Karl-Anthony Towns would try to get Tyus Jones to reveal his secret, but Jones never would budge.
The Timberwolves center liked Jones' haircuts and peppered him with questions about who was cutting it.
"He would never tell me," Towns said.
Jones wanted to keep his barber, Akeem Akway, all to himself.
"I knew as soon as I opened that door he was going to end up cutting everybody," said Jones, now with Memphis.
But eventually word got to Towns through a friend, and only then did he solve the mystery. Sure enough, Jones was right. A lot of his teammates then started going to Akway.
"That's exactly how I knew it would go," Jones said.
Akway, who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Fridley, has two shops locally and a vast network of friends on the Wolves, the NBA and professional sports.
He's one of their most important people behind the scenes.
"For people of color, a barber is a person that could mess up the next two weeks of your life or he could elevate to such a high standard," Towns said. "Our culture, barbers are looked at as not just barbers but more artists and people you put complete trust."
Akway's talent and engaging personality has made long-lasting friendships with the likes of Jones, Towns, Gary Trent Jr. and several other current and former Wolves.
He has taken a trip to visit his homeland and South Sudan with former Timberwolves forward Luol Deng, and Akway was the person responsible for introducing Towns to one of his best friends, the late rapper Mac Miller.
They all like how Akway cuts their hair, but his way of being more is what has made him a lifelong friend and so important for so many athletes.
"I always tell barbers, when you're in a position like that, it's relationship over transactions," Akway said. "Because it's going to bring you way more."
Both in terms of business and life experiences.
A natural talent
On a sunny February day, Akway's shop in Uptown, the second one he opened after his first in Mounds View, is buzzing. Akway, 31, is making sure things are running smoothly for the people that work for him. It's a burgeoning franchise he started in part because of the way he was able to grow his business through friendships and savvy social media.
His wide smile and an easygoing way of speaking can put anyone at ease.
He played basketball in high school at Fridley and would cut teammates' hair in the locker room. The Star Tribune even profiled his talents back in 2009.
"Really I was just doing it for fun," Akway said. "I guess I was one of the main reasons keeping the team together after a practice. I wasn't licensed yet because I was still in high school, but people were telling me like, you're really good at this barbering stuff. You should take this seriously."
Hoops and hair always have been interconnected; his first shop has a basketball theme with a floor designed like a court. But before Akway was able to open his shops, he started small, renting a booth from another barber at the Northtown Mall. His basketball designs drew attention on his social media. A design of Allen Iverson caught the eye of Trent, then a freshman at Apple Valley.
"I remember distinctly waiting in line at the mall just to book him," Trent said. "I saw his Instagram page. I saw what he could do."
Jones' brother Tre started going to Akway, and since both were among the best basketball players in the area, Akway saw a business opportunity.
"Cutting the cool kids in high school will bring you more clients," Akway said. "They'd put me on their Snapchat and the kids would want to be cut by the same barber."
Trent said eventually he and Akway became like family.
"We have the same friend group now. All my friends get cut by him. … It's just, man, over time, it's the relationship," Trent said.
That helped Akway build a vast network throughout the NBA; if players need a cut when they're in Minnesota, he's a guy they turn to. He hasn't been able to do much of that because of COVID protocols — Jones was "so disappointed" when he was in town earlier this season and couldn't get a cut.
"Some guys are specific. They only want their barber to touch their hair. Other guys are cool with other barbers touching their hair so they'll try to find a barber in away cities, so I think that's where Akeem has been capitalizing," Jones said. "We're on TV night in and night out, so they want to make sure they're looking good."
After Towns found out Jones' secret, Akway started cutting hair for players such as Robert Covington, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague, and the Wolves needed to install the chair in their practice facility for his and others' use.
Akway said Towns has "done so much for me." For instance, if Towns has a photo shoot that will pay a barber to come cut Towns' hair for hundreds of dollars, he calls Akway.
One reason why Akway has become close to athletes is because he doesn't try to seem like a hanger-on.
"[Towns] is a really private guy," Akway said. "He don't come out a lot and like even the first time I cut him, some guys don't want their picture taken so you have to ask. … You got to respect that boundary."
But from that first cut, Towns and Akway became close.
"You put a lot of trust in Akeem and over every haircut we learn a little more about each other," Towns said. "We've seen that we had a lot of connections and I always respected him as a Black man in Minnesota doing so many financial endeavors and becoming successful. … You just grow a relationship every haircut, and it became more of us hanging out with no haircut."
Akway was also responsible for facilitating one of the most meaningful friendships Towns ever had. Akway said one day Miller was looking for a cut before a show while in town. People on social media suggested Akway. He knew Towns was a huge fan, and so he connected the two at a studio.
"We were there until 3 a.m., and he was showing us new music," Akway said. "It was pretty dope. Just seeing the behind the scenes and stuff like that people would pay for to get access to.
Added Towns: "[Akeem] didn't have to do that. The fact that he went out of his way to try to make that happen without even telling me, I had no idea."
Towns and Miller became close from that night.
"That connection never happened without Akeem," Towns said. "He's literally the only person that made it happen. … That explains the connection me and Akeem have."
A transforming visit
Akway also has a deep connection with Deng, who even said he would hang out with Akway more than he would his own teammates.
"He's very loving and giving," Deng said. "So I think it makes it easy to communicate with him and know he's coming from a good place."
They bonded over their shared connection of growing up in Africa; Akway from Ethiopia and Deng from neighboring South Sudan. They became so close that a few years ago Deng invited Akway to go with him as Deng did work in the South Sudan community and hosted basketball camps there before going to Ethiopia.
"He said, 'My job here in Minnesota is to come and bring you back to Africa to see for yourself,' " Akway said.
Akway hadn't been to Ethiopia since his family moved to Minnesota. He helped Deng coach at the camps he was running and said it was a "life-changing" experience.
"In America we have a lot of opportunities here that we don't realize sometimes," Akway said. "I would say that was one of the biggest wake-up calls I had. Even like being on like welfare here, it's still not as bad as over there. You still get light, clean water, an apartment.
"Over there, it's limited opportunities. Even with a basketball court, having the sneakers to play, they really appreciate it."
Deng said Akway was a hit with the kids he coached at Deng's camps.
"It changes you. It can be a bad thing or a good thing," Deng said. "Most of the time it's a good thing because you come from a place where there's a lot that's been going on and people going through a lot worse than we are. So when you see that, it kind of humbles you and lets you appreciate things even more. I really knew that would affect him that way."
A true friend
Akway has a burgeoning business and has several barbers that work for him, people he's trying to mentor to grow their own personal brands in the industry.
"Especially as a man of color myself, you want to see him do well because we don't usually do well," Towns said. "And the fact that he's not only surviving but he's thriving and he's becoming something more and more special every day."
Akway even lets other barbers cut the hair of some of the players.
"Instead of just trying to uplift himself, he's trying to uplift anybody," Trent said.
Sometimes Akway's clientele will fly him to their cities just to get a cut or to hang out, like Akway said he has done with former Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon as he was going through some difficult rehabilitation of multiple knee injuries.
"Injuries can do something to you mentally," Akway said. "So, I would just go kick it with him out there."
It's always been about more than a haircut. More than a chance to make a new high-profile client that can help grow his business. At the core, it's always been about friendship. Of course, it helps when he doesn't mess up anybody's hair.
"I'm just a friend that doesn't want nothing from him but a nice cut and just to be there whenever he needs," Towns said.