An awkward teenager so shy that he ate his lunches alone in the bathroom at Deerfield High School, Jason Franklin finally mustered the courage to ask a girl on a date.
“I don’t have a car, so my mom is going to drive us to the mall so we can have dinner and see a movie,” the teen told his buddies in the locker room.
“Your mom?” scoffed a disapproving Scottie Pippen, the Bulls’ legend who won six NBA championships with Michael Jordan during the 1990s. “I’ll drive you.”
In the midnight blue Ferrari Pippen got by trading his Porsche to Jordan, the superstar picked up Franklin and his date and dropped them at the mall. “It was like Cinderella at the ball,” remembers Franklin. “The clock struck midnight and we get the station wagon to go home.”
The kindness and friendship he got from Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr and other Chicago Bulls during his three years as a ball boy for the team gave Franklin the confidence and work ethic he has used to become a force at Sunday’s 2020 NBA All-Star Game in Chicago.
As co-founder of Sportiqe, the 2019 NBA Licensee of the Year, Franklin, 41, sells his line of NBA-sanctioned T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies and other clothing that he could only imagine when he was the ball boy mopping sweat off the United Center court.
“This was a dream of mine that started at the United Center,” Franklin says, smiling. “I wiped the court in 1996, and now I’m back. I’m having an out-of-body experience. I’ve been close to tears many times.”
His journey really began when he was 11. “I was just different. I was in a rush to be an adult,” says Franklin, who loved sports and spent much of his time designing team hats.
“It’s a wild story that should be a movie,” Franklin says. His sister, babysitting at a neighbor’s house, got sick and needed to come home. Their mom, Penny, sent Jason to relieve her. The boy saw hats everywhere and learned the dad in that house ran a family company that made caps for Major League Baseball teams. Jason showed him some designs he had drawn, and the dad asked if he could make a black White Sox hat the boy designed.
“Tupac wore it in ‘Poetic Justice,'” Franklin says.
Franklin often went to Bulls game with his dad, Randy, who had season tickets. When he discovered the team needed ball boys, he applied.
“I rode my bicycle there,” Franklin says, noting the Bulls’ practice center at the time in Deerfield drew 1,000 applications. “Five kids got interviews and two kids got a job. I got a job.”
Not interested in hanging out at the usual teen parties, Franklin says he formed friendships with the players.
“I was behind the curve on just being a regular teenage kid,” remembers Franklin, who says Pippen and Rodman built up his confidence.
“Hey, we think you’re cool, and if we think you’re cool, you’re OK,” he remembers the players telling him. It worked. “If I can talk to Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, I can hang out with anyone,” says Franklin, who now routinely meets with greats from the sports, entertainment and fashion worlds. “Those guys pushed me. They showed me how to work hard and be the best.”
As a ball boy, he thought the usual hats and jerseys on sale were a bit boring and uncomfortable. When he and business partner Matt Altman launched Sportiqe in 2006, they aimed to do better.
“Sportiqe provided a more elevated fashion base for that fan.” Franklin says, noting style and comfort are key. “The whole thing with us is the hand. When you touch it, it will be the most comfortable thing in your closet.”
Sportiqe features clothing for men and women.
“We sort of bridge the gap between fashion and the sports world,” Franklin says. “We went to the NBA and the NBA was the first believer in what we were doing — bringing fashion to fans.”
His mom and dad, who now live in Vernon Hills, let him hang out with Rodman, Pippen and other players.
“My parents realized the education I was getting from these guys was like nothing I was getting at school,” Franklin says. “In street smarts, these guys all had Ph.D.’s from Harvard.”
Franklin, his wife, Clarisa, and their daughters Athena, 2½, and 9-month-old Alessandra, have a nice life in Phoenix, where the multimillion-dollar Sportiqe brand has 60 employees. But Chicago and the Bulls are where it began.
“I’m indebted to this organization,” he says of the Bulls’ management and players. “Somewhere deep down they’re happy I was able to do my dream, and they were part of that.”
In addition to giving him a work ethic, his stint as ball boy gave him the opportunity to hang with some of the world’s biggest stars, catch a hoagie in Highwood with them after a game, or celebrate a championship in the champagne-soaked locker room.
“That’s been a huge help in growing Sportiqe. There’s no moment that’s going to be too big, overwhelming, and that’s because of those guys,” Franklin says. He still runs into some of them at sporting events and they remain friendly.
“Dennis Rodman is very kind. He taught me a lot. Dennis had a lot of interesting friends,” recalls Franklin, who was one of them. Now Franklin says he hopes his example can help other teens who feel different and might be struggling.
“There is hope for you,” Franklin says. “I had a vision, a dream, and I worked my butt off. You can do that, too.”
Even though he long ago abandoned his dream of playing in the NBA, Franklin was back on the United Center court Saturday for a game featuring people with close ties to the NBA.
“The good news is I’m actually getting to play this time, instead of just rebounding and passing out Gatorade,” Franklin says. “And I don’t have to mop up the court.”