The truth of the matter is that every professional athlete’s sports career has a timestamp on it. The problem of course is that no athlete knows exactly when that end is going to come. In his new book, Impact Beyond the Game, professional basketball player Malcolm Lemmons explains to professional athletes how they can begin thinking about their future beyond the game when they’re still in the game. He demonstrates how they can create a path forward for themselves and teaches strategies and tactics that will ensure their second career is just as successful and fulfilling as their first.
As former NFL player, Jason Fox says of this book, “Personal branding is something every athlete should take seriously, and Malcolm gives great tips throughout this book.”
Nikki Van Noy: I am joined today by Malcolm Lemmons, the author of the new book Impact Beyond the Game: How Athletes Can Build Influence, Monetize Their Brand, and Create a Legacy. Malcolm, thank you so much for joining me today.
Malcolm Lemmons: Thank you for having me Nikki, I’m glad to be here.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m so excited to talk to you because it sounds like you have a very unique story and I love it when I get to use this podcast to hear them firsthand. Tell me a little bit about your career as a professional athlete?
Malcolm Lemmons: I’m originally from the Washington DC area, and I played basketball my entire life, and my entire dream, my goal was to become a professional athlete. That was the thing I chased throughout high school and college. I ended up transferring my senior year of college in pursuit of this goal. I had a really good senior year playing in college and that really afforded me the opportunity to go play overseas. It was a beautiful experience, just getting to live in a different culture, to engrain myself in a different world, essentially. Just learn and grow as an individual, it was a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Playing overseas was a joy. It definitely had its negative sides but, as I said, I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. I learned so much and getting paid to do something I love was my entire dream, so it was great.
Nikki Van Noy: How long did you play professionally?
Malcolm Lemmons: I was in Japan for two years on and off. I had a couple of opportunities to play in the NBA D league. It was called the D league back then, now it’s the G League. I had a couple of opportunities, to try out for some G league teams, and that kind of fell through, and so I officially walked away from the game after that second season, playing in Japan. I spent about two years there.
Nikki Van Noy: What a cool life experience. You know, the thing that always fascinates me about professional athletes is you have to have such drive and vision and determination from such a young age in order to get to that place.
Malcolm Lemmons: Absolutely. I mean, it takes a high level of dedication, focus, determination, resiliency–all these specific traits that we see that are so vital to having success in any craft or career field. I think that you really have to fall in love with the process and enjoy the game first and foremost, and that’s what it was for me. I had a genuine passion to play basketball and, obviously, I wanted to take that as far as I could.
There are so many different things that can come into play that can deter you from accomplishing that goal, so you really have to have a lot of focus and love for the game in order to make it as a professional athlete.
Nikki Van Noy: When you look back at your younger self, when you were in Japan, for instance, were you looking forward from that point about what might come next? Or were you just in that moment?
Malcolm Lemmons: I had tunnel vision on basketball, in all honesty. I didn’t think about life after sports and that is a huge reason why I’m in the space that I am today, because I see so many athletes, just putting their all into the sport and not focusing on building themselves holistically or becoming better people.
It’s a huge mistake because when, inevitably, you have to transition into something else in life–sports doesn’t last forever and a lot of athletes have no direction, no idea what they want to do next because their entire focus has been their sport. I saw how big of a problem this was and wanted to inspire other athletes to utilize their platforms more effectively. To really prepare beforehand and to not put all their eggs into the sports basket because, as I said, one day you’re going to have to retire, you’re going to have to do something else.
If you don’t have a plan or an idea of what that looks like in your life, you’re going to struggle on top of just missing the game. You’re going to struggle mentally, emotionally, financially. You see so many athletes who have these issues when they’re facing retirement. It’s something that I personally went through myself and saw a lot of my former teammates and other athletes go through. I wanted to make a difference and to help other athletes with this transition period–utilizing their network, their brand as an athlete, that title, more effectively so that when they do transition, they’ll have opportunities, they’ll have things they can fall back on.
They’ll have a support system and a network that they can lean on to help guide them through this period in their life.
More than Sports
Nikki Van Noy: You know, hearing you talk a little bit about your story–speaking as someone who is not a professional athlete, nor will I ever be a professional athlete–I feel like I can make this creative jump to how incredibly almost likely it could be to find yourself in the situation you’re talking about, where you sort of have this tunnel vision. Even if you know on some level that your sports career is finite, it seems like you have to put so much into it and it is so competitive that it can be really easy to just not think about what comes after because you would have to be so in it when you’re in it.
