Ty Lawson Steps Into Second Life as Businessman, Basketball Player in China
Ty Lawson had a lot on his mind.
He had only just gotten back from China, where he had averaged 25.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.2 steals while leading the Shandong Golden Stars to within one win of the Chinese Basketball Association finals. On this Tuesday evening in mid-April 2018, he would make his triumphant return to the NBA with his hometown team, the Washington Wizards, in Game 2 of a first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena).
But instead of calling his family, friends or even his agent, Ty hit up his business partner, Daniel Hazan, to go over developments with Sleakers, the sneaker-styled slipper company of which they are co-founders.
“What's the update on the Sleakers?” Ty asked.
“Bro, why are you calling me?” Daniel shot back. “You have a playoff game in a couple of hours.”
“So what?” Ty replied. “Doesn't mean I can't call you and see what's going on.”
Turns out, Ty didn’t have much trouble flipping the switch back to basketball. Though the Wizards lost in Toronto, 130-119, the team’s newly signed backup point guard played well, scoring 14 points, draining four three-pointers and dishing out eight assists (against one turnover) in just over 31 minutes.
“It just goes to show how his mind is always working,” Daniel tells CloseUp360. “He's working on everything. His mind is on business, basketball and everything.”
Even more so when business and basketball feed into each other as freely and as frequently as they do in Ty’s life.
As a point guard on the playgrounds of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Ty always had a keen eye for opportunity. The same was true at Gwynn Park Middle School, where he recognized his classmates’ pre-lunch period hunger as the precursor for an underground candy market.
“I guess the teachers didn't want me selling candy,” Ty says by phone from Jinan, China, “so I would keep it in my Trapper Keeper like it was a book and just sell it.”
Sour Punch straws, Skittles, Snickers—whatever Ty could hide in his school folder, he used to turn a buck off his peers.
After dominating the AAU circuit and emerging as a McDonald’s All-American at Oak Hill Academy in rural Virginia, alongside fellow DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area) stars Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley, Ty took his talents to the University of North Carolina. He wanted to major in business at Chapel Hill, but the curriculum and schedule didn’t fit with his basketball commitments, so he opted to major in exercise sports science instead.
Once he arrived in the NBA, as the No. 18 pick of the Denver Nuggets in the 2009 draft, Ty knew where to go for investment advice. He turned to Jeff Freid, a longtime friend and advisor, who suggested he get in early with Hyperice, a company that specializes in tools for rehab and recovery, and Sweetgreen, a fast casual restaurant chain serving salads and grain bowls that began in D.C.
And when, in 2011, the NBA lockout kept Ty from playing basketball as a business, he suited up in D.C.’s Goodman League over the summer. Then in the fall, he took his buddies Brandon Simpson and Nick Watkins, who were living with him in Denver, and went overseas to compete with Lithuanian powerhouse Zalgiris Kaunas.
“I enjoyed everything, the experience and just the people I met,” Ty says, “but I think I was just a little too young to be in that situation. It was hard to accept.”
Nonetheless, Ty’s time in Eastern Europe—his first extended sojourn outside of America—exposed him to a world of possibilities beyond his native shores.
“All of it was just eye-opening,” he says.
Ty Lawson suits up for the Goodman League against the Drew League during the summer of 2011, featuring DeMar DeRozan (left) and James Harden (right). (Wikicommons)
Ty leads a relatively simple life in Jinan, China. When he’s not practicing, playing games or working out, he’s usually bingeing his way through Netflix (His latest watches? Surviving R. Kelly, The Last O.G. and Bird Box). Or, he’s on the phone with Daniel, be it to check up on Sleakers and Gloat—an app that they’re developing to help reward social media users as microinfluencers—or pitch new ideas he’s concocted.
“He never settles,” Daniel says. “Even when he has an idea of something and we're working on something great, he's always working on the next big thing.”
With all those thoughts about the present and future taking up his brain space and mental energy, Ty would rather not address questions about his previous mistakes.
