On a night dedicated to celebrating sporting excellence and honoring the late Muhammad Ali at the 2016 ESPY Awards, 10-time NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony, alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, chose the platform to decry racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.
"The system is broken," Anthony announced live onstage. "The problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high."
Visibly moved, the players each recalled the previous week’s fatal police shootings of two unarmed African American men in two very different parts of the country – Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The united voices of these four elite athletes immediately converted the glitzy awards ceremony in downtown Los Angeles into a rallying cry for justice and law enforcement accountability.
"The urgency to create change is at an all-time high." – Carmelo Anthony
Several days prior to the ESPY Awards, Anthony had posted a photograph to Instagram highlighting a landmark moment known as the ‘Muhammad Ali Summit’.
On 4 June 1967, Ali and a group of 10 other prominent African American athletes and one politician held a press conference on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. This followed Ali’s decision a month earlier not to serve in the United States Armed Forces in Vietnam. The summit was heralded by the mainstream media as a turning point in sports’ fight against injustice.
Almost five decades after this iconic gathering, and in response to a spate of police violence, Anthony’s appeal called on his fellow athletes to go to their local officials and demand change.
Anthony’s Instagram post caught the attention of his ESPY comrades James, Wade and Paul, inspiring the quartet to connect.
Their aim was to figure out how they could combine forces and use their public platforms to encourage other athletes to join the fight for justice.
By raising their voices at the 2016 ESPY Awards, these four sporting legends sparked a modern movement for social change.
No man left behind
Anthony’s unbridled passion for equality can be traced back to his roots, having been raised first in Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing projects and then in the projects of West Baltimore during the 1980s and 1990s.
"Growing up in the housing projects, you go through experiences without even knowing you’re dealing with anything," Anthony tells The CEO Magazine. "You just assume that struggle is normal. Everybody is going through the same thing, struggling the same way. So, everybody has the same mentality."
While he acknowledges that this homogenous thinking occasionally proved to be detrimental, Anthony fondly recalls that "everybody had each other’s backs". He says the collective psyche was embodied in the principle "no man left behind".
"You’re representing something that’s bigger than you. You’re representing your entire community; something that’s near and dear to you, your family and your friends."
"You’re representing something that’s bigger than you. You’re representing your entire community; something that’s near and dear to you, your family and your friends. So, you have to protect it at all costs," Anthony explains.
Spending his formative years living in public housing complexes on the east coast produced unlikely seeds that would eventually germinate and become the foundation for a glittering two-decade career in the NBA – where the team is given pride of place above all else.
Social justice activism
Anthony had a long and distinguished track record of social justice activism and philanthropy well before the death of George Floyd – when it became in vogue for individuals and institutions to stand up for a social cause.
In 2005, just two years after his NBA debut, he founded the eponymously named The Carmelo Anthony Foundation, a charitable organization to help children and families living in impoverished and underserved areas by providing educational support, outreach programs and donation services.
Together with the formation of the Social Change Fund United (SCFU) in 2020, an organization with a mission to uplift and empower underrepresented communities of color across the United States, Anthony’s philanthropic efforts have gained serious traction.
In 2021, he was the inaugural recipient of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award, which recognizes a current NBA player for pursuing social justice and upholding the NBA’s values of equality, respect and inclusion.
"We realized that now was our time to come together and do something really impactful."
Anthony partnered with two of his ESPY Awards presenters, Wade and Paul, to create the SCFU in the summer of 2020.
Despite what may be assumed, it wasn’t the police murder of George Floyd in May of that year that served as the catalyst for the creation of the SCFU. Rather, it was the civilian racially motivated murder of a 25-year-old African American man just three months earlier while he was out jogging in Satilla Shores, a subdivision in coastal Georgia.
"It was during the COVID-19 pandemic bubble. Ahmaud Arbery had been murdered in Georgia. Dwyane, Chris and I realized we had a voice and we needed to move quickly," Anthony recalls.
"We asked ourselves, ‘What’s the next step from the ESPYs, when we stood onstage and made that speech?’ We realized that now was our time to come together and do something really impactful."
And the SCFU was born. While mooting the trio’s next move, Anthony was clear on one thing – it had to have tangible objectives with well-defined priorities.
