The Reason We Wear Number 40

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Cody Zeller, Center / Charlotte Hornets - The Players' Tribune

My sophomore year in college, Indiana had a road game at Iowa, which meant my grandfather, who was 88 years old at the time and lived in Iowa, got to come to see me play. After the game, I introduced him to Coach Crean. I told Coach all about how Grandpa won a state championship in high school. I told him about how Grandpa has been a farmer all his life. And I told him that Grandpa is the reason my brothers and I wear the number 40 on the court.

Coach treated Grandpa like a celebrity. They shook hands and said goodbye. I was proud.

The next day we were in a long film session and Coach Crean was yelling and screaming at us for how we played. Half way through the game tape, he stopped and said, “Turn on the lights for a second.” An assistant coach flipped the lights on.

Everyone was like, Oh boy, we’re in trouble. What’s about to happen?

“Did anyone shake Cody’s grandpa’s hand yesterday?” Coach said.

A few of us nodded.

“Damn! His hands are about as big as five counties in Indiana.”

Coach made a wincing face. We all busted up.

“Alright, turn off the lights,” Coach said, and we went on with the film session.

Anyone who’s ever met my grandpa talks about his hands. The first thing you’re gonna get when you meet him is a firm handshake. Maybe firm doesn’t even do it justice. Still today, he’s the only person I can shake hands with and actually feel like I have a tiny hand. To give you an idea, Grandpa has a size 16 ring.

Grandpa’s got those Iowa farmer hands. Tough, calloused, massive farmer hands. For more than 60 years (yes, 60), he used those hands to farm his land. Grandpa’s hands were his tools and his livelihood.

Listen

I thought if I had a lower number it would make me look faster.

Luke Zeller describes being the first of his brothers to wear the number 40 jersey in high school. (0:21)

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This weekend, my grandpa turns 92. My brothers, Luke and Tyler, and I are all flying out to Iowa to celebrate his birthday with him. The three of us have all worn number 40 our whole careers to honor the number our grandpa wore when he won a high school state championship in 1942.

So a few days ago, I rounded up my brothers on a conference call. For a little background, my oldest brother is Luke. He’s five years older than I am. Tyler’s in the middle, two years older. As busy as life is, the three of us actually don’t all get to talk on the phone as much as we’d like. But this was really important to us.

If you’re fortunate enough to get to know a grandparent — as I’m sure many of you have been — I think you’ll be able to relate to our admiration for our Grandpa Marvin.

Cody: Hello?

Luke: Are we all here?

Cody: Tyler’s late for the call. He’s been in the woods.

Luke: Doing who-knows-what.

Tyler: I’m here, I just had y’all on mute. For the record, I’ve been in the woods hunting for the last week. Sorry if I have real hobbies. Cody’s the one who slept in until 2 p.m. today.

Luke: Not a lie. Cody texted me last night to make sure I woke him up for this call.

Tyler: Dude, we gotta get you a puppy or something to take care of.

Cody: Maybe a goldfish. I better start small. OK, so we all know why we’re here. In a couple days we fly to Iowa for Grandpa’s 92nd birthday. I thought we’d just sit back and celebrate the man he is. To honor Grandpa and his state championship in 1942, Luke was the first to wear number 40.

Tyler: Then Luke won his own state championship.

Cody: On a half-court shot at the buzzer. Then he won Mr. Basketball in Indiana.

Luke: I do not object to these facts. Please go on…

Tyler: Our high school wanted to retire Luke’s number 40 immediately. So as the second oldest, it was all on me to prove I was worthy of wearing it. Basically, I begged the coach. I didn’t even make JV my freshman year.

Luke: Tyler eventually had a growth spurt and went on to win two state titles and Mr. Basketball as well.

Tyler: Then came baby Cody.

Cody: Yeah, the baby who broke all his brothers’ records. Well, OK, most of them.

Luke: The point is, we were lucky to all get to wear number 40 in high school, and now the jersey is hanging in the rafters of the Hatchet House and it’ll never be worn again.

Cody: We’re all so proud to have kept Grandpa legacy alive with that number. That’s why I thought he’d appreciate us coming together to talk about memories. Other than us attending his birthday, it’s the only gift he’d really accept from us.

