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Nets’ Caris LeVert Connects Kids and Industry Leaders Through His 22 Initiative

NEW YORK CITY -- Caris LeVert missed half of this season after dislocating his right foot in November. But during his recovery, the Brooklyn Nets' rising star found different ways to make a significant impact off the court through his 22 Initiative.

What started last fall for 22 kids and teenagers in Brooklyn—to match Caris' jersey number—has since expanded to programming in life skills, education and career development for participants from other boroughs. The 24-year-old has hosted his mentees at a Nets game to learn about the inner workings from the team's executives, including General Manager Sean Marks; brought them to a panel discussion at the Nets' HSS Training Center to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion; accompanied them on visits to the offices of ESPN and Bleacher Report to see what goes on behind the scenes in sports media; and took them to Nike headquarters to discover different careers.

The seventh event for the 22 Initiative took place on Tuesday night at Bowlmor Times Square, where kids got to bowl against Caris and teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and interact with staff members from Roc Nation Sports, which represents Caris and is owned by Jay-Z.

"It means a lot, man, to be here for him," Rondae tells CloseUp360. "He’s more than just a friend; he’s a brother to me. He’s a humble guy, man. He’s awesome to be around. He’s always in great spirits. His energy is amazing. 

"You try to leave [the kids] with a different type of energy because a lot of times, kids in certain areas, man, they’re not used to a certain type of energy. So just giving them that type of energy that they should be used to or they should want, and kind of set the mark like that. When you expect or demand a certain type of energy, that’s what you put yourself around."

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Brooklyn Nets teammates Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. (Fafane Cherie)

Caris established his initiative in partnership with UWantGame—a student-athlete development organization co-founded by his agent Joe Branch—because of how challenging high school was for him, from academic demands to personal tragedies. He supported his mother through her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and dealt with his father's death before leaving his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, to play basketball at the University of Michigan.

In between turns bowling against Rondae, Caris caught up with CloseUp360 about his dedicated community work, his parents' impact and more.

(The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

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Caris LeVert autographs a replica of his jersey for a young fan at his 22 Initiative's Bowling Challenge. (Fafane Cherie)

CloseUp360: You’ve definitely got some game on the lane.

Caris LeVert: I’m a quiet competitor. I don’t like to talk a lot of smack. I started bowling when I was a kid. I love bowling. That’s probably one of my favorite things to do, other than play basketball.

CU360: Tell me about the 22 Initiative.

CL: The 22 Initiative is a mentorship program for kids around Brooklyn. The 22 is my number; we match it up. We started with 22 kids around Brooklyn. Just spend time with them, take them to different organizations. We took them to the Nike headquarters. They met with the executives there, asked questions, picked their brains a little. They came to a Nets game as well, talked to Sean Marks, picked his brain as well. So it’s just about building relationships with the kids, being like a big brother to them.

CU360: How did the idea start for you with thinking about how you wanted to impact the community?

CL: When I was young, I didn’t really know any NBA players, but I always knew I wanted to be an NBA player. But I didn’t know anybody who was at that level. There was no one who’s reachable for me, so I always said when I made it, I wanted to be that for the community that I got drafted to.

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Caris became the man of the house at 15 years old, after his father died of a heart attack at the age of 46. (Fafane Cherie)

CU360: Who were your mentors growing up?

CL: I think my parents played a huge role, just with the way they raised me. My dad played basketball in college, my mom’s a huge basketball fan. So I think just growing up, that was always what I saw, what I was accustomed to, so that’s where my love of the game come from. My favorite player growing up was Allen Iverson. I think he made me fall in love with the game.

CU360: Have you met AI yet?

CL: I haven’t. My mom has met him, though. He actually came to the series when we played Philly in the playoffs. And they sat right next to each other, so she met him. But I haven’t met him.

CU360: What advice was big from your parents as you got better with basketball?

CL: Probably just staying even keel. That’s not even basketball; that’s just in life. A lot of things come your way, you have a lot of highs and lows, but I think the best thing to do is just stay even keel. Never get too high, never get too low.

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Caris and his agent, Joe Branch. (Fafane Cherie)

CU360: With the kids, what kinds of things do you tell them with how to get through school and sports?

CL: Education is essential. It’s one of the most important things that you can do. And the Initiative isn’t even really about basketball or anything like that. When they came to a Nets game, I mean, they talked to Sean about being a general manager and things like that. It’s just about life skills, building relationships and things like that.

CU360: You’re thinking much more beyond the game. Where does that mindset come from with getting kids thinking about the business side and more opportunities outside of playing?

CL: I mean, it’s reality. Less than one percent of people in the world make it to the NBA. So that’s my reality, but that may not be everyone’s reality. That’s not to say that some of the kids may not make it, because it’s very possible, but not everyone is going to make it—maybe one from that group [today]. You know what I mean? So just getting them thinking like that and showing them the statistics of everything like that. Also, follow your dreams.

CU360: Do you have some personal mentees who you’ve taken under your wing in Brooklyn?

CL: It was kind of tough for me this year, especially with my injury and things like that. But I think all of them have done a great job of just growing and growing together, just allowing us to pick their brains a little bit, open up a little bit.

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Rondae says the Nets bonded over bowling four times this season. (Fafane Cherie)

CU360: What do you feel stands out with your initiative and its themes, as you look to grow it?

CL: I think the fact that it’s bigger than basketball. Kids know that. A lot of the kids don’t even play basketball. They’re interested in being around the game, maybe interested in being a general manager or a scout or a coach or things like that. Some of them don’t even like basketball, watch basketball. I think that’s huge, just wanting to be around and grow their mindset.

CU360: When you do an event, what’s important for you to take away from it?

CL: Definitely the fun. Just depends on the event. Like today was obviously a bowling event. Obviously we want the kids to have a great time. Other sit-downs with the Nike execs, definitely want them to learn and ask all the questions that they have. So I think it just depends on the event.

CU360: Beyond community work, what things are big for you off the court with building your brand?

CL: Honestly right now, we’re trying to just focus a lot on the basketball part. I’m still young. I’m trying to establish myself. I feel like the other stuff will come. But we’re definitely looking into other opportunities and things like that, but basketball is definitely the main focus for right now.

 

Jared Zwerling is the Founder and President of CloseUp360. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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