by Ryne Nelson / @slaman10

Jason Franklin caught the basketball jones during Michael Jordan’s rookie year, attending games in the old Chicago Stadium with his father. During high school, he experienced Chicago’s second three-peat from inside the Bulls’ locker room, working with the team as a ball boy (where he kept, among other things, a hand-written letter from Scoop Jackson to Michael Jordan).

It was a dream come true for a basketball fan—a dream that helped Franklin realize another.

“Back in that time, you were either wearing a jersey or a really uncomfortable shirt that didn’t fit, that was really boxy and not a comfortable fabric. That was really it,” Franklin explains. “The hats didn’t fit really well, either. There weren’t a lot of options at the team shop. If you wanted to look cool, people were making their own shirts, drawing on them. And even then, they weren’t even cool. That’s when I saw the void in the marketplace. I was like, Wait a minute, I can bring fashion here for these fans.”

To Franklin, co-founder of Sportiqe Apparel, fashion and licensed fan apparel was an obvious match.

“With my involvement with the NBA growing up, being a season ticket holder with the Bulls forever and becoming a ball boy when I was in high school, and being around Michael and Scottie and Dennis, I realized that to reach my goals, I needed to start my own business,” Franklin says. “I realized the first place I should go to bring fashion to the fans was the place where I started as a fan, and that’s the NBA.”

Since founding Sportiqe seven years ago, his designer tees have made their way to the front of NBA team shops across the nation and are flying off the shelves. Countless celebs and athletes—Colin Kaepernick, Justin Timberlake, Derek Jeter, Justin Bieber, Kim K and Beyonce, to name a few—have proudly repped the brand.

Last Saturday, nearly 1,000 tees were sold at Sportiqe Night at Madison Square Garden (for a one-night deal of $15), and fans at MSG were poppin’ like never before. It was obvious that fans can now also be comfortable and fashionable. And Sportiqe has made it all possible.

SLAM: Your roots as a ball boy for the Bulls…I assume that’s the beginning of your involvement in basketball.

Jason Franklin: It goes back before that when my dad got season tickets Michael Jordan’s rookie year. Being in an electric environment on a weekly basis, watching the greatest player of all time, where everyone in the arena is asking the same questions: “Did you see that? Did you see that?”

Being in an environment where it was so loud that I could have been sitting next to my dad at the stadium, screaming in his ear, and he couldn’t hear what I was saying. And being in an environment where you had the chills watching the game made me want to be a part of it. I realized I wasn’t going to be good enough to play, but how could I be a part of this environment and what was going to be my role in getting people excited about the game?

SLAM: Immediately, you weren’t thinking clothing apparel, were you?

JF: Well, it was the only thing that made sense to me. My great-grandmother was a clothing designer, my grandmother was a clothing designer, it was sort of in my blood. When I turned 13, I realized it was the only thing that I was probably going to be able to do that was going to allow me to be a part of basketball.

SLAM: When did you start designing?

JF: At the age of 12. My grandmother owned a knit shop in downtown Chicago. One of my first memories was on a Sunday, sitting in the knit shop on her lap, and she’s showing me all these fabrics and going through all that. So I’ve had a lot of experience in the fashion industry for a long time. When I finally got to the old Chicago stadium, sitting there watching Michael Jordan, realizing this was going to be my niche. I was going to bring fashion to the fans.

SLAM: What were fans wearing in Michael Jordan’s rookie year?

JF: Oh man. I think back in that time, you were either wearing a jersey or a really uncomfortable shirt that didn’t fit, that was really boxy and not a comfortable fabric. That was really it. The hats didn’t fit really well, either. There weren’t a lot of options at the team shop. If you wanted to look cool, people were making their own shirts, drawing on them. And even then, they weren’t even cool. That’s when I saw the void in the marketplace. I was like, Wait a minute, I can bring fashion here for these fans.

SLAM: When did you start Sportiqe?

JF: I started Sportiqe seven years ago. With my involvement with the NBA growing up, being a season ticket holder with the Bulls forever and becoming a ball boy when I was in high school, and being around Michael and Scottie and Dennis, I realized that to reach my goals, I needed to start my own business. So seven years ago, I started Sportiqe.

I realized the first place I should go to bring fashion to the fans was the place where I started as a fan, and that’s the NBA. My business partner also came from an NBA background. He ran the team shops for the Phoenix Suns, so we both have incredible backgrounds. He started as an intern for the Phoenix Suns right out of college.

So we both came from NBA backgrounds, and we wanted to start this fashion brand for fans. We realized it was time to come home. And coming home was doing it for our first love, which was the NBA.

