Nike is the king of the basketball sneaker world. It sponsors athletes spanning the entire world of roundball: everyone from Kevin Durant to Kawhi Leonard to the Gasol brothers to Michael Jordan himself. A cabal of some of the world’s most famous and impressive athletes that would be the envy of the Illuminati, if it didn’t own Nike already. Nike’s a big company, and those people take a lot of the best talent for themselves, with their deep pockets and decades-long sterling reputation. You can read about their stranglehold over the athletic footwear sponsorship game, and self-lacing shoes and everything elsewhere. We’re here today to talk about the little(r) guys in the apparel sponsorship game, that definitely do not have the megaton of gold ingots necessary to placate the Lebron Jameses of the world.
You, probably being close to my age or older, probably recognize Reebok as one of the top names in sportswear. You, by this point, are woefully wrong, at least when it comes to basketball. After being the company that outfitted the 1992 US Dream Team in Barcelona, Reebok has somehow dwindled in influence to such an extent that the most relevant active NBA player on their sponsorship list is Isaiah Thomas of the Sacramento Kings. Perhaps such a decline shouldn’t be particularly unexpected, considering that their decision-makers also thought it was a good idea to give shoe deals to Willie Green and Maalik Wayns, who currently plays for the D-League’s sentence-long Rio Grande Valley River Vipers. Or maybe I’m just bitter because I waited in line outside of my local Foot Locker for hours, only to miss my chance at the latest high-top Air Ramon Sessions kicks by one person.
Wilt Chamberlain had his 100 point game wearing Chuck Taylors, the first basketball shoe, and arguably still the most famous. During those earliest decades of the game’s popularity, the company ran a near monopoly, having saved the earliest ballplayers from playing in clogs or dress shoes or boots. Even through the 80s, Converse kept putting out new lines of sneakers, sponsored by the biggest names in the game: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. However, in the intervening time, the company’s market share continued to diminish and eventually the company filed for Chapter 11 and was acquired by Nike in 2003. The brand went from being the only choice to, by the late aughts, sponsoring the likes of Carlos Arroyo, Luke Harangody, and Acie Law, thus making Chuck Taylor pick and pop in his grave. I swear I didn’t include any of those names fictitiously to further a joke. The very last NBA player to wear Converse on the court was (my favorite person) Udonis Haslem, in 2013.
I wonder what being the last of the Mohicans was like for Haslem. Did any other player mock him for wearing them? Did he use his status as the standard bearer for the whole operation to get some Velcro and lights on his shoes? Is there a statue of him outside of the Converse headquarters? All questions that we will surely have answered for us, once Crooked Scoreboard’s press credentials for the NBA playoffs get cleared.
Spalding! We all know Spalding. They make basketballs! I’ve probably owned six Spalding basketballs over my teenage years and into my early adulthood that have ended up either stolen, lost, or stuck in a friend’s car trunk, but it’s always a different friend than the last time I saw it, but I digress. They’re a ball company. BUT, they’re also a ball company that really loves Paul Pierce. They love Paul Pierce so much that he is the only basketball player in the world that they sponsor, in spite of the fact that they do not make shoes and are the sole provider to the NBA of the one item that the entire sport is named after . What shoes does he wear? Does he just sheath his feet in basketball leather? Did I just give a tanking team for next year the idea to provide their players with intentionally and extraordinarily inadequate equipment? Can I pitch this plot to a major studio, or is it just exactly like a Will Ferrell movie? It’s exactly like that one Will Ferrell movie where he has that ridiculous afro.
I had a pair of tiny And1s when I was 11, even though I didn’t have enough strength to get a basketball near a regulation rim. Many people probably share my experience on this topic. I don’t think they’re sponsoring any NBA players right now. Yet, I’m writing about secondary basketball shoe companies, and I would be cheating you, the reader, out of a valuable experience if I did not mention them, the coolest company ever. They sprung from the ground at some point in the 90s, and made now-Chinese League legend Stephon Marbury their first spokesman. Subsequently, luminaries like Raef Lafrentz, Darrell Armstrong, Rex Chapman, and Miles Simon were put in ads, which, for some reason, failed to gain the company traction. So, then they took a completely different route, centered their ad campaigns around complete unknowns like Rafer “Skip to My Lou” Alston, and people known (only to me) as The Professor, Hot Sauce, and Main Event. Suddenly, instead of lame NBA journeymen supporting the product, we had THIS:
So a lot of cool stuff. Like, impossibly cool stuff that even now, in 2014, is cool. That guy bounced the ball off another guy’s head in what appeared to be a real-ish basketball game. And1 was able to enjoy a nice decade-long run of prominence in the pop culture lexicon due to their streetball productions being an ESPN2 fixture. The only reason I’m mentioning all of this is because it might be informative in some ways for today’s shoe industry also-rans. We need this again. Maybe more people would buy your shoes if you put a bunch of ridiculous streetball derring-do in your ads instead of paying benchwarmers to wear them during games. I will feel influenced if I see a guy dunking over a storage shed full of explosives wearing your shoes. I will feel like your shoes are made of low-quality, wet cardboard if you’re letting Josh McRoberts be your voice.