Malcolm Lemmons: Right, absolutely. I also think it is also people around athletes who emphasize that need to focus exclusively on the sport, when that’s obviously not the case. No one just focuses on one thing their entire life.
We all, no matter how many hours you put into your day job or into your business, you still have other hobbies, other passions, other things that you do outside of that. It’s the same with athletes. No matter how much effort, time, and energy you put into your sport, you still come home and you watch movies or you blog or you create or you have a YouTube channel or something else that you do that you’re interested in.
For me, it’s about how do we utilize those interests? How do you take those passions, those things that you’re doing outside of your sport, and use them to create a career or create a strategy that helps you transition into something that incorporates those other passions and talents that you might have. So, I think, no matter how much effort you put into your sport, every athlete has something else that they’re interested in.
We saw Kobe Bryant, God rest his soul, but we saw the things that he was doing in life after basketball and how he was exercising his creative side and telling stories. You see LeBron James in his production and media. You have athletes who are at the top of their sport who are doing things outside of the sport, during their careers, why can’t you do the same thing too?
It’s even more important for athletes such as myself who aren’t going to make the same amount of money as LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. We have to figure that out early and start incorporating those things into our daily lives so that, when it comes time to prepare for the next step, we have an idea of who we are, what we like, what our skills are, and where our strengths lie. We can take those things and figure out what our next career is going to be.
Nikki Van Noy: Beautifully articulated. Before we talk about some of the advice you have to give to professional athletes about cultivating this second career, talk to me a little bit about your own experience of making that transition, beginning with before you stopped playing in Japan. Did you know that that endpoint was coming, or did it feel sudden when it happened?
Malcolm Lemmons: Yeah, for me, it was somewhat sudden. I’d started to think about it during my second year playing in Japan. I had actually gone in the middle of the season and we had a huge break, we didn’t play any games for about a month, and so I’m slowly trying to get acclimated to the city. I was right outside of Tokyo and I didn’t know my teammates, I didn’t know the city, I didn’t even have WiFi at the time. I’m sitting in a small loft in a little town about 20 minutes away from downtown Tokyo and I’m thinking to myself, how did I get here? What did I go through to end up in this little town playing basketball?
That was really the beginning of me starting to think about my story and the experiences and obstacles that I went through. I had a computer in front of me and I just started to write, because I had the time.
Long story short, I came back home and I was sharing all of the content that I was writing and things that I was putting out and people said, “You have a good story, you have an inspiring story, you’ve been through so much to chase this dream. Have you ever thought about writing a book?” I said I’d never thought about being an author, but the more I gave it thought, the more I thought about how my story could inspire other athletes who might go through the same things. I said, “This is something that I think I should do.”
I published that book when I came back home and that was really the beginning of me starting to see myself outside of the jersey, starting to see myself as being more than just an athlete. That was the start of the transition for me.
Going into my second year or third year, and wanting to play professionally, I had an opportunity to go to Morocco. Literally two days before I was supposed to leave the deal fell through and, by that time, I had my book published, I was writing for the Huffington Post and I was building my own brand.
I ultimately decided that at that point, my professional basketball career, even though it was a joy and I was getting paid to do something I love, it was still unstable. It was volatile. It was a lot of going back and forth, and missing holidays, and missing out on family events, and it was something that I knew I didn’t want to pursue for the next several years. Once that opportunity to go to Morocco fell through, I dove right into this next career of trying to be an entrepreneur and trying to figure out my next steps.
It was rocky and it’s still rocky in a lot of aspects. I still feel like I’m going through that transition of figuring out who Malcolm Lemmons really is, but we’re all ever-evolving. We’re always changing. People don’t stay stagnant, and so I’m really just enjoying the process of becoming the person that I envision myself to be and I’m having fun with it. I think that’s the biggest thing, that the transition is going to be hard. We all go through transitions in life, but you have to learn to enjoy the process.
You have to learn to take each day, be patient, and not to get too hard or down on yourself and to understand that in life we’re always just evolving and growing and learning and that’s what I’m starting to realize and incorporate into my life daily.
Nikki Van Noy: I kind of want you to write a book about philosophy next. There’s so much wisdom in what you just said, and you have to have been so relatively young when this happened.
Malcolm Lemmons: Yeah, I still feel like I’m relatively young. I was 25 when I officially called it quits.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow. I’m just so impressed by that because I feel like in so many sectors, and somewhere, where it seems less likely than in sports, it can become very easy for people to wrap their identity around one thing. Often, it’s the thing that they do and it just seems like that would be exponentially true in sports. I guess, what I’m trying to say is that the mental strength and flexibility that you exercised in all of that is very impressive to hear about.
