BUILT TO RISE

I have been built by struggles. And I have been blessed through pain.
Basketball has given me a path. And love has shown me purpose.
The struggles I face don’t compare to what I’ve already overcome.
I have one direction. I am built to rise.

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Hebrews 11:1
"Now faith is the assurance of what we hope for and the certainty of what we do not see."
@MeyersLeonard

In basketball, many coaches have espoused that there are no moral victories.

Still, there is undeniable beauty in a silver lining—in appreciating what others may miss.

Meyers Leonard is no stranger to a new perspective. He learned to observe the hidden at a young age, leaning on unflinching optimism to cope with unthinkable tragedy.

James Leonard was 46 when his life was cut short by a freak bicycle accident. Though Meyers was only six at the time, tear-stained memories bubble to the surface in moments: His father’s funeral, collective grieving across the small town of Robinson, Illinois—even residual financial struggles, with various family members and neighbors stepping in to help keep the family afloat.

“To get away and be just totally unplugged from everything is a really good feeling for me.”

The tragedy left Tracie Leonard, a single mother of three, grasping to make sense of an insecure future—her grief compounded by crippling back injuries. But to Meyers, much remained unchanged.

“My mom for sure took it the hardest,” Meyers says. “However, at that time, I wasn’t quite aware of that. She was just the sweet, loving mom that she’s always been. I think she did a very good job of controlling her emotions and remaining stable.”

As he grew older, Meyers carefully reconstructed a memory of his father through photographs and accounts from the community. The local golf pro was tall, with a friendly smile and drive to connect with others.

“People loved him,” Meyers says. “They say he was a very easygoing guy, great at teaching golf, just a joy to be around. It puts a smile on my face to know that he was a good man … that’s something that I hold onto.”

"Growing up was not an easy situation for me, but I had a lot of people who were a part of my life and made me who I am today."

“I think that my willingness to give is great, but I have to continue to mature as a man and understand every situation for what it is.”

"They talk about the 94 feet of a basketball court—but to me, the most important length of measurement is the six inches between your ears."

Though Meyers is quick to credit a bevy of supporters from within the Robinson community, one family had the most dramatic effect on his early life.

A bond with Austin Siler, a teammate on the baseball diamond, blossomed into something more, as his family began providing rides, small gifts, and tournament entry fees. Meyers would pop up during meals, trips to church—even group photos.

“A second family to me, still to this day,” Meyers says. “Having those people as an extra foundation in my life certainly allowed me to just worry less and just be myself.”

The Silers gave Meyers structure—but they weren’t a lifeline. They simply treated him like one their own, with the same expectations.

“The boys didn’t really like mowing the lawn or weeding along the pond,” Meyers says. “So if I came over and did that, they might throw me 10 bucks. I wasn’t doing it for the money. I think they simply rewarded me because they were appreciative of my willingness to help in any way I could.”

A decade later, the newly minted millionaire looks back at the helping hands in his hometown with immense gratitude.

“Robinson in itself is like an extended family,” Meyers says. “I have always been blessed that the right people seem to come into my life at the right times.“

“Robinson in itself is like an extended family. I have always been blessed that the right people seem to come into my life at the right times.“

“For me, I knew there was always a missing piece. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I was frustrated. I wanted to take care of my family, and I wanted to be a really good basketball player.”

At Robinson High School, Meyers continued to develop, both in stature (a six-inch growth spurt following his freshman season) and on-court prowess. Eventually, the big man returned favors across town by providing a rare (and cherished) gift: a basketball state championship, claimed during his senior season.

When asked for the highlight of his decorated high school days, Meyers immediately recalls an appearance by his older brother Bailey—a Marine with multiple tours overseas.

“He went to high school before I did, so he looked after me when I was a young freshman,” Meyers says. “I can remember as a senior, we were making our state championship run, and he was able to come back. He was at one of the playoff games. That meant the world to me.”

Meyers ended his high school days as top-50 national recruit, with blueblood programs across the nation courting his services. Despite the allure of top schools, he stayed true to his roots by committing to head coach Bruce Weber and the University of Illinois.

In Champaign, Meyers would experience immediate growing pains. Despite high expectations, he struggled to earn playing time during his freshman season, averaging 2.1 points and 1.2 rebounds in 8.2 minutes per game. Instead of pointing the finger at himself or coaches, the 18-year-old simply put his head down.