Tyler: A rare good idea from Cody.

Luke: That’s a perfect gift for him. Grandpa is as old school as they come. He grew up through the Depression. This is a guy who was a farmer from age 15 to age 75. Never owned a cell phone. Doesn’t even know how to look up our box scores on the Internet. What are we going to get him, a Netflix subscription?

Cody: Good point. I remember each year grandpa used to send us a dollar for each year old that we were.

Luke: Yeah, but he stopped when we were 15. After that it was a flat rate.

Grandpa is as old school as they come. This is a guy who was a farmer from age 15 to age 75. What are we going to get him, a Netflix subscription?

Tyler: Cody leaves out the part about how he used to get more money than me each year because his birthday is in October and mine is in January. One year when Cody was a teenager, Grandpa just rounded up and gave him a $20 bill, which was a huge deal. I was so excited when my card came in the mail in January, until I opened it up and found $5 and a stale piece of gum! Unbelievable.

Cody: Maybe I’m his favorite. My first year in the NBA, instead of sending money, he mailed a promotional ad of him as the poster boy for the gym at his apartment complex. He was still getting recognized for being a top athlete even at 90.

Luke: So he’s their model? That’s incredible. I’m not surprised. If you visit Grandpa at his apartment, he’s basically the mayor of the place. He’s best friends with everyone in the building. At dinners, he becomes the center of attention because he makes a point of involving everyone.

Tyler: It’s like Grandpa’s taunting you in that picture: I’m in the gym, Cody, why are you still asleep at 2 p.m.?

Grandpa Poster Boy

Cody: Let’s get back on track. I want to talk more about Grandpa, the baller.

Luke: Mom reminded me of this unbelievable article from Grandpa’s local paper. It’s from 1942, the day after their state championship in basketball. There’s a quote about the team’s “slow-breaking” offense. I kid you not.

Cody: Oh yeah, the article said something like, “Lanky Marvin Eberhard led the team’s slow-breaking offense.”

Luke: I guess we knew where we got the “lanky” from.

Tyler: Slow-breaking! Is that even a real phrase? Classic.

Cody: Back then, if you played fast-paced, you were hotdogging. Behind-the-back passes and between the legs dribbling were majorly frowned upon. So I guess it was a big compliment.

Luke: It says here that the final score of the state championship was 42-26.

Tyler: A blowout.

Sidenotes

I actually had to convince my high school coach to let me wear #40.

Tyler Zeller has a hard time keeping the tradition of wearing the jersey after his brother Luke’s success. (0:52)

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Cody: Grandpa never talks about that championship. Humility has always been something I’ve admired about him. As proud as he was about that state championship, he’s never bragged about it once. He was always most proud of his family and his work on the farm.

Luke: Some of my best memories were on that farm. We would always travel to Iowa for Spring Break. While all my classmates were going to Florida and lying on the beach, we would go to Iowa and often get snowed in.

Cody: The farm was everything you could want as a kid. We’d always mess around on the farm equipment, shoot shotguns, play cards. He used to open up the grain silo and let us play in there. There was infinite land to explore.

Tyler: We’d ride tractors.

Luke: Hold on. For The Players’ Tribune audience: When Tyler and Cody say that we rode tractors, they mean sitting in the barn pretending to ride the tractors. Grandpa didn’t give them the keys or anything.

Cody: True, true.

Tyler: Remember Grandpa’s John Deere tractors? He kept those pristine.

Cody: Oh yeah. He treated them like Cadillacs. He waxed and polished them. Always had them sparkling.

Luke: He always prided himself on being a good farmer. In doing things the right way and finishing the job the started. On the details. His fields were free from weeds, and his rows were straight.

Tyler: Most of all, what I remember is how he helped out neighbors all the time. If their tractor was stuck in the mud or they needed help fixing something.

Cody: He has always believed that relationships are the most important asset you can have. He used to help out neighbors all the time, and they’d in turn help if he needed it.

Luke: Reminds me of something a professor I had in college said. An ecology class. He taught us that we’re similar to animals in almost every way except for one: Humans give to others without expecting anything in return.