Malcolm Lemmons: I really appreciate that. It wasn’t easy and these are things that looking back–hindsight is always 2020–I struggled to realize a lot of these things. I don’t want athletes coming behind me to make the same mistakes. I have a lot of teammates now, to this day, who graduated college and they didn’t have a game plan, or they didn’t know what they wanted to do next, and they’re struggling.
They’re trying to figure it out, and a lot of athletes are too prideful, honestly, to ask for help, to ask for advice. I don’t want to see this becoming a constant in a lot of athlete’s lives. It’s why I do the work that I do, and it’s what I feel like I can give back to the world, based on what I’ve been through in my life.
Nikki Van Noy: We’ve all heard the stories about athletes playing, even at the highest levels, who just make what sounds like these staggering amounts of money, and then, a few years later, it’s all gone. Absolutely, this is a thing. You talked earlier about some of the challenges that can prevent professional athletes from thinking ahead and getting a game plan in place. Now, let’s flip that and talk to me about some of the advantages they have on their side that they’re perhaps not viewing as such or utilizing, in your view?
Malcolm Lemmons: Yeah, for sure. I think the two biggest things are the skills and traits that you learn as an athlete. I think a lot of times, athletes don’t think about how playing sports throughout their entire life has given them so many intangibles that are applicable to the real world. Things such as being able to work within a team with people from different backgrounds and experiences, being organized, having to manage school classwork and your sport and extracurricular activities, to leadership qualities–whether you are a captain on a team or you’re leading a team–being goal-oriented in setting a goal at the beginning of the season.
All those different intangibles and traits that you learn as an athlete are so important when it comes to the real world and figuring out what you’re going to do next. I think that you have to really look introspectively and realize that you have all of these traits, but it’s about pulling those things out and knowing when to apply them in certain situations. I think that’s definitely the first thing, and the next thing I would say is the network.
You know, when I was an athlete there were so many people who wanted to meet me. There were so many people who wanted to be around me, because I had that athlete title, because, when I came back home, I was Malcolm the Professional Athlete. Or “Malcolm, I saw you on ESPN!” I would get text messages and phone calls and all this attention and admiration.
I’m not saying that braggadocious but saying it from a standpoint that people want to be around you when you’re an athlete. People want to be in your corner, and so you have to utilize that opportunity, that title that you have because it’s not going to be there forever. You have to utilize that strategically, knowing that you can open so many doors with that title. You can build a strong network, you can meet business people and get informational interviews with executives because you’re an athlete. I think athletes need to utilize that title more than they do and I think, right now, as we are going through this pandemic, it is a perfect time. You see so many athletes, especially NBA guys, who are getting into real estate and getting into venture capital and setting up these meetings and using their platform to network. I think that is the biggest key.
Relationships are so important in life and when you utilize that platform as an athlete effectively you can essentially build a network that is going to help you in life afterward.
Nikki Van Noy: That is interesting that you are seeing that phenomenon happening right now, during the pandemic. It makes a lot of sense, but it is interesting to hear. You mentioned earlier about how–surprise-surprise–athletes are still human, and they do have other interests outside of whatever sport they’re playing. Talk to me a little bit about how people can start to identify the direction that they should move in, maybe for some people where it is not as obvious, I have this thing that I could monetize or I could segue way into this career.
Do you have any advice as far as that goes?
Malcolm Lemmons: I think the first thing would be, that you would have to assess–first figure out what you’d like, what you’d even think that you might be interested in, whether that’s drawing or cooking or editing videos. Whatever you think you might be interested in, start trying it now, don’t wait. We have technology at our hands, we have the internet. You can learn anything you want in a matter of minutes, and so there is no excuse for not trying something. Put yourself out there. You can try something, if you don’t like it, move on. So, I would tell athletes to try as many things as possible.
The next thing I would say would be to assess where your skills may lie. Think about what you are good at. What do people come to you and ask you advice for? When you can analyze and you know where your strengths lie, that is a good indicator of where you might be successful in life. Anything that you are good at, essentially, you probably like as well because you are good at it.
I would definitely tell athletes to think about what people come to you and ask you for advice. Think about where your strengths might lie so that you can utilize those strengths to figure out what your career path might be or figure out what else you could be doing besides your sport.
I think those are the two biggest keys and things that come to mind when I think about ways that athletes can start to prepare.
