Cody Zeller is paying tribute to former Hornets teammate Kemba Walker with custom sneakers

Cody Zeller will welcome former teammate Kemba Walker back to Charlotte on Thursday. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Cody Zeller's first rookie hazing experience came with a good-natured twist.

"The vets put a costume in my locker, and they made me dress up for Halloween and visit a children's hospital," he told ESPN.

The overalls, oversized hands and goofy mustache of the Mario & Luigi tandem costume he wore six years ago might be long forgotten, but the trip to Charlotte's Novant Health Hemby Children's Hospital stuck with the Charlotte Hornets center.

"It gave me a fresh perspective," he said. "The stuff that I worry about is a bad game, a twisted ankle or whatever it is on the court. I've been volunteering at the children's hospital ever since."

Hornets owner Michael Jordan pledged $7 million last month to partner with Novant Health on the opening of two new family clinics. Zeller is also looking to make an impact this season as he launches his Like A Child Foundation this week with, fittingly, the help of his Jordan Brand sneakers.

For his five-game Kicks For Kids campaign, Zeller will wear custom sneakers hand-painted by Charlotte-based artist Ryan Bare, hoping to raise awareness for foundations and programs that impact kids.

"I wanted to do more to give back, not only to just kids at the children's hospital but kids in general," he said. "As adults, we have a lot to learn from kids -- their simplicity for life and their joy and their happiness."

Zeller's efforts, inspired in part by the NFL's "My Cause, My Cleats" program, will celebrate the five beneficiaries throughout the season, starting Thursday when the Hornets welcome back longtime franchise star Kemba Walker, who signed with the Boston Celtics this summer.

During his eight years in Charlotte, Walker was a regular volunteer with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, mentoring four students throughout his tenure in town.

"Through my work with them, they truly became part of my Charlotte family, and even though I'm not there full-time, I still maintain my relationship with them," Walker said. "They are a big part of my life now."

In addition to providing game tickets, Walker would take the students to dinner and discuss life issues, hold them accountable for good grades and teach them healthy eating habits.

"We had each of the four kids that Kemba was mentoring do a little drawing and message to Kemba," Zeller said.

The handwritten messages to Walker from Caleb, Jaliyah, Miles and Devyn come to life atop the shoes, along with a Charlotte skyline graphic reading "We Miss You Kemba" on the Duke Energy Center building.

"You are generous, kind-hearted and a very hard working person and I really appreciate you as my Mentor," Devyn wrote.

"Thank you for everything Kemba. Our time may have been cut short but the memories and friends we made will stay for years to come," Miles wrote inside a basketball drawing.

"I love Kemba for a lot of reasons," Zeller said. "He kind of shies away from the spotlight of being a big-time All-Star and player in the NBA. He likes his simple life, and he just loves playing basketball and competing. That's what you really want from a team leader. I learned a lot from him in my six years that I played with him."

In the month leading up to Walker's free-agency window, Zeller took recruitment matters into his own hands, launching his very own lemonade stand and what was surely the most ambitious sales goal in lemonade stand history: 884 million cups, or enough to cover a full max contract for the All-Star point guard.

"I might've came up a little short on that," Zeller said with a laugh.

Although the two are now no longer teammates, their shoe deals with Jordan Brand provided a joint trip in late June to Monaco for the brand's annual getaway. Held just days before the start of free agency, the two, along with Jordan himself, were able to reflect on their time together in Charlotte.

"I'm sure the fans will love having him back, and it'll probably feel like an away game for us," Zeller said. "Which I guess I'm OK with for a night, if it's for Kemba. He deserves all the attention he'll get, and hopefully he gets a very warm welcome."

When Zeller decided to launch Kicks For Kids, he knew he wanted to honor his friend, brand-mate and former teammate, all while making an impact with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program and incorporating the four students for whom Walker has pledged to be a "mentor for life."

"It'll be a mix of a 'thank you, Kemba' for everything that he did in the Charlotte community," Zeller said. "Obviously, he did a lot on the court for our team, but he was also very active in the community, and that's what I love about Kemba. He's got a huge heart. Hopefully this shoe will encapsulate all that he did on the court and also what he did off as well."

Although he has been playing in the Air Jordan 34 early this season, Zeller will shift back to the Super.Fly model from last season for the Kicks For Kids campaign. The shoe has an open canvas white design that features "more real estate" along the side for the custom artwork.

"I'm really honored that Cody would set this up," Walker said. "To know that the work I did with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas is carrying on really means a lot to me, and to know my mentees are being taken care of is huge."

When the Hornets visit Washington D.C., Zeller's kicks will highlight TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors benefiting families of fallen soldiers with assistance, resources and support. Come February, as he returns to his home state of Indiana, Zeller will look to bring to the Hornets-Pacers game kids from the Riley Children's Hospital that he frequented over the years -- while wearing a themed pair they helped design. Toward the end of the season, he'll rock a custom pair honoring the Thompson Autism Center in Missouri, as a tribute to his uncle that will highlight Autism Awareness Month.

In addition to the visibility for each organization, Zeller will be making a sizable donation to each through his foundation. The players' association will also donate through its matching program for players, and Zeller is looking for additional sponsors to add contributions to the cause.

"It'll help kids in a lot of different ways. Kids in a hospital, help with education or kids of fallen soldiers," he said. "From all of those different avenues, it'll end up being a pretty good dollar figure for each custom shoe."