Cody Zeller Looks Back On Starting A Children’s Charity Right Before The Start Of 2020

Cody Zeller’s timing for starting a charity, unfortunately, could not have been much better. Just months before COVID-19 hit the shores of the United States of America, the Charlotte Hornets’ veteran big man started Like a Child, a charity designed to help out youngsters wherever they may be. Shortly after his first major initiative took place, in which he wore special-designed sneakers to highlight a number of charities in March, the NBA’s season was postponed.

The downtime for Zeller, whose Hornets missed out on the NBA’s Orlando Bubble, gave him plenty of time to sit down and hammer out some details related to the organization. It also gave him time to reflect on its purpose and how he could continue to impact the lives of children going forward.

Ahead of the start of the Hornets’ season 2020-21 season, which tips off on Wednesday evening, Dime sat down with Zeller to discuss the charity.

Can you take me inside starting Like a Child? What the impetus was for that and why you decided “November 2019 is the time for me to do this”?

Yeah, I think starting from scratch, I think when I got drafted into the NBA, I knew I’d have kind of a platform to impact others and obviously, fell in love with the city of Charlotte right away. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to focus my energy — like, heart disease is in my family. There’s a few things that I thought I might be interested in, and the Hornets do a great job exposing us to a little bit of everything, just with the appearances that our team makes.

So, my rookie year, as kind of a rookie duty, our veterans put a Mario and Luigi costume in my locker and the other rookie’s locker and told us we had to go visit the children’s hospital. And so, I visited the children’s hospital. It was my first time visiting, and I kind of expected for it to be kind of dark and depressing, just because I know the kids are sick. There’s a reason why they’re at the children’s hospital.

But it was actually very much the opposite. Every time that I visit since then, [the] kids are always so positive and energetic. They’re singing and dancing and you would never know that they’re in a tight spot. So, I think right away, I think I finally was like, this is where I want to focus my energy, is helping kids in different ways. So, last year we did the 501(c)(3) non-profit. Came up with the name, Like a Child, and kind of just did a crash course last year. Did four pairs of shoes, custom shoes, and picked for a variety of organizations that help children in a variety of ways. So, the children’s hospital here in Charlotte, the children’s hospital in Indianapolis, Big Brothers Big Sisters, which Kemba Walker had helped out with a lot, when he was here. And then TAPS, which helps kids and families of fallen soldiers.

So, last year was kind of fun. It was a little bit of a, like I said, crash course to see what worked and what didn’t. And then, I’ve had a lot of free time during quarantine so, we worked on getting the website up, we got a logo and it looks like a legit nonprofit now. So, I’m pretty proud of it. And then, we’re just putting together probably another four or five pairs of shoes this year to highlight a couple of different non-profits, once again, that all help children in a variety of ways.

It sounds like it’s something, not necessarily what it ended up being, but it sounds like doing some kind of charitable organization has been kicking around in your head for a while. Is that a fair read on it?

Yeah, I think that’s true. And like I said, I wanted to give back, but I wasn’t real sure how I wanted to. And the way I came up with the kind of kicks for kids was, the NFL does their My Cleats, My Cause. One week, each year, all the players design a shoe for their foundation and the NBA has never done anything like that. So, I just kind of stole the idea from them. And there was an awesome artist here in town that kind of customizes the shoes. He does a lot of the work for the Panthers players for that week.

So, I got in contact with him and he does a lot of the creative stuff. He does a lot of the work. And obviously, I’m going to wear a pair of shoes in the game anyway, so it’s kind of an easy way for me to give back. So I was kind of trying to come up with something unique because, everyone does a golf outing or a gala, which I might do down the road, but I just kind of wanted to come up with something unique.

And what was it about last year that made it right for that to be the time to start? Was there a moment, was there an event, was there anything specific that made it all click? Or was it just like, listen, this is year seven for me in Charlotte, it just feels right, right now.

I’ve been kind of brainstorming on it for a while. And I’ve given just, for me personally, to different organizations here in Charlotte. Even a couple of years ago, I did a partnership with a law firm here in town. And for every rebound that I got during the season, $10 went to the foundation of my choice, which, I picked the children’s hospital.

And so, I’ve done different kinds of partnerships throughout here in Charlotte that I’m able to kind of give to the children’s hospital or other organizations. But, I think it finally got to the point where I was like, you know what, I think I want to do this even after my career is over. So, kind of get it started now, while I’m still playing and then be able to kind of continue that, even after my career is over. I’ve learned a lot about the nonprofit world. Obviously, I have a lot of good people that have helped me along the way, because it is a lot to get the 501(c)(3) clarification. And then, all the other stuff, like I said, the website, the logo, and all the design stuff. So, I’ve had a lot of good help as well.