According to the ‘SCFU Impact Report 2021-2022’, the organization’s mission is clear: "To create a fair and equitable society through five pillars of focus: public safety and criminal justice reform, civic engagement, economic investment, arts and education and health equity."
Unpacking the impact
The SCFU is arguably the pièce de résistance of Anthony’s philanthropic body of work to date. It addresses head-on some of the burning issues affecting communities of color in American society today, such as police brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression, income disparities and supplier diversity.
The need for the SCFU is proving more pressing than ever before, with, for example, lawmakers across the United States introducing bills to ban educational content deemed ‘offensive’ in schools and libraries.
Last year, it was reported that more than 1,600 books were banned in United States school districts between July 2021 and June 2022. Forty percent included included protagonists or secondary characters who were people of color, 21 percent were books about racism and racial issues and 10 percent were books about civic rights and activism.
While various states continue to censor anti-racism books in record numbers, the SCFU is pushing back by working tirelessly to provide access to anti-racism education.
The presence of the SCFU is being felt not just in the anti-racism field, but across the board. As of 2022, the organization has devised more than 25 strategic impact programs, distributed in excess of US$650,000 in grants and positively impacted the lives of over 115,000 individuals.
This level of success, from a relatively small operation covering 13 states, has now put expansion plans on the table. "We actually just finished a board meeting recently. We talked about expansion, different areas and regions we want to tap into and programs we want to be a part of," Anthony explains.
From basketball to the boardroom
Anthony is a decorated athlete whose talent is as broad as it is deep.
As a freshman at Syracuse University, his Herculean efforts led the team to the 2003 NCAA National Championship, with his individual excellence and title game-high 20 points earning him the coveted title of the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
He became the first freshman in history to lead an eventual champion team in scoring average, tallying 22.2 points per game.
As a member of the United States national team, Anthony became a three-time Olympic champion in consecutive Olympic Games – achieving gold in Beijing (2008), London (2012) and Rio (2016). His Olympic record is unmatched by any other male basketball player.
And that’s not all. One of the most prolific scorers ever, Anthony currently ranks ninth on the NBA all-time scoring list. He was also selected for the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team, which consists of the 75 greatest players in NBA history, as chosen by a comprehensive panel of NBA reporters and personnel.
But Anthony’s aspirations go beyond basketball. He had wanted to enter executive boardrooms around the country and eventually command a similar level of respect that he did on the basketball court.
In the business world, where celebrity incursions are sometimes frowned upon, Anthony has had a positive experience, having been met with a warm reception from the entrepreneurial and executive communities.
He believes that, in all likelihood, this was because he didn’t play the ‘celebrity card’ and just rely on his popularity as many others have done before him.
Instead, he acknowledged that, while he was an expert in basketball, he was a mere rookie in business. So, he humbly donned his L-plates and did the necessary work to establish his credibility as an entrepreneur and investor in his own right.
"I was a student, learning and absorbing all this information and trying to figure it out. I really emphasized putting my boots on the ground – going to offices, taking the time to understand business plans and talking to founders and owners," Anthony says.
"This way, I was able to gauge the core values of the people and projects I was investing in and partnering with to make sure that I’m only putting my name, my efforts and my insights into endeavors I truly believe in."
For Anthony, the key to unlocking a whole new world of business opportunities was understanding business speak. "When you can speak the same language as businesspeople, it knocks down all barriers," he says.
"I really emphasized putting my boots on the ground – going to offices, taking the time to understand business plans and talking to founders and owners."
Anthony says that some of the core attributes he cultivated on the basketball court have helped him cross over to the boardroom, where the athlete-entrepreneur emerged.
"It’s about team building, understanding the dynamics of what it takes to win and be successful, putting your team together, instructing your team and putting team members in positions of strength," he explains.
Fittingly, Anthony uses a basketball analogy. "Encouraging team members to play to their strengths is not telling someone, ‘Hey, you’re a three-point specialist, but I want you to go down there and post up.’
"No, if you’re a three-point specialist, I need you to be a three-point specialist. If you’re the point guard, I need you to run my team. And if you’re the scorer, then I need you to score. These are the same dynamics I applied to the boardroom."