After staying in Champaign to polish his footwork and jumpshot during the offseason, Meyers found coaches dangling a carrot. In addition to his duties at Illinois, Weber also coached the Team USA U-19 squad each summer—and saw potential for Leonard.

“He said ‘Hey Meyers, I want you to try out for the USA team,’” Leonard recalls. “And I said ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t even play this year.’ I’m anticipating he’s going to tell me what I need to do that summer to figure things out. He said ‘No, I’m going to help you. But believe me when I say you’re gonna compete and you’re gonna make this team.’”

The vote of confidence lit a fire under Meyers—with glowing results.

“It was like a new gear kicked in,” Meyers recalls. “I was training as hard as I could—early in the morning, during the day, shooting at night, whatever I could.”

A spot on the final roster made up for any lost hours in the gym.

“I smashed through that wall and made team USA,” Meyers says. “My confidence was at all-time high.”

“Understanding what you need to do every single day to become the best player and person you can be is not always easy.”

“My wife always gives me a hard time that I try to find a silver lining with everything in life, whether it be my father passing away, or going through a tough time in the season, or having my shoulder injury.”

After-hours dedication would translate to on-court success for Meyers during his sophomore season. His playing time tripled, and NBA scouts fawned over his combination of size, athleticism and skill.

Behind the scenes, a more dramatic shift was already in motion.

Elle Bielfeldt didn’t pay much mind to athletes—on campus, they were a dime a dozen, and typically quick with a pick-up line. But Meyers chipped away at her resolve, sensing a caring core beneath layers of polished independence.

“She made it a challenge for me to get to know her,” he says. “I think once she was able to know the guy that I was, and what I was about, that’s when she really started enjoying spending time with me.”

Unlike many athletes, Meyers doesn’t hesitate to credit Elle as a primary motivation in his daily life—even on the court.

“I think the most impressive thing to me is that she is so driven,” he says. “Always working hard, and always finding new things in life to better herself. It pushes me to continue to work as hard as I can.”

"And when you allow your mind to be filled with the wrong things, it can really have negative impact on your life."

“Rather than being a people-pleaser and not being focused, I’m able to do exactly what I need to be my best.”

Despite gaudy paychecks and packed arenas, life in the NBA has presented its own series of hurdles.

First, the wait for playing time on a veteran-laden team. When Meyers finally found the court, results were inconsistent—expected for a young and unpolished player, but deflating nonetheless.

The final straw? A devastating shoulder injury suffered in March 2016, late in his third NBA season. Meyers was done for the year—but with the assistance of Elle, not done honing his mind for the challenges ahead.

Their new focus: daily entries in a “gratitude journal”—meant to quiet the mind of a new husband and burgeoning baller saturated with thoughts about what lies ahead.

“I refuse to miss a day because it’s simply that important to me,” Meyers says. “Rather than waking up and checking my social media and filling my mind with junk, I fill my mind with positivity. Looking back at it, the shoulder dislocations and surgery took me away from the game of basketball and allowed me to understand how to approach every day.”

Few 7-footers this side of Bill Walton make a habit of penning their thoughts in a pensive manner. But to Meyers, the alternative isn’t an option.

“There’s too much going on around me,” he says. “There’s too much stress and pressure that comes with what I do.”

It’s fair to say the same seeds of optimism that lifted the prodigal son of Robinson have been replanted in the Pacific Northwest.

“I always try to make best of any situation,” says Leonard. “And it’s not possible for me to let go of the people that were there, and the moments that they took care of me.”

#BuiltToRise

Credits

Special thanks to Meyers and Elle Leonard, all the participants, coaches and volunteers at the Meyers Leonard Basketball Camp in Robinson, IL, The Welshes, The McGaheys, The Silers, Tracie Leonard, Bailey Leonard, Marcus Harvey, Elle Leonard, and Bella.

Agency
Empire Green Creative

 

Director/Editor
Dominic Duchesneau

 

Creative Director
Kent St. John

 

Cinematographer
Max Lopatin

 

Photographer
Ben Pigao

 

Producer
Amy Polansky

 

Writer
David Lieberman