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
“These player-exclusive editions for the NBA All-Star Game give the brands buzz and visibility. Consumers want to wear what elite athletes wear.”
LeBron James’ shoes pictured at the 2018 All-Star Game at LA’s Staples Center. Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
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
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.
“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.”
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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!”