The three DUIs. The two other arrests, including one for avoiding prosecution for a previous citation. The precipitous fall from the precipice of stardom in Denver to forgettable stints with the Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings.
“I'ma leave those alone,” he insists. “That was in the past. I'm only looking at going forward.”
Towards the end of his time in Denver in 2015, Ty came up with a concept. He had grown tired of wearing flip-flops when he was at home. But he didn’t exactly want to wear proper sneakers all the time, either.
“I wanted to make a house shoe that's kind of swaggy and at the same time comfortable,” he says.
That train of thought begat Sleakers, a slipper that mimicked the look of a casual sneaker. He worked with artists to come up with tech packs that included elements of Jordans and Yeezys mixed in, and he connected with manufacturers in China to create the different styles. After a couple rounds of edits, they sent back samples that were more than comfortable enough (”They’re like walking on clouds,” Ty says) to share with his family and friends in private.
“At first, it was just from, ‘Here, you come over to my house and put these on and we walk around my house,’” Ty says, “to actually turn into a business that people actually wanted to buy them.”
But neither Ty nor his housemates, Brandon and Nick, quite had the know-how to build Sleakers into a scalable business.
In January 2015, Elijah Millsap signed a 10-day contract with the Utah Jazz, then another, followed by a three-year contract.
At the time, Elijah was 27—two years younger than his brother Paul Millsap, who was an All-Star with the Atlanta Hawks, and six years older than Daniel, his agent, who was the youngest ever in his profession to score an NBA deal for a client.
But in a business as cutthroat as sports representation, and with Elijah’s contract not fully guaranteed (the Jazz would cut him the following January), Daniel couldn’t rest on whatever laurels his bit of history provided. So he did what agents of all ages must do—he went around building relationships with prospective clients.
Later on in 2015, Daniel connected with Ty through a mutual friend. The Nuggets had recently traded Ty and a second-round pick to the Rockets in exchange for a first-round pick and four players, only one of whom (Kostas Papanikolaou) ever played for Denver.
“[Ty] had a reputation for being a little erratic off the floor, just a little bit, you know, loosey goosey,” Daniel says. “But once I got a chance to meet him, he is by far one of the smartest people I've ever worked with in business. And I'm not talking about athletes. I'm talking about people, period.”
Though Daniel didn’t end up representing Ty, the two still hit it off. They kept in touch, with Ty picking Daniel’s brain for business advice pertaining to Sleakers and Gloat.
“He came up with a great idea,” Daniel says, “but as a basketball player, he was just limited with his time and his ability to invest the necessary time into it being a success that he needed people that he trusted. And it took a couple of years for us to build that level of trust with him.”
Come 2017, Ty was in Sacramento, and he and Daniel were officially in business. Andrew Hoenig, Daniel’s best friend since first grade, would head up design of their products, while Daniel handled negotiations and oversaw final decisions for Sleakers and Gloat with Ty.
“Sometimes I'll be busy with basketball or just enjoying life, and then it would just be time consuming,” Ty says, “so they definitely helped out with that a lot.”
Ty with Andrew Hoenig (left) and Daniel Hazan (right). (Courtesy of Daniel Hazan)
On the second-to-last day of the 2016-17 season, Ty logged the first triple-double of his NBA career (22 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds) in a 129-104 win over the Phoenix Suns at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.
Two-and-a-half months later, he was a free agent again, for the third time in 16 months. But where NBA teams had come calling before, their offers now dried up.
Meanwhile, Ty and Daniel’s businesses were running into obstacles of their own. They were still tweaking the concept for Gloat before commissioning the creation of the app. And though Sleakers were already a reality, Ty noticed other companies putting out similar products.
As summer gave way to fall, Ty remained without an NBA contract. His agent at the time suggested that he consider a deal in China. The money would be good, but the opportunity to build his brand in the world’s biggest basketball market could be life-changing. It helped, too, that Stephon Marbury, who spent the 2017-18 season on a retirement tour, had left behind a sordid past in the NBA to become a legend in the CBA.
“He's the inspiration when it comes to China,” Ty says, “because he's the first one, the pioneer to go do it, win multiple championships over there, to have a statue put up.”
