Jelan Kendrick Takes a Shot at His Dream

The methods to become whole often end up defining a person. Whether through religion, self-reflection, travel or other means, each individual’s path is unique. For Jelan Kendrick, the journey has been long—but it has only just begun.

When watching Kendrick, 25, taking shots on the basketball court, his athletic gifts are immediately apparent.

With hopes to make it to the NBA, he works his 6-foot-7 frame to the bone—every day is training day for Kendrick. From two- to three-a-day training sessions peppered with yoga, meditation and devouring book after book, he’s preparing his body and mind for the pros, and he’s not taking no for an answer.

“I made a decision to put all my eggs in one basket,” he says. “I know a lot of people say [to not] do that—and that’s exactly what I’m doing, and I’m going to achieve my goals.”

Despite his drive and contagious positivity, Kendrick has come a long way.

“When I initially started playing basketball, I wasn’t the fastest, I didn’t jump the highest, I wasn’t the best shooter. I wasn’t anything great. But I was obsessed.”–Jelan Kendrick

“My dad was a competitor and he exposed me to basketball at a very young age,” Kendrick says. But it wasn’t only sports that stroked the competitive spirit.

“I saw my dad come home from work with a gash in his leg [from an accident with a weed eater while landscaping a yard] about 3 inches deep, and he put glue in it and pushed it together because he had to finish the job,” he says. “I’ve always seen how driven my dad was. It’s so beautiful to me: He never stopped dreaming, he never stopped working, he never stopped driving.”

Kendrick’s dad, who played church basketball and had an affinity for the game, helping many kids with the fundamentals, pushed Kendrick to try it.

“When it came to basketball, I knew my dad was obsessed, so I wanted to beat his obsession. I got up before he got up, I would stay in the gym longer than he wanted to stay. I wanted to be so annoying that he’d be like, ‘Let’s go!’ There were times when I was dead tired and didn’t want to do it, but that competitive spirit pushed me to go harder than him.

“When I initially started playing basketball, I wasn’t the fastest, I didn’t jump the highest, I wasn’t the best shooter. I wasn’t anything great. But I was obsessed, I was consistent and I worked my butt off.”

It was this unyielding work ethic that skyrocketed Kendrick into becoming one of the top high school basketball players in the country. In 2010, as a senior, he was named a McDonald’s All American at Joseph Wheeler High School in Marietta, Georgia, which is less than an hour drive from his hometown of College Park.

“Growing up in College Park was amazing. For the outsider looking in, it would be viewed as a dilapidated, violent culture. But when you grow up there you think differently,” he says. “Even though a lot of people didn’t make it out, I think the lessons learned there were something that were instilled in me and helped carve the person I am today. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Kendrick had many options to leave his beloved home base, but it’s when he got to college—at the tender age of 17—that challenges arose and the pressures of being a young athlete came to a head.

Andrew Sea James

In four years Kendrick attended four colleges, eventually finishing at UNLV, earning two degrees. Although he was part of three stellar teams before arriving in Las Vegas—University of Memphis, Ole Miss and Indian Hills Junior College—his many transitions were the result of being a kid faced with adult realities to succeed and perform. Conflicts caught up with him and played out in his relationships on the court.

It was then that he learned a valuable lesson about oftentimes intense media scrutiny, which according to Kendrick, was without warrant.

Being typecast was tough for him to reconcile.

“There’s a fine line between passion and attitude,” he says. “If you ever get a label that is associated with attitude, it’s almost like you can’t be passionate anymore.”

It chipped away at his psyche—a change, he says, from being beloved by his peers and coaches in his adolescence. 

Though things evened out by the time he made it to UNLV for his junior and senior years, he was no longer putting up the same numbers on the court than he was when he was younger.

“It was a difficult time, but I also think it was a needed time,” he says.

He graduated in spring 2015.

“I had $28 in my bank account. One day I woke up and said, ‘$28 is better than $27.”–Jelan Kendrick

After what he says was a well-received practice with the Golden State Warriors in May of the same year, he was disappointed that it didn’t end up in a contract. He went back to College Park.

“I got a job, because what else was I doing—waiting for a phone call?” he says. “I started working at Top Golf [in Atlanta], and after a couple weeks they offered me a salary job. I went home and I thought, ‘This isn’t my life. I don’t know what is, but this isn’t it.’”

He decided to come back to Las Vegas and after a few weeks of sleeping on a friend’s floor, he began questioning his choice.

“I had $28 in my bank account. One day I woke up and said, ‘$28 is better than $27.’ I told myself that for a week. [Then] I said, ‘I’m gonna be happy about every single thing in life. Period. I will never be sad again, I’ll never feel sorry for myself again—never.’”

Life took a 180. He solidified a steady living situation, and he met some influential Downtown business owners and helpful friends through some well-timed networking. He eventually cofounded his own millennial lifestyle platform, Unxommon, in the malleable landscape of Downtown, as media space to tell stories about people in a more immersive fashion. After the media attention Kendrick received during his college years, he made a concerted effort to ensure that his team got to know its subjects firsthand.

The success was punctuated with a weekly event Kendrick curated called Unxommon Thursdays at Downtown’s Commonwealth. Millennial-driven, it brought in fresh DJs and became a base for creative types. According to Kendrick, the event catered to upwards of 600 attendees on some nights.

His team reaped the benefits. From the writers interviewing artists and musicians they admired to the videographer getting the opportunity to bone up on his craft, the crew had a platform to shine.

“Everyone’s doing stuff that they love,” Kendrick says. “And I sat back and thought, ‘Who’s the one person who’s not doing what they’re fully passionate about?’ And then I looked in the mirror.”

Andrew Sea James

That was early 2017. Today, Kendrick can be found in gyms all over the Valley, training and pushing himself. His drive is what gets him out of bed each morning, but it’s been his circle that keeps him on track.

“It’s good to have that support cast that believes in what you’re doing and has a different outlook,” he says. “I don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t acknowledge who helped them. Yeah, I’m getting up early and working hard every day, but I have a lot of help from other people. Good, kindhearted people who want to get me where I want to be as well.”

Trying out for the G League is his first goal, but there’s no shortage of plans afterward. With dreams of making it to the NBA after dominating the G League, he wants a championship, defensive player of the year title and a top-50 player recognition.

“I want to be remembered forever, which may be delusional, but that’s what I want.

“When I was a little kid, a teacher said to me, ‘Life is like a roller coaster.’ I thought about that—until I got on a roller coaster. As we’re going up, I’m thinking, ‘What the hell did I get myself into? We are going way too high; what if we fall?’ We get to the top and worry has left, and I’m full-on scared. I’m at the top, looking down, scared shitless. And then we drop. Halfway down, I feel happy. You go on all these loops and turns and you get off and you think, ‘I lived. That was fun.’ … You need all those emotions to pack into a roller coaster to have fun.

“It’s not about being happy or being sad, but being whole.”