Jah Rawlings is such a modest guy. You would never know that the biggest summer basketball league in Atlanta is his. I first met Jah as a marketing dude. We were discussing brand sponsorships for tours, events, etc. and then he told me about the Atlanta Entertainment Basketball League. It had a humble beginning, but out of nowhere it’s grown into this massive summer league. On any given Sunday, you can catch NBA players, artists, D-League or International players on the court or celebrities in the stands attending AEBL. Jah actually approached me to work with the summer league a few years ago, but that didn’t manifest. However, I knew I would work with him in some capacity in the future. When I decided to launch REBEL, Jah was one of the first people I pursued for an interview. His story is so inspiring. He actually went from a professional ball player, to working for the NBA, to having a corporate job, then quitting and putting all of his money into AEBL. He took that leap of faith, and it is paying off for him.
Describe your cultural, educational, and professional background.
I’m originally from New York. Hempstead, Long Island. That’s who I am and being from New York is what made me have the drive and ambition. Anybody knows if you’re from New York City, you already have the hustlers ambition. New York made me. I graduated and moved to South Carolina, where I attended prep high school, playing basketball. I came here to Atlanta where I’ve been living for sixteen years. It’ll be sixteen years this October. I went to Georgia Perimeter College, by way of Clemson University. I signed with Clemson to play college basketball. I signed a division one scholarship to play basketball at Clemson University. Between my grades and the coach moving, it pushed me to go to Junior college here in Atlanta at Georgia Perimeter college in Decatur for two years. After graduating, I transferred back to South Carolina to finish school where I played basketball at Lander University in Greenville, SC. I have two degrees, one in Psychology and one in Sociology with a minor in Marketing.
My journey has been pretty much using basketball as my vehicle. I still loved and played basketball on a day-to-day basis. When I saw that my window was closing to be in the NBA, I took my shot and played overseas in Germany for three years. I played in the D-League for a year and a half, then I tore a ligament in my hand and I said, “Oh yea, that’s a wrap.” I didn’t want to go through the rehab process. I made enough money, and my daughter was eight. I was tired of being away from her and I knew how important it was for me to be around. I didn’t have my dad as much as I liked because he played in the NBA as well. I wanted to make sure I prioritized my daughter’s life and help her become a young woman and have a foundation.
Transitioning from being an athlete to being here in Atlanta, I was a Program Director at the Boys and Girls Club. I was a Coordinator at the YMCA in their youth department and I did that for about three or four years then I wound up getting a job with the Atlanta Hawks in the Basketball Development department.
Since AEBL is a non-profit, what do you do on the for-profit side to get the bills paid?
Creating AEBL was strictly my vision and I decided to put everything into it. I literally took all my money and pulled it out of a bank account and said, “I want to create this basketball league.” With creating AEBL and making it a non-profit organization, we didn’t seek to make a profit. That was never the goal out of the gate. It was to impact the community. Being the businessman that I am, understanding marketing, and understanding the resources that I had, ultimately, I knew doing it as I envisioned, the money would come through corporations, through support of local businesses, and through local organizations. What we do is basically build the basketball platform and the companies who support it like Nike, Red Bull, and Mountain Dew, they support us through sponsorship. From a local level, we work with a lot of charities. A lot of organizations that can reach the demographics that we can’t, they align themselves through donations or support us in monetary ways. That’s how the organization is thriving right now from an expense operation, outside of my pocket.
“There were times when I didn’t know how I was going to pay my mortgage. At the time, I had a BMW and I was like, “Yo, I’m going to have to park this BMW, take the insurance off, and get me a little hoopty to ride around in.”
What kind of impact has AEBL had in the communities of Atlanta, so far?
That impact has been huge. Everyday I bump into someone, or someone messages us from the website or on instagram and let’s us know that they’re so happy that AEBL is back and it gives a positive event for families to go to. But also, the opportunity to work hand-to-hand with some of the young kids who don’t know where they want to go in life. Some of them don’t know if they want to go to school. They don’t know how to get a job. What we do is take those kids and bring them inside of AEBL and give them that hands on experience so maybe they can use that as a resume builder to help them get a job. For us, AEBL is the Atlanta community. When people think about Atlanta and come to Atlanta to visit, I want one of the first things to be on their mind is “How do I go to AEBL? How can I help AEBL? I’ve been hearing about AEBL over the country. They support the Atlanta community!”