Cody: He did make us work, though. Didn’t matter if we were nine or 10 years old. We learned that if you tag along with Grandpa, who knows what projects you’d get up to — but you’d work hard. He taught us at an early age about the value of a strong work ethic — being able to make a difference with hard work.

Luke: I think we have always tried to play basketball with that idea in mind.

Grandpa was one tough dude. I think the heart attack story is pretty appropriate here.

Tyler: Definitely. He taught me about being your own boss. Grandpa was his own business before we knew what a business even was. What he put in, he got out.

Cody: There was no such thing as a sick day.

Luke: Now that I’m older, I understand a little more about it: He believed work itself had value. It didn’t matter what you did in life — as long as you always did it all-out. Farming, banking, basketball, whatever it is. You see somebody like that and you’re inspired to make a difference in your own life. I’m inspired to teach my kids the same values: To take extreme ownership over your life — whether it’s diving for a loose ball, or it’s your grades in school or it’s taking care of your family, like Tyler and I have. And hopefully Cody will meet a lucky lady in the next decade.

Tyler: I give Cody ‘til 2040 to get married.

Luke: Like I said, let’s just start with a puppy first.

Cody: A nice little Golden Doodle, maybe?

Tyler: I don’t want to overdo this because Grandpa never asked for compliments, but he was one tough dude. I think the heart attack story is pretty appropriate here.

Luke: Oh yeah. Wow. It’s unreal. You want to tell it?

Tyler: You got it.

Luke: OK, so one day — Grandpa was in his seventies at this point and still working in the field every day — he came in from the farm and said, “My chest kinda hurts.” My mom made him go to the doctor. In the middle of some tests, he got up and said, “I’m tired of waiting, let’s go home.” So he left and the hospital called and said, “Marvin is having a heart attack, you better bring him back here!”

Cody: Didn’t Grandpa say, “I don’t feel like it. I’m taking a nap!”?

Luke: Yup. It’s a wise man who appreciates a nap. So finally mom convinced him to go back to the hospital — and sure enough, he had been having a heart attack. He went right into surgery and got a couple stints put in.

Cody: He was in a wheelchair in the hospital, popping wheelies, saying to the nurses, “I feel fine. Let me go home.”

Tyler: He was trying to race other people down the hallway.

Luke: He had so many one-liners to the nurses.

Cody: Grandpa’s a legend with his one-liners. He’s really, really funny. A lot of them are crude so I can’t really repeat them here.

Luke: Come one, you can give one example.

Cody: Mom will probably make us take this out, but here goes. In high school, Grandpa would make it to a game or two a year. The JV played before the varsity, so my parents and Grandpa would usually arrive around halftime of the JV game. My mom was really involved in school so she used to sit with all the teachers. Out of nowhere, Grandpa said, “You know, this JV game is kind of like foreplay.” Everyone looked over at him. All the teachers and everyone. Grandpa proceeded to explain: “It just kills time and doesn’t really accomplish anything.”

Luke: I love it. No filter. Grandpa has no filter.

Cody: He was always hilarious about following our basketball careers. When we got to the NBA, Grandpa used to watch a lot of our games on TV, but now that he’s in an apartment, he only gets the Bulls games on his local package. It’s always a little extra special when we play the Bulls, so I call him a day or two after a game to see if he watched.

Luke: I think he cheers for the Bulls occasionally.

Cody: Oh, definitely. Just to mess with us. One time Tyler was playing the Bulls and he got in foul trouble in the first half, so he sat most of it. Grandpa was mad. He told mom, “I didn’t appreciate seeing Tyler sitting on the bench, so I decided to go to bed at halftime.” He was so upset to see his grandson on the bench, it wasn’t worth staying up past his bedtime.

Tyler: Funny thing is, I went on to have a double-double that game.

Cody: That’s right! I’ve got a similar story. Last year we played the Bulls but I was injured, so Mom called him to let him know he didn’t have to watch. But Grandpa didn’t respond with “I’m sorry to hear that, I was looking forward to seeing him play,” or something like that. Instead he said, “Oh, I wasn’t planning on watching it anyway. The Springville Fish Fry is Friday. Can’t miss that.”

Tyler: He could’ve at least played it off…

Luke: But has Grandpa ever played anything off? He always says what he thinks.

