AEBL Hoops strives to empower young Black men, 1 game at a time

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Photo courtesy: True Life Media LLC.

AEBL Hoops, Atlanta’s premier entertainment basketball league founded by Jah Rawlings, has been the city’s summer hangout spot since it’s inception in 2013. The New York native took it upon himself to bring a taste of streetball life he grew up on in the Big Apple to the ATL, bringing NBA players, international players, celebrities, entertainers and local athletes like Trinidad James, Lou Williams, 2 Chainz and Young Jeezy to come out for a free, family fun affair in the local community every weekend.

AEBL hoops offers more than slam-dunks and 3-pointers from your favorite players; Rawlings’ primary focus is to give back to the youth and steer them in a positive direction so they don’t make the same mistakes he once did. Rolling out caught up with Rawlings to hear more about his organization’s charitable efforts and his future plans for the growth of his company.

What made you leave corporate stability to bring your AEBL organization to life?
Basketball has been my life and at the same time, a lot of people knew me from working in the music industry from doing marketing and management for artists. While I was pursuing my basketball career I was also working alongside trying to build a foundation in the music industry. I decided that this wasn’t it for me anymore. I worked for the Atlanta Hawks at the same time while all this other stuff was going on. I worked in their basketball development department for five years. Through that time I began to notice that there was a disconnected bridge that was broken with basketball in the local community which is where it starts. Most people don’t realize that athletes like LeBron James and Steph Curry all started playing in their community. I knew that the pillar of basketball started in the community so when I saw that disconnect that’s when I discovered my niche. I grew up in the streetball community in New York, so I wanted to bring that to Atlanta and that is how it AEBL came into existence. I just took my knowledge and experience of being a young basketball player and thought about the things that I needed like exposure with agents and college coaches. It has been an impactful platform in the community and now we’re four years in working to be one of the biggest summer basketball leagues in the country but also one of the biggest organizations for community development in Atlanta.

You mentioned that growing up you prioritized basketball over your studies and that’s something you regret. What kinds of programs do you implement within your organization to teach these young men that education comes first?

Yes, we definitely do. That is really the goal. We want to use basketball as a vehicle because that’s what we know they like and we know they love the NBA players. We want them to put their focus and energy into an education being young, well-mannered citizens. We use mentorship programs through speaking at local schools once a month or at boys home to give them entrepreneurial advice but letting them also know that at one point I was just like them, not caring about school. I realized one day that I am not going to let these kids make the same mistake that I did. We partner with tons of organizations from the Junior NBA to other big brother programs where we use our resources to give them hands-on experience. We give them the experience to meet with NBA players to find out what they went through to get where they are today. We just try to create positive outlets for them through a lot of different channels.

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Photo courtesy: Dream Photography Group

What have been some of your success stories after giving back to some the underprivileged kids in the local community?
I think that is what keeps me going every day. This past weekend we did our back to school drive and we had an NBA player, Josh Powell sponsor a portion of our drive. I constantly hear these parents, singles moms and dads saying that if it weren’t for AEBL we wouldn’t have anything that we could do positive for our families. We adopt five families every year from the Old Fourth Ward which is the area that Grady and Central Park are in. I know Grady is in Midtown across the street from Piedmont Park but if you go a few streets over your on Boulevard in a not so nice area. These parents come to the league looking for assistance whether that be having a positive place for their young, Black male to come and be mentored or even just see some positivity. That’s what drives me and my staff to keep making this league bigger and bigger so that way we can help more people. Some of the parents have said they wouldn’t be able to go to a basketball game if it weren’t for us. Not everyone can afford season tickets to a Hawks game. This is always a highlight point for me seeing that what we are trying to build is working.

Starting out with just a vision four years ago did you ever think AEBL would grow to become something this major at such a fast pace?
I’ll be honest with you. I had to pinch myself last night. I had a real moment where I was talking to coaches and some of the NBA guys on a phone call. Everyone was like I know the league is growing faster than you even expected. Anybody that knows me knows I have like the biggest vision for everything that I do. I didn’t think it was going to happen as fast as it did. From year two to year three things went to a whole new level to the point where we were getting recognized by ESPN and traveling around the country to play other leagues that are older than I am. The leagues in New York and L.A. were around when my mother was a kid. To see it transcend the way that it has over the last four years I am definitely grateful.

How does it feel to be competing on the same playing field with other leagues that are twice as old as AEBL?
That is where the competitive nature in me comes in. I always jokingly say we’re like the Soulja Boy of summer basketball in a sense that he materialized everything that he was trying to do through MySpace and the internet. We came in right when social media started booming whereas these other leagues have older figureheads. They pretty much think that because they’ve already built their brand that they don’t need social media. We came in and really used social media as an advantage. We’re connecting with the nation that never knew anything about Atlanta having basketball. To be on that competitive playing field and have the most NBA players out of all the summer leagues in the country and only being four years old is huge. Media outlets ask me all the time how are you getting all these NBA players. We keep pushing the vision and the word is spreading. On top of that, all the NBA players live here. This is Black Hollywood so everybody under the sun has real estate in Atlanta. We are at an advantage where these people are in our city. AEBL is the talk of the town in the summer so we’re getting people to come through because they hear it and want to be a part of it.

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Photo courtesy: Kayla Madonna

What is the process for young men wanting to get involved in playing for the league in the summer?

During the off-season starting in like February and March right when college basketball is at its height, we start to do open runs where we invite the open public out to learn about AEBL. We get a chance to identify what players that aren’t in the league currently that we think should be so then we invite the coaches and the GMs out for them to take a look at that talent as well. Typically we try to promote to the colleges and fitness gyms. You have to be at least 18 years or older to play in the league so basically rising freshmen. We have a strong base of Atlanta basketball players so having a connection to them also helps you get a foot in the door.

What is your long-term goal for the AEBL Hoops organization?
One of the huge things that we are getting ready to embark on for the next five years is going to be creating a women’s league as well as a youth division where we have those same kids that we’re targeting to create a similar platform for them to play basketball during the summer. When I become the best league in the country I’m not going to stop. When people think about Atlanta there is a couple things that they think about. They think about Hartsfield, Coca-Cola, Delta, the Georgia Dome but now I want them to think about AEBL. Until we are a driving force across the country where people in every city and even internationally are like AEBL is the “ish” in Atlanta. I want to be the mayor of basketball of the southeast region.

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