SLAM: I’m sure fans immediately embraced the brand.

JF: Fans were starving for it. When we started, there was just pretty much jerseys and some of the on-court stuff. We brought a spin that fans have never really seen before. It was better-feeling garments and fabrics and better fits.

With Sportiqe, it’s the fit, fashion and feel of the garment that right away, you know it’s a more fashionable apparel piece. That’s really what drew the fans to our product. Now they can look cool and look good cheering for their favorite team.

SLAM: We’re seeing a lot of people wearing the apparel here on Sportiqe Night at the Garden. How does that feel to you?

JF: It’s a dream come true. Because starting from wiping the sweat off the court to now seeing your dream and all the hard work that you put in starting a company and seeing people appreciate it the way they are now. You see people around the arena wearing it. You’re seeing my brand on the jumbotron.

And let’s not forget where we’re at tonight. We’re at Madison Square Garden, which is the Mecca of sports. To be able to come to the Mecca of sports, where people all over the world know Madison Square Garden. To see your product in the world’s most famous arena, and see it on the shelves and see people wearing it and see it on the jumobtron is a dream come true for a sports fan.

SLAM: And you’re another fan as well. Is that still how you see yourself?

JF: Of course. I’m always a fan, with an eye for fashion. I’ve been able to take the two things I love the most and bring those things together an build a business out of it. I love sports, and I love fashion. To be able to blend those two things together is why I’m on this earth.

SLAM: It couldn’t been easy getting your brand all over the Mecca of basketball. What’s been the most difficult thing getting the brand going?

JF: It’s really a David and Goliath story because you’re dealing with an industry where there’s huge brands—the adidas, Nikes, Reeboks of the world. Those are humongous companies, giving hundreds of millions of dollars to the League, so there’s a big barrier that you have to get through to be able to get your brand in an arena like this or any arena or even to the League.

There’s brands on a weekly basis trying to pitch their brands to get approvals by the NBA, which is one of the biggest leagues in the world. So no, it wasn’t all easy, but we went by word of mouth. We grew very organically. It’s one fan telling another fan telling another fan about our product. We don’t have a huge marketing budget where I can do humongous commercials with famous athletes. It’s really just been one person, and in some cases, it’s been athletes picking up the brand and wearing it and then going on their social media accounts, talking about our product.

But really, at the end of the day, we’ve found that if you really build a great product, people are going to recognize it and want to wear it and start talking about it. And I think they appreciate that it’s coming from the fans.

SLAM: There’s probably another kid, sitting in a similar situation with his dad, maybe with another idea. What kind of advice would you give to him?

JF: Don’t sleep. If it’s your dream and your passion, hard work isn’t going to cut it. There’s another level that you have to get to in order to make the dream come true, especially when you’re trying to enter a market like this one, when there’s such huge companies in it.

But if you really are passionate about it, and you really believe in what you’re doing, and you really believe what you’re doing is the best, people will start to recognize that. And things will work out, and I was put here to bring fashion to the fans.

SLAM: Where do you see the brand in five or 10 years from now?

JF: We’re going to continue to grow at retail, so we’re going to continue to grow Sportiqe at retailers across the country, and build a brand recognition to where people see our buffalo and people see Sportiqe, they know it is the premiere brand for fan fashion.

We’ve started with the NBA. We’d obviously love to start moving into other leagues. There’s several other sports leagues that I’m a fan of as well that we’d love to have our product in as well. So I really see us moving into other leagues and really expanding the brand into women’s and retail and becoming known as the premiere fan fashion brand.

SLAM: What separates Sportiqe from other apparel lines?

JF: I think it’s our ability to keep growing and coming up with new fashion. We don’t stop. Every season, we come up with new fashion, new looks. And really that’s where people start recognizing Sportiqe as being the innovative brand in fan fashion. And that’s how we’re becoming recognized in the industry.

SLAM: Are you planning to create apparel for every NBA team?

JF: We’re pretty much in every NBA arena right now. We have marketing relationships with the Knicks and the Miami Heat and the Utah Jazz and a few other teams. But our apparel is pretty much at every NBA arena now.

SLAM: That’s gotta be amazing.

JF: To be able to go around the country and to be able to go to NBA games, and for this to be work, it’s a dream come true for someone who loves basketball.

SLAM: Seeing the fans wearing your product has to be your favorite part.

JF: Yeah, to see them throw on your garment, it’s like…the fact that they get emotional and excited to put something on that you created, that’s the best feeling you could possibly get.