What Courage Looks Like

Dec 15 2016
Photo by
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports
Cody Zeller
Charlotte Hornets
Dec 15 2016

I n Charlotte, I usually get recognized for being a basketball player. Either that or just a tall guy who still looks a little lost walking around downtown.

But Elizabeth knew me first as a cartoon character.

Elizabeth is the 13-year-old girl I met last Tuesday on a visit to Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. We actually met for the first time two years ago, but it took me a moment to recognize her this time. That first visit, her hair was shorter, the result of a series of chemotherapy treatments. I vaguely remembered what she was wearing — pretty, long dangling earrings but also jeans and cowboy boots. It was the perfect combination to match her personality. Pretty but simple.

I began to introduce myself and waved awkwardly. “I’m Co—”

Duh! I know you!” Elizabeth said, exasperated. “You’re the Minion!”

A few of her family members were there with her in a waiting area. Everyone burst out laughing.

When I was a rookie in 2013, the Hornets told me about the team’s tradition of its rookies visiting Hemby Children’s Hospital on Halloween. The veteran guys on the team made it sound more like a rookie requirement than an optional tradition. After practice one day, a Luigi costume was hanging in my locker. It was way too small. Of course it was. They all thought that it was so funny to have the skinny, seven-foot rookie dress up in a costume that didn’t fit at all. I tried to take it in stride and laugh at myself as I left the arena.

I didn’t really know what to expect. When I got there, I was surprised by the joy and the happiness of the patients and the nurses at the hospital. Everyone at the hospital was in costumes — the kids, the nurses, the doctors, everyone. Each room was filled with laughter that drowned out the sound of the beeping machines. It ended up being my favorite appearance that I did all year.

The next year, when costumes were being ordered for the next group of rookies, I stepped in and volunteered to do it again. This time I was a Ninja Turtle. After the second year of doing it, other guys also started volunteering. Now, it’s something that rookies and non-rookies both do. I look forward to it every year. It takes me back to my childhood, it makes me appreciate the life and the health that I have, and I hope that in some small way it can brighten the day of the kids at the hospital.

Last year was probably our best costume. Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminsky and I were Minions. As you may be able to tell, our soccer socks were a last minute addition to make up for the short pant legs. 

Last week, I was visiting Hemby Children’s Hospital again, but not for a costume party. I had to ask Elizabeth, “So … had you ever seen three seven-foot Minions?”

She was laughing … but I couldn’t tell if she was laughing at us or with us. I liked this girl’s style.


Elizabeth and I had a good time catching up and hanging out. We started out by talking hoops. She showed off her knowledge of Hornets stats and asked me about how my rebounding was going. (Always room for improvement, I noted.) It turned out that she, like me, spent a lot of time on farms as a kid. I spent summers as a kid riding tractors on my grandfather’s farm in Iowa, while her family has a cattle farm in North Carolina. Both of us got really fired up when we discovered that we shared a love for four-wheelers. I told Elizabeth how my mom actually wouldn’t let me and my brothers ride four-wheelers growing up. That was one of her strict rules. I was jealous when Elizabeth went on to tell me how she’d been riding them since she was really little.

Elizabeth was the center of attention. Everyone had been asking her questions about her hobbies, interests, things like that. To give you an idea of the scene, Elizabeth and I were in a group of about a dozen people hanging out in a waiting area in the hospital. There were a few doctors, some other patients and her family, as well as some members of a film crew who were there that day to talk to Elizabeth.

Then the conversation turned to her health. When someone asked, “What’s your prognosis?” she didn’t flinch.

I braced for how Elizabeth would react. I was so impressed by how she responded. She sat up straight and calmly described what she had been through and what, according to her conversations with her family and her doctors, was still to come: She had undergone a series of chemotherapy treatments for two years, which had necessitated multiple hospital stays. At the end of her treatment, her doctors determined that she was clear of “evidence of disease.” It was great news, and for a short time, Elizabeth tried to, as she described it, “return to being a normal girl.” But then, just a few weeks ago, during a routine checkup, her doctors detected something in an MRI that didn’t look right. They ordered a biopsy.

“So now we’re waiting for the results of the biopsy,” she told us. There’s a chance, she said, that she will have to undergo more chemotherapy in the future.

Her words brought most of the people in the group to tears. I think it shocked people to hear a teenager speak so bravely about her own struggle.

“I’m going to go at this head-on,” she concluded.

I could hear the courage in her voice. Everyone could.


Cody Zeller

A lot of people throw around words like courage and bravery in these circumstances. We’ve all heard that kind of thing. I happen to think those characterizations fit for Elizabeth. But they also aren’t nearly enough. They feel inadequate to describe what she and other kids facing cancer have to go through, not just physically but emotionally.

I have no illusions about the real impact that I — or any athlete — can have through making a few hospital visits or a donation … it’s truly the least any of us can do. The doctors and nurses and researchers are the ones who do the real work — and patients like Elizabeth and her family are the real fighters. What I saw in the hospital last week was a 13-year-old young woman who was standing tall in an adult world, a world that can be cruel. Elizabeth showed me that maturity and bravery aren’t exclusive to adults. Us grown ups — all of us — need to listen more. Kids may be smaller than us, but they’re stronger than we give them credit for.

Take it from a Minion.

Campbell & Associates, a law firm based in Charlotte, will donate $10 to the Hemby Children’s Hospital for every rebound Cody gets this season. For more information on the program, visit

Cody Zeller
Charlotte Hornets