Progression Before Regression

How DJ Smedley evolved from international basketball superstar to Chicago’s most socially (and fashionably) conscious aesthete.

DJ Smedley on his transition from professional basketball to life post sport in Chicago’s hottest menswear boutique, Notre (Photo via Nigel Fowler-Canty).

Now more than ever, athletes continue to find their ways into the forefront of popular culture and the job of “professional athlete” encompasses much more than performing well on the playing field. In between album release parties, art gallery openings, fashion shows and reality television appearances, professional athletes are encouraged to express themselves and develop an identity outside of their respective sports teams.

With the help of Lebron James, Stephen Curry, Usain Bolt, Russell Westbrook, and Serena Williams, the world is starting to take notice of the fact that athletes are, and have always been, multifaceted individuals with diverse interests outside of their sport. Furthermore, it’s those interests that have helped brands engage their consumers in ways that they haven’t been able to in the past.

After all, there are few people that can sell products and formulate a genuine connection between brands and consumers better than athletes and major luxury houses are using that to their advantage.

Although Nike, Adidas and Under Armour feature sports stars as their lead endorsers, uncharacteristically, luxury houses like Ralph Lauren (Nacho Figueras), Tumi (Nico Rosberg), Rolex (Roger Federer), TAG Heuer (Tom Brady), and Audemars Piguet (Serena Williams) have began to follow suit.

So why is the emergence of athletes on the fashion, art and music scene so important? Because it not only shapes the athletes’ experiences while they’re playing, but it has also began to contribute to the paths they follow when they’re finished competing as well.

In past years, after their professional careers concluded, athletes were often pigeonholed into coaching, broadcasting, or some other profession based on their ties to athletics. But now that the traditionally hard lines between art and athletics are becoming more blurred, athletes are starting to gravitate towards career paths in the arts such as fashion design, writing, film, music, architecture, etc.

And no one embodies this new post-athletic career trend more than DJ Smedley.


DJ Smedley — University of Illinois Chicago (Photo via Steve Woltmann)

DJ Smedley is a men’s basketball player with deep ties to both the East and West Coast (he split his time growing up between Philly and the Bay Area) that spent the better part of his 20’s and early 30’s playing basketball overseas after a successful career at the University of Illinois Chicago.

He’s had the opportunity to travel the world, develop his own passions outside of basketball, and become enriched by communities that many people only experience through the Travel Channel.

Smedley’s first career opportunity outside of basketball came after he ran into the owner of the brand consulting firm, Why-Q? and the two struck up an electric conversation. After many accomplished tasks and hard work DJ eventually capitalized on that one fortuitous encounter by earning a full-time position at the company.

He’s had the opportunity to influence Chicago’s art and fashion scenes in a major way, and he’s had the opportunity (unlike most other athletes) to leave the game he loves on his own terms.

But what makes Smedley’s story and our conversation unique, is that it was so hard to write down. Not because there was a lack of perspective or a lack of content, but because those two facets were so diverse. And because, like so many other professional athletes, you can’t put DJ Smedley into a box.


He’s a lover of art, language (his goal is to be fluent in Spanish by 2018), Jay-Z, design, literature, Picasso, tattoos, film, and thinks that Kobe Bryant > Michael Jordan. He’s a Philly kid to his core who’s fiercely loyal to his city but is also loyal to his need to travel and explore other parts of the world. He’s an athlete who believes that the values he learned as an athlete have shaped all of who he is, but also realizes that being an athlete isn’t all that he is. He’s multidimensional and and has used his innate curiosity about any and everything to better the communities he influences every day through his work, his energy and his perspective.

When asked where his curiosity for art, design, sports and life comes from, Smedley said that it has been within him since birth. Furthermore, it was that exact curiosity that helped him do something that’s often hard for athletes to do, figure out what his passions were OUTSIDE of sports. For Smedley, his affinity for fashion began in college when his teammates started asking him what they should wear to different events. He began to work with them and even told them where to shop. But once Smedley dipped his toe into the fashion waters, there was no going back.

“The thing with the whole creative realm is that it’s literally an interconnected labyrinth. If you’re into fashion, the deeper that you go into it, you develop an affinity for art, which leads to an affinity for architecture, then to design, and so on.

So for me, it started with fashion and then the more I got into it, I was like there are designers for furniture too? That’s how it started. It was such a strong passion of mine that I started thinking, how can I parlay this hobby into a career?”

