Recovering from back surgery, the 2023 regular season has provided a number of ups and downs to overcome for Zellner and Owensboro.
Owensboro, Kentucky – Last February in Indianapolis, Indiana when the 2023 TBL Draft Combine rolled around, so did Brad Zellner.
At the time, the Assistant Coach for the Owensboro Thoroughbreds was two days removed from being released from the hospital after undergoing back surgery and so for three days prior to the official start of the TBL preseason, there was Zellner scooting around with the aid of a steerable knee walker. He was at the hotel on the outskirts of Indy going from conference to breakout session, and then over to combine workouts and scrimmages at The Factory at the D1 Training Facility. And while other TBL coaches, assistants, aspiring pro players and league personnel mingled freely and without care going from from court to court, the right hand man of Head Coach and General Manager, Mark Anderson, rolled from game to game while taking copious notes on players with a handful of 3×5 note cards in his hand.
By the end of the TBL Draft Combine, Zellner had a stack of cards full of ink and insight and had logged countless scooter miles, as he carefully took it one day – and one scouting report – at a time.
Now with Owensboro’s up-and-down season drawing to a close with games against Kentucky and Huntsville rounding out their 2023 regular season this weekend, Brad Zellner remains focused on providing timely and valuable tendencies on teams and players that allows the Thoroughbreds to push the tempo and get after it defensively. But will that game plan be in-tact and executed come the TBL Playoffs?
Much depends on if Owensboro (10-11) actually reaches the postseason in the competitive Lower Midwest Division. One thing is for sure: Coach Zellner stays rolling along. With a hectic and demanding schedule juggling coaching, teaching, and family responsibilities, it’s easy to see how the Hamilton, Ohio native simply keeps it moving. Yet that also makes it difficult to nail the man down for an interview about Owensboro’s wild season.
“It’s hard for me to sit down at this moment. I teach all day at Orleans Jr./Sr. High School and then make the two hour round trip drive to Owensboro for practice after work,” Coach Zellner told Around The Basketball League.
“When I get home I visit with my family, then watch game film and work on a scouting report, while I keep an eye on the NBA postseason. I finally go to sleep and do it all over again the next day.”
The next day for Zellner is only the chance to “do it all over again”, but also an opportunity to build-upon his impressive coaching resume that includes being a former Head Coach and Assistant with Women’s basketball at Oakland City University, serving as Associate Head Men’s Basketball Coach at Indiana University Southwest, teaching Health and Physical Education at Rock Creek Community Academy, and being a former teacher at Down Syndrome of Louisville. Yet across his many stops and current coaching (and teaching) gig with Orleans, this season with the Thoroughbreds is self-admittedly his biggest challenge to date. Chalk a lot of that up to Zellner’s health and Owensboro’s roster reflecting a list of walking-wounded.
“As a staff our job is to prepare the team as best as we can to compete for every game. I have never been involved in a season where so many things happen that can not be prepared for. The entire season seems like we had bad luck with injuries. Only three regular players have not been injured this year,” Coach Zellner explained.
“In 23 years of coaching I have never lost two starters to season ending surgery (Montel James, Jaiveon Eaves). Having so many injuries takes away from our chance to gel as a team in practice. We have spent a majority of this season playing short handed due to injuries. Road games have also been a challenge this season. There always seems to be an issue that arises on the road that can alter the outcome of the game. We would have to deal with those problems while preparing our team to play the game. Despite what we have dealt with this season there is still a chance to make the playoffs. Players have been a resilient group and have taken every challenge head on. No matter the outcome of the season I am proud of this team for what it has battled through.”
Listening to Zellner share his insight as a Coach, also makes you appreciate his grind and hustle as a teacher of the game that much more. If he didn’t earn mad respect for navigating the preseason terrain with the TBL Draft Combine, Coach Zellner had equally battled through to the very end.
“Recovery has been slower than expected due to extensive nerve damage but I am doing physical therapy a few times a week. I am working my way back to being fully active again. I was diagnosed with spinal stenosis over 10 years ago. Every so often I will have lower back pain, but it goes away in a few days. When my back started to bother me last December I figured in a few days I would be back to normal. For whatever reason, the pain escalated quickly. In a matter of days I went from being able to run six miles to needing a walker to steady myself. After consulting with my doctor, I decided that surgery was the best option to help relieve my symptoms.”
After going 2-5 through their first seven games and following it up by stringing together a record of 8-6 through the thick of the TBL All-Star Game break, it’s commendable what Zellner, Coach Anderson, and the Thoroughbreds (led by Lemontray Harris at 20.2 points per game, behind Eaves’ 21.7 point per game) have endured through the heartbreak of this season. It hasn’t been easy by any means.
So, has this season made Brad a better coach?
“Every year I set out to improve myself and grow as a coach. I really will not know my growth from this season until seasons later. I will say I have been forced to take a different approach to practice this season due to my back surgery. I love to be hands on and involved in drills. I have not been able to be very active so I have taken more of an observant approach to practice. Taking a less active role has been frustrating, at times, but has also allowed me to see practices differently. I am looking forward to another season when I can combine my approaches of being hands on and more observant.”
Until then, there’s still plenty of work to be done. These last two games of the season against Kentucky and Huntsville will determine if Owensboro anticipates making a strong postseason push or calls it a year.
“The ups and downs of a season will always be there. That’s what makes life the way it is. The challenges faced by a team will always be around and that’s what I enjoy about the season; facing those challenges head on,” he added.
“Sometimes you win and sometimes you do not. The journey is what makes life great. Being hands off was the biggest challenge I have faced for myself, personally. The reason it was difficult is because it’s not in my nature to just stand around at practice. Sometimes I will walk off the court after practice drenched in sweat. Once again, it is something I need to overcome because that is the situation I am faced with.”
Twenty-one games up.
Two more to go.
“I feel good about the upcoming games. I go into every game believing my team can win if we play how we are capable. If you see me after a victory there is a sense of joy for the players on the team but not a ton of emotion because I always expect to win. I know it is not possible to win every game but why play the game if you do not expect a great outcome?,” said Coach Zellner.
“I wouldn’t want to be in any other situation going into the last weekend. It’s win or go home. I expect to move forward into the playoffs.”
Wendell Maxey is the author of Around The Basketball League and has written about professional basketball and sports for 20 years. He’s been featured on NBA.com, ESPN.com, USA Today, FOX Sports, and SLAM Magazine among other publications and media outlets. You can connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or read through his archive on Linktree.