By Kelsey Harper
Against the odds, Malcolm Lemmons achieved his dream to become a professional basketball player. His journey ultimately led him on a mission to impact others beyond the game as an entrepreneur, author, and advocate for mental health.
"I willingly walked away from basketball because I felt like at the time, it was in my best interest to move on to other things that gave me a greater purpose, a greater sense of identity outside of basketball," he shares.
"I can't explain it any other way than it was just a calling."
The call came at the peak of Malcolm's realization that life after sport, an ominous place for many athletes, could be an opportunity for personal growth through service to others.
"I wanted to help other athletes get through [the same] transition period or at least empower them to leverage their careers more effectively," he says. "To use their platforms, build more relationships, act on their other passions, and use the value that they have as an athlete."
Malcolm bet on himself by creating a media platform that would allow him to pursue multiple projects aligned to his mission. The bet paid off as he became a two-time author, podcast host, and entrepreneur. Over the past year, Malcolm launched Athletes Unheard, a company that is on a mission to amplify the conversation on mental health in sports.
Understanding his motivations requires an understanding of Malcolm's early connection to basketball and his challenges as a young boy finding his way.
"My mom put [my brother and me] into sports to keep us out of the streets," he recalls. "Growing up in the city, you can succumb to a lot of negative influences very easily."
"Basketball came into the picture because it was a sport that you could play by yourself, and you just needed a ball and a hoop. I could just go to the courts and take my mind away from all the negative things that I was going through at the time."
"It really started as something to escape from the world, but then it grew into a passion and something that I saw myself potentially doing as a career and providing for my family."
Born and raised in the inner city of Washington D.C., Malcolm faced his share of challenges that are clearer in retrospect than they were at the time.
"Looking back at that age, you don't understand or realize how much trauma you're going through or some of the negative situations that you might have faced. It just was life back then."
Malcolm's parents divorced when he was five years old, and his mother became the central and most important figure in his life. She did whatever it took to provide for Malcolm and his brother.
"I think we moved maybe five or six times when I was a kid, having to live with some of her friends, her not having jobs or working two jobs, and just doing whatever it took for us to survive," Malcolm shares. "It's admirable, and she's still somebody who I am just in awe of."
"Looking back, like, how did [she] do that? How did we go through all that? How did [she] bring up two African-American kids in the inner city to be the young men we are today? It's just incredible to me, and I give her all the credit in the world."
She inspired Malcolm's internal drive.
"Watching her determination and resilience throughout my life has been what has helped me push to become so successful in the things that I want to do," he says.
Understanding early on that drive and desire are wasted without the necessary and less glamorous work it takes to succeed, Malcolm committed to his dream of becoming a professional basketball player.
"Every kid has a dream of being [a professional athlete], but doesn't understand how much work and effort it takes until you actually make that commitment," he explains. "There are so many ups and downs; the process is not what people think it is."
"There's a lot that you have to endure to be able to stick to the goal of becoming a pro, or whomever you're trying to be, and that stuff doesn't get shown. It's all behind the scenes and things that people don't really talk about when it comes to the process."
The process, Malcolm explains, commands mindset over talent.
"For me, it was just keeping that focus on wanting to become a professional athlete at top of mind,” he says. “Despite whatever I was going to go through, no one was ever going to tell me I wasn't going to make it."
The hustle has always been within him, so when Malcolm was cut from the varsity team at Gonzaga High school, an elite nationally-ranked program, the disappointment was crushing but crystalized his path.
"Whenever you're faced with an obstacle in life or something like that situation, you have two options. You can quit and do something else, or you can continue playing, work your ass off, make varsity next year, and prove everybody wrong."
"It was at that moment where I was like, 'I will never let anybody else tell me that I'm not good enough to play at that level.'"
How Malcolm chose to act in the face of adversity, drove him well beyond the varsity team and a stellar high school career. He went on to play collegiate ball at Cal State San Marcos and Division I Niagara University. In 2014, he realized his dream and signed a professional contract to play overseas in Japan.
While basketball has helped shape Malcolm into the man he is today, his story is still being written, with its most powerful chapters yet to come. The vehicle through which he brings his ideas to life, however, has been evident since childhood.
"Ever since I was a kid, I had this idea of becoming a business person or entrepreneur," he shares. "I sold water bottles and candy in middle school. In high school, I would flip shoes and sell t-shirts."
"I've always had this grind, this hustle, and I knew that whenever basketball was done, I was going to do something in business."
"The hard part was figuring out what that was exactly."
Later seeing the opportunity to help other athletes through experiences similar to his own, and using his media platform to inspire a young generation, Malcolm made advocacy his business.
"When I look at everything that I'm advocating for, it's all about inspiring and empowering the athletes who are empowering the next generation," he explains. "Growing up as a Black kid, I looked up to athletes because that was what I saw, and sports is such a big part of Black culture.
"When we empower the people that kids look up to, when we educate them; when they are inspiring the next generation to be better, then we as a culture are better."
"So, my work and my thinking process has shifted towards; how can I encourage and empower athletes to use their brands for the greater good of the world?"
As Malcolm took on more projects, connected with more athletes, and reflected deeply on his own experiences, his attention began to shift toward social justice and mental health. In 2020, he founded Athletes Unheard after realizing his own mental health struggles.
"A lot of times, your purpose or what you feel called to do comes from your own pain, and that's how it started for me," Malcolm shares. "I never heard much about mental health growing up, but as a kid coming from a single-parent household and going through many traumatic experiences, I believe that's part of the reason why my mental health suffered over the years."
Those years spent unaware and in neglect had finally peaked.
"I experienced three severe panic attacks in a span of two weeks and started to realize how much I had been neglecting my mental health," he explains. "At the same time, I kept reading articles about the number of athletes who were suffering from depression and anxiety during this time period."
"I kept wondering why there wasn't an athlete-specific outlet that helped bring more awareness to mental health for athletes, and that's when I jumped on it."
Athletes Unheard allows Malcolm to leverage his skills and platform to help normalize and destigmatize the issue while also creating space for personal healing. Education is at the center of his vision for change.
"I think the biggest thing is educating athletes and people around them about what mental health means and some of the terminology around it. Part of the reason it's uncomfortable and taboo is because we don't understand what it means," he says.
Malcolm aims to reach people through his passion for storytelling, highlighting every day, collegiate, and professional athletes who courageously share their stories in a way that encourages others to do the same.
"One of the most inspiring things that I've been able to see is the number of athletes who have spoken out and given a voice to the voiceless," he says.
Rooted in personal experience and from a platform built from scratch, Malcolm will continue to lends his voice and amplify others'. The issues he tackles are certainly bigger than one person, but Malcolm is committed to igniting the conversation and is just getting started.
"More conversation needs to be had because it's way too important for us as a society not to have them."
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