Al Nolen has been hosting basketball camps and clinics for the past six years. He also started his own nonprofit foundation dedicated to work with youth in low-income and at-risk neighborhoods in STEM and other educational programming.
This included his Men of Integrity program that Nolen started at his high school alma mater, Minneapolis Henry, in 2015, then at Park Center. The program is designed to support young Black males in grades 7-12 in their academic, emotional and social needs.
This summer he’s running the Academy of Excellence at Folwell Park in North Minneapolis. Along with basketball fundamentals, it will expose students in grades 3-10 to financial literacy, social-emotional skills, social justice, and wellness and nutrition information each day with breakfast and lunch provided for the participants.
“It’s been a blessing…to have the opportunity to bless others,” said the St. Paul-born, Minneapolis-raised Nolen in a recent MSR interview. While sitting in a Northside eatery, the Henry and University of Minnesota grad proudly talked about his post-athletic life.
No different than most young men of his generation, Nolen dreamed of one day playing in the NBA. He was a prep star, played in the Big Ten at Minnesota, and later played pro ball overseas and in the NBA G-League. But he didn’t reach the big leagues.
“I was a little disappointed,” he admitted without regrets. Playing pro ball was an eye-opener. “I understood it was a different game. Every program I played for was team-oriented, but when you play professionally, it was more individual, more selfish about the money.”
“I had a different type purpose,” continued Nolen. “I have been playing all my life,” but when he decided to retire from playing, he reached a life crossroads: What to do with the rest of his life?
“Some people were telling me I was lucky and blessed to have been able to play. I finally came to the conclusion that it wasn’t my purpose. I wasn’t meant to be an NBA player. There is something greater in my life.
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“I was OK walking away from the game,” said Nolen. This moved him forward, looking into applying his life experiences, perhaps in education, or using his business and marketing degree he’d earned from the U. He realized he could help the current and next generation of youth who look like himself who have dreams and aspirations to play pro ball but might not get there.
“I grew up in a household around education,” noted Nolen, who has been in schools for nearly a decade. “I worked in different schools” including Anthony Middle School, Henry, and for the past five years at Park Center. “I have a passion for children.”
Why not something more, he asked himself? Nolen saw others having success in the nonprofit sphere. “I’ve been lucky enough to pick [former Gopher FB great] Darrell Thompson’s brain—he runs Bolder Options—and [former soccer great] Tony Sanneh and their foundations. A couple of former classmates from the U of M who are in nonprofits themselves, they have guided me [along with] others to help me to this day.”
In these uncertain times, Nolen said, his work with children, especially in urban areas, is as important as ever. “With the George Floyd tragedy and the pandemic, and the racial unrest [last summer],” said Nolen, “I thought it was the perfect time for me to jump out there and make my presence be known, and do what I can to make an impact.”
Nolen disclosed that he has big plans ahead: “I hope to become a million-dollar entity where I can give back to the community, hopefully, build my own rec center…to add value to my community.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.