What are some of the like specific things that you didn’t comprehend coming into this? Because the way you’re making it sound — you can correct me if I’m wrong — you were like, I’m going to start a charity, and then, instead of that being it, that was just yard one of the 99 yard football field ahead of you.

Yeah, no. It’s true. Like I said, I had a lot of good people that have helped me kind of navigate some of those waters. And also, my brother has his own nonprofit, he does Christian basketball camps back in Indiana. And so, he started that about 10 years ago. So, he’s very familiar with it. And my mom does a lot of the paperwork for him. And so, both of them have a little bit of experience with it. I lean on them a lot as well, just to kind of bounce stuff off of them.

But it’s like, every little detail of it is up to me. Like, you can kind of customize it however you want, whether it’s operating or not operating, whether I want to raise money, how I want to do the website, who’s going to kind of run the website, is there an email that’s attached, setting up a whole new email address. We have a grant program on there so, coming up with just, like, what’s on the grant, how does the grant get uploaded, everything else. It’s been a full quarantine project. But, like I said, I’ve had a lot of good people that have kind of done a lot of the heavy lifting for me. So, I feel very blessed to have them on my side.

And what’s the best piece of advice that your brother has given you about taking this on?

I think, not specifically advice that he’s given. I think it’s been really cool for me to see the impact that he’s had with his non-profit. The basketball is a draw, obviously, in Indiana and our family has a recognizable name. So, basketball is the draw, but they also teach family values and how to shake someone’s hand and how to treat people right. And kind of teach values with it.

I think I’ve just been able to see the impact that he’s had on so many kids, whether they’re all the way back to elementary school or all the way through high school. I think I’ve been able to see the impact that he’s had through basketball. And I want to do something similar in a different space. But to be able to give back and have that same … it’s very fulfilling work, for sure.

Looking at the mission statement, “Like a Child strives to celebrate and preserve the joy, curiosity, and innocence of childhood by supporting organizations which provide resources for children and families to achieve their highest potential.” Without realizing it, this ended up being quite the year for needing to promote that specific thing. No?

Yeah, for sure. And even when I came up with this, people have described me as being like a child, which I take as a huge compliment. But I think that, if we all can think back to our childhood, I used to spend hours on a little Nerf hoop on the back of the door. And I used to have a great imagination. I used to play full NBA games, with the jump ball and the three pointers, block shots, everything else. I’d just be playing alone in the living room. But I used to spend hours doing that. And then, every once in a while, my brothers would join me, and we bonded over that.

Some of my favorite memories are playing HORSE against my brothers on the old Nerf hoop. I think everyone has fun childhood memories of that. And even kids now, they don’t know what it’s like to be an adult. So as adults, we grow up and we have all these responsibilities. We provide for our family, we learn about taxes, and climbing the corporate ladder and all these pressures that we have as adults. When, as we were kids, all we wanted to do is play on our little Nerf hoop and take naps all day. Life was simple back then.

So, I think in that aspect, even as adults, I think we have something to learn, being more like a child. And also just the innocence of children. They don’t know anything about race or social status or anything else. It’s all stuff that we learn when we get older. So, that’s another kind of root behind the, Like a Child, name.

Can you just really quickly take me inside of this grant program, what you have going on with it and why you decided this is the best way to build on what the organization is already doing?

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Yeah. So, like I said, we’re going to do five pairs of shoes and probably a $15,000 donation for each pair of shoes. And we’re going to pick five different nonprofits that help children in a variety of ways. And obviously, I’ve been exposed to a lot here in Charlotte — organizations, like I said, the children’s hospital. So I’ve partnered with them in the past, but there’s also a lot of nonprofits either in Charlotte or in Indiana or around the country that are doing really good work, but maybe I just haven’t heard of them yet.

And so, we wanted to offer a little bit of a grant program to expose ourselves and give them a chance to get involved as well. So anyway, we’ll pick one or more of those grant applicants and then I’ll wear a custom pair of shoes to highlight the work they’re doing and then also make a donation through the foundation.

I want to ask about 2020 and the impact that it has had on you. Like, how does it feel to launch a charity just before its stated purpose has really become more important than ever?

I obviously didn’t plan it that way, but it’s been perfect timing. And I think it’s been really cool to see how different organizations have handled COVID because obviously, some have handled it better than others. I think that the best organizations have taken care of their employees and done as much as they can to kind of give back in a time of need, rather than cover their own butt, if you want to put it that way. So, it’s been really cool to see other organizations that have stepped up and said, “We’re going to take care of our employees.” Even Michael Jordan, he was one of the first to say, “We’re going to take care of employee salaries and we’re going to help out however we can.”

