015-Mckinley Nelson

Founder of Project Swish Chicago


Feature No. 15 | July 1st, 2020

 

Tell us about yourself.

I picked up a basketball at the age of three. Basketball is one of the only things we had in the neighborhood so naturally I gravitated towards hoops. 

I played biddy ball, elementary school ball, and then went on to high school at Whitney Young with Jahlil Okafor and Paul White, Miles Reynolds and won a state championship. Then went on to study sports management at Xavier. 

During my high school times in the summer I didn't play AAU or anything,  I had internships because I thought I wanted to become an NBA agent. As I was studying in college, things were happening to the guys I grew up with; I lost a bunch of them to the streets. I had the opportunity to get my education and pursue my dream, those guys weren't as lucky. As I prepared myself for the next level I suffered some pain, trauma and ptsd that I had to overcome and that's how I came to found Project sWish Chicago.

 

Talk about your foundation, Project Swish?

We set up shop in all the worst neighborhoods in Chicago where rates of crime are highest, to get guys off the streets in times that they would be in danger. Project sWish uses basketball to combat violence in the inner city and provide mental resources to my peers. Even if you're not hooping you’re coming in for a free meal, you're inside your in a safe environment. We have a partnership with the police department, local officials, and our own security as well to make sure that everyone is safe in the inner city.

 

What is the main focus of the organization?

Based on the environment that I grew up in and the people that I lost, I know that there are a lot of guys that go through the same thing.  We host speakers, hold Q&As, and mental health panels to get through the guys’ heads and let them know it’s ok to be vulnerable. The only way to get it out is if you let it out. 

We use basketball as the bait to trick people into coming into the gym and then we can deliver with the things that they really need.

 

How does the programming work?

We have eight elementary school programs all over Chicago where we provide 30 minutes of mentorship and homework help. Then we give the guys floor and a chance to speak on things they aren't comfortable telling their teachers or parents. After that we connect with them through basketball. 

On the weekends - usually Thursday through Sunday - we host a league for 18-25 year old guys. It goes from 6-10 pm since those are the highest crime times. Once a guy turns 18, they are thrown into the fire so that's our targeted audience. 

From then we have one-off events. We didn't have a facility at first, but now with our new office we are able to host events.

 

What inspired you to take on those internships?

Being on a team with guys who had recruiters coming in 7th and 8th grade. They knew they were going to school for free. By the time I was a sophomore I realized I wasn't going to be making a living playing basketball. 

From there I put my passion somewhere else. My mom was always really strict about the books and having a plan b and plan c; she was an educator for chicago public schools. It was important that I wasn't wasting my time in the summer. Basketball was a hobby. I wanted to give myself a head start on my career. As far as what inspired me? My mom and secondly my environment.

 

Where do you want to take the foundation in the future? What are the big picture goals?

Expansion is of course an idea. We are currently focusing on one product at a time. It will be cool to expand domestically and internationally at some point. I feel like everything we built here that was original and organic would feel like a fraud somewhere else, but realistically there are similar stories like mine everywhere. So at this point I am definitely open to expansion. 

Out of the 1500 kids in our foundation we have personal relationships with at least 80 percent of them. All come from underrepresented, underserved communities. We give them their first pair of Jordans, something to eat, things that they don't have at home. All of them have special stories and are really unique.