Courtesy of Brand ACES
EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS STUDENT ATHLETES

Building the Brand ACES

Brian Kortovich took his Rucker Park nickname and turned it into a brand platform that spans from high school all-star games to the custom kicks of the NBA’s best.

Between the hundreds of parks, schools, and gyms in New York City, you can’t walk too far in the five boroughs without finding somewhere to play basketball. But in a city that views the game more as a way of life than a sport, there are a few courts whose names hold extra weight.

Gaucho Gym in the South Bronx is one of them. It’s not very big, with pullout bleachers on one side and a few rows of balcony seating behind it. On the other side, there’s just a wooden bench spanning the length of the wall, serving as team benches. At first glance, it’d pass easily as a run-of-the-mill high school gym or a host to one of the dozen or so D-III programs in the city.

Then you look up at the wall, and over to the banners hanging in the rafters. Kemba Walker. Stephon Marbury. Ed Pinckney. Chris Mullin. They’re all alumni of the legendary New York Gauchos youth basketball program and are among the legends to don the black and orange.

All that’s to say, stepping onto that court is a big deal if you grew up playing basketball in the New York area.

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Brian Kortovich, founder and CEO of Brand ACES knows this, and the allure of the gym plays right into what he is trying to accomplish with the company’s Omni Elite Classic, held annually at Gauchos.

It’s not necessarily to woo elite talent with the promise of a game on the same legendary hardwood that other New York icons made their name. It’s to give them an unforgettable experience that will set the Omni Elite Classic apart from any other all-star game, which is also why the classic holds its media day at Rucker Park the day before.

“I do think a majority of the kids really do appreciate the culture and the history of Rucker and of Gauchos,” Kortovich said. “If you’re a real hooper, like these kids are, both the boys and girls, I think they definitely respect the history before them.”

Birth of the Brand-Platform

The history is something Kortovich knows a thing or two about.

The Cleveland native grew up with NBA ambitions, which he rode around Ohio, then around the country, then around the world. He played at Holy Name High School, then Brunswick High School, then Cuyahoga Community College, then Manhattan College, then Division II California University of Pennsylvania, then another D-II, Urbana University. He also played professionally in Kuwait, France, Israel, and the Dominican Republic.

Battling injuries, outside perception, and just not finding the right fit, Kortovich’s love for the game endured every step of the way — even as his NBA dreams fizzled.

While Kortovich was unable to compile a resume worthy of the Association, he did build contacts, and that brought him back to New York after his pro days, where he found work on Wall Street. While many who ply their trade in FiDi work with a 24/7, never-off mindset, Korotvich’s real office hours came when work ended and he flocked to West 4th Street, Rucker Park, or any of the other myriad courts around the city.

In that time, he earned a few nicknames — some more offensive than others. The one that stuck, however, was Smokin’ Aces. So when another Achilles injury cut his street career short, he took that name off the court to create Brand ACES.

What exactly would it be?

As Kortovich describes it, it’s a way to grow and celebrate the game through apparel and activations.

“Picture Nike, Kith, and Uninterrupted having a baby,” he said. “It’s not a brand. It’s not a platform. It’s a brand-platform.”

The distinct logo, a playing card spade with an apostrophe “S,” can be found on everything from hats to hoodies, on New York legends like Kemba Walker and CC Sabathia, and on ballers around the league.

A New York Showcase

Those activations Kortovich talks about come partly in the form of all-star games for elite basketball talent nationwide. The Omni Elite Classic was New York’s version, and it’s become as much a celebration of the city’s basketball tradition as it is about the brand.

The actual media presence at Rucker for media day wasn’t huge in 2022, but it did serve as an opportunity for the players to soak in a legendary atmosphere and gather some IG content with a famous geotag. Maybe more importantly, when they were not posing for photos with the event photographer, they also had a chance to check out their Omni Elite Classic gear — an essential component to any all-star game.

Looking on while the players sat in the bleachers: brand sponsors, chatting each other up, talking to Kortovich, and sizing up the talent of tomorrow.

“Although we are a basketball game, this is more about building relationships for down the line,” Trevor Harris, director of the boys Omni Elite Classic game, said of connecting players with both brands and alumni of the game itself. “With this new NIL space, we would love to continue to grow those relationships between our kids and the brands that participate in the game itself.”

Players and coaches from the girls Omni Elite Classic

The next night, the action shifted to Gauchos — a storied venue in its own right, but one that girls’ director Jessica Villaplana believes is getting too small for the ever-growing event.

“We were packed; they stopped letting people in,” she said. “We definitely need a bigger venue.”