Let’s talk about that time period of when you decided to leave the NBA and start your nonprofit. What were some of your struggles during this transition and how did you overcome them?
I’m a big visionary. If I tell you, “Yo, we’re going to the moon,” then we’re going to the moon some way, some how. When I took the jump, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, or how it was going to work, but I knew I was going to make it work. I hear some entrepreneurs say that they’re afraid. That’s one thing I can honestly say that I wasn’t afraid. I knew it would take time. Through that, it was a process. I left the Hawks in 2011. I started the AEBL in 2013. From that process, I literally had to get on the grind. There were days that I didn’t sleep. I stayed up from sun up to sun down trying to make connections or being out at different events networking, letting people know what my vision is. A lot of the people didn’t understand it, and also, some people said that it wouldn’t work. That fueled me to work even harder. In between, what I found myself doing is kind of getting back in corporate, but I was a consultant for Enterprise Rental Car. I was trying to figure out how to create my own business, before the basketball venture, where people would come to me for marketing strategies or help connect them with athletes, celebrities, and influencers. But, it was rough. There were times when I didn’t know how I was going to pay my mortgage. At the time, I had a BMW and I was like, “Yo, I’m going to have to park this BMW, take the insurance off, and get me a little hoopty to ride around in.” That really showed me who I was. People may not understand or say that, but if you drive a Benz now and someone tells you that you have to drive a Chevy Cruze, you have to check yourself while you’re in that Chevy Cruze. You’re still the same person who you were in the Benz. The sacrifices were a lot of internal things that i just had to change within myself, but it was very hard trying to figure out where my next buck was coming from or how my bills were going to get paid. I’ve surpassed that now.
Your story is very inspiring because you have a dynamic that some of our other interviewees don’t have yet, which is a family to support. Describe what you were going through mentally, and did having a family deter you from making a decision to become an entrepreneur?
The family part is tough because at that time by son was about to be born, so I didn’t want to go through the same process that I went through with my daughter. I think the approach was a little bit different. I don’t want to make it seem like it was easy. Having my family is actually what fueled me. It wasn’t the cars, it wasn’t the night life in Atlanta, or popping bottles. It was my family and my kids, making sure I can protect my investment there. Also knowing that they were the center of my focus, is what really drove me to make things happen.
Now that you’ve made that leap of faith, started AEBL, how do you feel? How has the transition effected you and what’s different from then and now?
Now, it’s harder to be honest. You put a vision out there and people see that it works. That’s when the difficult aspects come; when people are demanding certain things from you or they have an expectation. It’s a vision I put out there. It’s a building block, and it’s become successful over the last four years, but for me, I’m still looking at it as if it’s the first year. That’s the one thing that’s going to keep me going. I’m not going to stop until it’s the biggest platform and community organization in the world. I want to use basketball as that resource. Looking at it from where we started, there were only one hundred or so people coming to the games. We still had some of the entertainers and the NBA players supporting, but after four years we’ve gone up to thirteen or fourteen hundred people a weekend. We have corporate companies that are interested in being a part of the league, but most importantly, we’re continuing to make an impact with the families here in Atlanta, which my pride and joy of it all.
“It was a dream of mine to create a platform that I can bring all my worlds together: sports, music, entertainment, lifestyle, and my friends; bringing the community together.”
Have you heard in other markets that AEBL is making a big impact?
Going to Chicago and going home to New York, they look at it bigger than in Atlanta. Outside of the city people are like, “That’s huge.” They think this is a huge machine. We haven’t gotten there yet. We’re still a mom and pop. But when you go to these other cities, they’re amazed. They didn’t think Atlanta had something like this. For the people in the city, they think I’m just Jah of AEBL. That’s dope, but that’s why I know I have more work to do to be one of those front runners. When you think of a cult-like company like Delta, I want you to think about AEBL
What keeps you motivated to keep going?
Keeping the vision going, keeps me motivated. It was a dream of mine, literally like how these artists dream to get record deals or these athletes dream about being pro. It was a dream of mine to create a platform that I can bring all my worlds together: sports, music, entertainment, lifestyle, and my friends; bringing the community together. Seeing these kids smile and knowing I’m giving them something positive to do or be apart of is what keeps me going everyday. Everyday, I wake up thinking about how many more things can we do to impact these kids who maybe don’t like basketball. Really, what drives me are the kids and their families who are in these poverty strict communities and neighborhoods, the projects, or the hoods and making sure we can figure out a way to take care of them.
