CHARLOTTE — Hornets center Cody Zeller buzzes up and down the halls at Novant Health Hemby Childrens Hospital, getting kids to sign a pair of sneakers on a random Thursday in December. Zeller is collecting signatures for his Kicks For Kids program, which he came up with after seeing the NFL do something similar with its My Cause, My Cleats initiative. Thanks to the NBA’s recent decision to relax some of its rules on sneakers players could wear during games, Zeller found a way to rock something unique on his feet that he’d then auction off after games, donating all proceeds.
Kicks for Kids highlights awareness on five specific charities Zeller mapped out over the previous summer. Zeller’s first selection was Big Brothers Big Sisters of Charlotte, a charity that was frequently supported by former teammate Kemba Walker. The big man followed that up with customized shoes dedicated to Novant Health Childrens Hospital in December, TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) in January, and recently, Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. His final customized shoe will debut in April as a tribute to his uncle for Autism Awareness month.
Dime recently sat down with the Zeller to dive into the Kicks for Kids, giving back, and how he found his identity in the league.
How did the concept of Kicks For Kids come about?
I started on the foundation this summer, I was looking for some way to do a little bit of fundraising, but mostly give back. The idea came from the NFL, they do My Cause, My Cleats. And the NBA has never really done much of that. And in the past couple of years they’ve relaxed the rules, you can have any colors you want in your shoes. So we asked around and (the NBA) still said no logos. But we picked out five games throughout the year with five different causes that all help kids.
The first one was after Kemba and his efforts with Big Brothers Big Sisters. What was the idea behind that?
Kemba had legendary success on the court during his 8 years in Charlotte, but I hope people also realize the impact that he had in the community! I reached out to 4 of the kids that he personally mentored through @bbbscc and asked for help designing these custom #KicksforKids pic.twitter.com/1ISVkaTEon
— Cody Zeller (@CodyZeller) November 7, 2019
I wanted to do a little bit of tribute to Kemba for his first game back. So I asked around, what he was passionate about, what he helped out with when he was in town. People saw what you did on the court, but he was also very passionate about loving the city and helping in the community. So, Big Brothers Big Sisters, he worked out with [them] the most and so I wanted to help hopefully ease Kemba’s mind that I’ve kind of taken over and watched after the kids that he was mentoring as well.
Did Kemba’s love for the city kind of transfer to you in a way when you came here?
I’ve been here seven years now, so it feels more and more like home. It’s fun to be able to help out the community, and I think, as you know, it’s a small town, professional athletes can have a big impact. I think that’s important to use our platform that we’ve been given to help others.
I remember when you were doing the Hanes sock drive, is this like the next natural extension for you?
Yeah, we’re doing sock drive again this year. Like I said, any way that I can give back has been good. The sock drive is a lot of fun, but I think this one … especially the children’s hospital, one that I’ve always volunteered for. Obviously I try to help out the kids so I put a smile on their face, but it also puts things in perspective for me that a sprained ankle or whatever happens on the court in the big scheme of things isn’t much. So actually it makes me feel a lot better just by coming here and seeing [the kids].
What are some of the next things you want to plan out for your foundation? Because like you said, you just started this out this summer.
I’ve had plenty of kids that have asked me for my autograph because they admire the way that I play basketball. This week I collected some “autographs” of my own from the courageous and joyful kids at Hemby Children’s Hospital that I admire and look up to! #KicksforKids pic.twitter.com/07HwPYbWdV
— Cody Zeller (@CodyZeller) December 6, 2019
Yeah. So this is just getting it started. I think the shoes have gone really well, but you know, goodwill to do more in the future, either more shoes or a bigger dollar amount. I’ll donate money to each one of the foundations that I picked. So just kind of getting started. It’s got a lot of good publicity, hopefully we can keep it going for years to come.
Switching over to basketball, with Kemba’s departure you’ve been asked to do more, what’s it been like to stretch your game out?
Kemba was great for our team, but he dominated the ball so much. Everything ran through him. So now we have to be a little more creative knowing we got a lot of slashers on our team, but not so many pick and roll guys. Each year of my career has been different, so I hope that I can fit in different areas. It’s fun to do different things. And there’s a lot of young guys on this team and I’m trying to help them along.
When you were a rookie, you came in and your vets, I think, were Al Jefferson, Anthony Tolliver…
How does that feel going from that to now you’re the vet?
Tonight, my #KicksForKids will honor US Army Staff Sergeant Girard "Jerry" Gass, Jr. I'll also be donating $15,000 to @TAPSorg which supports kids and families of our fallen soldiers! We're excited to host SSG Gass's surviving spouse and two kids, Charlie (7) and Stella (6). pic.twitter.com/oxDZV0qUrB
— Cody Zeller (@CodyZeller) January 6, 2020
Yeah, and all three of those guys were awesome veteran guides for me, the same thing as me giving back to the to the kids. I feel fortunate. I had a few good vets that helped me along, and coach Clifford and the whole coaching staff. It was great for me, and early on in your career, you really have to kind of find your identity and go through some growing pains. I think the young guys are doing that now and hopefully I can kind of help them along.
You talked about finding your identity in the league, what is one of those things that you’ve really had to figure out your identity with?
I think my screen setting, just being a mobile big guy is kind of uncommon. And then being able to fit into different areas as well.
You are known as one of the better pick and roll defenders as far as big man in the league. Is that a feather in your cap of sorts?
Yeah, a little bit. And sometimes it doesn’t show up. I don’t block a lot of shots and I don’t get a lot of steels, but it’s more so just keeping the guard in front of me and being active. It’s a lot like the hockey assists, they might not show up in a stat sheet, but I can move laterally well for a big guy. So, I’m comfortable in that.