It Must Be in the Shoes

There’s plenty of NBA gear for fans to wear to represent their favorite team or player. Whether it’s a Kevin Durant jersey, Lakers hat or even a Raptors ugly Christmas sweater, there’s something for everyone in the ever-expanding world of NBA apparel. Despite the unnecessary amount of gear that represents basketball fandom, there’s only one piece of gear that can be worn on the court that equally represents a star player and the super fan: the shoe.

There are currently 18 active NBA players who have their own signature sneaker, ranging from superstars like LeBron James and James Harden to random role players like Matthew Dellavedova. On top of the active ballers who have their own sneaker deals, there are iconic shoes still seen during every game. Michael Jordan is the most notable ‘classic’ player to have a sneaker, or rather, a whole brand. The Jordan brand releases a signature shoe every year under Michael’s name, and is in the middle of crafting its 33rd shoe to release at the beginning of next season. Beyond Michael himself, the brand has reached out to current players, making shoes annually for Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook among others.

Sneaker brands have made footwear so much more than ‘just shoes,’ but what is the clear-cut favorite among players? Stats speak to Nike being the runaway sneaker champ, with the company having the most signature athletes and owning 73% of shoes sold in the basketball market, and players seem to agree.

“I’ve been a Nike guy as long as I remember,” said NAU basketball walk-on Gabriel Martin. “Their shoes just fit my feet better and are more reliable. I know I’m getting the best product from them.”

Black Hills State University basketball commit Griffin Effenberger takes up about 5% of the Nike market just by himself.

“My dad raised me on Nike, I can’t picture wearing anything else,” said Effenberger. “It worked out pretty well because my favorite player growing up was Kobe, and his shoes were released right before every season through Nike – I own at least a pair of every model.”

The correlation between exclusive superstar deals and sales is as apparent as ever. Nike is a clinch to win the sneaker war with LeBron James on their roster, but Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant appear as the second and third spots on the list of most exclusive kicks sold in 2018 – both are Nike athletes. Stephen Curry and James Harden represent Under Armour and Adidas, occupying the fourth and fifth slots in sales, but the sixth player on that list? The retired Kobe Bryant.

“Kobe just has that stigma to him, you can’t ignore anything with his name on it,” said Effenberger of his favorite player. “I think it’s pretty crazy how players that aren’t in the league anymore can still make that much of an impact.”

Players that aren’t in the NBA anymore like Kobe and Jordan still find ways to expand their brand constantly, but what about players that aren’t in the league yet?

Zion Williamson is the closest thing to LeBron to enter the NBA since LeBron himself in 2003, and had a year at Duke to become a household name across the world. The bidding war for who gets to make William’s shoes for the next 20 years hasn’t begun yet, but it hasn’t stopped the literal bidding war to begin in Vegas. Odds for how expensive the contract would be and which brand would land William were posted online the day after he declared for the 2019 NBA Draft, with Nike as the heavy favorite, followed by Adidas and Puma. The over/under for Williamson’s contract was set at $75 million.

Famous former sports marketer Sonny Vaccaro, who helped Nike land Michael Jordan in 1984, expects Williamson’s shoe deal to be record-breaking.

“In my lifetime, I think it’s going to be the biggest bidding war ever done,” said Vaccaro in an April interview with ESPN. “He is going to have an opportunity to be the face of every company and every major corporation. He is the most marketable person I've seen, for a lot of different reasons.”

Williamson’s pending deal could change sneaker culture forever, but in a world where shoes don’t seem like they could get any bigger, is it growing into ridiculous new territory? Many people don’t see all the hype behind kicks.

“I think a lot of people take their shoes way too seriously,” said University of Fairbanks basketball commit Marcus Lee. “I’ve played basketball for 13 years, and shoes are the last thing on my priority list. I’ll play in whatever as long as I’m playing well.”

Ketchikan High School basketball player Lianne Guevara doesn’t understand the sneaker obsession.

“It’s insane. I played high school basketball for four years and only used two pairs of shoes,” said Guevara. “Football players put more wear and tear on their cleats than basketball players, but my brother must have gone through 20 pairs of basketball shoes in four years.”

Sneaker culture is unparalleled in its obsession. Articles are published weekly about the hottest new shoes, collectors buy pairs with every paycheck they get and players get paid millions of dollars to be represented by their favorite company – yet somehow, the culture is only getting bigger, and will for years to come.