I fell in love with basketball as a child after watching ‘Space Jam’. And growing up in Los Angeles, where Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were doing their thing, I felt so connected to the game. I wanted to be the best in the world and I put my entire focus on that. I knew that to get to the NBA I had to go to college, so I worked hard at High School and got great grades. And I heard that Kobe ate salmon and broccoli, so I ate salmon and broccoli too.
I didn’t play as much as I wanted to at High School, and went through lots of ups and downs with being bullied, and coaches not treating me correctly. But I still managed to hold onto my dream and I secured a Division 1 scholarship, which less than two percent of players achieve. I went to Texas-Rio Grande Valley, and the beautiful thing is I wasn’t just a basketball player at that school, I was the president of all the athletes. So I would host speaking engagements about leadership, work with children with disabilities in the community, and forged different initiatives and partnerships that are still in place to this day. That showed me that the dream I had wasn’t just about basketball, there was a higher purpose.
After I graduated, I didn’t go to the NBA or get a call from a team overseas, so I thought my dreams of becoming a pro were over. So I took a year off and in that time I used all the footage I had of me carrying out my duties as president — being a face and spokesperson for the school — and transferred it to Hollywood. I started booking basketball commercials and modeling shoots, and creating opportunity. I took a mission trip to New Zealand to play basketball with an organization called Athletes in Action, where I was able to really show what I could do, and a coach from Australia was watching my journey and offered me a contract.
I ended up playing at the highest level in Australia, but I overstayed my visa and headed back home to renew it. While I was back in America the 2019 bushfires hit, and half of Australia was being burned down. Then right after the fires, the pandemic began. So I was forced to stay at home and had no way of playing basketball. It hurt not being able to fully exercise my love and passion for something I had worked towards my whole life. But the entire world was going through it. So we were all grieving together. None of us could operate the same way as we did before, and there was this complete shift going on. We were in survival mode, stocking up on toilet paper and bottles of water. So basketball was secondary, even though it hurt badly.
We all prepare mentally and physically to be the best we can be in our chosen career path. That brings you some sense of validation. And when you’re unable to fulfill that role anymore, you question who you are. Many of us attach our identity to our job, and when we feel rejection we go through an identity crisis. I went through that completely. People look at me and see an athlete because that’s who I’ve been for so long. That’s how you’ve moved through life. So when that shifts, who are you now? And are you afraid to embrace the new you?
Does the caterpillar ever know it’s going to become a butterfly? It probably doesn’t. It’s living its fullest caterpillar life. Then all of a sudden, it climbs up a tree and goes into a chrysalis state in a cocoon where it bleeds and it sheds in solitude. It’s not a cute or sexy process at all. You have to be okay with yourself first, and that you don’t have to perform to be loved, you don’t have to be perfect to be loved. I had to face that and do the hard work that all humans have to do.
But I did that work, and shed so many layers, and my tastebuds came back. I found myself going back to poetry, reading, writing, picking up scripts, and returning to acting class. I had been acting since I was a child, but basketball became my focus. So I watered that seed and it gave back tenfold. I found my true essence and my calling. So I went through rejection, but it ended up being a renewal for me, and a triumphant understanding of who I was. I had to let a huge part of myself go to welcome a new part of myself that was waiting for me.
This opportunity in ‘Sweetwater’ is a testament to surrender. I can’t tell you how the stars align, because that’s not in my control. What I can tell you is we’re so used to being told to grab and get it, but no one talks about having to let go and surrender. I let basketball go, not in a negative way, I let it go with love. And with that I gave my full devotion to acting, studying, and being the best artist I can be.
Then one day, I got home from filming ‘Chicago Fire’ and the script was waiting for me. A motion picture about Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, the first African American to sign an NBA contract, break the barrier and change the way the game is played forever. I didn’t question it. I didn’t overthink it. I just stepped into it. It felt normal and it felt natural. It’s my first time ever leading a film, but I have done so much preparation for this role on and off the court. It allows me to display the artist and the athlete — the two-headed monster. Every dunk, every dribble, every shot is me. It’s truly a gift.
I’m grateful to Sweetwater for his life and the spirit and love that he had in his heart to endure so much tribulation and still move with so much grace. I’m grateful to Martin Guigui, the director and writer who has been working on the script for 28 years, and to all the cast and crew. All of us aligned at the right time. I think the world has now softened and is ready to be presented with this beautiful true story of a trailblazer.
Everybody knows Jackie Robinson was the first African American baseball player, but not many people know Sweetwater’s story. I know I didn’t. His daughter was on set and is very happy and proud. Sweetwater wasn’t a boastful guy, but at the same time he wanted his story heard, so it’s beautiful that we get to do that. And his grandson is acting in the film, so that’s a nice connection.
I was able to bring years of transferable skills into acting. I’ve given my best to any small job, any interaction that I’ve ever had. And I think that builds a muscle of intention, excellence, and dedication. When you’re striving for something, there’s going to be rejection. But rejection doesn’t mean you are not built for something, it’s a call to go deeper. You have to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.
It isn’t what basketball taught me, it’s what my pursuit of basketball taught me. We’re developing new skills constantly, and if we understand how they can transfer beyond our jobs maybe we’ll embrace the unknown a little better. Because it’s not your job talking, it’s you. Ask yourself what are the values you have, because you can transfer them wherever you want to go. The opportunities are infinite.
Everett was talking to Mr Feelgood co-founder Pete Samson
Styled by Amy Soderlind @ Workgroup
Grooming by Leesa Simone
Styling assistant Dalton Flint
Location with thanks to Magnus Walker
‘Sweetwater’ is in theaters on April 14. Watch the trailer here