Luke: His matter-of-factness probably comes from the same place his work ethic does.

Tyler: I think we might be underselling his love for basketball. Uncle Al — his son — played in the NBA. So Grandpa knew the value of sports and what it could do for people. But he was old school in the sense that he believed if you had good values as a person, those values would translate onto the court. And vice versa.

Luke: When Uncle Al was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the University of Missouri, Al talked about how, no matter how tired Grandpa got from working on the farm, he was never too tired to shoot hoops with his son.

Tyler: I loved shooting around on the concrete slab out back of the farm. With the little wooden backboard.

Cody: Before we go, I thought we could all share one last story about Grandpa.

Luke: The funniest story I remember is the one about mom and dad dating in high school. They met when they were 16. He was obviously a protective father of his only daughter. The first night that my dad came over, he met Grandpa and asked him what time he needed to have his daughter home by. Dad was drinking a soda out of the can — for whatever reason — and he set it down. “Have her home by nine o’clock,” Grandpa said, as he flicked the can with his index finger. The way Mom and Dad remember it, Grandpa basically crushed the can with one flick of his finger.

Tyler: So Dad had Mom home by 8:59 p.m.?

Luke: Exactly.

Cody: What about the prom story? They were all dressed up for prom night, and Grandpa was farming. He came in from the field and complimented them on how good they looked. As they were leaving Grandpa said, “Hey you two, don’t do anything tonight you’re going to regret nine months from now. Good night!” He was smiling the whole time.

Luke: He’s got a way about him of upholding his values but delivering them through humor. He’s got a gift for that that I haven’t ever seen duplicated.

Cody: That’s why he’s the mayor of his apartment complex.

Tyler: I think what jumps to mind is how much he loved to just spend time with people. It’s a simple quality but maybe his best. He loved games of any type, but especially card games. Every time we’d go over to his house, we’d sit around the dining room table and we’d play all kinds of different card games. He was a fierce competitor, but I think it wasn’t about winning. He just loved to sit around the table and spend time chatting with people. You see that passed down to my parents — and to us, I hope.

Cody: Probably the most memorable thing Grandpa says to me is, “When are you going to get a real job?”

Tyler: Me too. All the time.

Luke: I finally do have a real job, boys.

Cody: Most people on the outside might guess that Grandpa would be most proud of us because we’re in the NBA and we’re on TV and all of that. But more than anything, I think he’s proud of us for how we carry ourselves and the men we’ve become.

Sidenotes

It carried a lot of pressure because Luke and Tyler had great careers.

Cody Zeller shares the honor of wearing #40 with his brothers in celebration of his grandfather. (0:36)

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Tyler: Yeah. He couldn’t have cared less about the NBA, honestly. We were all lucky enough to play in the NBA, and Grandpa is our biggest fan, but he’s interested to see what we’ll do with our lives. It’s bigger than basketball.

Cody: It goes back to his work ethic. Doesn’t matter what you do, it’s that you do it well and try your hardest.

Luke: I agree with all of that and just want to add one more thing. The notion of people knowing our last name is a nice compliment and we appreciate that love. But there’s also the notion that we’re normal people that happen to be talented at a game. He taught us, and still teaches us, the balance between confidence and humility: Not to be meek in our talents and abilities, but rather to know that they came from a place of faith and family and our own grit and resilience to get there. He’s demonstrated that. Our work just happens to be basketball. But to be honest, I think we learned just as much as what life’s about from watching Grandpa be a farmer. It just happens that farmers don’t get on ESPN every morning. And you don’t have a Top 10 highlight show on how he made straight rows in the fields at 5 a.m.

Cody: But maybe there should be one.

Tyler: SportsCenter, get on it.

Cody: Alright, about time to wrap up? I’ve got to take a nap.

Luke: The offseason is tough, huh?

Tyler: Don’t get mad ‘cause you’re old.

Luke: Wise. You must mean to say wise. See you boys at the party. I’m excited to show him this article.

Cody: Me too. Happy birthday, Grandpa. You’re the original #40.

Tyler: Maybe a better gift would be a wedding for his youngest grandson?

Cody: I’m working on it, I’m working on it.

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