Sibling Rivalry

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

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.

One night during my rookie year with the Hornets, my oldest brother Luke came down to Charlotte to watch Tyler and me play. In a restaurant the night before the game, a little girl came running up with a pen and paper asking for an autograph. I had only been in Charlotte for a few months but Tyler had started for the Tar Heels when they won a National Championship a few years before. She looked at the three of us and handed the paper to Tyler. He smiled, signed it and slapped me on the back, “This is still my state.”

That’s what you have to get used to when you’re the youngest sibling.

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Once the youngest, always the youngest. As the baby of the family, I grew up having to scrap and claw for attention. Bending the rules, finding the loopholes. My parents have always said that if the three of us walked into a room, Luke, who’s a businessman now, would introduce himself to everyone in the room. Tyler would be off the the corner because he’s the quieter, more thoughtful one. And I would be trying to pull a prank on every person in the room. That’s the job of the youngest sibling, or at least it was for me.

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In high school, I was in the shadow of Luke and Tyler. They had both won state championships before me. To this day, Luke still holds our high school’s all-time scoring record. Tyler was dominant. When I was a freshman and Tyler was a senior, I got to play varsity. But I didn’t get much time — maybe I averaged 5 points a game. The annual tournament was a big deal and that year, in the first game, Tyler came out and had something like 35 points, 15 rebounds and 5 dunks — in three quarters. Just a huge game. The gym was completely full — seven thousand people in the crowd. We’d built up a lead, so they put me in. People knew me as the youngest Zeller brother. Maybe they had high hopes for me for the future, but I was still just a freshman. The crowd wasn’t expecting what happened next.

Late in the fourth quarter, I got a steal and went in and dunked it on the fast break. It was my first ever dunk in a high school game. The crowd went crazy and gave me a standing ovation.

In the car after the game, Tyler was driving me home. (I didn’t even have my learner’s permit yet.) He had just put up monster numbers and he was heading to North Carolina the next year, but all he could think about was his 14-year-old brother’s dunk. “I had 35 in three quarters and you get a standing O for one weak dunk? That’s ridiculous.”

Like I said, as the youngest you have to scrap and claw to get attention. When you get that attention? Yeah, it feels good.

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A lot of people want to make the sibling rivalry a big thing — some sort of bitter rivalry — especially in the media. People always wonder, Do you guys talk trash to each other? Not as much as we did when we were in elementary school. My mom always says that our biggest rivalries happened not on the driveway, but on the Nerf hoop in our bedrooms. As kids, Tyler used to stand in front of the Nerf hoop and block every single one of my shots. I remember crying because Tyler was relentless with the blocks. There’s still a huge dent in the wall of our childhood house from an indoor basketball game that went a little too far.

People always wonder, Do you guys talk trash to each other?

Now that we’re in the NBA together, the reality is that we are different players with different games playing on different teams. We don’t even always guard each other when our teams face. As Tyler’s brother, I know him best and I know that, actually, trash talk is the worst strategy. That’s something that wakes up the beast in him. He goes to another level. So I bother him by doing the opposite — joking around. It’s the little brother prankster attitude that has the best chance of throwing him off.

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That’s always been my approach to our sibling relationships. I see it as my job to keep things light. I keep them loose. When the three of us are together, the most common question we get is, How tall are you? What’s funny is, I don’t even think people listen to the answer. They’re just excited to ask the question. So sometimes I like to give different heights for each of us, even though we’re all more or less the same height.

“Luke’s 7’4”, I’m 6’5” and Tyler is 6’9”.”

The person usually just smiles and nods, feeling satisfied with the answer. Almost without fail, there’s a follow-up question: So wait, is it annoying when people ask you how tall you are?

We like to have fun with the mistaken identity thing, too. People are always shouting “Go Heels!” at me from across the street and asking Tyler about being an Indiana Hoosier. Am I saying that I’ve signed Celtics jerseys with “Tyler Zeller” when I’ve been approached by a fan who thinks I’m my brother? Not gonna say for sure. Is it true there are Hoosier hats out there with Tyler’s best attempt at my signature on them? Again, no comment.

I’m slightly less thankful to them for all the hand-me-down clothes.

For all the scrapping you do as the youngest sibling, there’s nothing like having two brothers to show you the way. It’s like having two lifelines. Tyler and Luke were always three to six years ahead on the road I wanted to travel down. I could call Luke or Tyler about something important at any hour and they’d pick up, ready to give out advice. During a recruiting trip, for example, I’d call Tyler or Luke and ask, Is this coach being truthful or giving me BS? As a young pro, I’d ask them about the transition from college to the NBA. They’d know because they’d been there before.

I’m slightly less thankful to them for all the hand-me-down clothes. I don’t think I owned a new pair of jeans until I was 18 years old.

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Being competitive for all these years has brought us closer and it’s probably made us less competitive with each other, in a way. The way we were raised is: you can beat up on each other when you’re inside the house, but once you’re outside the house, you better stand up for each other. My dad always said that and we’ve carried that with us. I think that’s grown on us over the years.

Don’t get me wrong, we like to compete — we’re a basketball family.

Don’t get me wrong, we like to compete — we’re a basketball family. My mom played D-III ball and her brother played for the Pistons. My dad was a basketball and football player. One thing people always ask is, Which brother would win in a game of one-on-one? It’s tough to say because we don’t like to play traditional one-on-one games. We like to turn everything into a game scenario. So, Luke would win in a game where you can only shoot threes. He’s the best pure shooter of all of us. If we play from the post, with a two dribble rule, Tyler usually wins those. If we play from the elbow with a five-second shot clock, I’ll usually win those. I like to say that as the youngest, I’m the best because I’ve borrowed the best skills from both Luke and Tyler combined. Luke and Tyler would definitely not agree with that statement, but I’ll still continue to say it.

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I’m thinking back to that night at the restaurant in Charlotte when I was a rookie. We had a big group of friends and it was a fancy place and at the end of the meal, Tyler decided that he and I should split the bill.

A nice big brother thing to do, am I right?

The next day, it was our first NBA game facing off and we met in the center jump circle for the jump ball. The ref was loving it. He stepped between us, “Alright, everyone get in here for a family picture.”

Later in the game, after a timeout, the ref came up to us and asked us who paid for the meal the night before. Little did he know. Tyler told him we split it and the ref just gave Tyler the hardest time for the rest of the game. “Your brother is a rookie and been in the league for two months and you’re already making him split the bill?” When Tyler got called for an obvious charge that he thought was a block, the ref ran past him and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t have split dinner.”

I know it got under Tyler’s skin a little bit. That’s what younger brothers are for.

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