My Awkward Phone Call With Michael Jordan

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

The first time I met Michael Jordan, I might have big-timed him. Maybe. Not sure, but might I have. Let me explain.

It was NBA Draft Day 2013 and up to that last minute I honestly didn’t know who would draft me. All the way up until David Stern called my name. My brothers Luke and Tyler, who had both gone through the process, told me from the year before that our agent would be able to tell me a couple minutes before the official announcement. He would get a call or text from the team. But when Charlotte came up on the clock for the fourth pick, still no phone call. I figured Charlotte had passed on me. (My agent later told me that he already knew a couple minutes before but he just wanted me to sweat it out. To be fair, I probably deserved it after all the pranks that I have played on him.)

I was hoping that Charlotte would draft me because it’s a great city and was going to be a perfect opportunity to play right away. My workout in Charlotte went well and my interview was fairly easy. I was surprised by how easy it was, actually, which made me a little suspicious. But you never know what teams really think because it’s a game GMs sometimes play with each other. I’ve heard stories of teams promising three or four players that they would draft them with their one pick. I think maybe Charlotte was worried that if they were too obvious that they liked me and wanted to draft me, then one of the three teams in front of them would draft me and ask for a lot in return in a trade. Only a few days before the draft Orlando, who had the second pick, flew me in to workout. Maybe it was strategy, maybe it was all just a game. It’s crazy how much of a business the NBA is.

OK, the MJ story.

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Right after I shook hands with David Stern, I was handed a phone. Standard procedure for the draftee to talk to the front office of their new team. The Charlotte PR guy told me three people would come on the line, first Rod Higgins (the president of basketball operations), then Rich Cho (the general manager) and finally Michael Jordan (uh, no intro needed). Suddenly I got really nervous and excited — I was going to get a chance to talk to Michael himself. Remember, I didn’t know Charlotte would take me, so I hadn’t considered the Michael Jordan conversation until that moment. And I’m only 21. This is Michael Jordan.

The next thought was: can we speed through everyone so I can talk to MJ?

So I talked to Rod Higgins for about a minute. I don’t remember much, I just remember being a little short with him. I wasn’t being rude, but I was just trying to get to #23. “Thanks for the opportunity, I look forward to playing for such a great organization,” etc. Rod said, “Alright, I’m going to pass on the phone. Congrats and welcome to the team.” Next on the phone was Rich, the GM. Rich was the one that I had talked with the most in the organization up to that point, so I recognized his voice. But again, I just said some pleasantries and raced through it — because MJ was next. “Thank you for the opportunity. I look forward to playing for the Bobcats,” etc. Let’s get on with it. I was imagining what I’d say to Michael. I’d tell him he was the best ever. I’d tell him how I watched him my whole life. I’d tell him how I admired his business skills. For the 14-year-old Cody Zeller, it was all a dream.

Then he said “Alright, I’m going to pass the phone on to Rich…”

I froze. That meant it was Michael Jordan on the line. He had gone out of order. I scrambled to say, “Thank you Mr. Jordan” — or maybe I just said, “OK.” I have no idea. I had just rambled on for a minute to the best basketball player ever and I didn’t even know it was him.

In the two years since I joined the Bobcats, a lot of people have asked me what it’s like interacting with MJ. It’s been great. The players all see him in the halls or in the training room or at practice (sometimes he likes to sit on the bench and talk to the refs). But I still think of that draft night phone call. Until now I’ve never really told anyone — because you never want to be known for big-timing His Airness.

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NBA Draft Interviews

Draft Day brings back a lot of other memories. This was my thought this year: the physical side of the NBA Draft gets all the publicity. Everyone talks about the workouts and the combine and all the stats and figures under the sun. You hear about the vertical jump, the three-quarter court sprint (our version of the 40), our height, weight, etc. (I like to play a game where I count every time an analyst refers to a draftee as “long” or “having a big upside.” It’s a lot.) The physical stuff is obviously really important. But it’s no secret inside the NBA that the team interviews are in some ways more important than the physical tests.

The NBA draft is a job interview — for most guys, this is the first and biggest job interview of their lives. In 2013 when I entered the draft, I did 14 interviews in three days. Each interview was 30 minutes long. Imagine coming out of college and going to Silicon Valley for a long weekend to interview for 14 jobs between Friday and Monday. It was fun but really exhausting. Here’s a list of my schedule to give you an idea:

6:00pm-6:30 p.m. Toronto
7:10pm-7:40 p.m. Houston
7:45pm-8:15 p.m. Portland
8:20pm-8:50 p.m. Boston

3:15pm-3:45 p.m. Utah
3:50pm-4:20 p.m. Philadelphia
5:00pm-5:30 p.m. Detroit
6:35pm-7:05 p.m. Atlanta
7:45pm-8:15 p.m. New Orleans
8:20pm-8:50 p.m. Oklahoma City

3:15pm-3:45 p.m. Orlando
3:50pm-4:20 p.m. Washington
4:25pm-4:55 p.m. Charlotte
5:00pm-5:30 p.m. San Antonio

Between the draft combine and the day of the draft, I worked out for 10 teams. Seven of them were individual workouts and three were against other guys. The workouts were all pretty much the same — various drills and exercises. The surprising part of the process was the amount of research teams do on the draftees. It’s like you’re running for president. They do background checks. They call your high school teachers and childhood friends. They know if you have a girlfriend or if you ever got a speeding ticket. It’s their job to know the person they might be drafting and they leave no stone unturned.