It’s really cool to see when times are really tough, organizations or individuals give back even more, when a lot of times, a lot of businesses are losing money right now, but it says a lot about the business if they’re giving back at the same time, just because there’s so many people out there that are hurting. And that has been my whole takeaway — obviously, we’ve missed some games last year. Our season got cut short last year. Fingers crossed that it works out this year but, in the big scheme of things, there’s people that are a lot worse off than us. So, there’s always someone out there that has it worse off than you. So, I really sympathize for everyone that’s lost jobs or illnesses, lost family members. It’s really a tough time for everyone. So, it’s cool to see everyone come together and try to get through it together.

Yeah. And then with kids specifically, I don’t have children, I have friends with children. I have relatives with children. But it feels like a lot of kids have been put into situations where they have to grow up faster than any kid should. Have you noticed that and have you felt some kind of like added responsibility, as someone who works with children to be like, let’s do whatever we can, amid all of this, to make sure kids, even in the face of this unspeakable terror, can still have as normal of a childhood as they can, given the circumstances?

Yeah. You’re spot on. I don’t have kids either, but I’m the cool uncle for now. Luke has a seven-year-old little boy and Tyler has a three-year-old boy and a six-month-old little girl. And the same thing, I have a lot of other friends and family that have little kids and the kids aren’t able to … a lot of them aren’t able to go to school. If they are able to go to school, they’re missing sports. High school kids are missing graduations and prom. And there’s just so many fun, childhood memories that people are missing out on, even if it’s just riding your bike over to a friend’s house or going to the pool or whatever it is.

There’s so many fun memories that I had of being a kid, especially in the summer, of just playing with neighbors and stuff that, because of COVID, kids aren’t allowed to do. So, that’s another huge part of Like a Child, is to kind of preserve that childhood and hopefully give them as much of a childhood experience as they can, even though currently, they’re kind of missing out on some of those experiences. So, it’s another way that we’re going to try to give back.

So again, looking at the work that you do through the lens of 2020, has it shaped any opinions, ideas about things that you could do in ’21, in 2022, as this grows?

Yeah. I think the urgency has just been put on it that what we have here with targeting children is a huge need right now, and I think, even going into 2021 and beyond. So, I think if anything, I think it’s added urgency to what we’re doing and hopefully we can have an impact immediately. But, hopefully we can kind of broaden the impact that we can have in the future. So yeah, if anything, it’s just added urgency.

Did this year teach you anything that you didn’t already know about how to leverage what you have as an athlete into something bigger and more important and more impactful than just the joy that you guys bring into people’s lives by playing basketball at a high level?

Yeah. I think back to the children’s hospital visits, that always puts things into perspective for me because, when I see the joy and the happiness that the kids have at the children’s hospital, it puts things back into perspective that, whatever’s going on in my world, that I stress about, whether it’s a bad shooting night or a twisted ankle, whatever it is. In the big scheme of things, there’s more to life than just what happens, win or lose, on the basketball court.

I do have that platform and athletes in general have that platform of, when I step out on the court or on TV and, even if it’s just something as simple as customizing a pair of shoes, can have a big impact — I’m going to wear shoes, anyway. But, just to do a little drawing on the side can have a big impact because we’re on TV, we’re on SportsCenter, we’re on wherever. And just to kind of add some awareness to some of these good non-profits to some of the work they’re doing.

On the perception of athletes, do you view yourself and your brothers and sisters in sport as people who have a responsibility to do things for your community?

Yeah, I think so. My high school coach used to always quote Luke 12:48, “To whom much is given, much is required.” And he used to use that on me as was yelling at me during practice, because I have the given a lot. I mean, seven feet tall, I have athletic ability. So, on the basketball side of things, I’ve been given a lot. But also, with my platform, financially, my resources, I think I have been giving a lot. So, I think I do take a lot of responsibility and kind of giving back and doing whatever I can to help others. And like we discussed, I kind of have a soft spot in my heart for kids and children, just so they can have kind of the same childhood that I had of a lot of positive memories and a lot of fun to be a kid.

What is the message that you have for the children who have had a really tough go of it this year? As we finally get to this point where like, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, there is something like a vaccine on the horizon, and life may not end up being normal by the time we get to 2021, but we can start to go back to experiencing the kind of things that we should be experiencing?

Yeah. It’s tough for kids because a lot of them don’t understand. Like I said, my seven year old, little nephew doesn’t understand why he can’t give hugs to his grandma or to my mom, people like that. So, there’s some things that just breaks your heart. The kids can’t experience or don’t understand about the virus or why you can’t touch or why you can’t hug or why you can’t kind of have social interactions with loved ones. So that kind of breaks your heart. But, I hope kids come out of it with a better appreciation for being able to do that stuff, to be able to be around their friends or be able to go to school, little things like that. So hopefully, if there’s anything positive that can come out of it with the kids, hopefully, they’re excited to get back to kind of normal life, eventually.