Basketball is part of Luke Zeller’s DNA. A former Indiana Mr. Basketball and University of Notre Dame standout, Zeller worked his way to the NBA in 2012. His brothers Cody and Tyler followed similar high school and college paths and are currently playing in the NBA. His uncle Al Eberhard also used to play professional basketball.
But at the heart of this athlete is a family-oriented, God-centered man who is devoted to making a difference in the lives of children. He and his family — including parents, Steve and Lorri, and his wife, Hope — run DistinXion, a basketball and cheerleading training program that focuses on character development and building family relationships as much as athletics.
The program, which developed from an idea Luke had while attending Notre Dame, began in 2009 with one camp and 30 kids. It has grown exponentially every year since.
Raised on Daviess-Martin County REMC lines, Luke now lives in Bloomington. He and Hope have a 2-year-old son, Kyston.
Luke divides his time between DistinXion, for which he serves as president, and Premier Healthcare, for which he works in business development and marketing. He also serves on several boards including the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation.
On Dec. 8, Luke will inspire five community-minded middle school students to continue their servant leadership paths during the Youth Power and Hope Awards Program at the Indiana Electric Cooperatives Annual Meeting. He is this year’s mentor/special guest for the awards program, now in its seventh year.
Luke took time out of his busy schedule to talk about DistinXion, his career, his family and why he likes working with kids. The Q&A follows below.
One-on-one with Luke Zeller
Electric Consumer (EC): You stress the importance of character building in the DistinXion program. How important is a young person’s character in his or her community service pursuits? Do you think character drives community service or the other way around?
Luke Zeller: Character is very important when talking about community service. I believe that your character drives your community service. You’re going to get more if you give more.
EC: Your career has evolved through the years — yet basketball has always been a part of your life. What is your ultimate career goal? Does it involve DistinXion?
Luke: I’ve thought about this a lot. I would say my goal is being able to be a powerful servant leader. DistinXion allows me to lead interns every summer and continue that servant leadership.
EC: What would you consider your legacy to be? What do you want to be remembered for?
Luke: My priority has always been God, family and whatever else comes after that. I enjoy being able to serve others and make a difference. I never went into anything that I would do just to be remembered. It’s about representing my faith, my family and my legacy.
EC: What do you enjoy most about working with kids?
Luke: Kids are great. They are so much fun. Kids give a new perspective daily. They have so much opportunity ahead of them. Opportunities can be given to them so that they can be champions. To have the chance to tell a kid “I believe in you” is tremendous.
EC: What do you tell kids who have dreams of playing professional sports?
Luke: I tell them I want you to pursue that dream. However, we share that not all of them are going to make the NBA. Chase your dream and it will open up other dreams. Pursuing the NBA allowed me to follow other dreams. Pursuing who you become through the process of chasing your dream is more important than the dream. I hope they discover hard work and serving others.
EC: What is the most important life lesson you’ve learned so far? Do you share that with your DistinXion campers?
Luke: For me, life lessons are faith based. I know God is not going to give up on me, and I won’t give up because of that. Never compromise your principles. I share my decisions with others so that they can make their own decisions.
EC: What has been the highlight of your basketball career — either while in school or during your professional career?
Luke: Making the NBA was a highlight for me, because for three years, I didn’t. Growing up, I wanted to either be a basketball player like my uncle or a farmer like my granddad. In the process, I had three broken noses and three concussions and played in 10 countries. Not being able to make it and then making it (in the NBA) made me feel like I was representing my faith and my family.
EC: Your brothers followed in your footsteps by winning state championships, being named Indiana Mr. Basketball, having standout college careers and playing in the NBA. Have those similarities brought you closer? Did they lead to any sibling rivalry as they grew up?
Luke: We’ve always been close and put family first. Tyler and Cody were best men at my wedding. It’s been cool to share experiences. We’ve gone through it together and through it we’ve built a bond. We all talk quite a bit. There was sibling rivalry, but it was always just among us. We were taught in my family to stand up for each other.
EC: What made you start DistinXion? What sets it apart from other basketball camps?
Luke: It started when I was a student in the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame. I was a business management/entrepreneur major and wrote a business plan on a basketball camp. I’d done a lot of (basketball) camps and wanted to put character and the traditional basketball camp together. My senior year, I entered my plan in a competition for social/mission-driven ventures. I ended up placing in the top 18. Everything really started with DistinXion though after I finished college.
EC: Your family is heavily involved in the running of DistinXion. What does family mean to you?
Luke: Having my parents (Steve and Lorri) involved is awesome. My wife (Hope) is also involved, which is unbelievable. She runs our cheerleading camps. Due to their schedules, Tyler (currently playing for the Boston Celtics) and Cody (who currently plays for the Charlotte Hornets) can’t be as involved. My parents felt strongly this was the place for them to be. We have a gym in Washington, Indiana, (where the elder Zellers live and the Zeller boys grew up) that they open six nights a week. They also do speaking engagements and have written a book. Dad also gives wonderful leadership talks at our DistinXion camps.
Zeller program is more than just a sports camp
“Basketball is something that is definitely a segue to life,” says Indiana basketball standout Luke Zeller in the introductory video to the basketball training program — DistinXion — that he created and operates with his family.
What makes this training and youth camp program distinct among sports camps is that DistinXion — which also includes Luke’s brothers Tyler and Cody, parents Steve and Lorri, and wife Hope on staff — combines elite baskeball and cheerleading instruction with lessons on leadership, character building, work ethic and more. “If you learn that through basketball, it’s fantastic because for the rest of life that’ll apply and be able to help you out when you have a job or when you have a family,” Luke says.
The Zeller Family program teaches the life skills by focusing on nine principles grouped in an acronym the Zellers call “CHAMPIONS” posted on their gymnasium wall (right).
DistinXion, a nonprofit 501(C)3 organization, offers a variety of programs to communities across the nation to fulfill the mission of providing elite athletic training, as well as elite character training. Programs include basketball and cheerleading summer camps, as well as private training, group training, team training, speaking appearances and basketball tournaments.
DistinXion’s goals are outlined in a trifecta model including:
• developing character and sport skills;
• facilitating relationships with campers, parents, partners, coaches and sponsors;
• empowering others physically, relationally and spiritually.
For information about the programs and the dates and locations of the camps remaining for 2015, visit www.DistinXion.org. You can also get information by calling 812-250-9594.
Below are some photos from the DistinXIon camp in Sullivan, Indiana, that the Electric Consumer staff attended in July as part of this story.