Kyle Wiltjer combines message of equality with his love of fashion

Kyle Wiltjer was scribbling on his iPad on the team bus on the way to a basketball game in Greece a couple of years ago.

Searching for a way to combine his love of fashion with a positive message about equality, the Canadian national team member jotted down some ideas, which he'd later conceptualize with Charday Hunt, his girlfriend at the time, who knew the ins and outs of sports fashion after five years working for Nike.

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Together the couple came up with EQLTY Brand, a sportswear company with a message about love and fairness for all.

"The truth behind my brand is I really like wearing dad hats," said Wiltjer — picture that baseball hat your dad likes to wear while mowing the lawn. "I was trying to figure out a little logo I could put on a dad hat."

The company showcases its work on its website (eqltybrand.com) and on Instagram (@eqltybrand).

Their logo is two stick figures holding hands to "show togetherness," he said. One is black and one is white.

"My wife (the couple was married last summer on the Greek island of Ios) is half white, half African American, and so we're an interracial couple. And we just want to promote a positive message, especially to the youth, that everyone should be equal. This sounds so simple, but that's really where all the ideas came from."

Basketball is one of the world's most culturally diverse sports. Among the four major North American pro leagues, the NBA boasts the highest percentage of people of colour at about 80 per cent.

"And I've played overseas for two years now, and it's really amazing how global the game really is," Wiltjer said.

The 27-year-old sharpshooter played college basketball at Kentucky and Gonzaga. He made a brief appearance with the Houston Rockets but spent most of that season with their G League team in Edinburg, Texas. He then headed to Europe playing a season each with Olympiacos in Greece and Unicaja Malaga in Spain before signing with his current team, Turk Telekom in Turkey, where he's averaging 17.3 points a night on 57.8 per cent shooting as his team's leading scorer.

His wife played at Sacramento State. The two are both from Portland, Ore., and met at Nike's headquarters when Hunt was working there.

The NBA encourages players to have a voice. In a league that celebrates differences, the NBA does a great job of cultivating a player's creative side.

Three Toronto Raptors players alone have their own brands: Pascal Siakam, whose logo is his initials stylized to form a heart, Fred VanVleet (Bet On Yourself), and Norman Powell (Understand the Grind).

New Balance global director of consumer marketing Patrick Cassidy — whose company's biggest basketball client is former Toronto star Kawhi Leonard — pointed out during the Raptors' historic playoff run last season: "There's no other sport that excessively documents the walk-in to an arena like the NBA does."

Players like Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook have become fashion icons for their walk-in ensembles.

While Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has become one of the league's best players — he recently became just the second Canadian in history to record a triple-double behind Steve Nash — he's been turning heads in the fashion world as well.

"He's definitely a guy I would love to get my stuff on, he's been going crazy all year," Wiltjer said of the young Oklahoma City guard.

The 21-year-old from Hamilton made Sports Illustrated's annual Fashionable 50, their annual list of the world's most stylish athletes.

"(Basketball) gives us a platform to speak on issues and also the ability to create a brand for yourself," Wiltjer said. "I want whatever I represent to be true to my values and how I live my life. So, with this brand, I'm starting it off where I'm just preaching this message of: I want everyone to be treated equal, no matter your status, your race or whatever.

"But when I move forward, a huge passion of mine is fashion," he added. "So if you follow me in a year, you might be surprised when you see me drop a T-shirt that just has a completely different vibe to it, or is more fashion-oriented, because that's a dream of mine. I want my brand to represent these values, but I also want to also create some cool clothes out there, because a huge part of my life is fashion and also like sportswear."

Where does his love of fashion come from?

"I think just the basketball culture," Wiltjer said. "In college obviously I didn't really have any money, so I was wearing the same clothes over and over. But when I went to the NBA, it kind of became a game. I didn't have the paycheque my first year that guys like James Harden did, but it's kind of like a game, because you don't always have to wear expensive clothes to be cool, mix and match, go to thrift shops. Some of my coolest clothes are not my most expensive."

Washington Wizards guard Isaiah Thomas has worn Wiltjer's EQLTY Brand merchandise. Wiltjer did a special size run for Thomas's whole family, including his three kids. He's also sent his clothing to Canadian teammates Kelly Olynyk (Miami) and Kevin Pangos (FC Barcelona), plus his friend Brennan Scarlett, a linebacker with the Houston Texans.

"I'm just really fortunate to know some cool people that I can spread the message," Wiltjer said.

Wiltjer was born and raised in Portland, but his family has always flown the virtual Canadian flag. Dad Greg played for Canada at the 1984 Olympics, and Kyle grew up keen to follow in his dad's footsteps. So it was to the surprise of no-one when Wiltjer declared a few weeks ago that he was fully on board for Canada's Olympic qualifying tournament this summer in Victoria.

Wiltjer joined a groundswell of Canadian players including Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray, Gilgeous-Alexander, New York Knicks rookie RJ Barrett, plus NBAers Dillon Brooks and Khem Birch, who all said they plan to play in the last-chance event, June 23-28.

"I'm locked in for sure," Wiltjer said from his home in Ankara, Turkey. "For me, obviously, there's a lot of NBA guys that are probably going to go to camp, but that's not going to stop me from coming. I think I provide a unique skillset for the team and shooting is very valuable."

Wiltjer was a big part of Canada's gruelling World Cup selection process, and was impressive at the World Cup in China in August, recording seven three-pointers in Canada's 126-71 rout of Jordan.

"I'm just gonna go (to Canada's selection camp) and try my best and if I don't make the team, or you know they have 12 NBA guys who are better than me then I'm going to be watching every game and I'm going to be the biggest fan," he said. "Because at the end of the day, all I want is Canada to make the Olympics.

"I've done every event up to this point, all the qualifying events because I've always wanted to play in the Olympics someday. My father played in them. It's been my dream."

Canada must win in Victoria to secure its first Olympic berth in men's basketball in 20 years. The Canadians are in Pool A with Greece and China. Pool B has Czech Republic, Turkey and Uruguay. The top two teams in each pool cross over to play the semifinals, the winners of which meet in the finals.

Follow @Ewingsports on Twitter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2020.

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