Smedley claims that when he played overseas, he used that time to further his education and describes that period of his life as him ‘getting a Master’s degree in things that I was actually interested in.’ He better than anyone, understands that when athletes compete, they’re conditioned to have on proverbial “horse blinders” in order for them to focus and achieve their objectives athletically. But he challenges them to dig deeper within themselves and figure out what it is that they really want to do once they’re done competing. How does he suggest they do that?

  1. “Develop other interests and then spend time pursuing those interests.”
  2. “Always make sure that you’re leaving a positive lasting impression on people because you never know how they will resurface in your life.”

And for many people, those tips may seem novel but for Smedley, those two things provided him with the opportunity to make an impact on the world he lives in outside of playing basketball.


Develop Other Interests. Spend Time Doing Those Things.

If you ask Smedley, he’ll tell you that the saying is true, ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ Why?

Because Smedley has loved fashion, music, art, and sports for a very long time and the key to his career fulfillment post basketball, is that he spends his time cultivating those interests. Whether it’s through his personal style, his view of fashion as art or his ability to recognize and appreciate the presence of sports figures in the fashion industry due to their high visibility and the utilization of digital media platforms, Smedley has found a way to turn his interests into a career that most would dream of, and that career centers heavily around fashion.

When asked who has influenced the style that he has become known for around Chicago, Smedley claims that his influence comes from around the world and that he tries to get to the genesis of a design rather than a rendition of it. With that being said, he named off his top three fashion icons: Marvin Gaye, Phoebe Philo, and Raf Simons.

I like style icons like Marvin Gaye. He was just so effortless. It never looked like he had to try and for male or female, that’s so important. It’s nice when it looks like you put some thought into it, but you’re also showing that it’s not the only thing that you think about. Style is about trying to find the marriage between the two.

Marvin Gaye (Photo via Saint Heron)

Another interest of Smedley’s is traveling. It was travel that helped fuel his love for art, design, and music. But it was also travel that helped craft his own personal brand and taught him a valuable lesson about nonverbal communication that he still adheres to today.

“I remember for so long that I needed everyone to know that I was from Philly based on how I was dressed. Dressing is a way of signifying who you are. If 85 percent of communication is nonverbal, I wanted everything I wore to show that I was from Philly. But as I traveled and drew so many inspirations from so many places, I wanted what I wore to be an accumulation of every place that I’ve traveled.

For example, the first time I saw high-water heavy trousers was in Stockholm and I really liked the way they looked so I started wearing them. Then I saw side shoulder bags in Nancy, France and loved the function of them so I started wearing those as well. I also started wearing the bags because I hate carrying things in my pockets, (it ruins the silhouette (laughs)). When it comes to my personal style, I literally try to pull from everywhere and then put my own twist on it. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

And ironically enough, it’s that same concept, pulling things from here and there, channeling experiences from this time and that time, that paved the way for Smedley’s post-basketball career path in the first place.


Leave a Positive Impression.

Smedley will be the first one to tell you that he has had somewhat of a non-traditional career path post basketball and based on his own experience, firmly believes that there are things you can do to supplement your skill set in lieu of traditional experience.

“To this day, I’ve never submitted a real resume. Every opportunity that I’ve gotten, I somehow passed the eye test and then followed through.”

For some people, that experience may come in the form of internships, but for Smedley, that experience came through cultural immersion. When he wasn’t in practice while he was living in France, Sweden, or Denmark, Smedley was engrossed in Architectural Digest, art museums, and fashion shows soaking up all that those experiences had to offer. And over time, those experiences added up.

And when you couple real life experience with an outgoing attitude and an eye for visually appealing aesthetics, you come across opportunities that can change your life.

And Smedley came across his most recent life changing opportunity after taking some time off from playing basketball overseas due to injury. During his recovery, Smedley ran into the store manager of Notre West Loop (where Smedley currently works) at Maggie Daley Park in Chicago. Notre was looking to bring someone on full time to work at the second location of their successful menswear boutique and although Smedley had no traditional experience working in retail, he had developed so many other interests (namely fashion) while traveling and wanted to see where those opportunities could lead.

The second career opportunity came in a similar fashion. After taking some time off from playing basketball overseas due to injury, Smedley ran into the store manager of Notre West Loop (where Smedley currently works) at Maggie Daley Park in Chicago. Notre was looking to bring someone on full time to work at the second location of their successful menswear boutique and although Smedley had no traditional experience working in retail, he had developed so many other interests (namely fashion) while traveling and wanted to see where those opportunities could lead.

