Hornets’ Cody Zeller Channels Kemba Walker to Chart His Own Charitable Path

NEW YORK CITY -- The cashier behind the register at the NBA Store on 5th Avenue looks a bit unusual. Mostly, because he’s seven feet tall. Also, because he plays in the league.

Yet Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller is making it look easy—of course, he is—scanning the items one by one. 

There’s a No. 40 jersey with his name on the back. An autographed hat featuring his signature. Even a pair of Jordans.

And the best part of all: Cody is bringing joy to someone's life. 

That someone happens to be 16-year-old Matthew Hann. Matthew—who resides in Egg Harbor, New Jersey, with his mother, Andrea, and stepfather, Timothy—lost his older brother, Christopher Castaneda, four years ago. Christopher, a private in the United States Army, died while on deployment in Iraq.

As part of the Hornets' Military Care Event in partnership with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), Matthew and his family get to hang out with Cody. For a couple of hours, Matthew and Cody play Pop-A-Shot, chat and do some shopping.

For Cody, Matthew’s reaction means everything.  

“Soldiers that fight to defend our freedoms are obviously heroes,” Cody tells CloseUp360. “But sometimes their families are forgotten, and TAPS helps kids and families of fallen soldiers. So it’s pretty cool to give back to a family like the one we just met.

“In situations like this, they say the three-year mark is the toughest. I’m sure every day is tough for them, and I’m sure some days are worse than others and they’re still struggling. So for a group like TAPS to be there for them and provide support is huge. Matthew was speechless. The biggest thing was just to put a smile on his face.” 

Cody was encouraged to give back from a young age. His high school coach, Gene Miiller, used to tell his Washington (Indiana) team, “To Whom Much is Given, Much Will Be Required,” from Bible verse Luke 12:48.

“I think I have been given a lot with my athletic ability and the platform that comes with playing in the NBA,” Cody says. “So I want to use my resources to give back.” 

Cody, a six-year veteran, decided to launch his Like A Child Foundation this summer with a community program called “Kicks for Kids.” Through this initiative, he will wear a custom pair of sneakers designed by kids from five different charity organizations during five games this season, and make donations to each of those charities.

“I feel like everyone always does a golf outing or a gala,” he says. “And those are all good, but I was looking for something a bit more creative.”

Cody drew inspiration from “My Cause My Cleats,” a program through which NFL players wear decorative footwear to support special causes.

“The NBA has never done anything like that,” he continues, “so I just kind of made it my own.”

Cody honored former Hornets teammate and close friend Kemba Walker, and the work the three-time All-Star did with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas by having Kemba’s four mentees in Charlotte design a pair of sneakers. Cody will also drop custom kicks with Novant Health Hemby Children's Hospital in Charlotte (December), TAPS (January), Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis (February) and the Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Fulton, Missouri (April).

As a rookie, Cody was tasked with wearing a Halloween costume to a local children’s hospital. Going in, he figured it would be a somber experience.

“I kind of pictured it being sad and depressing,” he says. “But each time I’ve gone, it’s been very much the opposite. The kids are smiling and laughing and having a good time, and it puts things into perspective for me. If I have a bad game on the court or twist an ankle or whatever it is, in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t a big deal.” 

Since then, Cody has resolved to keep impacting kids in a positive way. His foundation will allow him to do just that.

“Being around them brings such a fresh perspective,” he says. “Kids have such a simple perspective on life. They don’t have any idea about social issues or climbing the corporate ladder or providing for a family—all the stuff we stress about as adults. Kids just want to have fun, play and take naps. So I think, as adults, it’s all about giving back to them.”

Cody plans to have all the kids at the Children’s Hospital in Charlotte sign his shoes for the next custom kicks game.

“A lot of kids ask me to sign their shoes and ask for an autograph,” he says. “So I admire the kids at the Children’s Hospital for their bravery, given what they’re going through. So I’m going to go there and have the kids sign my shoes. Hopefully we can fill it up with a lot of signatures.”

Cody wasn’t necessarily a sneakerhead growing up, but that all changed once the Hornets took him No. 4 overall in the 2013 NBA draft. In Charlotte, he signed an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand while playing for team owner Michael Jordan. As a result, an obsession was born. Even after donating 200 pairs of sneakers this summer, Cody estimates that he owns close to 1,000 pairs himself. 

“I have an extra bedroom in my house filled with them,” he says with a laugh.

Cody was just glad he could honor Kemba, who became a foundational piece with the Hornets before signing with the Boston Celtics in free agency this past July.

“I feel very honored to just see how hard he worked behind closed doors,” Cody says. “Because people don’t see the work he put in behind closed doors, and I saw it for six years. When I came into the NBA, he couldn’t shoot. He was a decent playmaker and he’s always been athletic. But to see his progression over the past six years is incredible, and most of that was done behind closed doors.”

Cody first saw Kemba during a practice prior to the 2008 McDonald’s All-American Game, in which Cody’s older brother, Tyler, was a participant.

“All the NBA GMs and scouts were there, so I was just sitting there with my parents watching the games,” Cody says. “And Kemba was picking up full court. I had never heard of him before, but I was, like, ‘Man, this dude is a tough, hard-nosed player. He’s picking up full court in an All-Star [scrimmage]. Even then, he couldn’t shoot, and he’ll tell you that. But he has that New York toughness, and my dad and I looked at each other, like, ‘I don’t know who that guy is,’ and it’s cool that it came full circle.

Kemba returned to Charlotte on November 7 and was greeted by a warm reception from the fans in attendance. The Celtics beat the Hornets that night at the Spectrum Center, 108-87, while Cody wore the shoes that Kemba’s mentees had decorated. 

“He did a lot for Charlotte, and that’s kind of why I wanted to wear the shoes—because of what he did for the community, not just what he did on the court,” Cody says. “He’s not one to take the spotlight, especially in the community with all the work he did. I don’t think people realized how much he did.

“Even for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, I mean, those are four kids that he was mentoring—not just seeing them once a year. He’d take them to dinner once a month, and was actually mentoring them and being a constant in their lives. And that’s what I was hoping to do with the shoes.”

Over the summer, Cody actually opened a lemonade stand to try and raise money to keep Kemba from leaving—a funny joke that quickly went viral. 

“It took me 10 minutes to set up, and then it blew up,” he says. “The message I wanted to send was that I wanted him back, but I kind of wanted to put a creative twist on it. I never would’ve thought it would’ve blown up the way it did.” 

The stunt wasn’t enough to keep Kemba in Charlotte, but that creativity should help Cody as he looks to expand his foundation and partner with even more children’s charities. In the past, he’s led an annual Sock Drive in partnership with Hanes to benefit the homeless in Charlotte, and helped his oldest brother, Luke, start a Christian youth basketball program called DistinXion back in their home state of Indiana.

Cody’s own foundation work has only just begun. And there are many more smiles to come.

 

Mike Mazzeo is a veteran NBA writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.