those are the guys I was close with. It’s a whole new group and it is younger guys that are trying to figure it out. I’ve been fortunate because I am one of the veteran guys that has gotten a good amount of playing time this year. I’ve been thankful for that. I’ve tried to use it as a little bit of a development year from me as well. I’ve tried to expand my game into other areas and work on some things that maybe I wouldn’t necessarily do if we were trying to win every night or were in close games every night. I’m trying to make the most of it, but it has definitely been a long year.
ITH: On a more positive note and the social media stuff you are doing right now, you wouldn’t normally have the time to do that as much. What have you been doing with all of your free time?
Zeller: It’s kind of a weird time for everyone. I’ve done a lot of Zoom interviews or Skype. Everyone is trying to figure out this new normal together. It’s been kind of fun for me. Especially for professional athletes, we get a lot of credit for what we do on the court, but I think people are fascinated at other stuff that we do or off the court stuff. To be honest with you, we aren’t good at much else besides basketball. So people kind of have fun with that. It’s a stressful time for a lot of people. We’re talking about our season possibly being canceled and in my world, that’s tough news. But there are people who are losing their jobs or trying to provide for their families. It’s a heavy time for a lot of people. Even for kids missing their senior year of making a run into the NCAA tournament. It’s tough news. But in the big scheme of things, it’s not the life or death situation of trying to provide for your family. That’s why I’ve tried to have a little bit of a sense of humor, be sensitive to the situation, but also try to brighten people’s day a little bit.
ITH: Did you actually wear the Spiderman mask into the store?
Zeller: (Laughs.) It was just in the car, but if I had someone to film me, I would definitely walk through the aisles with it.
Mom said I have to wear a mask if I leave the house. Got it! pic.twitter.com/eur158uCAG
— Cody Zeller (@CodyZeller) April 19, 2020
ITH: I have to ask because Michael Jordan owns the Hornets, “The Last Dance” starts on Sunday. I think is something that a lot of people are looking forward to. Are you going to watch it? The stories you hear about Jordan, his ruthlessness and his competitiveness, does he still have that in him as an owner?
Zeller: I’m definitely going to watch. It sounds like it has been in the works for a couple of years. What you see in the documentary is exactly how he is as an owner as well. He can’t turn it off. He’s non-stop competitive. He’ll walk through the training room and a guy will be out with a sprained ankle and he’ll be like, ‘man, I had 53 on a sprained ankle in Washington.’ Little stuff like that, he’s always taking digs and is always very, very competitive. It’s always cool to have him around. Anytime he’s in the building, people always know that the boss is in town. I’ll definitely be watching.
ITH: Do you still find yourself star struck around him?
Zeller: I always tell people that sometimes you meet people and after being around them for a while, being star stuck kind of wears off. With him, it never wears off. It’s never just another guy in the building. Everyone knows when he is in the building, it’s always special to even have just a short interaction with him. That never wears off with MJ.
ITH: The death of Kobe Bryant was tough for the entire basketball world. I know you competed against him as a player. What did you take from any of your interactions with Kobe and what are your memories of him as a player?
Zeller: I was fortunate enough to play against him three or four times my first few years in the league. Obviously he was at the end of his career, but I heard a lot of stories about him from the older guys about how much of a bear he was to play against. I saw little glimpses of that even later on in his career. I always respected his competitiveness and I think the same edge that we’ll see in the MJ documentary. I think it hit us all pretty hard because everything that he did on the court seemed to turn to gold. All of the championships and all of the success that he had on the court and then he gets done with that and he wins an Oscar. For something that tragic to happen, it made us all realize that it could happen to us at anytime. I think it hit us all pretty hard. Whether you knew him or not personally or just played against him or idolized him as a kid growing up, it hit us all pretty hard. Our general manager is Mitch Kupchak and he was with Kobe throughout his whole career. He talked to our team and told us a couple of other Kobe stories and I think it was healthy for us to share stories. Mitch’s son is one of our video coordinators. He grew up around Kobe as a baby and as a kid being in the Lakers locker room. There’s been a lot of people that knew him well who have been affected by it.
ITH: From an IU basketball perspective, this season it seemed like they were going to get back to the NCAA tournament. How much have you had a chance to watch and what are your overall thoughts on what Archie Miller is trying to do?
Zeller: It’s tough to watch many games because we play so many, but I try to follow it as much as I can. Also it is different because nobody who is there was there when I was. I still stay in touch with Tim Garl, Dr. Rink, J.D. Campbell, Dr. Ahlfeld, some of those guys. But as far as the staff and the players, I don’t know them as well. It’s still obviously fun to cheer them on from afar. I think they finally got rolling a little bit this year and had some good wins and looked like they were headed to the tournament. That along with the fact that it looks like they have a good recruiting class the next year or two, I think the future is bright. Archie’s been good. I’ve met him a few times, talked to him briefly a few times and his demeanor isn’t that opposite of (Tom) Crean in that he’s not one to talk to the media or be out speaking to the public, but he can turn it on when game time comes or in practice. When he’s teaching the kids is all good X’s and O’s. I’m definitely a fan.
ITH: How much do you stay in contact with the guys you played with at IU?
Zeller: I talk to them a ton. I’m probably closest with Jordy (Hulls). We probably talk a couple of times a week. I’m still close with Austin (Etherington) who was my roommate in Bloomington. I’ve stayed in touch with Will (Sheehey), Christian (Watford). Yogi (Ferrell), a little bit. Vic is the worst texter ever. So usually we just catch up when we play each other.
ITH: When you say worst texter ever, just in terms of getting back to you or the replies in general?
Zeller: A little bit of both. Two days later, you’ll get a reply and it’ll be a couple of lines. That doesn’t say anything about our relationship, but that’s just who Vic is. He’s got a million things going on, but we pick up right where we left off when we either call each other or see each other in person.
ITH: Did you watch him on The Masked Singer?
Zeller: No, I don’t watch the show much, but I did pull up a couple of clips of him performing. He’s always been a good singer, so I’m not surprised that he did well. It was pretty cool. He’s so talented in everything that he does, not just basketball. He can do a little bit of everything, so that makes it fun.
ITH: Big picture in terms of the pandemic, I can’t think of a single person that it hasn’t impacted in some way. In the long run, do you feel like this can be made into a positive and that we can learn and grow from this as a society?
Zeller: I think so. We’re all having to come together to get through this. I think it’s cool to see so many people have stepped up. Whether that’s people helping out a neighbor or helping out local businesses. There’s so many people helping each other and I think that’s the only way that we’re going to get through this. It is cool to see people helping each other. I think we’re all going to become closer through this from going through something tough together. I think the world will be a lot different. Anytime you go through something tragic like this … you think of somebody who was brought up after 9/11, the TSA and security in airports is so different post-9/11. I’m sure there will be a lot of changes in how our world works because of this. Whether it be placing a carryout order or people working more from home or whatever it is, I think the world is going to be much different. Hopefully for the better.
Filed to: Cody Zeller