Better yet, being in China would bring Ty closer to the factories producing his Sleakers—and allow him to be more hands-on in shaping his creation.
So in August 2017, Ty signed a one-year deal with Shandong. There, he found an opportunity to shine and a fanbase that was eager to embrace him.
“I'm from all the way across the other part of the world,” he says, “so for them to actually know who I am, wearing my jersey, saying my name—’Lawson, Lawson’—having big crowds, I mean, it's different. Just surreal that basketball touches so many people.”
Ty waves to the crowd while playing for Shandong in China. (Courtesy of Ty Lawson)
Ty’s current season—his second with Shandong—has had its ups and downs. He’s averaging more points (27.1), assists (8.7) and rebounds (5.0), and shooting better than ever from three-point range (43.9 percent). But the team’s collective inconsistency has meant more practices—even on game days, and even for the superstar American import.
But Shandong’s recent return to winning has Ty feeling good. So, too, does his recent visit to the factory where his Sleakers are being pumped out en masse.
“They do a lot of work,” he says, “from screen printing to getting the fabric to choosing what shoe laces, to what rubber they put on the bottom and everything like that and how they put it together.
“And it's just definitely a beautiful process.”
He’s pleased, too, to see some of the end products decorated in the official colors and logos of NBA teams. Thanks to Ty’s connections in the Association, Sleakers was able to secure a licensing deal with the league in November 2018. And thanks to Daniel’s ownership of that license, the company was able to use the NBA’s intellectual property without breaking any rules about involving active players.
“Being in business with the NBA, it's great because the sport's thriving,” Ty says. “It's getting bigger.”
The same goes for Sleakers. The company has filled orders for Nuggets guard Isaiah Thomas and Dallas Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews, among others with basketball ties. Ty and Daniel’s line of NBA-licensed products is now available online (Sleakers.co), and could wind up in stores by way of upcoming conventions in Las Vegas.
Sleakers’ portfolio of potential styles is only expanding. The company has added licenses for some NCAA schools, including UNC, Ty’s alma mater. And he already has a line with Shandong’s colors and logo in production, just in time for the Chinese New Year next month.
Going forward, he hopes to strike up deals for Sleakers branded with everything from NFL logos to NBA player likenesses, to customized designs for musical artists to sell in their merchandise tents on tour.
“I think it would be dope,” he says.
For all the flashy styles and colorways of Sleakers that currently exist—and all the ones on the way—Ty’s favorite is among the simplest. The Grapes, as they’re called, are mostly black, with violet accents on the tongue and along the sides of the slipper.
“I just like black shoes and it's just colorful,” he says. “They stick out."
By and large, Ty wears his Sleakers whenever he would’ve otherwise walked around in flip-flops: around his home, through airports, on quick runs to 7-Eleven or Target—just not in the shower.
“Just slip it on and you go,” he says.
Ty’s business in footwear is set to expand beyond the ultra-casual. Later this year, he’s due to release his own signature sneaker with the Chinese brand Q4, worn by NBA players Darren Collison, Langston Galloway and E'Twaun Moore.
“You definitely got to put your all into it, like what you like, what you don't like,” Ty says. “It's not just, like, ‘Oh yeah, this the shoe, let me get that.’”
Soon enough, Gloat will be ready for release as well. According to Daniel, the app is about “80 percent” done, with the second phase of beta testing recently completed.
Sleakers x NBA
Golden State Warriors
(Photos courtesy of Daniel Hazan)
When the CBA season wraps in the spring, Ty hopes to once again return to the U.S. to link up with another team bound for the NBA playoffs.
“It's a goal for everybody,” he says, “but right now, I'm focused on China and being the best I can be in China.”
And with everything that’s happening for him there, both on and off the court, there’s plenty to occupy Ty’s attention.
“No matter where it's at, whether it's in China or the NBA, just keep getting better every day,” he says. “And business is the same thing. You've got to grow and keep learning. I think I'm doing that now, but you just keep doing that.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.