Kevin Willis: Sartorial Splendor

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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Kevin Willis looks splendid in retirement. Broad shoulders. Lean torso. Sculpted physique. He may be 50-years-old, but he can fit in the same jeans he wore as a player. He may be six years removed from the NBA -- nine from his last season as a Spur -- but Willis hits the gym four times
a week, has added nine pounds of muscle and looks like he could still bang with the bigs.

Then there’s his wardrobe. Willis looks like a Gentleman’s Quarterly photo spread, and that shouldn’t surprise. He’s a fashion designer -- perhaps the world’s tallest at 7-feet-0 -- with designs for a niche market. Tall men.

Custom suits from his Willis & Walker clothing line are flying out of his flagship store in Atlanta, Ga.. So are designer jeans. His clientele has expanded from athletes in the NBA to Major League Baseball players to guys in the mainstream. Willis is shipping an
order of denim to Saks Fifth Avenue later this month.

His big and tall clothing business is booming with a clientele of big names. Tim Duncan buys sports jackets from Willis. David Robinson buys jeans. Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley are customers. So is Tony Parker.

“My most frequent customers I would say are former players like Steve Smith and Dikembe Mutombo,” Willis says.

Fashion critics applaud his work. From a review in the “The Urban Class Boutique":

“In his debut runway collection for Willis & Walker, former NBA player Kevin Willis showed his understanding of well-executed tuxedos, business suits and touches of sportswear for the man 6’3” and over.”

In the fall of 2011, Agenda Online Magazine wrote: “The Willis and Walker Spring 2012 collection is perfect for the really tall, dark and handsome.”

A not-so-well-known fact about Willis: He’s been in the fashion design business for a quarter century. When he was blocking shots for the Spurs during the 2002-03 championship season, he was also building his clientele.

“I sold to everybody from Malik Rose and David Robinson to Steve Smith and Mengke Bateer,” he says. “I custom made something for Tony Parker. Those were the guys that really supported the brand an awful lot.”

Frustration with too-short, tight-fitting clothes drove Willis into the fashion industry. He wore high-water pants in high school. He struggled to find anything to fit his 7--foot frame at Michigan State. Recognizing a void in the clothing market, he switched his major from broadcasting
to fashion and textiles.

As an NBA rookie in 1984, Willis bought custom-made clothes. A broken bone in his right foot in 1988 made him wonder:
What if my career were to suddenly

It was time for a new venture. Willis and former Michigan State teammate Ralph Walker opened Willis & Walker in Atlanta, and clients began lining up in the locker room. Word spread. Soon, visiting athletes in town to play the Hawks were stopping by his store to be measured for
custom suits.

They liked the fit and design of the Willis & Walker collection. They liked it when Willis & Walker expanded to jeans. From the day he started in 1988 until he retired from basketball in 2007, Willis worked his clothing gig tirelessly.

“There wasn’t a day when I wasn’t on the phone at least once, or doing something physically that pertained to my business,” he told CNN Money in 2011.

Today, Willis sends Robinson and Duncan each seven pair of jeans when a new line is released. They purchase what they like -- Willis has their measurements on file -- and send the rest back.

“They usually keep it all,” Willis says.

The Willis & Walker brand is reaching a broader market at upscale prices. “My signature collection suits start at $950 and go up to $1600,” he says.

Willis played 21 seasons in the NBA, two of them with the Spurs. “I think about 2003 a lot,” he says. “It was truly a blessing to win a championship with a group of guys and an organization like the Spurs. We were a family. It was special.”

Three years after leaving San Antonio, Willis retired as the second oldest player in league history at 44 (behind 45-year-old Nat Hickey who played one game in 1948).

“I should have played two more years,” Willis says, “but I’ll take my 20-plus years. When I retired, the transition was really, really smooth. I turned in one jersey and put on another. The fashion jersey.”