A force for good
After nearly two decades in the NBA, Anthony has embraced the idea that his prodigious basketball talent is a vehicle for creating something even greater off the court.
While many elite athletes are quick to pursue sponsorship and endorsement opportunities, Anthony has made a conscious decision to forge his own path in the business world.
"I had to turn down a lot of endorsement deals and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to build this business the way that I want to build it and I’m going to build it from the ground up because I want people to take me seriously,’" he explains.
"I’m going to build this business the way that I want to build it and I’m going to build it from the ground up because I want people to take me seriously."
"When they see that, they respect me from a business standpoint and as someone who has a vision and is a creator, as opposed to just someone slapping a name on a product, getting the dollar amount, going out there and promoting it for two years and then it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s over and I helped you get US$300 million and I’m walking away with US$150,000.’
"Those dynamics don’t work for me. It was probably around 2010 that I stopped focusing on endorsement deals and really started working towards equity and creating my own company. I pride myself on being one of the first athletes to do that."
Anthony officially announced his retirement from the NBA on 22 May 2023. "I remember the days when I had nothing, just a ball on the court and a dream of something more, but basketball was my outlet," Anthony said in a video posted on his social media channels.
"My purpose was strong, my communities, the cities I represented with pride and the fans that supported me along the way. I am forever grateful for those people and places because they made me Carmelo Anthony.
"But now the time has come for me to say goodbye to the court where I made my name, to the game that gave me purpose and pride. With this bittersweet goodbye to the NBA, I’m excited about what the future holds for me."
The number seven
Indeed, the future certainly does look bright for Anthony.
Anthony’s extensive portfolio of business interests, which he operates alongside his longtime business partner Asani Swann, includes Creative 7, a multi-platform production company that creates content for TV, film, audio and digital, and VII(N) – The Seventh Estate, a global wine estate brand that in 2022 released its inaugural blend, Oath of Fidelity.
Alongside Isos Capital Management Founders and Co-CEOs George Barrios and Michelle Wilson, Carmelo also launched Isos7 Sports Investment, an investment platform targeting a portfolio of sports leagues, teams, emerging properties and ancillary businesses across the world that has pledged to commit one percent of its profits to support underrepresented populations and underserved communities.
The number seven, which can be found in the titles across Anthony’s businesses, pays homage to the jersey number he wore throughout much of his career, most notably as the star of the New York Knicks from 2011 to 2017.
However, the number is far from the only common thread running through Anthony’s business pursuits. Instead, the ventures are united by an intentional approach to increasing the presence and power of the Black community throughout the business world.
Referring to Creative 7, for example, Anthony has previously spoken of his passion for creating original content that gives a voice to the silenced, advocates for the underserved and celebrates the resilience of the human spirit.
"We are in a time of profound transformation, so we believe it is more important than ever to spotlight the individuals and the stories that will uplift the world and inspire lasting change," he said when announcing the launch of the production company.
"If you don’t have diversity, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to win."
Similarly, VII(N) – The Seventh Estate aims to introduce more people of color into the hitherto elitist wine community. "The people who consume the wine, I want them to have an experience," Anthony says.
"I want them to follow and be a part of the journey. This wine business is bringing more people of color and a younger demographic into the industry. It’s creating programs for the younger generation where they can feel a part of the wine industry."
And then there’s Isos7 Sports Investment, an investment vehicle forecast to have access to a US$750 million capital fund.
Research suggests that traditional investment firms lack diversity, particularly in their leadership ranks. Through Isos7 Sports Investment, the plan is to shake up the status quo by riding the crest of a wave of diverse investors and a diverse management team, which will donate one percent of the company’s profits to underrepresented and underserved communities.
"If you don’t have diversity, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to win," Anthony says.
"You need to have diversity on your board and in your company. If not, you’re not going to have the voices and the diverse opinions that you really need in order to make your business grow and get to where it needs to be."
When it comes to making a business a force for good, Anthony’s advice to other leaders is simple. "You’ve got to listen first," he insists.
"Do your research and be open to feedback and creativity. You have to allow your team to flourish in the areas they flourish in. Who am I as a leader if I have a weak team? A strong team is vital, especially with everything we are trying to build and achieve."