Jahmad “Biggie” Wilburn has faced challenge after challenge in his life. That did not stop him from following his dreams, on and off the basketball court.
Webster University senior Jahmad “Biggie” Wilburn never wanted to design clothes growing up and does not even consider himself to be a part of the fashion world. His clothing brand, Vizion Big, spurred from his life on the basketball court.
“I had friends that would literally come to games, and they would hold up signs and stuff [that said] ‘Free Big,’” Biggie said.
Those signs begged Webster’s coach to transfer Biggie from his usual spot on the bench, onto the court. Biggie transferred to Fontbonne University after his sophomore year looking for greater basketball opportunities, though he would eventually return to Webster for his final year. His new teammates carried on the #FreeBig movement, creating an inside joke that transcended school rivalries.
In 2018, Biggie stopped by the mall on the way to a party. He put “#FreeBig” in thick black letters across the front of a white T-shirt. By the time he left the party that night, his teammates convinced him to order more for all of them.
Biggie ordered the first batch from Custom Ink and charged people $15 because he thought that number sounded right. Without any prior experience in fashion or business, Biggie said he soon had orders from over 100 people.
“People would see me at school like ‘Hey Big, did you do those shirts?’ I want one, here’s $15.’ I was like, I don’t even know your name. Who are you?” Biggie asked.
Just like that, a three-year tradition stretched beyond the 94-by-50-foot perimeter of a basketball court and created the foundation for Vizion Big.
Biggie’s shirts spread from Fontbonne to Webster and over 1,000 miles back to his hometown in Deerfield Beach, Florida. His stepdad, Charlie Roberts, started noticing #FreeBig shirts around his neighborhood that summer.
Roberts entered Biggie’s life when he was 8 . Roberts started as just a friend, then became a father and is now Biggie’s role model. He called Biggie the summer after he started selling his #FreeBig shirts.
Roberts called to say how proud he was of the man Biggie had become.
Biggie said he had a difficult time wrapping his mind around that phone call. After looking up to his dad for 12 years, how could his hero look up to him?
“He still has the world at his feet. There are so many things he could do,” Roberts said. “He told me that he always looked up to me in different ways, but in a lot of ways, I look up to him.”
Roberts said one of the reasons is because he saw the neighborhood Biggie grew up in. City-Data.com’s crime index reports Deerfield Beach’s 2018 crime rate was higher than nearly 80% of all other U.S. cities. Roberts said he is proud Biggie never gave in to peer pressure.
Biggie said that environment always felt normal to him. He knew nothing different from a society where only the few even dreamed of attending college. Biggie’s five years in St. Louis challenged his view of ‘normal.’
“I can walk from [Webster] to McDonald’s and not see someone smoking weed or shooting drugs up in their vans,” Biggie said.
Biggie said he now goes to bed without worrying if he locked the door. He finally let his guard down after 20 years of caution.
He said the Vizion Big clothing brand allows Biggie’s story to be greater than himself. Each design, each phrase, is a testament to working hard for every opportunity. It is a message for anybody in a situation like his that it does not matter who tells you ‘no’ as long as you keep hustling for the ‘yes.’
The ‘no’s’ in Biggie’s life started in middle school. Roberts remembers the season Biggie’s low grades made him ineligible to play that basketball season. Although grades were not high on his priority list, Biggie made sure to always pass his classes after that lost season.
That trend followed him to high school. He focused only on basketball and just enough on class to keep him on the court. Getting a ‘C’ on a test meant he could play another day.
“No one thought about going to college because everyone thought it was just a joke,” Biggie said. “There’s no way my parents can afford that.”
Roberts remembers Biggie in flashes. A quick glance when he’d fly out the door, heading to the court, and another glimpse a couple of hours later when he’d come back for a water break.
Biggie transferred to Deerfield Beach High School after his sophomore year. Deerfield’s basketball coach, Kenny Brown, made it clear there were non-negotiable rules for anyone who wanted to be on his team. One of which was having at least a 3.0 grade point average. Brown played professionally and saw the value of a life outside of basketball.
“You’re only going to [play] for a short period of time,” Brown said. “Your life will start when you’re done playing and what are you going to have to fall back on if you’re not a good student?”