What are three signs that someone can look for in themselves when they might be ready to transition from a corporate nine-to-five into entrepreneurism, or at the very least take the first steps?
First, you have to be willing to risk it all. You cannot be fearful and think, “What if this doesn’t happen?” If you think like that, you’re already defeated. The second thing is you need to put yourself in a position. If you prepare yourself to be in a position when the time is right, God is going to align things, the Universe is going to align things, the right people are going to align with you. Prepare yourself for that opportunity that you want. Go after it and make sure that you give it your all, whatever it is. If you try to start a clothing line or you’re trying to start a barbershop or whatever it is, you have to want it more than everybody else. There’s nothing wrong with being that way or thinking that you want to be the best. If you don’t think you’re going to be the best, don’t make that jump.
There’s strategic things you can do too. Everybody’s not going to do it the same exact way. I talk to young entrepreneurs all the time and they ask me, “What made you do it? How did you do it?” I tell them that I don’t want to work in corporate America and make nobody else a billion dollars. It’s really not about me making a billion dollars but I know i’m making this company a billion dollars working for them but i’m only making $50,000. Seeing that, I put that into my own perspective and start thinking about that person who’s making the billion dollars and asked myself, “what are they doing? What sacrifices are they making? How hard are they going to make this whole operation and this corporate company run?” I just put that into my perspective and that’s what made me take the chance.
Crazy story how I made the jump. They fired the guy who hired me and asked me to take his position. They just fired the person who hired me, but they didn’t want to pay me his salary. He was a mentor to me. I knew what he was making. I was in an interview for the Houston Rockets while I was working for the Hawks. They told me it was a bigger position and I would make more money but I would have to move to Houston. I said, no, because I already knew it was time. I had that feeling and I decided to start AEBL and move on to what I wanted to do instead of taking a higher paying salary in Houston still working for the NBA, but in a higher position.
What are some books you have read or inspirational speakers you’ve listened to that have helped you transition and learn while transitioning into entrepreneurism that you could offer to our readers?
I’m currently halfway through a book called The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s impacted and shaped my mind to another level beyond urban and local branding and the way people think. Steve Stoute is a virtual mentor of mine. So Tanning of America was the opposite. If you read it and I read it, we consumed the information in two different ways. And I also read Mark Ecko’s book, Unlabel. Those are the three books. I’m a big research junky. If an article comes out about Jay Z and what they’re doing at Roc Nation or what Apple is doing, or what Nike is doing, or what the Adidas team is doing now with brand integration, that’s news to me. I recommend to people to just research. You can type in anything in google search and it will pop up. Everything isn’t factual or it’s not accurate to the point, but at least it gives you a segway for you to think about what you want to do or how you want to do them. I read Black Enterprise all the time, especially when they’re highlighting young African Americans. FADER Magazine is another one, from a cultural standpoint. Sometimes they highlight or showcase topics that people sometimes don’t know about. I read Business Magazine and ESPN. Everything’s pretty much online. It’s easier and accessible to look at your phone and see what’s what.
REBEL is an acronym for Revolutionary Entrepreneur, Business and Entertainment Leader. Why do you consider yourself a REBEL?
I came from the bottom. I stood fast with my vision and what I created. I’m also ahead of my time. For some reason, people think I’m older than what I am. I guess because I carry myself in a certain way and I’ve put in time and work. For the most part, I’ve broke through a lot of barriers that people have put in front of me. To me, that’s being a REBEL within itself; someone who’s not willing to take no for an answer and willing to fight through to see their vision, and the vision that’s going to help other people, come full circle.
Another mission of the REBEL platform is to create a community to provide our featured REBEL’s potential consumers, sponsors, partners, investors, and followers in general. How can our readers support AEBL?
Definitely come out to AEBL and see what we’re about. I’m always huge on people actually experiencing what we do. Go to our website, www.aeblhoops.com. You can follow us on social media. We have tons of charity events where we welcome donations and in-kind support. The support is huge for us. That’s the biggest thing. The money will come. I tell people that all the time. If we can get supporters on board talking about us that’s amazing and that’s a big help for us.