What has made the National Basketball Association trounce its fellow professional sporting leagues is the entanglement of profitability and recognizability. Look no further than Twitter, on which many crackerjack basketball players hold millions of names to their very own, in the form of followers. But it all originates with the game itself. Marketing strategists have no choice but to salivate, given the branching formulae belonging to Dr. James Naismith, of which found its beauty by not having a modus operandi, calling for a strenuous, yet lenient physicality. This chemistry set forth something that has been exploited by many a promotional staff, ever since the NBA was begotten: the visibility of a player’s face, due to the lack of any necessary padding or coverage. Faces and the personalities of players have become entwined with kicks, which, in return, fill plenty a pocketbook. Also, the NBA hasn’t kept things parochial when it comes to things like player protection, promotion and welfare, fan experience, and total universality of the game of basketball.
A shoe deal has been the cultural watermark, the enforcer which suddenly makes suede, leather, nylon or other material, a generational calling card. It’s no secret. Logos and vending ploys have flooded inboxes, newsfeeds, chyrons. Before Lonzo Ball, Damian Lillard, and those of whom find themselves in capitalistic crossfire when baiting for a new deal, like Giannis Antetokounmpo, who actually is on his way out of a rookie Nike deal, there was Kobe Bryant, Penny Hardaway, and, of course Michael Jordan.
The purpose of this article is to hash out, in an All-Star context, inaugural, substantial shoe deals of former (and current) NBA greats. With reams of paper thrown, many embattled pens touched, and fans emptying their many pockets earmarking the respective deals, I will try to summarize the importance of each.
Michael Jordan’s idol, Dr. J was one of the first professional basketball players to score a shoe deal, doing so with Converse in 1974. The “Pro Leather” gave prescient credence to the aerodynamic, above-the-rim nature of basketball, marrying Converse and a professional’s namesake instead of the brand being an unspoken ubiquity amongst American athletes. By this time, after logging four professional hooping years, Erving was a trailblazer for ABA squads, the Virginia Squires and New York Nets, pouring in over 27 points to coincide with an average of over 12 rebounds per contest. Of course, the glitterati of pro basketball was still somewhat ham-fisted, as the prospects of any given player being marketed widespread was shoddy. Half a decade later, however, Larry Bird – another Converse delegate – would direct his Celtics to many playoff matchups against Erving, who was entering the twilight of his career, and his 76ers. All of this spawned a video game, a deep-rooted Converse-based marketing campaign, as well as a brawl, between the two players.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson
Joining buddies Isaiah Thomas and Larry Bird in the pool of Converse athletes that flooded the NBA during the ’80s, Magic had already been a household name from his days at Michigan State before he inked his deal (in 1979, his rookie year) with the Massachusetts-based brand. The Converse Weapon, first released in 1986, was donned by players such as Thomas, Bird and Bernard King, but it was Magic who made them a staple for any sneakerhead, even if it was just the allure of the Lakers’ color scheme. No matter the preternatural passer’s laments, whether amid the “Showtime” Lakers years, or post-retirement, about penning his first shoe deal, the Hall of Famer spent 13 years with his name tied to Converse. He was, reportedly, paid $2 million to endorse the brand. He averaged 19 points 11 assists and seven rebounds, while a representative, and he severed his deal in the early part of his first retirement, which was forced by his HIV contraction.
Despite rocking Converse shoes at Chapel Hill and saying he would’ve signed with the 20th century fashion mainstay had they matched Nike’s offer, the University of North Carolina product secured a $250,000 (yes, you read that right, as this is 1980’s money) endorsement deal, prior to his first full season in the Association, courtesy of Nike employee George Raveling, who was pressuring MJ during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The catch is, however, that “His Airness” was paid royalties, which incentivized the deal further. For context, collegiate teammate James Worthy had signed an eight-year deal worth $150,000 per season. Anyway, Jordan won the Rookie of The Year award, after producing 28 points, six boards and six dimes, and grew to be the most prolific endorser of a shoe, inseparable from the basketball shoe scene, ever.
As recently as five years ago, the Jordan Brand sold $2.5 million worth of shoes at retail. Nowadays, the Jordan Brand and Nike monopolistically control 95% of the U.S. basketball shoe business.
Prior to legally imbibing the finest wines and liquors, or, really, before even being old enough to rent his own place without a co-sign, Kobe Bean Bryant was a sinewy Philly boy with a shy jumper and a game that lived above the rim, someone who scored his first shoe contract — with adidas — at the age of 17. The KB8 (now known as the Crazy 8) debuted in the 1997-1998 season, while Mr. Bryant was collecting the first $8 million in a deal spanning $48 million over six years and injecting the boxscore with 15 points, three rebounds and two-and-a-half dishes per game. As if it needs to be uttered, the will-powered, fiendish-for-buckets Bryant went on to cement an unequalled legacy, being arguably one side of the decagonal piece that makes up the best NBA players of all-time. Now, the Black Mamba, who has comfortably become a household name in places like China, continues to put out his signature shoes, this time with Nike, as his Kobe 12s (technically, the Kobe A.D.) were unveiled last autumn.
Before he inked an unceasing life-long contract, one that hasn’t had its official terms disclosed but is rumored to be in the ballpark of one billion dollars, King James was bouncing from Nike contract to Nike contract, as he gradually heightened his performance to mimic that of a video game with passing, driving, and, well, all the sliders topped. Coming out of St. Vincent St. Mary’s, James was ducking contractual shrapnel from Nike, Reebok and Adidas, eventually espousing his name with the Swoosh for a cool — at least for its time — $93 million over the course of seven years. Inarguably the greatest basketball player of his generation will be releasing his 15th signature shoe, which rivals any total produced by nearly anyone in NBA history, in October.
In 2013, Nike had its chance to re-up, but the conglomerate passed on the Golden State marksman for less than $4 million per year, pronounced his name incorrectly as “Steven” or “Steph-on,” focused on the Kobes, LeBrons, and Kevin Durants of the hoop universe, instead. As legend would have it, so did every other athletic manufacturer not named Under Armour. His relatable baby face and slight body physique have made Curry a sweetheart for any marketer who relies on empathy, as well as realism. The 29-year-old has already won two NBA championships, as well as two MVPs, showing no signs of playmaking decline, all while continuing to etch his name into different avenues of NBA history.
Giannis will join the flavorful pantheon of self-aggrandizement, and his legacy will transmit itself, using a single pair of shoes as a conduit, far beyond his time fully laced-up on the altar that is the hardwood. His stat-stuffing should continue, but his inspiration and influence is a byproduct of his brand, which is a byproduct of what he can imagine on the court. We, as sports’ fans, should be grateful to some degree, given that one anecdotal drop of Giannis’ name might bring about somebody else to pick up the phone to their own inner determination.