Brown helped raise Biggie’s academic goals from trying just to pass to striving for As and Bs. Suddenly, college became something more than a pipe dream.
Biggie hired a tutor to help him after practice. He worked late at night on assignments while his friends played video games. Biggie said not many people understood why he tried so hard. Friends questioned his time spent studying for the ACT, but Biggie saw an opportunity and put his life in drive to get there.
“I have some friends who I grew up with that are in jail, some of them are dead,” Biggie said. “I have some friends who didn’t have that motivation to see it through, to be like, ‘I want to go to college.’”
Vizion Big’s message evolved from a party t-shirt into a fabric map of Biggie’s aspirations. He views this brand as an opportunity to help people like his friends realize their hard work molds their future.
While he needed the grades to get into a university, Biggie dreamed of playing college basketball. Biggie grew up built more like a linebacker than a point guard. Roberts remembers 10-year-old Biggie already the biggest in the family at 6 foot 1 inches tall and close to 300 pounds.
Biggie stepped on the scale at practice his sophomore year and weighed in at 325 pounds.
“You step on a scale and you see everyone else that’s weighing in and they’re like 180, 250, 260, and then you just have me,” Biggie said.
Biggie saw his weight loss as a challenge instead of an obstacle. A chance to prove everyone wrong who told him he could never do it. For anyone who told him to give up basketball, that football would be the easier route, Biggie challenged himself to prove them wrong.
Brown said Biggie’s transformation seemed to happen over the course of a few months. Biggie changed his eating habits and hit the gym after Brown’s intense practices. Quitting never became an option. Biggie wanted it, so he made it happen.
Biggie’s grandma always told him, “If you want something, put it out into the universe and claim it.” This phrase lives in the back of his mind to this day. Biggie honored his grandma with a line of Vizion Big shirts dedicated to her phrase. A phrase that helped him see his dreams as his future.
Brown laughed when Biggie first told him he wanted to play in college, then they made a plan. Brown advised him, and Biggie learned how to deal with Brown’s high expectations.
“I used to say to myself, ‘This man’s a damn asshole,’” Biggie said.
He said Brown always pushed for more out of his players to help create the best people they could be. He wants to show his players that someone from a tough neighborhood can still have everything they work for.
Brown said he molds himself into whatever his players need him to be.
“I always say I wear a lot of hats here at Deerfield,” Brown said. “I’m ‘dad,’ sometimes I’m ‘uncle,’ I’m ‘big brother,’ I’m ‘confidant.’”
He now wears the hat of ‘friend’ and ‘mentor’ in Biggie’s life. He is a phone call away if Biggie ever needs advice or perspective. Brown watched as Biggie kept his head down and worked for his goals. He said Biggie never complained and always stayed humble.
“Biggie is the type of kid you want to date your daughter, and that’s coming from a father of two daughters,” Brown said. “You never want anyone to date your daughter.”
Sticking with the plan, Biggie discovered Webster at a basketball showcase in his senior year.
Biggie applied and when he received a letter with Webster heading, he left it on the kitchen table, unopened, and went to bed. The cumulation of all his hard work existed in the black ink inside that envelope.
His mom convinced him to open it the next day. After reading the first couple sentences, Biggie became the first person in his family to attend college. His parents wanted to throw a party. They made sure to drive him over 1,000 miles to see their youngest child become a college student.
“When she dropped me off to school, she cried because I’m the youngest out of my siblings and this is her first time doing it. First and last,” Biggie said.
Biggie began his major in criminology and joined the Webster men’s basketball team. He said he saw many friends play sports in college and when their eligibility ran out, they dropped out. Biggie wants to show people sports are just one aspect of life.
Basketball opened the door to college, but Biggie found more meaning in his pursuit for helping others. A brand started by an inside joke now encourages people to take control of their own situations.
Vizion Big’s new hoodies reveal Biggie’s latest slogan ‘Write your own ending.’ A phrase Biggie hopes reminds people that barriers are not end points. You don’t have to be what anyone else wants you to be.
Biggie built his dreams off the backs of people who told him he couldn’t, and with the people who convinced him he could.
“Nothing comes easy and I’m aware of that,” Biggie said. “But if you decide to make life out of something rather than nothing, and you want to do it, do it.”