The Fresh Prince

Sophomore NBA forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a rare athlete and rarer human being. He shares with us what drives him, in life and in style.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania—twenty minutes away from Philadelphia where Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson would at one point lace them up and play with “76ers” proudly written across the chest. And let’s not forget Wilt, “Pearl” Monroe or Kobe. They’re all Philadelphians born and raised, real-talk, smooth as the Fresh Prince sings it. If this sounds biblical to you, that’s because it is. In Philly, basketball is as much a religion as it is a teacher; the game is a lesson in itself, about adversity and the italic principles needed to transcend it: hard work, perseverance, faith.

Listen to Hollis Jefferson tell it and it’s clear that his story is made possible because of where he’s from, “Growing up in PA, outside of Philly, Chester definitely shaped me … to have this mindset that you have to be strong, that you can’t let people run all over you, you have to be comfortable with who you are because people will change you in a heartbeat, to go this way or that way, they’ll navigate your life moreso than allowing you to be the leader of your own destiny. I felt like I did a good job with that along with the help of my family and peers, just knowing who I was from an early age. It’s hard for young people to do, trying to fit in or to find the right crowd.” Choosing a basketball life is difficult, complicated, and by the numbers, unforgiving. To believe in a hoop dream is to be different and unafraid. Of 546,428 high school basketball players recognized by the NCAA, 18,684 are recruited to compete at the college level—3.5%. Of those college athletes, 4,152 are NBA Draft eligible, with 44 of 60 draft picks coming from the college ranks. 1.1% earns the right to play professional ball. 

It became clear early on that Rondae had been blessed with a rare combination of size and speed, and rarer still in today’s NBA, with a passion for defense. A decorated high school career would see him notch 1000-plus points, a school-record 780 rebounds, and two state titles en-route to becoming the first-ever player in his county to be named Player of the Year multiple times, consecutively.  “You know, I actually didn’t want that. I didn’t want to fit in. I wanted people to come to me. And people did, through grade school and even through college, people came to me. Through that, I was able to grow.” 

Flashing a megawatt smile to electrify an already incandescent athleticism, Hollis-Jefferson’s joy set him apart on court. Recruited to play at perennial NCAA basketball powerhouse Arizona, Rondae played as coaches preached: compete, have fun, leave it all on the floor. This was the only way to play—for the love of the game—and in so doing, it came easily to him. “When I moved to the West Coast, it was a complete one-eighty coming from the East Coast. The weather was incredible and people were genuine. I wasn’t sure how to accept it at first, to be honest. It was like I was afraid to be happy. But the more time I spent out there, the positivity grew on me.”

"As far as attitude and patience goes, I got it tattooed on me actually: CHAP. Calm, humble and patient, based on the way on I want to live."

Selected by the Portland Trailblazers with the 23rd pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Hollis-Jefferson was traded that same night to the Brooklyn Nets. Despite a wingspan (7’1”) as big as his heart, nothing could prepare Rondae for the adversity that would stall a young career that had hit so many points of acceleration. Fracturing his right ankle in a team practice during his rookie campaign, the injury exacerbated the challenge of adjusting to the third major city of his life beyond Chester. “Transitioning to New York was difficult. Despite my experiences on the West Coast, I have to be honest, New York was overwhelming. Even though I felt like I had fully accepted New York into my personality, I felt stuck here. I was injured, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I felt like a different person.”

For fans like us who watch the game, criticism comes easy and often. He should have made this pass, taken that shot. But lost in the high drama of the sport is the human scale of it all. The younger brother of two who grows up on the shoulders of his mother, she who works multiple jobs morning to morning to ensure she can provide, she who tells her sons to dream big, and for whom she dreams even bigger. What doesn’t catch the eye as easily is the space required to take emotional inventory, the permission we must give ourselves to make a mistake, have an off-day or, to mourn an injury quietly, “I remember someone gave me some advice during that period. He told me that sometimes God gives you a plan, but you don’t know it yet. And during those times, he has to slow you down so you can stop making those same mistakes. So I feel like he put that injury in my life so that I could understand my plan in order to be able to fulfill my life’s purpose. That was a turning point for me.”

Rondae will tell you wearing his mood on his sleeve is only way he knows how. When it comes to style he’s even more specific about whom he’s watching and more importantly, why. “Definitely Kanye West, just him being different, I feel like Russell Westbrook and Kanye as far as the trends they’re having, they’re not afraid to express the difference that they have … that’s big in fashion … and I feel like, that’s what they did.” With or without basketball, Rondae will be mentioned one day alongside Pennsylvania’s best. He’s unburdened by anyone else’s shadow; he’s looking to cast his own, all six feet and seven inches worth of it.

“People would tell me that I did a complete 180. As far as attitude and patience goes, I got it tattooed on me actually: CHAP. Calm, humble and patient based on a way that I want to live. Calm through every situation, no matter how rough it gets, humble through all the praise and accolades, success. Patience for when things aren’t going right or when it isn’t your time. But I feel like I’ve been doing that since I got the tattoo. I’m not going to say I’m at 100 yet, but I’ve been working my way towards it, 40-50, 50-60, 60-70. So my friends and family could definitely say that I have made that growth process. But you know, thinking about it and having it branded on me, I pray, I pray a lot, for the people I love and that I am close to you know, for better nows and better tomorrows."