Nikki Van Noy: Okay. You know, your book is so wonderfully specific to this particular sector of people, and you talk about a few things that are really intriguing to me. So, for example, figuring out how to weigh in on social issues appropriately. Talk to me a little bit about that.
Malcolm Lemmons: That came to me because I realized how many athletes not only today are involved or want to get involved in the social justice issues, but athletes in the past, such as Muhammad Ali, and John Carlos, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. These athletes who have advocated for social justice and civil rights, and you see a lot of that today with Colin Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins, and a lot of NFL guys who took a knee.
I think there is a wrong and a right way to approach civil rights and social justice issues, especially when you have a platform as influential as an athlete. You do have to be cautious about how that merges with your brand and what impact you can make. I think the biggest thing with that is that I am all for standing up for what you believe in. If you believe in something, I absolutely think that you should just speak out and use your voice–that is why we have that amendment in this country–but also, I believe that athletes should be informed about what they are talking about. Know the facts and know everything that is going on with whatever you are trying to be an advocate for.
That was something that is near and dear to me because I am huge on social issues and making the world a better place, so I personally felt like it was something I needed to put into the book, to show athletes that you can stand up for what you believe in. There is nothing wrong with that but know the facts. Be informed, and if you’re going to stand up, stand up, and do it with all your heart. Go all in.
You are going to have some detractors, you are going to have some haters, but in the long run, people will admire you and respect you for the things that you believe in.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, okay. That feels like an especially important message right now, also. I am always intrigued by this idea of people as brands. Talk to me a little bit about athletes building a brand around themselves, what that entails, what they want to think of. My question along with that is–are there any specific things professional athletes need to think of when they are building their own brands since they are starting out presumably under the brand of a sports team? Which is something different and perhaps in some cases might not be completely aligned with what they see as their personal brand.
Malcolm Lemmons: Yes, so I think the first thing is that every single person, you, I, everyone in this world has a brand. Essentially, to me, your brand is a reputation. It’s the feeling that people get when they come into contact with you or they hear your name, and so we all have brands. Everything is a brand. How you mold and develop and build that is a combination of some of the things that I talked about before, your passions, your interest, your skills, but also your mission, your values. What do you stand for?
It is really taking a bird’s eye view of who you are as a person, not just an athlete, and pushing that into the world. Getting people to know who you are outside of the jersey, being vulnerable enough to tell your story, and transparent enough to talk about your insecurities and to get people engaged with who you are. I think that is the thing that athletes have to do when they start building a brand. I would also argue that there are a lot of athletes who are much bigger than the teams that they play on.
I think about Zion Williamson when he came to Duke. He came to Duke University as a freshman and had over two million followers on Instagram and that’s just mind-blowing. You have a 17-year-old kid coming into college who has a platform that’s bigger than some of the biggest companies in the world, bigger than the universities that he’s going to. So, I don’t think Zion even needed Duke to build his brand, but you have to realize that athletes today, with social media and technology, have an incredible opportunity at their hands when they utilize it effectively.
It is just so important for them to understand how much influence they have and how people follow people. People necessarily don’t follow logos or companies. People want to follow a person they know, like, and trust and so that’s what athletes have with social media in particular. Through you pushing out your story, that content, that brand, that is how you get people to engage with who you are outside of the jersey.
That is how you get people to know, like, and respect you, and that is how you build a sustainable brand that is going to create a legacy for you going into life after sports. It gives you every opportunity that you could ever want to take advantage of going forward.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, what you’re saying makes so much sense and that is staggering, in the case of Zion, having that amount of followers and that much influence at 17 years old. It is almost inconceivable.
Malcolm Lemmons: It is amazing. Yeah, I mean there is not much you can even say about that. He has so many eyeballs on him and the pressure of the world is on him, but he’s handled it gracefully. Obviously, not every athlete comes into college with millions of followers, but a lot of them had tens of thousands of followers, and so that is still a lot of pressure to uphold. It is even more reason why we have to teach younger athletes.
You don’t know who is watching, you don’t know who is following you. But if you do the right things, if you know what you are trying to get out of your social media platform, if you know where you are trying to go with your brand, you could have so many opportunities because of your following, because it is notoriety that you carry as an athlete.
So that’s my mission. That is what I am trying to drive home for athletes worldwide.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah so, out of curiosity, when you were younger and coming up was anybody having these conversations with you? Or any version of these conversations with you about the future and what you should be thinking about and paying attention to?