It was at that time that Smedley decided to leave the game of basketball behind, told the club who offered him a new contract “no” to returning for another season and ended taking RJ up on his offer which Smedley says is a decision that he’s proud of despite retiring from the game he loved.

“There are obviously times when you miss the lifestyle. You miss traveling. You miss not having an alarm clock. You miss the financial freedom of not having bills. But on the other hand, I feel like I’ve done so much in this calendar year in regards to my professional career. And I think ‘Man, I couldn’t have asked for anything better than that.’

The irony of these two chance encounters is not lost on Smedley, but he’s the first one to tell you that he doesn’t chalk things up to “coincidence.”

“They say that luck is when preparation meets opportunity and I agree. If I hadn’t spent all of that time when I was wasn’t in practice engrossed in Architectural Digest and all of these different things; when I had that conversation with the owner of Why-Q?, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. The same thing would have happened when I sat down with RJ and the owners of Notre. I told them, ‘hey, I know I’m an athlete but I also have other interests that I think could add value to your store.’ And when I began to speak with them about those interests they realized that I had some validity.”

Those “mere coincidences” of coming across those two people that have changed the course of my life would have JUST been mere coincidences had I not been prepared.


And not only have those choices Smedley made changed the course of his life, but they have allowed him to help change the course of other’s lives as well. To date, Smedley says that the most rewarding part of his professional career at Notre West Loop has been working in a space that has allowed him to have an effect on culture, both inside and outside of fashion.

Smedley has an active voice in the organization and helps curate events like Notre Talks where they have designers come to the store and explain to community members the process and the story behind their brands.

He’s also been an integral piece to the store’s socially responsible programming efforts which were recently highlighted through their partnership with Black Girls Code. Smedley helped put together an event that tied Notre’s most recent Yeezy colorway releases to a fundraiser for the organization. To receive a raffle ticket to purchase the shoes, individuals were required to write down 10 lines of code and then ALL proceeds from the sale were donated to Black Girls Code.

Black Girls Code Participants (Photo via Black Girls Code)

That event is a small sample of the work that Notre and Smedley do to make an impact within their communities on a regular basis. Socially conscious action is close to Smedley’s heart which is why for him, Notre is such a good professional fit.

“Just being affiliated with a company that acts as a platform for information and wants to do more than just be product driven is something I’m really proud of.”

Not to mention, social advocacy is a part of the lasting legacy Smedley wants to leave. He’s a passionate advocate for equal access to education and hopes to one day live in a world where people have the same access to education regardless of socioeconomic status.

It’s that type of legacy, the one where people remember him as someone who fought for the betterment of society, that guides Smedley on his daily quest for success, which may look a little nontraditional by American standards.

If I’m healthy, if I’m surrounded by the people that mean the most to me, and if I’m growing personally, mentally, and spiritually every day then I’m successful.


Progression Before Regression

So what’s next on that path to success for Smedley? As someone who has so many talents and a thirst for the opportunity to learn, grow, and evolve spiritually, mentally and professionally, the possibilities are endless.

Perhaps he stays with Notre and helps their store continue to grow and shape Chicago culture? Perhaps he pursues his passion for furniture design and embraces his entrepreneurial spirit? Or perhaps he does more with educational advocacy and gets one step closer to creating equal opportunity for kids in his community?

It’s hard to tell because honestly, even he doesn’t know what will lie ahead. However, one thing IS certain and that’s that Smedley is always going to be moving forward and continuing to be the best that he can possibly me. Some call that an “athlete’s mentality” but when talking about his mindset, Smedley simply references the mantra he lives by every day:

Progression before Regression.

A simple reminder that no matter what, you must always move forward and always strive to be the best that you can possibly be.

I just regularly ask myself, have I reached my Everest? That’s what I tell people all the time. Really just strive to be Everest and strive to be the best you can be. And until I am the best I can be in the capacity I’m in now, I won’t feel comfortable doing other things so who knows where I’ll be in five years? But I’ll find solace and peace with where I’m at right now because every day I’m striving to be the best I can be and I’m okay with that.

DJ Smedley at Notre Shop in Chicago (Photo via Nigel Fowler-Canty)

I would like to thank DJ Smedley for taking the time to share his story with us and special thanks as well to Notre in Chicago, IL for allowing us to conduct our interview in their store!


Interested in learning more about DJ Smedley? Check out a behind the scenes look at my interview with him on my blog, Secondary Break.


This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.


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