NBA’s Derrick Williams Backs Downtown’s VII Grand Sneaker Shop

January 29, 2013

By Teya Vitu

When your buddy is a rising NBA star, that dream from your distant teen years of opening a sneaker shop can all of a sudden come true.

Last summer, Tucson native Mario Escalante was pondering opening a sneaker and streetwear clothing and accessories shop. He bounced the idea off Minnesota Timberwolves forward Derrick Williams, and the former University of Arizona basketball standout took an active interest.

Former UA standout Derrick Williams plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Former UA standout Derrick Williams plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“He started picking my brain about it, asking me questions: ‘What do you want to do? Shoes? Clothes? Or what? If this is something you want to do, let’s do something, let’s do it together,’” Escalante recalled. “He just said ‘Go find a location that would be best for us. Get the ball in motion for us.’”

The result is VII Grand, 178 E. Broadway in the 1917 Julian Drew Building, opening on Feb. 15. The initial hours will be noon to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Williams plans to be at the store’s grand opening on Feb. 25. He will be able to fit an appearance into his schedule because the Timberwolves play the Phoenix Suns the next day.

Williams owns the store, Escalante is the manager. Both are the co-founders. Derrick Williams, as an NBA first round, second pick draft choice, will be one of the most high-profile Downtown business owners.

“My freshman year, he became one of my best friends,” Williams said about Escalante. “We first met at the Nike Store. I think we both came to a mutual agreement that Tucson needs a store like this. I thought owning my own store would be a good idea.”

Despite his basketball commitments, Williams has been an active owner. He and Escalante talk on the phone every couple days, and Williams tapped his high school friends from La Mirada, Calif., Gary McGruer, Marcus Arman and Ryan Kelly (now at Arizona State University), for graphic artist, blog writing  and social media duties.

“I want the store to be successful,” Williams said. “I’m making 95 percent of the choices of what goes into my store.”

Williams is not the typical athlete entrepreneur who’ll invest money and name into business ventures without taking much active interest.

“Most of the time, if people are investing into a business, they don’t put their two feet into it,” Williams said. “I’m two feet in.”

Escalante, who is just turning 30, came up with the store name, VII Grand, and representing the seven as a Roman numeral. Williams’ jersey number is 7.

“When we were first thinking of a name, we wanted to put his number in,” Escalante said. “The reason the Roman numeral came up was I was showing him a pair of shoes (on a phone camera) that I knew he didn’t have. ‘Hey, you got these?’ He showed me his Rolex. ‘You got this?’ I used the VII from his Rolex. We want to be recognized as a top shop. ‘Grand’ adds superior feel to it.”

Mario Escalante has a passion for sneakers and streetwear.

Mario Escalante has a passion for sneakers and streetwear.

VII Grand will carry mostly limited edition sneakers sent only to certain retailers, more often smaller boutiques like VII Grand. Escalante has not locked down which brands he will have.

VII Grand sounds like it would attract an age-specific clientele trending younger. Not necessarily.

“I could say all ages, to be honest,” he said. “There are guys who have been collecting since the early Eighties and they’re still collecting.”

Williams, still only 21, sees VII Grand especially catering to his generation.

“When I first came to Tucson, being from California, I’ve always been able to go down the street and get the best clothes and best brands because there are so many stories in California,” Williams said. “Tucson was missing that, brands that middle school kids, high school kids, college kids like. Instead of having to order online, I want to provide for kids like myself.”

Escalante this day wore Air Jordans, laces untied.

“Right now, I’m wearing the Air Jordan 4 White Cement. Sometimes I tie my shoes, sometimes I don’t,” he said.

He gives us a peek into the sneaker collector culture.

“Everybody has their Holy Grail of sneaker. There’s a reason it’s their Holy Grail,” Escalante said. “The Air Jordan 7, that’s my Holy Grail. Bordeaux is the nickname. It’s mostly gray with a maroon tongue. My color hadn’t been released since 1992.”

Streetwear clothing brands that you’ll find at VII Grand include 10.Deep, In4mation, FITTED Hawaii, Hall of Fame and others.

“Streetwear, the way I see it, the good thing about streetwear is you don’t have to have a style. You can make your own style,” Escalante said.

Much of streetwear fall in the t-shirt category, but there will be crewnecks and hoodies plus sweat pants, chinos, khakis and shorts. Streetwear has become mainstream.

“To be honest, a lot of streetwear came from action sports,” he said. “There’s boutiques around the world that carry this stuff. It’s real universal.”

Office wear is not out of the question.

“We’re going to have cut-and-sew, that’s a term for button-up shirts,” Escalante said. VII Grand may not have sports coats, but he said he’d have denim jackets.

Accessories will include caps, wallets, key chains and belts. Daily Doses in California will produce custom Arizona Wildcat caps that will only be available at VII Grand.

Escalante and Williams had mutual friends and they met toward the end of Williams’ freshman year in 2010. Escalante at the time was studying graphic arts at Pima Community College after a six-year stint in the Air Force.

“We kept hanging out and talking,” Escalante said. “We would always talk sneakers. He would ask, ‘What should I wear? This game will be on ESPN.’”

Williams played basketball at the University of Arizona in the 2009-10 and 10-11 seasons. He was head coach Sean Miller’s first recruit. Miller snatched Williams from USC, and the Timberwolves snatched Williams from UA after two years as the second pick of the first round in the college draft.

But Williams was not done with UA. During the 2011 NBA lockout, Williams returned to Tucson to keep working on his degree, and you can expect to see him once the NBA season wraps but – maybe studying at the store.

“Every offseason I’m doing a little summer session trying to chip away at my degree,” Williams said.

Meanwhile, Escalante got his A.A. in May 2012, but nobody was knocking down his door to hire him.

“I was thinking I’d like to have my own place,” he said. “This summer I was thinking about that, giving it a shot. I started working on my business plan.”

Escalante drove by the Julian Drew Building (also home to O2 Fitness and Amity Foundation) and was instantly smitten, but the building was fully occupied. He found another location at 6th Avenue and 6th Street and had back-and-forth discussions with the landlord but things fell through.

Escalante was working with CBRE broker Buzz Isaacson, the most prominent broker for Downtown commercial space. “You’re kind of a legend around here,” Escalante told Isaacson.

Isaacson emailed a link of another location to Escalante. It was the Julian Drew Building.

“It’s crazy how things just fall in place,” Escalante said. “It if wasn’t for Buzz, I don’t know where I’d be right now. He really believed in what we were doing.”

Escalante stripped the wall down to the 1917 brick and partially exposed plumbing. He also got down to the original wood floor.

“You can hear it squeak,” he said.

Century-old retail and restaurant spaces with exposed brick and wood floors have became the rage across the country in the past decade or two. The space alone gained Escalante credibility as he shopped for suppliers.

“I went to a trade show in Long Beach. We went with nothing. As soon as I showed them a photo of the store, they loved it,” Escalante said.

The eastbound Modern Streetcar will roll right by VII Grand.

“I love the idea of the streetcar. As long as it’s bettering the city, I can’t complain. That’s what we’re about, too,” he said.

Downtown was the only place Escalante considered for his sneaker shop.

“Just the fact that all the restaurants are coming up. I say let’s spice it up and bring another element,” Escalante said. “Downtown is the best place to do it. I feel like we would bet lost in a strip mall. Downtown it’s a one-of-one sort of thing. You’re not going to find another sneaker shop.”