Cutting his high school basketball teammates’ hair after practice was never something Akeem Akway did just for fun or a few extra bucks.

Something bigger beckoned, and six years of hard work made his dream real: Akway’s Sports Barbershop opened earlier this month, located on Hwy. 65 across from Spring Lake Park High School. He works just a few miles north of Fridley High School, where he first began using teammates’ hair as a canvas.

“Kids should follow their dreams like I did,” said Akway, 24. “You can make them come true if you work hard for it.”

A reserve guard throughout high school, Akway endeared himself to teammates with quality haircuts. Cutting hair for a small fee without a license, however, irked professionals.

“People were mad I had no license and told me I need to take it more seriously,” Akway said.

He did that, graduating from Moler Barber School in nearby Hilltop after nine months and taking a job at Final Cut in Maplewood Mall. Owner Dominic Warren would later become Akway’s mentor.

First, though came some tough love. Akway was fired after five months for showing up tardy too often, or sometimes not at all.

“I was partying and not taking my job seriously,” Akway said. “I walked in one day and my tools were packed up.”

The firing, and a week spent fretting about where to come up with his rent money, got Akway’s attention. He was next hired by Damien’s Sports Barbershop, and he impressed with his large client list and his work ethic. He became a Master Barber and along the way won a bet with a co-worker by working 30 consecutive days.

“He was the best I’ve ever had,” said owner Damien Perry, who encouraged Akway to think and act like a business owner.

Akway saved enough money for his own business by moving into a cheaper apartment, cutting superfluous bills and avoiding clubs.

“I was so determined,” said Akway, who was born in Ethiopia and arrived in the United States as a 10-year-old. “I wanted to have the best sports barber shop in Minnesota.”

At his shop, haircuts start at $18 for adults. Designs range from $5 for a simple star to more than $100 for images such as the Allen Iverson portrait you can watch him create on YouTube.

Akway’s clients are mostly male, ages 16-30, and include two Minnesota Vikings football players: Jerick McKinnon and Josh Kaddu. He spends 45 minutes to an hour on each client and said he was booked solid for the first three days after opening.

Akway impressed Warren by learning from his firing and maintaining their relationship. Watching Akway blossom from immature young man to business owner brought Warren great satisfaction.

“He is a unique talent; one of the best I know,” Warren said. “This is something he has a passion for.”