Lemons building bridge to broaden young minds

AMERICAN-born Rod Lemons speaks with a great deal of self-awareness when it comes to basketball. The former guard, who lives in South Africa, recalled how a once-promising career did not pan out as expected and what he could have done different to have a prolonged career.

Fortunately for him, his life’s vision was not limited to being player and he found another way to stay involved in the game.

The 49-year-old founder of a Non-Profit Organisation (NPO), Bridge Elite Global, is aware of the popularity of basketball. He also understands that many kids dream of going pro, just like he did when he was young.

Reflecting on his college days, Lemons, who hails from Shaker Heights, Ohio, told The Big Tip Off one of his coaches at The University of Tennessee in Chattanooga affirmed his potential to be an NBA player. That coach was the late Henry Dickerson, an assistant at the University team and a former Detroit Pistons player.

While Dickerson’s words were profound, a new reality had set in for Lemons, who played in the 94-95 NCAA tournament for Tennessee (vs University of Connecticut Huskies).

“My coach at the time, Henry Dickerson, felt two guys in our team could make it to the NBA. It was our centre, Roger Smith and myself, but I just had to polish my game. So, there was an active push to get me on a high scoring cliff to allow me to transition to the NBA,” said the former Beachwood High School pupil.

“My initial goal was to play Division I college basketball because nobody in my high school had done that. I was the first player to do that. When you get to college, you learn from your coaches that the standard is not Michael Jordan and the NBA. There are 399 people also looking for that job, so you have to do everything right.

“One thing I have never talked about is the accountability of an athlete. Many athletes blame others for their faults. But never look in the mirror. My first push to get to the NBA… I had to do some soul searching because my daughter was born 1999, and I did not want to leave her.”

Rod Lemons founder of Bridge Global Elite
Rod Lemons feels young should dream of more than being pro basketball players. Pictures: THE BTO

Lemons eventually landed a professional gig and had a stint with third-division club Lincolnshire Wildcats in England. He also managed to find a second job while still playing basketball.

The American says his second job paved the way to starting his NPO.

“While I was there, I worked with a group called the Lincolnshire Sports Partnership. We conducted basketball clinics across the country and sold kits to different programs,” said Lemons.

“It taught me how to put together programs. Raise funds through grants. When I returned to Cleveland in 2005, I utilised this model to build a program with inner city youth.”

On the playing front, Lemons got another shot at the NBA, but his body could not hold up, a situation he has takes ownership of.

“I got a chance to trial with the LA Clippers, Orlando Magic and Portland Trailblazers. So, I headed to Anaheim in the summer of 06 and played there, but I developed some sciatic nerve damage and Achilles injuries. So, I knew at that time, in my early 30s, it was time to hang up sneakers,” said Lemons. “I was devastated because you work so hard to put yourself in a position to be successful. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s also about athlete accountability. You have to look in the mirror.

“At 31-32, when my body was breaking down, I said to myself, ‘if I had practiced this discipline when I was in my early 20s maybe I would be telling a different story.”

Rod Lemons founder of the Bridge Elite Global
Former player Devin Green alongside Rod Lemons.

Lemons, who holds a Masters in Sports Management from Cleveland State University, has long moved on from the disappointment of not making the NBA.

Fast forward to the present, he recently moved to South Africa, where he has continued basketball-related business operations.

He was used to living abroad as a professional player, but his relocation to South Africa is long-term. It also came with the blessing of someone special in his life.

“The most challenging part of that (moving to South Africa) was leaving my daughter. She is an adult, but she still needs me. There is a great support system available to her back home. I understand what I am doing here (in South Africa) is for her future and the future of many other youths,” said Lemons. “At first, she was not board with my decision, but after understanding my intentions, we worked it out, and she gave me her grace to here in South Africa.”

Lemons, who founded his organisation in 2006 in England, says they have partnered with various institutions in Johannesburg to help bring Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to come and play exhibition games in South Africa.

Rod Lemons at the Ellis Park Arena
Rod Lemons, right, Lindo Sibankulu and Solomzi Ngonelo of the MBB Club during the Ball In Da Bush Series.

“We are working with organisations like the Johannesburg Basketball Academy and other clubs. Our focus is also HBCUs in America. They promote Africa, but they do not travel here. We want to create something akin to the Maui Classic. We want them (HBCUs) to experience this continent,” said Lemons.

“Also, we want to help students enter professional settings through our global internship program. Ninety-nine per cent of people are not going to become professional basketball players. Our for focus is on that group because the one per cent will be alright. The other group (99 percent) invest emotional energy in the game. When they don’t make it, it can be detrimental.

“So through our networks, we help students enter different spaces in basketball. We advise them to take subjects advanced Math or Statistics because there is a multibillion dollar analytics industry dominated by people that don’t look like me, but they make money off people that look like me. So we want our kids take to these difficult subjects so that they access those opportunities. That way, they can still be able to enjoy and be part of basketball.”

Finally, being able to get assistance from prominent figures in South African basketball has also been beneficial to Lemons.

“Lindo Sibankulu (former South African national team player) introduced me to Florsheim Ngwenya (national team coach). Coach Ngwenya has been a gem in helping us to execute what we are trying do here with the different structures (Basketball South Africa). Him (Ngwenya) and other people behind the scenes have helped us to navigate the South African basketball landscape,” concluded Lemons.

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