Like many pro athletes, Latter-day Saint basketball player/newly crowned NBA champ Elijah Bryant spends the moments before he takes the court with eyes closed and headphones in place, ritualistically cancelling the noise in search of peace and focus.
But his playlist is likely a bit different than most.
“Right before a game, I’ll meditate and listen to ‘I Am a Child of God’,” he said. “It always resets my focus and reminds me of my higher purpose.”
“Sometimes I get caught up in all I have to do in a game, and that song helps me understand what my main purpose is in this mortal journey.”
The 6-foot-5-inch guard also has a few “go-to” pre-game general conference talks, including “Careful versus Casual” from Sister Rebecca L. Craven, second counselor in the Young Women general presidency. Those messages stoke appreciation for what he’s been given: his family, his faith and, yes, the hoops skills allowing him to provide for his young family and share his faith with a wide audience.
When the Church News caught up with Bryant, he was still feeling the elated charge of claiming a National Basketball Association title with the Milwaukee Bucks.
“I’ve always had the faith and understanding that if I put the work in, things like this can happen,” he said of the championship run. “Sometimes we can get too caught up in what is happening to us right now. … But the Church teaches us that if we obey the Lord’s commandments, He can move mountains. So I’ve just tried to focus on what I’m doing today to be the best person I can be and serve as many people as possible.”
Bryant’s journey to the NBA — like his own gospel conversion — did not follow a linear path.
Following an all-conference junior season at Brigham Young University in 2018, the high-scoring Bryant opted to forgo his final college season and enter the pro ranks.
He hoped to land a spot on an NBA roster but went undrafted. So he and his wife, Jenelle, left the U.S. for professional basketball opportunities in Israel. Bryant played well in Asia — claiming All-Israeli first team honors, experiencing a new culture and enjoying the hospitality of the Israeli people.
“My religion was highly respected in Israel,” he said. “The Jewish community, like the Latter-day Saint community, is very family-oriented. The people really respected my values because they were close to their own.”
Still, his determination to play in the world’s premier professional league never wavered. Last May, he crossed that ambition off his goal sheet, signing a contract with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
The phrase “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” aptly describes Bryant’s multi-continental journey to the NBA. In the years leading up to his Bucks’ opportunity, he prepared by getting a little better each day, regardless of that day’s victories or set-backs.
“I think my best basketball attributes are my ability to deal with adversity and my ability to stay mentally strong,” he said.
Bryant immediately announced his wide range of abilities to NBA fans. In his May 16 debut with the Bucks, he came off the bench to score 16 points and grab six rebounds against the Chicago Bulls.
“It was kind of a pinch-myself moment,” he remembered. “But I also told myself that I had worked my whole life to make it to the NBA, so don’t go out and play scared. I made a lot of mistakes in that game, but I did a lot of good things.”
After the Bulls game, he tried “to play it cool.” But inside, he added, “I felt like a little kid. I was super happy. I had made the NBA and I could check that off my list.”
Latter-day Saint Bucks
Bryant is one of many Latter-day Saint athletes competing in the professional ranks. But it is rare to have multiple Church members rostered on the same NBA team. So Bryant was thrilled to be teammates with fellow Latter-day Saint/rookie guard Sam Merrill during the Buck’s championship run.
“Having Sam on the team made my transition to the NBA a lot easier; just to have someone on the team of the same faith,” he said.
Bryant and Merrill knew each other from their rivalry years at BYU and Utah State University, respectively. “And it definitely helped to have a familiar face on the Bucks because there are just so many things you have to adjust to in the NBA.”
The Bryant/Merrill connection injected an added layer of excitement for Milwaukee-area Latter-day Saints who were rooting for the Bucks during their recent play-off run.
“Both Sam and Elijah showed up at Church together the day after the Bucks swept the (Miami) Heat in the playoffs,” remembered Bishop Dale Edman of the Parkway Ward, Milwaukee North Stake. “It was quite a thrill for our youth to be able to talk to them both.”
Family, faith (and a boy named Blu)
A Church convert, Bryant grew up in Georgia. He is the product of a supportive family, had Latter-day Saint relatives and attended Church off-and-on when he was growing up.
Looking back on his youth, he is grateful for people in the local ward who looked out for his family by inviting young Elijah and his siblings to Sunday church services and, no surprise, to pick-up ball games at the meetinghouse.
“On Monday or Tuesdays we would have lessons with the missionaries, and then on Wednesday we would be at the Church playing basketball,” he said.
Jason Campbell was a home teacher and remains close friends with Bryant and his family. He remembered 12-year-old Elijah “being a great kid with an amazing story” who wowed the local members at the gym with his shooting skills.
“I joked with Elijah that he would be the next Jimmer Fredette,” said Campbell, laughing.
During his teen years, Bryant was not always active in the Church. He endured struggles.
“But I always had faith. I knew the right way. … I knew I wanted to have a family sealed to me in the temple, I just didn’t always know what the path looked like to get there. My decisions didn’t always add up to what I needed to be doing,” he said.
After enjoying a productive freshman campaign at North Carolina’s Elon University, he opted to transfer to BYU. That decision proved life-changing for the young athlete.
“I knew I needed to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who were trying to take care of their families, go to the temple and live good lives. Going to BYU helped shape me and helped me see what was possible: I could play basketball at a high level and also be a high functioning student and have a family.”
Bryant’s good fortune in Provo, Utah, stretched beyond the basketball court. He also met Jenelle Fraga at a party hosted by mutual friends. The two became friends, began dating and later married in the Salt Lake Temple prior to his junior season at BYU.
Bryant has fun talking about his hoops memories and winning an NBA title. But his enthusiasm for all things basketball can’t match his excitement of being a dad. He and Jenelle are the parents of a baby boy named Blu who will soon celebrate his first birthday.
Bryant can’t imagine experiencing his basketball journey without his faith and his family.
“Faith, family and health are the three words written on my journal,” he said. “Those are the three pillars I try to focus on. They are the three things I need to be most grateful for. Those are the things that keep me grounded. Regardless of if I ever play another NBA game or win another NBA championship, I’m blessed because I have a great family, my faith and my health.”
There’s really no off-season for a pro basketball player, even after winning an NBA title. Bryant will soon be competing with the Bucks summer league team and then on to training camp with the full squad prior to the 2021-2022 season.