All-Star Weekend, which kicks off tonight, has always been a barometer for how far the NBA has come as a brand. It’s where powerful forces (media, celebrity, advertisers, the league’s old and new guard) meet — and, on occasion, remember fallen icons like Kobe Bryant.
But it is also basketball’s biggest party of the year. And that means one thing: Players will be in full-swag mode right up until Sunday’s 69th annual All-Star Game tips off at the United Center in Chicago. Chances are we’ll see most, if not all, of them step onto the court in some kind of ultramodern, statement-making shoe.
Professional b-ballers are extremely competitive, and a bit show-offy. By now, they’ve caught onto the fact that it’s not just highlight-reel dunks and long-range three-pointers that can elicit oohs and aahs from crowds. It’s also about how you look in action.
Which is why, over the last decade, Russell Westbrook (feet pictured top), Damian Lillard and others have become global ambassadors for sportswear giants — Westbrook for Nike, Lillard for Adidas — upping their style game while essentially serving as major marketing pawns for these brands to stand out and generate social media hype.
James Harden wore patterned Adidas sneakers at last year’s All-Star Game. Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
deliriously-patterned Adidas, which featured a checkered flag design (a nod to the host city’s racing scene). LeBron James wore
Nikes with a golden swoosh and a Givenchy-inspired pattern on the laces. Kawhi Leonard — who was still a Toronto Raptor at last year’s event — unveiled a
New Balance sneaker that (seriously) did an impression of a dinosaur claw. It wasn’t exactly like watching the runway at a couture show, but honestly who’d blame you for thinking that?
$180-billion-plus sports apparel industry for the Portland Business Journal.
“These player-exclusive editions for the NBA All-Star Game give the brands buzz and visibility. Consumers want to wear what elite athletes wear.”
reportedly expected to grow into a $6 billion industry by 2025. On online marketplaces, like StockX, a coveted shoe which retails for hundreds can sell for thousands.
LeBron James’ shoes pictured at the 2018 All-Star Game at LA’s Staples Center. Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Tony’s Sports — a popular local sneaker and apparel destination in the 1990s and 2000s — as a pop-up shop selling exclusive All-Star Weekend (ASW) gear.
Nike Kyrie 6, named for Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, features a translucent forefoot strap and looks as if a New York City taxi collided with a piece of abstract art. The
Puma x Def Jam Clyde is a fresh take on the OG hip-hop low-cut sneaker made famous by NBA legend Walt “Clyde” Frazier. And that’s just a
taste. (In keeping with tradition, newfangled All-Star Games or “ASG” shoes are normally kept under wraps until game time.)
All-Star Weekend might be less of a social event than a major sneaker-branding marketing moment but not everyone is complaining. “The NBA has only recently started giving sneakers the shine they deserve,” said Sean Williams, who has a YouTube talk show called Obsessive Sneaker Disorder. “Ten or 20 years ago, did TNT or ESPN care what sneaker anyone was wearing, except Michael Jordan?”
Michael Jordan pictured during the NBA All-Star Game in 1997. Credit: Brian Bahr/Getty Images
bet the house on Jordan. The brand even gave the young phenom his own signature shoe: the Chicago Bulls-themed colorway Air Jordan 1, which literally broke the league’s shoe-color barrier. (At the time, the NBA’s “uniformity of uniform” rule mandated that shoes worn in games be
for sale earlier this month).
removing all shoe color restrictions in the 2018-19 season — which led to a slew of on-court games of who-can-break-the-internet-one-upmanship.
Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers sported a colorful pair at the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend. Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
But it doesn’t stop at who’s using the most hues in the crayon box. Players like Harden and his Rockets teammate Westbrook, are also closely involved in the design process, sharing ideas for silhouettes and concepts.
soaring leap from the foul line in a slam-dunk contest.
“Signature shoes are definitely a collaborative process nowadays,” said Duane A. Lawrence, deputy design director of Chinese shoe company Anta, whose clients include Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors. “It’s important to get insight from the athlete during the design process to make sure the shoe hits all their performance needs and style preferences. I can’t imagine that being the case in the Dr. J days.”
A brief history of high fashion sneakers
Forbes, nearly a dozen NBA stars — including Westbrook, Harden and New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson — make at least $10 million a year off shoe endorsements.
signed a deal with Nike’s Jordan brand worth $75 million over seven years, then sat out the first half of the season to recover from knee surgery. Another Nike client, Kevin Durant of the Nets, who
makes $26 million a year, will likely miss the entire 2019-20 season after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon in last year’s NBA Finals.
His former teammate, the Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, who is paid $20 million by Under Armour, has been out of commission since October with a hand injury. But that won’t keep him from rolling out a limited-edition shoe on Saturday. Put all that together and you start to see why sneaker brands are hustling hard to get a foothold in the All-Star Game, which the NBA says will be broadcast live in more than 40 languages.
The Under Amour sneakers worn by Stephen Curry during 2017’s All-Star Game. Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
“Considering the magnitude of some of the shoe deals, brands need to leverage the athlete’s marketability whenever they get the chance,” explained sneaker historian Chad Jones, before adding that players have become running and jumping billboards.
In the words of Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon, “Money, it’s gotta be the shoes!”