She added that it’s not just a matter of more people being interested in the girls and boys games. She wants to go further into the New York community next year, inviting local middle school teams to come and watch. They’d get a chance to see the top players in the country —players they’ll aspire to be in a few years — and can be wowed by the famous alumni who show up.

In fact, perhaps no guest was more famous than one of the coaches in the girls game. You could call it Azzi Fudd‘s coaching debut, as the UConn phenom joined her mom — a coach herself — on the sidelines for a game she played in just a year ago.

“It would be a younger generation that would be in awe that Azzi was there,” Villaplana said. “It just hit me that we could have worked on that — community-based invites so they see where they can be. So if they see an Azzi or [2022 top 25 recruit] Paris Clark, then they’re wowed.”

Building Something

It’s not often that you see alumni of a one-off all-star game return to coach, mentor, or just watch the next batch of talent. It’s part of what makes the Omni Elite Classic, and by extension Brand ACES, different.

“I think that’s kind of organically taken place,” Harris said. “Obviously that’s on our radar that we want to have our alumni there, but I know year in and year out we have a plethora of kids that are proactive and take the initiative to reach out to myself and Brian. They want to come back, they want to enjoy the game, they want to talk to the kids, speak about their prior experiences.”

Boys game MVP Ian Jackson

From Kortovich’s side, Brand ACES didn’t just come together by the sheer enthusiasm of the players around him. He’s needed to put in the work himself, forging partnerships with brands that could provide gear or just a few bucks. Nike Basketball has been one of his strongest supporters, which isn’t a surprise considering Nike’s commitment to grassroots basketball.

Around him, he’s assembled a team that can get the word out, bring in elite talent, and lend credibility to the name. Mary Gleason is Brand ACES’ chief commercial officer. She was responsible for reviving Starter, then selling the brand to Nike, and for helping Shaq himself build his brand. She brings the relationship and growth experience that Kortovich needs.

“I knew we were going to be big in the brand space once we got her because she’s done a lot in her career, and we are honored to have her,” Kortovich said. “She helps legitimize us as a major player in the space.”

Robert Purvy heads up marketing and operations with previous experience at adidas, AND1, Reebok, and Vans. Most notably for Kortovich, Purvy actually gave him a shoe deal with AND1. The BK1s were about to go to distribution locally after Kortovich won the scoring title at Rucker before Kortovich’s Achilles injury.

The BK1s

Then there’s strategy guy Stephen Acunto. His media and tech savvy has driven over $40 million in revenue for various companies over the last decade, according to the ACES website.

“It takes a team,” Kortovich said. “Luckily, we have a team. A scrappy team. When you have people who are passionate and who are connected to these players like myself and the team that I’ve assembled, it takes a lot.”

He continued, emphasizing that greater importance of what happens behind the scenes:

“More importantly, what are you putting out into the market? What are you portraying? What is this about? Yes, there’s expenses and costs. Yes, you have to figure out how to generate sponsorship dollars. But at the same time, if you keep the focus on the kids, which we do, everything organically finds a way to fall into place.”

Pro Kicks

Brand ACES goes farther than the prospect ranks. The company has produced a host of campaigns — both social and IRL — to further embed itself in sports, primarily, but not limited to basketball.

Quavo in the 2020 NBA Celebrity All-Star Game, wearing his ACES custom Nikes (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

They extended their arms into baseball with their Black ACES program, commemorating the 15 Black pitchers that have won 20-or-more games in a Major League season. For that, Brand ACES tapped Yankees starter (and one of those 15 pitchers) Sabathia to wear custom Black ACES cleats during MLB’s Players’ Weekend. On the cleats, the name of each member of the Black ACES was written in gold.

Back on the court, the brand celebrated PJ Tucker’s hustle and heart with, well, it’s Hustle & Heart sneakers, adding a Brand ACES flavor to his already prolific sneaker collection. On the women’s side, they celebrated A’ja Wilson’s role as a champion and role model on and off the court with their Nike Zoom Impact Aces. ACES has extended to music as well, as Quavo sported custom ACES LeBrons in the 2020 NBA Celebrity All-Star Game.

Those big moments are, Kortovich hopes, a launching pad for things to come. As he sees it, the brand has embedded itself in sports and culture to the point that it can now focus on significant growth.

As for what’s next specifically, you’re going to see Brand ACES pop up more, not just in regional all-star games, but on professional athletes, influencers, and — as they scale up merchandising — ordinary people.

“We’re ready for that growth phase now,” Kortovich said. “We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing in the culture. Obviously be more focused in the merchandising plan, but also do more storytelling and collaborations with brands and athletes.”

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