The player interviews are the last piece of the puzzle. Here are some notes from my interview experience:

1) Dress for the job you want. After my first few interviews on day one, I was sweating like crazy. I had asked a stylist what to wear and she suggested a green collared shirt, but in my excitement I forgot to wear an undershirt. Big mistake. It was really hot in the hotel rooms where the interviews happened, so I had armpit stains and was sweating all over. As embarrassing as it was, it actually ended up being a good ice breaker as the day went on. Teams would say things like, “Wow! Who interviewed you before us?! They must’ve asked some tough questions!” or “Were you running sprints in the hallway?!” The moral of the story is: be prepared to deal with fashion disasters — and never forget an undershirt.

2) Do your research. Toronto was my first interview so I didn’t know what to expect. They asked the only question that stumped me all week with a seemingly simple one:

Raptors GM: “What do you know about Toronto?”
Me: “Ummmmmm, it’s in Canada…”
(Blank stares)
Me: “Ummmmmm, they have high taxes?”

Moral of the story: Know a few details about the job you’re interviewing for. (Duh.) And to all the Canadian readers out there, I’ve got love! Now that I’ve visited more times, I know all kinds of facts about your city. All kinds. I swear.

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3) Things might get weird. One GM just looked at his phone for the whole interview. Never really looked my way. “OK, Cody, we’re going to act like you aren’t here,” one of them said. “You can’t talk or make any comments. We are going to talk amongst ourselves about you.” So I sat in the room as they talked about my strengths and weaknesses and concerns about my game. Now in retrospect, I know they were trying to rattle me, but at the time it was really weird. During my workout with the same team a few weeks before, I learned that they had just brought in all the guys that I had struggled against in college. Even if they weren’t considering drafting the other guys, I think they wanted to make sure it was tough as possible on me. Moral of the story: job interviews will test your patience and poise, but you’ve just gotta stick it out. It’s not personal.

4) Don’t worry if they don’t know your name. One GM, when I walked into the room, shook my hand and welcomed me as one of my brothers. “Hey Tyler! Thanks for coming!” Another person in the room stuck out his hand and said, “Luke… it’s a pleasure to meet you.” They kept it up for the interview. Moral of the story: to some people, your name will always be “the youngest Zeller.”

5) Things might get even weirder. The executives from one team just sweared at me and berated me for 30 minutes straight. I kid you not. My coach in college didn’t cuss much so they wanted to see if I could handle a little heat. This was probably my craziest interview. They acted like I had never heard a cuss word before. “How the F does a first round pick only get eight rebounds per game?!” … “There’s no F’ing chance we would draft you” … “You’ll never be as tough as Trevor Mbakwe.” (This was a reference to a game teams brought up a lot because he was strong and a similar size to an NBA big guy. I had 25 and 11 the first time that we played in college, but we got upset in the second matchup and I only had nine points or something.)

6) You may get homework. One team, I won’t say who, did the most research out of any team. I was telling them about my academics and said, “I had a 3.4 GPA in college,” but they stopped me mid sentence and said, “3.44.” I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that they proceeded to give me homework. They had a big dry erase board in the room and said, “Take that marker and write on the board everything that you are going to bring to our team. If we draft you then we will hold you to each one.”

7) Be proficient in Microsoft Excel. When I worked out in Portland, they changed my workout time four times that day. I was just sitting in my hotel room all day waiting to workout. When I showed up to the facility it looked like the president was there. Three black SUVs outside, guards standing around, the whole thing. Then I found out that Paul Allen, the CEO of Microsoft, had flown in from Seattle on his helicopter to watch the workout. After I found that out, I forgave the Blazers for the delay. At the end of the workout I talked with him and we ended up discussing Microsoft Excel and Access. I had taken two classes in college and enjoyed them both (thank you Kelley School of Business!). Later that night, after Allen had left, the Blazers guys said, “We can confidently report that you are the first draftee that has ever talked Microsoft Excel with Paul Allen.” I couldn’t tell whether that helped my draft status or not.

8) How’s your math?

“What’s two and two?”

That’s what one team’s executive said to me, really fast. Um, I stalled. There had to be a trick. I knew they liked to throw guys puzzles and riddles to see how we handle logic.

“Four,” I said.

“Correct, what else is two and two?” They said.

Umm. More stalling.

“A .500 record … two wins and two losses?” I said.

“Good. We just wanted to see that you could come up with more than one.”

“Sweet, now you can draft me?”


Sibling Rivalry

I’m Cody, but you’ve probably accidentally called me Tyler. It’s OK. I forgive you. When you come from a family with three brothers who are 7-feet-tall and have all played in the NBA, that kind of thing comes with the territory.

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