On the morning after the Cavaliers’ stunning rally to win Game 7 in the 2016 NBA Finals, the crew of Homage sat together, war-room style, to brainstorm the best way to honor the Cavaliers first-ever championship.
It didn’t take long to find an answer.
With the celebration streaming on the TV behind them, they looked up to see LeBron James himself stepping off the plane in its Ultimate Warrior shirt. Yep, there was James with a championship trophy in one hand, the Finals MVP trophy in the other, and one of the company’s own T-shirts on his chest:
LeBron is wearing an "Ultimate Warrior" shirt and his hat is Kermit sipping tea. Unbelievable shade.— Sports Nation Ohio (@SN_Ohio) June 20, 2016
Homage is an Ohio-based lifestyle brand focused on storytelling with ‘80s and ‘90s pop culture moments. The company started in a basement and in the back of a car, eventually upgrading to a small store in an alley. That was all before James stepped off the plane after coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals while wearing its T-shirt.
Elliott May, director of business development and licensing, told SB Nation the group was in complete shock at that moment.
“We were all saying, ‘Oh my God, how did this happen?’ and then every media outlet is posting our shirt and we started selling that product like crazy.”
May said it was the moment was, “Indescribable. Serendipitous. It was something we never could have planned for and something I’ll never forget.”
While out in Los Angeles for the NBA All-Star Game, SB Nation spoke with May, who is also a huge Cleveland Cavaliers fan, about what it’s like to have James telling stories through your clothing during one of the most historic NBA moments of all-time.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Ultimate Warrior shirt wasn’t first, though. He actually wore your Undertaker shirt earlier in the series.
Yeah, we had been selling Cavs merchandise for a while, but then all of a sudden the Cavs are down 3-1 and there’s now a photo of LeBron wearing our Undertaker shirt, sending a message to his teammates and the teams. I’d love to tell you that all these things were orchestrated but it was truly serendipity.
The entire thing was amazing. We start selling all of these Undertaker shirts. We had just became an NBA licensee, but now we’re selling all this WWE stuff. Then the Cavs come back and win the championship, and it’s the first time we’re able to do something NBA licensed for a championship team and at that, it’s our hometown team.
What’s funny, though, is that the Cavs finally win the championship and we’re now selling a ton WWE products. We loved it.
It was such an amazing series and moment.
How did you get into selling WWE shirts?
We had a hunch our customers were ‘80s- and ‘90s-based and we have an affinity for the old days of WWE with the former names and such. We had a hunch our customers would like it. We started with a Shawn Michaels shirt and worked with him and it went well, so then we reached out to WWE primarily focused on legends, as a great compliment to what they currently have going on.
They gave us great feedback — they’re fans too, so we get great feedback. We’ll send a design and they’re be like ‘The shards of glass should be this particular way.’ They want to see our success and we want to see them grow.
So you had just recently become an NBA licensee when LeBron wore your WWE shirts?
We became an NBA licensee during the Cavs championship season in April. We had been working toward this for a very long time. Our whole brand, Homage, is based on storytelling and for a long time we had been in touch with the NBA.
We worked with Larry Bird early on; he was actually the first guy to take a chance on us. Larry Bird and Dee Brown were the first. I have no idea how we ended up doing so much Celtics stuff to start. But Larry was great to us. I think he initially was like ‘You guys really wanna sell my big head on a shirt with a big mustache?’ And we were like ‘Yes, people want that.’
So we reached out to the NBA and say, ‘hey we’re working with Larry Bird, and we aspire to become an NBA licensee.’ It ended up all coming together that April right when the Cavs went on their run. So we were just chasing the teams that were in it, the Warriors and their historic season, and then the Cavs, our hometown team.
We’re also trying to create products that tell stories that connect the past and the present. And as a company that focuses on storytelling, it can be very difficult to tell those stories correctly without being licensed.
We long had designs we wanted to do with historic teams, so we kicked off our NBA product with a Bulls 72-10 shirt with the quote, “It don’t mean a thing without that ring.” We felt we needed to pay homage to the NBA to kick off with a story about that.
While the debate for the NBA’s greatest team rages, how about a return to the legendary ’95-’96 @ChicagoBulls? A lineup of All-Stars, including the GOAT. The first team to notch more than 70 wins in a season. Only dropping a single playoff game en route to the NBA Finals. And the slam dunk: the team’s fourth ring of six in a decade of dominance. #PayHOMAGE to the unforgettable season with this officially licensed throwback. Online.
How did you get the official NBA license?
We had been doing capsules of Cavs product for their team store that was exclusive to them for a few years before doing the entire NBA. It was a great case study for us to become an NBA licensee. We were able to cultivate a collection, and the Cavs were great to work with. They challenged us by saying ‘Hey we have all these great products from licensees but what can you offer that’s different.’
So that was the challenge we wanted, and we put together collections for a couple of years and we were able to put that together for the NBA to see.
Our customers love the historic branding year-round, but from April-June, it’s a different retail business. Most of the year we’re focused on hardwood classics and vintage storytelling, but in the playoffs, customers want to buy because their team is in the hunt. So we started finding ways to combine the past and the present, with historic Cavs marks in current Cavs colorways.
Were there any logistical challenges after LeBron was seen in your shirts?
Of course, especially as the shirt got posted all over the internet and people are seeing it. It’s hard to keep up with demand, and then other places start to copycat the shirt.
The website held up; it stayed live. We obviously had a huge traffic spike. But the biggest problem was knock off shirts. WWE was reaching out to us because so may copycat shirts came up so quickly. They were very supportive and protective in that moment.
Did that moment help you get further with the NBA?
It was amazing exposure for sure. It actually introduced a lot of people to our WWE product, our other NBA product, and even our core product. We felt very fortunate for that opportunity.
Have you ever talked to or heard from LeBron?
So LeBron just literally likes your clothes?
I don’t know. We certainly hope so. He’s certainly worn it.
It was organic and we were lucky. I have no words for how transformative and inspiring it all was. The story and representation that he does, I’m from Ohio, and everything that he does for Akron and all of Ohio, we’re just huge fans.
No one tells a story better than LeBron James. We couldn’t have done any of this without LeBron. We may not be a licensee without LeBron. We just feel lucky to be peripherally involved with LeBron James.
The Undertaker was when the Cavs was down 3-1, representing a coming back from the dead moment. The Ultimate Warrior shirt was representing something different. If our shirts can represent storytelling for LeBron, we’ll do it every time.