Nike. Nike. Nike. Nike. Jordan. Nike. Nike. Nike. Nike. Nike. Nike. Nike. Converse. Adidas. And1. Adidas. Dunk.net. Dunk.net. Dunk.net. Nike.
With the exception of one or two players – shout out Shaquille O’Neal and Chauncey Billups – the Finals MVP has been awarded to someone wearing sneakers from one of the four traditional NBA brands: Nike, Adidas, Jordan and Converse.
In fact, you have to go back to 1988, when the Los Angeles Lakers’ James Worthy won the trophy, later named after the great Bill Russell, to find a Finals MVP that wore a pair of New Balance sneakers.
The Sneaker Wars possibly began in 1985 when Converse went all-in on commercials for their new shoes.
Soon after, the brand released signature shoes for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird during the height of their rivalry, and even though they were wearing the same logo, it sparked the beginning of the basketball shoe rivalry – were you buying Bird’s or Magic’s?
That same year, Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan’s were banned by the NBA, which just made the world want them even more.
Jordan ruled the roost for many years. In the 1990s, brands started realising the colossal impact NBA players had on shoe sales. Reebok signed high profile athletes, as did Fila, and, of course, Nike and Adidas developed their own rosters. But New Balance became the forgotten sneaker company, outside of the likes of Matt Bonner, who famously blew through his shoes during a game for the San Antonio Spurs against the Memphis Grizzlies in 2010.
But just like the Toronto Raptors, New Balance was the recipient of some good luck last summer.
Kawhi Leonard was arguably the league’s best player in 2017, until Zaza Pachulia interrupted the Spurs’ championship run by sticking his foot beneath Leonard’s landing zone in the NBA Playoffs series against the Golden State Warriors.
After missing out on basically the whole of last season, Jordan wasn’t confident in Leonard’s post-injury skill level, nor his marketing appeal after a series of terrible commercials.
But Jordan signed him as a young, up-and-coming player with potential, and during the (sneaker) contract season he was injured. This resulted in few shoes being shifted during the first prime years of his career.
A consequential low-ball offer of $22 million over four years insulted Leonard enough to the point where he signed with a company nobody expected.
New Balance released Leonard’s custom shoes, which many laughed at – not so much for the style, but for the very Kawhi Leonard font on the back.
Gimme the most “Kawhi Leonard” font you got. pic.twitter.com/IrbKz68HD2
— Taco Trey Kerby (@treykerby) February 15, 2019
But at least the style of these New Balance kicks play into the public perception of Leonard’s persona. He might be a fun guy, but he is also composed and said while receiving his Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP trophy: “I’m a guy that tries not to get too high or too low.”
While knowledge of the terms of Leonard’s New Balance contract are limited, it reportedly puts the small forward in the top 15 players in the league in terms of earning potential (according to ESPN’s Nick DePaula). The company has also been seeking an NBA star to build around in recent years, and while it was patient as other players, such as Joel Embiid and Gordon Hayward, got scooped up, New Balance executed when the time was right – not dissimilar to Masai Ujiri’s tactic in landing the former Spur.
It was definitely a gamble, and one that a larger company could have absorbed, but the executives that run the basketball divisions at those brands must be looking at the success of Leonard and this playoff run to a title and kicking themselves, regardless of how comfortable their feet are.
The #Warriors dynasty is officially over.
— Double Clutch NBA UK (@DoubleClutchUK) June 14, 2019
Nike. Adidas. Jordan. Puma. Under Armour. And1. Fila. Converse.
They all missed out on securing Leonard as their lead NBA athlete. But New Balance in the Sneaker Wars has been restored.
Feature photo – New Balance / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington