Jarnell Stokes was recruited early on in his basketball career to follow in the footsteps of some of the NBA’s greatest players. After a career altering injury in 2018, he had to pivot – embracing his Memphis roots and a deep mindfulness. Stokes is now a successful crypto investor, entrepreneur, published author, and movie producer. And he’s just getting started.
Brendan Doherty: Let’s start early – how did growing up in Memphis in the ’90s shape who you are today?
Jarnell Stokes: Memphis is an extremely authentic place when it comes to diversity, it’s a booming place. I call it the new Harlem. Much like Harlem in the 1920s, Memphis is seeing many African American artists and creatives rising up. I feel that heritage is engraved in me and has made me a tough-minded individual. The thing that stands out in my mind is the music – hearing the trombones and the tubas, the flutes, the drum line filling. That’s what I grew up in, that was the 90s for me.
Doherty: Growing up with such strong musical influences – was a sports career always a goal for you? Or how did the music translate into your career?
Stokes: The saying goes “every athlete wants to be an artist, and every artist wants to be an athlete.” Athletes feel as if they can’t have a big enough influence in the world. Artists want to be in the limelight. I never really wanted to be an artist, but I have made albums on my own. I truly adore guys like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Mos Def, Ice Cube. I grew up listening to them. That perspective is something I’ve been hurt with now that I’m an athlete. I can write about the life of a musician and how they came out of the gates, because I know the tunnel. I know the life story and what they experienced.
Doherty: Moving from music to sports – tell me about your experience playing for the Chinese Basketball Association, what was that like?
Stokes: I made a name for myself there, they called me the “LeBron James of China.” I was also able to work on my skill set and embrace mindfulness. Mindfulness is much more a part of that culture, so there was a deep appreciation for it. Also, I was able to earn a lot of money, which is now funding my entrepreneurship journey.
Doherty: So what motivated you to transition into a creative and investor space from your pro ball career?
Stokes: In 2018, I broke my foot with the Denver Nuggets. I had just come off winning MVP in the Development League where we set the record for most wins, championships – you name it. Then shortly after my parents divorced, my grandma passed away, and I lost my college sweetheart who I was planning on proposing to. All of this happened in the matter of a week. It was so devastating.
With the broken foot, I lost my routine of going to the gym everyday, and in a lot of ways I lost my identity as an athlete. But I wanted to be a part of the “more than an athlete” movement. Although I only had a fifth grade reading level, I had a book idea that I was determined to make happen. I didn’t know how to pitch myself but I would call Barnes and Noble, Penguin, Random House and pitch the idea. I really had to recreate myself. I spent 20 hours a day reading and writing, meditating, going into nature. In Memphis, we don’t focus on our mental health – we barbecue, we talk shit, we watch sports. I had to learn this new identity and figure out what my next step would be. We went ahead and launched the book, which is now Wings to Fly and it’s becoming a feature film. It got optioned by Jay Fukuto, forming EP of The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Beavis & Butt-Head. Jay really loves the project and it is so fun collaborating with him on it.
Doherty: That’s a real lesson in taking a leap into something you may not “formally” know, but really believing you can do it. I know health and wellness also fits into your story and investing. How so?
Stokes: When I hurt my foot in Denver, in a way it was a blessing. I learned mindfulness that I didn’t have growing up in Memphis. With Stokes Superfoods, I want to make mindfulness, meditation – all these things that aren’t typical in our culture – cool. We’re on track to do $1.2 million in sales this year. For now we are focusing on CBD but we want Stokes Superfoods to be a full service line company. We’re working on new products including nano CBD. Nano CBD is a mixture of CBD and complimentary herbs that will enhance the energy and healing process in individuals. It’s designed to be more personal and customized. Think Five Hour Energy meets natural CBD. As an athlete, I fee I know what people want and what can enhance them in that area.
Doherty: You have recently announced two new TV Series in development. The first one, Memphis and the Mountaintop, showcases the intersection of iconic civil rights leaders, sports, and music during the city’s struggle in the late ’60s as the epicenter of the social justice movement. What got you into content production, and what is it about this story that hasn’t been told yet but needs to be?
Stokes: I felt exactly what John Lewis meant when he said “When MLK died, I think something died in all of us. Something died in America.” Viewers will learn never before revealed facts about the days leading up to MLK’s assassination and experience the outpouring of grief, pain, and anger as his death literally crushed the soul of Memphis. The audience will witness the rise of black power from a new perspective as African American activists, musicians from Stax, and local sports stars are transformed from vocal protesters to savvy politicians. Most people today know the music that came from my city – but what about the perspective and words of athletes and musicians that lived there? Although the Black entertainment industry has grown tremendously financially, it disappoints me to see that the modern day collective consciousness has normalized calamity and lack of depth in its music and entertainment. It pains me to feel the pressure of a stereotype that to become successful, Black men must be rappers and athletes even hundreds of years after slavery. Word to the wise is history tends to repeat if we don’t change our culture.
Doherty: Your second show, Where it Counts, follows a DC councilwoman and a Black Lives Matter leader on opposite sides of social justice as they navigate Washington. Is it a reflection of American society and politics today?
Stokes: Our main character, Serena, is a strong female politician who must succeed in making Washington DC the 51st state and gaining representation for its disenfranchised citizens before her enemies destroy her. My fellow activist friends and spiritual gurus may cancel me for saying this, but television can be a great way to learn and heal – depending on the content you’re consuming. Politics and power were not topics discussed openly growing up in Memphis. Traveling with my pro-ball career gave me a window into the world to see how other governments interact with their citizens, especially the youth. The youth activism I witnessed (and sometimes lack thereof) provoked me to write a political show designed to appeal to young inquisitive minds in much the same way collegiate settings do. By providing a direct access to thought provoking information and data laced with gritty, romantic, and compelling twists, I hope to catch the attention of America’s youth and inform them.
Doherty: At a time when NBA players were being told to “shut up and dribble” you co-created a children’s book with Howard Flamm encouraging youth to do the opposite – to empower themselves and gain confidence. What was it like creating such a powerful book with Howard? How do we mentor the next generation, and how can they mentor us?
Stokes: Jarnac, the main character in my children’s book Wings To Fly, was born around the time I felt like I too was born all over again. The simple things like writing, reading, prayer, and meditation helped rekindle my confidence. Suddenly, a spark of energy and empathy for other athletes and lost souls touched my spirit and woke me up everyday. Most of our guardians in children’s books don’t look like us and kids need a hero who understands them on a deeper and spiritual level.
Doherty: You are an investor and entrepreneur in several sectors, including sports management, food and wellness, crypto, tech, and real estate. How do you prioritize your time and resources? What motivates you everyday?
Stokes: My guiding principles and habits, the always working God, and my own hard work. Entrepreneurship requires great team chemistry, intelligence, but also a rich spirit and passion for persevering and making great decisions.
Doherty: I understand you’re an early adopter of cryptocurrency. You’ve said before that you generated more income in crypto than in your pro ball career. What would be your advice to folks as they look at frontier technology? How did you approach crypto in a way that allowed you to be successful with such a new technology?
Stokes: I look at innovation as opportunity. When I see companies like Binance getting into a lawsuit with the government, I have a counterintuitive perspective that allows me to see the threat to the current system as an opportunity for an entrepreneur. A lot of it is intuition and access to good information but the biggest component is being willing to take risks. I got into crypto in 2017 and it just took off. I put in a million dollars, just to be a part of the next hottest thing, and it turned 8x which is more than I made in the NBA.
Doherty: Great to chat Jarnell. You’re a great example of a crossover talent from the court to venture, Hollywood, and more. Look forward to spending more time together.