An athlete by profession, he was an entrepreneur at heart, turning an interest in clothing and an intimate understanding of a niche market — “there were guys 7’6” and taller in the NBA; they had bigger problems than I did,” he says — into a second career.
“When I was growing up, ‘big and tall’ meant taking a suit cut for a regular-sized guy, and making it bigger,” says Willis. “It wasn’t tailored, it looked like you were wearing a box.”
A textiles and fashion major at Michigan State University, he learned enough about how a suit should fit that once he went pro, he didn’t have to ask his mother to add fabric to the bottom of his pants. He had his suits custom made.
He was living large in many ways — he was a 7-foot standout forward at Michigan State when he was drafted by the Hawks in 1984 — but in 1988, he broke his foot, and had to sit out part of the season. Looking back, he says, it was a blessing. “It made me think, ‘If I can’t play basketball, what would I do?’”
So he teamed up with a friend to purchase $60,000 worth of sewing machines, hire a couple of tailors, and put them to work making leather jackets for a select clientele: NBA athletes.
His partner oversaw the shop. Willis was on the road several months of the year, and when he wasn’t playing, he was selling.
“When players from the other teams would ask me where I got my jacket” –all the players liked to dress well, said Willis — “I’d tell them I could make it for them.”
His client list read like an NBA all-star roster: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Oakley and Tim Duncan.
And as he advanced in the NBA, he learned a great deal about business, as well.
“It’s all about developing relationships,” he says.
Part of being a pro athlete is attending fundraising dinners and other events. “I would go, because as a member of the team, I was required to be there,” he recalls. “But some of us would be looking for the door, ready to leave as soon as we could.”
Until a teammate took him aside.
“Doc Rivers — referring to Glenn “Doc” Rivers, currently head coach of the Boston Celtics — "told me something I never forgot. ‘Meet the arena owners, meet the sponsors, meet the season ticket holders. You never know who might be helpful once your playing days are over.’ From that day on, I stayed at the events.”
Those relationships were important. But so were the ones Willis developed in the off-season, when he participated in an internship program the NBA ran that matched players with mentors in business. Willis spent several summers in New York City, working with clothing manufacturers, where he learned about operations, distribution and manufacturing.
Throughout the 1990s, he was averaging as many as 19 points a game while overseeing Willis & Walker in Atlanta. He was eventually traded to Miami, then Golden State. He played in Houston, Toronto, Denver and San Antonio (where his team won the NBA championship in 2003), before finishing his career in Dallas.