For the past four years, Cody Zeller has been determined to make this weekend a reality.
By Saturday, he’ll be an Indiana University graduate.
Zeller, who left IU after his sophomore season to begin his NBA career, will return to Bloomington this weekend to accept his bachelor’s degree in management from the Kelley School of Business.
For the Charlotte Hornets forward, it’s time to finish what he started when he first arrived on IU’s campus in 2011.
“I’m a competitive person and academics have always been important to me, so it was important to finish up, whether it took four extra years or after my career was over,” said Zeller, who was an Academic All-American in addition to earning All-American honors on the court. “I was determined to finish.”
Doing so was manageable, though it required patience.
Zeller estimates he left Indiana 35 credits shy of graduating in 2013, when he opted to declare for the NBA Draft after his sophomore year. After Charlotte drafted him with the fourth overall pick, Zeller enrolled in online courses, but only took one class per quarter while juggling the daily duties of professional basketball.
During the NBA season, Zeller would plan ahead and often try complete as much work as possible while the Hornets were on the road.
“The one night of the week I’d spend in a hotel room, if I didn’t know anybody in that city, I’d just open up my laptop and knock out the work for that week. It really wasn’t too bad, just one or two nights a week. I’m definitely glad I made it through and I’ll be able to call myself a Kelley grad.”
The completion of Zeller’s studies is consistent with the lifetime degree guarantee outlined in IU’s Student-Athlete Bill of Rights, which was introduced in 2014. Under the athletic department’s “Hoosiers for Life” program, IU commits to covering undergraduate tuition for any former athlete who left school early to pursue a professional career, tend to a family emergency or for another compelling reason.
The athlete must have played at least two seasons at IU and left the school in good standing, among other requirements.
While completing his coursework remotely, Zeller said he appreciated the cooperation of those back in Bloomington, especially during last year’s first-round playoff series with the Miami Heat.
His business studies also provided a welcome distraction from the pressures of a seven-game series.
“It was kind of a relief for me to work on my schoolwork throughout the playoff series because basketball was on my mind so much that it kind of gave me a chance to step back and get my mind on something else,” Zeller said. “I emailed one of the professors before Game 5 and said, ‘Hey, I have a game tonight and a paper due. Would you mind giving me a day or two extension?’
“He just wrote me back a long message saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll be watching you tonight on TNT. Don’t worry about the coursework. Finish it after the series if you want.’ It’s been cool to get to know some of the professors. They’ve all been great about understanding the circumstances.”
Zeller also credits the additional assistance of Marni Meunier, IU’s assistant athletic director for retention and learning services, who works as an academic advisor for the men’s basketball program.
“She was my point person back in Bloomington, so if I ever needed anything, help scheduling a class or whatever, she was always quick to help,” Zeller said. “Marni is huge for the basketball program with all that she does for the academic side of things, but even when I left she was a huge part in helping me finish this.”
Zeller isn’t sure how he’ll put his degree to use once his basketball career is over. He is sure, however, that participating in the business school ceremony on Friday evening will be a point of pride on par with committing to IU to play basketball in 2010 and taking the stage on draft night in 2013.
To Zeller, this weekend might be even sweeter.
“It’s something that I’ve worked hard for,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of receiving all the recognition for all my athletic accolades or anything else, but I told someone that I’m actually pretty proud of this one. It’s been pretty inconvenient and it’s been a lot of hard work to get to this point, but I’m glad that I finally made it. I’m excited to be back for graduation and be able to walk and enjoy the experience.”