Malcolm Lemmons: Not at all. I definitely had an understanding. My mom is in the medical field, so she is highly educated, and so there was an understanding that basketball wasn’t the end-all, be-all. I just didn’t know what else I really wanted to do. That is the hard part, figuring out what that is. I think athletes understand that they can’t play forever, but it takes initiative to really jump-start what you want to do next and to start figuring that out.
Nobody really stressed that to me. The emphasis was on playing basketball, staying focused on your craft, and I had people around me who kept reiterating that. That is what I thought, first and foremost, and I didn’t have that sense of urgency until I was almost at the end.
Nikki Van Noy: So in an ideal scenario, when and where would you say these conversations should start to happen?
Malcolm Lemmons: I mean, honestly, they should start the minute that an athlete starts playing their sport. Because, as I have been saying, sports are going to end one day whether that is by choice or an injury or whatever happens. Every athlete is going to have to end at some point in time, and no athlete really knows when that is going to be. The minute that an athlete starts playing, we have to start talking about dual careers.
Not necessarily transitioning, because I know that is a hard concept for a lot of athletes to wrap their heads around, especially when you are in high school. If you came to me and said, “Hey I am going to talk to you about life after sports,” I would have been like, “Are you crazy? I am just getting started. Why would I even?” You are not going to engage an athlete when you are talking about life after sports when they are young.
I think it has to come from an approach of dual careers–you can pursue your sport but, also, what else are you trying to do here? What else are you interested in? How can we incorporate other hobbies and passions? And so that is how you have to come to it. It is a tough conversation to have and so I think athletes have to start preparing earlier.
As I mentioned before, the platforms are getting bigger at younger ages, and so there is a greater emphasis on them preparing to utilize and to understanding why their brand is so important at earlier ages too. We need to start having these conversations at these low levels because of technology and the way things have evolved.
Nikki Van Noy: It feels like you just made such an important point there about dual careers. The only analogy I can make is that some people shy away from, for example, creating their wills or filling out donor cards because these topics inherently evolve thinking about the end, which a lot of people just don’t want to do. I am lifting this from a different context, but you’re right. There is a very different energy between transition, which is calling upon someone to think about the end of something when they are still building it, or closer to the beginning, as opposed to dual careers where you don’t have that element of ending to it.
Malcolm Lemmons: Right, it is somewhat the same concept, just a different angle. A different approach to the conversation. I think it makes a world of difference because, like you said, who wants to think about the end? No one wants to talk about retirement, no one wants to talk about wills. We’re stuck in the now, we want to be in the present, we want to be living what we are trying to do and so you have to take that approach, especially with younger athletes because it is not going to resonate.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah absolutely. So, let me ask you, on a personal note, you have used the word passion a few times talking about your relationship with basketball. As you’ve moved into this other phase of your career, do you still experience that passion just in a different way, directed toward other things?
Malcolm Lemmons: Yeah, absolutely. I wholeheartedly believe that you can’t be great at anything if you don’t love it. You have to have a bigger purpose or why behind why you are chasing something and to me, that starts with the passion. You have to love the process, because it is so hard to get up every day and do something consistently, to be good at it, if you don’t love it. You are just dragging yourself through the mud.
So, I definitely only pursued projects and endeavors that I truly feel like my heart is in and that I can give my all to because I know if I don’t do that then I am eventually going to burn out or I am going to quit. I am going to give up.
I think you have to approach everything with a certain level of passion. Of course, you want to be good at it because to be successful you have to be somewhat talented in the thing that you are trying to do. But I think passion has to be there undoubtedly and I think that, when you combine those two things, the world is your oyster.
You can achieve anything you want if you have somewhat of a talent at it and you love it, go for it. I have learned to figure that out for myself and to do that in life afterward and in everything that I am doing now.
Nikki Van Noy: Beautiful. Again Malcolm, even as someone whose basketball career ended in 8th grade, I have taken away a lot from what you have to say here. The book again is Impact Beyond the Game. Malcolm Lemmons, thank you for joining me and I’d love it if you can let listeners know where else they can find you?
Malcolm Lemmons: Absolutely. Well, thank you for having me, Nikki. They can find me on every social media platform, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. I am anywhere and everywhere @malcolmlemmons, and then you can also check on my website at .
Nikki Van Noy: I mean based on the content of the book, it would be disconcerting if they couldn’t find you on all of these platforms, so that is good to hear.
Malcolm Lemmons: Right, you have to live what you preach, right?
Nikki Van Noy: Totally, all right Malcolm, thank you so much and best of luck with the book.
Malcolm Lemmons: Thank you, Nikki, I appreciate it.