Nothing to prove, Cupps long ago learned what makes a coach great

When the old coach taped his young point guard’s ankle, he wasn’t finished until he wrote “Shoot the ball!” on the tape. The player, Brook Cupps, needed the confidence and love his coach gave him.

What Cupps didn’t know then that he knows now is that the old coach did little things for every player.

“His best attribute was his ability to make every guy feel special about what they brought to the team,” Cupps said. “He’s taping a 16-year-old, average high school basketball player’s ankle on a Friday night. He was never above anything.”

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The old coach was Dave Zeller, a man who had been a better basketball player than any player he ever coached. He starred at Tecumseh High School in the late 1950s, starred at Miami University and was Oscar Robertson’s backup for one year with the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals.

Cupps was a sophomore on Zeller’s first team at Graham High School. Zeller had already coached at Northeastern in the ’60s and at Piqua for 23 years before retiring from teaching and coming to Graham for another eight years. He won many league titles, over 500 games and reached several district finals.

“Z never won a district,” Cupps said. “Best coach I’ve ever been around. A state championship isn’t success. It’s the impact you have on the kids because nobody’s going to tell me that those guys that won state championships are better coaches than Z was. You’re not convincing me of that.”

Cupps is one of those coaches now. His Centerville team won the Division I state championship last Sunday in a 43-42 emotional thriller against Westerville Central at UD Arena.

“I’m definitely not here, and I’m probably not even coaching if he wasn’t who he was,” Cupps said. “Obviously poured himself into us, and what it did for me more than anything, it made me rethink how I define success.”

Cupps returned to Graham after a four-year playing career at Capital University and served on Zeller’s staff for the 1999-2000 season. Zeller retired the next year and Cupps served as head coach until coming to Centerville nine years ago.

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Cupps might be a disciple of Zeller, but he doesn’t try to be Zeller. He learned early at Graham that he must be himself. But building a legacy and passing it on – like Zeller did for so many – is something he wants to emulate.

“He prioritizes building better people rather than players,” said Gabe Cupps, the coach’s son. “And trying to make somebody a better person rather than just win games.”

Cupps enjoys winning as much as any coach and is still smiling about winning state. But he doesn’t think about goals the way most people do. His team’s preseason goals never include winning a league, district or state title. The goal is always based on a process he can reference throughout the season. This year’s goal: attack every opportunity with purpose. The legacy Cupps wants to leave is a lot like the one Zeller left: maximize what this year’s team can do and make a positive difference in the lives of every player.

“I’m trying to be more aware of what legacy I want to leave,” Cupps said. “When you’re in it, it’s hard to think about that, but the more you can the more intentional you can be.”

Zeller’s legacy now reaches deeper into Cupps’ family. Gabe is the Elks’ starting point guard, a team leader, and one of the best sophomores in Ohio. As Zeller gave Brook an opportunity to grow by reminding him to “Shoot the ball!” Brook gives his son opportunities to be dedicated to basketball and possibly a future at the highest college level.

Gabe’s obsession with the game became evident in 2008 – before he was old enough to remember – when he was crying in the hallway after Graham had lost in the Division II state semifinals. Since 2012 at Centerville, he’s been in the middle of the program from the beginning. “He was always squatted down in the huddle and we gotta shove him out of the way,” Brook said, “and he’s volunteering answers in the locker room.”

The coach’s kid was learning a lot about basketball and people were noticing. The summer before Gabe’s fifth-grade year, Brook got a call from a man in Texas encouraging Gabe to try out for an AAU team in Akron. Brook said no, but the man called back and was more persuasive this time.

So the Cupps went to Akron to try out for North Coast Blue Chips. One of the players at the tryout, and a lock to make the team, was Bronny James, the son of LeBron James. The Cupps didn’t know if Gabe would make the team, but then something important happened.

“During a water break I asked Bronny if he wanted to play one on one, and I think that’s the whole reason I made the team because they saw I had the courage to ask him,” Gabe said. “We played and traded buckets a few times, and the coaches were watching.”

Gabe and Bronny played four summers together and remain friends. After winning state, Bronny, who plays for a prep school team in Arizona, texted Gabe and congratulated him. Brook eventually helped coach the team, and so did LeBron when he was able to be there.

“One of the most important things in parenting is getting people around your kids that are willing to pour into them, and I think that’s exactly what LeBron did for Gabe,” Brook said. “He poured confidence into Gabe, and I think it has led to Gabe wanting to work and make all that stuff true that he said.”

The Cupps family traveled to tournaments around the country, won two national championships and played in front of packed gyms. That’s why Brook says he’s never worried that a big stage – even the state tournament – will bother Gabe. In the state final, Gabe scored eight points in the first quarter and finished with 16, three assists and no turnovers.

“To be able to go through this with him and be there to watch him play and watch him compete in environments like this, is just really cool,” Brook said. “I’m very blessed and lucky that I’m in that situation. Just grateful.”

During the Elks’ celebration, father and son found each other and had a long embrace. “I just told him how much I love him,” Gabe said. “He told me how much he loves me.”

When Brook realized that relationships with players – not only his son – and guiding them into adulthood mattered more than winning – a lesson he learned from watching Zeller – it changed him. It took the pressure off because he knew Zeller was a great coach even if he didn’t have any postseason trophies.

“That freed me of feeling I had to do this to prove myself,” Brook said of winning state. “I put Z on my scouting report every night, so I see it after every one of our games. He’s just a really special guy to me.”

Zeller died this past September. Brook honored his old coach by designating Zeller’s old JV coach, Rick Krecgi, and Zellar’s son, Rod, as statisticians. They watched the Elks win state from right behind the bench.

After the game and after answering 20 minutes worth of questions, Brook was asked to reflect on the legacy and memory of his old coach. A minute before, he had paused a second to be sure not to cry when asked about winning this title with his son. But when Zellar was mentioned, the pause was much longer …

“That’s gonna make me cry.”

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