Making the NBA was the dream. Unlike countless others, DeAndre Bembry’s came true. What he couldn’t have ever imagined is that when he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with the 21st overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, it was with a heavy heart. Just two weeks prior to the draft, Bembry’s beloved younger brother Adrien Potts became a victim of gun violence. Bembry’s brother was his lifelong best friend. The two separated by just two years in age, making it to the NBA was just one dream they had shared together. Now Bembry had made it, but his little brother wasn’t by his side.
The trauma of losing a loved one can change a person. The pain can dull the good moments and sharpen the sting of low ones. It can be easy to forget that Bembry has experienced such tragedy in his own life because of how freely he gives away joy, sharing it with anyone in his vicinity.
To be around the 26-year-old is to smile. He’s good at making you feel lighter, and of brightening any room that he enters. Another part of that, though, is finding ways to help heal his heart from the aforementioned loss. For Bembry and his mother, Essence, a crucial part of that healing has been giving back to others and helping those who are hurting the way they themselves had hurt. This is done through the AP World foundation.
“I want to take advantage of this platform [and give back],” Bembry said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. That, and having something positive for our family. We wanted something to remember his name, a couple other family members, their names. We wanted to do a face of [the foundation] with my little brother’s name, AP.”
Originally formed to help families who are dealing with gun violence, DeAndre and Essence soon realized there were many ways they could aid the families in their community. Though DeAndre has spent the past year with the Raptors playing in Tampa Bay, prior to becoming a Raptor, he spent the first four years of his career with the Hawks in Atlanta.
“We do so many different random things,” DeAndre said of his foundation’s work. “You can’t really picture every situation that we’ll be in, but we’re all the way in the community and we’re connected to different cities and different people that are really working to make things better.”
While in Atlanta, AP World provided Thanksgiving meals and helped families with Christmas gifts, as well as provided winter coats and shoes to children in need. Though DeAndre's NBA uniform has changed, his commitment to the families he and Essence worked with in Atlanta has not.
“I have families that I’ve dealt with over the past four or five years,” he said. “And we still have a relationship today. My mom still talks to the single mothers of different families, just checking on them throughout the year.”
Though the mission has expanded, AP World is still there for families who have been affected by gun violence, providing the type of support that can only be given by those who understand the pain of losing a loved one.
From helping to sort through planning details and helping to walk family members through what happens next in the days after a family has suffered a loss, to providing food and having a text chain available so that the family can forget about those extraneous details, AP World has been there and will continue to be there.
“Us going through it a few times, we know that families don’t want to go through and deal with all those things while you’re grieving at the time,” DeAndre said. “There's so much other stuff you can be doing during that time. We just want to take some of the pressure off of the families and help them so they don’t have to deal with some of the stuff you really don't really want to deal with at the time. That was a thought of my mother’s. She came up with the idea and we decided to run with it. Obviously we do more than just that, but that was definitely the start of it.”
Giving back is something that comes naturally to DeAndre as a result of the example Essence has set throughout her life. Essence, as a single mother raising two boys, often had to work long hours, sometimes working two and three jobs during DeAndre’s childhood. He says she is his example when it comes to work ethic, but also when it comes to love.
“She’s definitely the person I’ve looked up to my entire life and I just want to make things better for her and the rest of my family,” he said. “[My mother] was a single mother at a young age so meeting some of these families, she already has a comfort zone because of what she went through when she was younger. She worked at a shelter home when I was younger. We’ve been around these types of environments most of our lives. Giving back to these environments actually helps my family.”
Researchers at Boston University found that black men were twice as likely as white males to die before age 20. In addition to providing support after a family has suffered a loss, AP World recognizes the critical importance of providing on-going mental health resources. The foundation has connected families to mental health support as well as connected children to mentoring organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
DeAndre isn’t just a name behind his foundation, either. Throughout the NBA season, as well as during the offseason, he is an active member of various public and virtual events, most recently serving on the Wear Orange virtual panel on June 4, to share his family’s story as part of the 7th annual National Gun Violence Awareness Day. On a day-to-day basis, DeAndre is involved with the foundation's board meetings and social media channels and media, as well as providing ideas for fundraising and partnering events.
Though he has yet to hit the Scotiabank Arena court for a home game in front of Raptors fans, DeAndre’s impact is already being felt off of the court in Toronto. During a virtual school assembly for Toronto’s Huddle Up Bullying Prevention Program, a program aimed at promoting a culture of equality, diversity and inclusion, DeAndre’s presentation was broadcast to thousands of youth across 100 schools in Ontario.
AP World’s reach isn't limited to the cities that DeAndre is playing in either. In February, it was the Boys and Girls Club in Indianapolis that received 500 pairs of new shoes as AP World partnered with Shoes that Fit. Whatever the need or situation, DeAndre says the AP World is ready to work to find a solution.
“I will do whatever is needed to make an impact on the community and help families that went through what mine went through,” DeAndre said. “No one should have to go through that pain, and anyone who does go through it needs a lot of support and love. AP World wants to give that.”
As a result of the steadfast and continued work DeAndre is accomplishing with AP World, the Toronto Raptors forward is a nominee for the 2020-21 NBA Cares Seasonlong Community Assist Award Presented by Kaiser Permanente.
Though recognition and accolades weren’t ever on DeAndre’s radar when it comes to giving back, being named as a nominee for the NBA’s award is an honour.
“I think the biggest thing about the situation, and these types of organizations,you have to put your time in and I think that’s what we’ve done so far,” DeAndre said. “I think it’s pretty cool that five years later we're able to talk about this and say that I'm [nominated] to receive an award for it. I'm enjoying the process of it. It’s good that we’re bringing it up and it’s catching people’s attention. I’m just looking forward to continuing to get it out there and keep pushing.”
As AP World continues its work, within the community and beyond, DeAndre and Essence know they are keeping the memory of Adrian alive. There is no greater legacy than one of goodness and the work being done through AP World is just that.
“Everyone who knew my brother knows that he was a very smart kid, ahead of his time,” DeAndre said. “He was very loving and generous. I think that for the most part, you get that out of a lot of people in my family. [His passing] hit a lot of people in my family, on different sides of my family, looking for answers. We’ve just tried to come together and just get some type of peace. I’m just trying to live out his life the best way I can.”
Through AP World, DeAndre and his family have helped other families during some of their darkest days. It has been through giving back that they themselves have found light.
“We’re just a genuine family,” DeAndre said. “We started AP World because of a negative thing but we’re trying to make some type of positive out of a negative situation. You still feel the pain. Doing this stuff is obviously for the better, but also we enjoy doing it. It eases the pain for us a little bit.”