Dec. 3, 2014
By Brad Muller | More Features
La'Keisha Sutton was brick number one in Dawn Staley's building of the South Carolina women's basketball program. Now the 24 year old is building her own business, a clothing apparel line named Fan Favorite, hoping it will enjoy the same steady climb to success that she was a part of on the basketball floor.
"It's more than a brand; it's a lifestyle," Sutton said. "I'm not just trying to sell people clothes. It's a mindset that anything you want to happen can really happen because that's my story."
The first chapter of Sutton's story is that she was Dawn Staley's first signee when she became South Carolina's head coach prior to the 2008-2009 season and helped lay the foundation for what is now a nationally relevant program.
"It's not about me, and it never was," Sutton said. "It's about the overall vision of South Carolina women's basketball being a top program, and that's what they are." Behind the scenes however, Sutton struggled early on.
"My first two years, I was ready to go home," Sutton said. "My freshman year, I'm 13 hours away from home, we're losing and I don't like to lose."
Things began to change following her sophomore year when freshman teammate and friend, Kelsey Bone, decided to transfer from South Carolina.
"I started seeing things in the media saying that we weren't going to do anything now," Sutton said. "They counted us out. In my mind, I knew we could still win."
The wins did come. The Gamecocks won 10 games during her freshman year, 14 as a sophomore, 18 as a junior and 25 as a senior with trip to the "Sweet Sixteen" of the NCAA Tournament.
"Coach said `just trust me' and told me we were going to get better," Sutton said. "We were very family-oriented, so it made it easier to stay and believe in Coach Staley."
Sutton was known for defense and hard drives to the basket on offense. After scoring nearly 1,300 points over her four year career, she graduated in 2012 with a degree in broadcast communications. With all of the wins and career milestones, she still maintains that her best memories were of the daily practices with the team.
"It sounds weird to say that," Sutton said. "I enjoyed those three hours to compete and learn something new every single day and to watch my teammates get better every day."
"I'm different now because I'm understanding things better. My spirituality has grown so much. I'm more willing to talk to people now. I'm just more open-minded. I stepped out of my comfort zone to speak to groups of people and try to tell my story."
Moving On with Basketball and Business
Growing up in a tough neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey, Sutton was thankful that basketball gave her the opportunity to get away to get an education and experience new places. Basketball helped get her out of that scene, but now she's more than a basketball player. She serves as a role model to show others how she could make it on her own, and that it's possible to make it in life in something other than sports.
"I feel like I'm responsible for helping other people," Sutton said. "I've been given so much, so it's only right that I give back and help others achieve the same success."
Since graduating, Sutton has played overseas in Taiwan, Finland and Ecuador. While she still has a passion for the game, she now has a passion for being successful in business. A little over a year ago, Sutton was inspired to create the Fan Favorite apparel line.
"It was all God," Sutton said. "I was never into fashion. I never had clothes. I had hand-me-down stuff. I never really shopped. When I was in school, I wore all South Carolina stuff."
Without a business background, Sutton knew that getting her idea off the ground would require a lot of work.
"Once I started, I knew I had to educate myself on it because nobody I knew really knew a lot about business," Sutton said. "I had to do all that on my own. It makes me feel good about where it came from, where it is now and where it can be in the future."
Following a conversation with an acquaintance who was the owner of the Get Hip Society clothing line, she wrote her own business plan and sought help wherever she could find it.
"I used Google a lot," Sutton laughed. "I asked thousands of questions. There were no SparkNotes on how to start a business. So I started looking at business plans then I wrote my business plan."
As for naming her business, that originated with South Carolina assistant coach Nikki McCray-Penson.
"She said I owe her a lot of money in the future," Sutton said. "She gave me the nickname my freshman year. I was having a hard time and wanted to leave, and she told me I couldn't leave because I was the `fan favorite' because of how I played. So I stuck with it.
"I thought it would be a cool play on words for my business. I know as an athlete, a lot of people feel like an underdog. I felt like I was always an underdog. It's about embracing a belief in yourself and showing confidence in yourself."
She started small, purchasing 25 shirts and sold them quickly online, so she kept going.
"Online sales are doing really well," Sutton said. "I really like direct sales better and meeting with people to personalize the experience. So I'm trying to create some partnerships and surround myself with business-minded people that can help and mentor me."
Sutton helps market her business by doing a Fan Favorite tour where she travels to different cities, speaking to basketball teams and young children about decision-making, leadership and the importance of having a direction and purpose for yourself. She takes part in numerous workouts with other teams and clinics for young people. She also has a great appreciation of the South Carolina family that supported her.
"I know if I call Coach Staley, she'll answer on the first ring," Sutton said. "She's always a text or phone call away. I'm different now because I'm understanding things better. My spirituality has grown so much. I'm more willing to talk to people now. I'm just more open-minded. I stepped out of my comfort zone to speak to groups of people and try to tell my story."
Just like driving to the basket against a 6'4" center, she's confident she will find a way to succeed.
"Hopefully one day we can have Fan Favorite in a partnership with South Carolina Athletics, and let South Carolina be the first building block for a company that will go global," Sutton said.
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