Kevin Willis - The NBA's Godfather of Fashion
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Retired NBA player Kevin Willis knows streetwear, culture and sports better than any of us.
The 1984 NBA Draft is arguably one of the best ever. In this class, you have FIVE NBA HALL OF FAMERS, four being drafted in the first sixteen picks. Among this draft which includes Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Sam Perkins, Alvin Robertson and Otis Thorpe is another notable name – Kevin Willis.
Coming out of Michigan State, the 7-footer was selected 11th overall by the Atlanta Hawks. For some of you younger cats out there, this man was a bonafide beast. Just Google him and you'll see. His arms were some of the most swole guns to ever grace an NBA court. Meeting him in person, you felt like an insect standing next to a skyscraper; the dude's physique was impressive.
He was one of the greatest rebounders to play, grabbing the rock at all costs while being known as an enforcer alongside other greats like Dominique Wilkins, David Robinson and Yao Ming. He was a 1x All-Star, and every team wanted him, as he was a solid veteran presence every coach sought. Atlanta, Miami, Golden State, Houston, Denver, Milwaukee, San Antonio and Dallas all traded for him in his long 23-year career. 23 years in the NBA is unheard of, mind you. Only 3 other players have ever played as long: Robert Parish, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett.
As we've all heard of #42 and his NBA career, not many people know the man majored in fashion and textiles. During his initial years in the NBA, he would intern at fashion houses like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Can you imagine a 7-foot NBA star interning during the summer, after making boat loads of money? You gotta have some serious passion to do something like that.
It's during these formative years in the NBA that Willis was able to learn the ins and outs of being a serious fashion designer. And a completely sick one, at that. While playing, NBA greats such as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal would ask Willis to make custom suits and denim for them, sometimes 10-12 different pairs each time. Others would ask for couture 1-of-1 pieces, like Pittsburgh Steelers' running back Jerome Bettis.
The Yoda of NBA Fashion
Some people only look at Michael Jordan or more recently, LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook or PJ Tucker as real fashion gurus, whether it's sneakers or apparel. But because of Willis' work ethic and ambition, his knowledge of fashion is almost as scary as his knowledge on the court. Willis is able to tell what kind of fabrics and cuts are best for certain styles of clothes. What shoes to wear with suits or denim. What part of Bolivia that shirt might have come from. What denim factory in Japan was the source of those jeans. You don't pick up this eye for fashion just by wearing unique sneakers and posting on social media, the dude is a bonafide guru. He's experimental, like his collaboration with Italian brand Milano 140 to create neoprene track suits, or partnering with the NBA Player's Association to create custom bags for each All-Star in 2018.
His Thoughts On His Career
One of the boldest things Willis has said is:
....although the NBA has definitely opened doors for me, and I truly am grateful, if I had the education and resources that kids have at their disposal today, I probably wouldn't have gone pro and would have become a fashion designer. Kevin Willis
MIND BLOWN. Like, seriously? That is an extremely bold statement to make. You don't see this kind of innate passion with today's younger NBA players. They want the brand affiliation or shoe deal. Kevin Willis wants to create. His love of the creative arts is truly remarkable. It's why through his many charitable foundations, the one he's most proud of is to give back to underprivileged kids and teach them the business of fashion at his Atlanta-based camp. To show the young urban youth that it's ok to strive to be a professional athlete, but it's also good to have a backup plan.
Where Does Willis & Walker Go From Here?
Kevin Willis was finally able to win a championship in 2005 with the San Antonio Spurs. Well-deserved, I might add. He was that gritty vet presence you need, that late in the season. But with his Willis & Walker brand starting to become more active in today's streetwear landscape, he can definitely show these young designers a thing or two on and off the court.
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