The 1993 NBA Finals, won by Michael Jordan and the Bulls in six games over the Phoenix Suns, is still one of the most talked about championship series in the past 20 years. Jordan and Charles Barkley squared off in some epic contests, and one player, Suns guard Kevin Johnson, even went on to be the mayor of Sacramento.
The Chicago-Phoenix battle was watched closely by Jason Franklin, a Bulls fan, and Matt Altman, a Suns fan. They didn’t know each other then, but fate intervened a decade later and paired Franklin's sports-centric designs with Altman's merchandising know-how. The two formed Phoenix-based sports-fan clothing company Sportiqe in 2006.
Now in its seventh year, Sportiqe has fans in music (Jay-Z and Beyonce), sports (Tim Tebow and Wes Welker) and, uh, whatever Kim Kardashian does -- but the brand is also appealing to regular fans who want premium, sports-inspired T-shirts.
The decidedly retro looks -- for the most part weathered tees and relaxed hoodies -- are available in most NBA arenas, specialty clothing stores or at Sportiqe's website. Sportiqe recently signed a deal to produce clothing with retro logos from ESPN, Electronic Arts and Jockey, among others.
ESPN Playbook caught up with Franklin, 33, and Altman, 41, for a chat about their love of sports and fashion.
Jason, what are your favorite pieces of sports memorabilia, and did they inspire your interest in fan clothing?
Jason: My parents have a museum in my basement at home, they still have everything I’ve ever created or retained in my life. I still have my champagne-soaked ball-boy jersey from the Bulls’ championship in 1996, I don’t know if my mom’s washed that yet, but it’s there with the championship T-shirt and the hat. And every T-shirt I’ve ever created with Sportiqe is there. Any piece of apparel I’ve designed since the age of 12, she has.
What’s your best memory from being a ball boy that season?
Jason: It’s really the experience as a whole. The way those guys molded me into being the person I am today, whether it was rebounding for Scottie [Pippen] and Michael for two hours or watching Dennis Rodman, who had played for 44 minutes, do an hour-long workout afterward. Those guys taught me that if you wanted to do something, you should go try to be the best at it.
Was your first career plan to play for the Bulls?
Jason: When I was about 11 I went to get my yearly physical from a doctor and when he asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I told him I wanted to be the point guard for the Bulls. He said I should probably start looking at a different career path because I wasn’t going to be tall enough.
So my great-grandmother was a clothing designer, my grandmother was a clothing designer and I used to just sketch stuff. I always had a book with me sketching, and I was a sports freak. I knew I was going to do something in sports, and finally when I was 12, something made sense. I started drawing sports logos on apparel, and something just clicked.
What’s your first memory of seeing something you designed worn by someone famous?
Jason: One of the first hats I designed was worn by Jay-Z in his “Girls, Girls, Girls” video, which was pretty cool. One of the other hats I designed was in 50 Cent’s “Wanksta” video, so being in high school and seeing those guys, turning on TRL, and seeing those guys wearing a hat you had designed is a pretty cool feeling.
How do you get those things in their hands?
Jason: They bought it. I would come home from school and watch music videos on MTV with my friends, and I was in shock as much as they were. My mouth dropped when I saw Jay-Z wearing a Padres hat I designed.
What’s something you’ve tried to do as a designer that you think the sports fan world isn’t quite ready for?
Jason: I drive Matt crazy sometimes with some of the styles I want to push forward with. And I’m always trying to sneak a blazer into a collection, but I haven’t done it yet. It’s just something that hasn’t resonated yet with the fans, but you never know. Fans are becoming much more educated with fashion. And that’s an exciting thing right now. Some of these styles we thought might not work years ago, we’re now able to go back in our lab and maybe recycle some of those styles.
Matt, why do you think Sportiqe is beginning to resonate with fans?
Matt: From day one, Jason and I saw this void in the marketplace to be able to bring styled apparel to a fan in the sports, music or college industry. Part of the focus is superior comfort and style. Everything that goes into it is our product has an element of comfort: how the fabric feels, the sizing and cut of it, the aesthetic and the graphic that’s applied to it.
We’re now in our seventh year, and people are now recognizing Sportiqe. It’s been a process to get the word out about our brand and as we continue to grow, and more people wear our product, the little buffalo tab is getting more recognized. People are looking for the buffalo when they’re at a sporting event or going shopping at a local boutique store.
So what’s your favorite piece of sports clothing from your life as a fan?
Matt: For me it’s some of the old vintage T-shirts from the Suns back in the ’80s, or in the ’90s when Barkley played for the Suns, that’s when fan merchandise was at an all-time high in Phoenix.
I’m sure you would love to see the Suns win a title.
Matt: Actually my first year working in Arizona, the Suns went to the Finals and lost to the Bulls. It was the greatest thing starting that year and thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll get to the Finals again,’ and it never happened. I was fortunate enough to work for the Suns for 12 years in merchandising and retail operations. So seeing the Suns win a championship would be great.
What’s your favorite Suns jersey over the years?
Matt: I liked the original jersey, but I really liked the shorts with the sun on the side, and then the most current uniform would be the two. So it’s kind of a bookend.
Based on what you’re selling, do you feel like you have some special insight into sports teams or leagues that are up and coming? What’s an unexpected big seller?
Matt: For the most part -- I’ll focus this on the NBA -- you always have your core teams with a national following that do well for merchandise sales, but there’s always those teams that surprise you. For us, it’s been Oklahoma City, the product is doing so well in that market. The other one now is the Brooklyn Nets. For the longest time, the New Jersey Nets were the team we always struggled with. The shift to Brooklyn has really sparked a lot of interest going into this season.
Jason, who’s the person you’ve seen wearing your clothing you’re most excited about?
Jason: My parents call themselves Fan One and Fan Two. It’s always fun to see them wearing this stuff because they’re so proud, but I just love seeing random fans at games wearing it. But there is this picture of Beyonce at Jay-Z’s music festival over Labor Day weekend and she’s wearing a Brooklyn Nets ladies’ shirt we designed. To have one of the most beautiful and influential women in the world wearing your product is a pretty cool feeling.
We’ve had Justin Bieber, David Beckham and an array of athletes and celebrities like Mark Wahlberg wear our product. It’s just so cool that at the end of the day, they’re fans, too.
You were a Bulls ball boy. So you must have some good stories. Who was the best tipper?
Jason: Everything they did, I got a chance to experience with them. Rebounding, going to grab a bite with them after a game. I lived in the same home town, so I really got to establish a relationship with them. As far as tips, the experience and education I got from them was worth more than any actual dollar figure. Getting to watch them be professionals on and off the court and how they handled themselves was important.