Jordan, LeBron, Curry And The Biggest Sneaker What-Ifs In NBA history

1:29 | NBA
Michael Jordan's business empire has him flying, even in retirement
Wednesday April 5th, 2017

When players sign sneaker endorsement deals, the impact it can sometimes have on the league is often overlooked. The NBA is full of what-if moments but when it comes to sneakers, things could be drastically different if stars went with alternate routes with their footwear choice. Here are some what-if sneaker stories that could have changed the way we look at the NBA today.


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What if Michael Jordan signed with Adidas?

This is the biggest what-if in sneaker history. It would be close to impossible for someone to ever surpass Jordan’s sneaker legacy. Sure, LeBron may reach billions but Jordan is the face of sports advertising as we know it. He changed the way brands worked with athletes and became bigger than the game of basketball. After wearing Converse throughout his UNC career, Jordan was all in on settling on a deal with Adidas. Converse had big names such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but Jordan did not see a fit for his own personal branding. Adidas had low-cut shoes that Jordan wanted to wear, but as it turns out the brand felt Jordan was too small. Nike offered him a deal that he couldn’t refuse. The deal? A signature line with stock in the company.  In an interview with Darren Rovell, Jordan said he would have joined the three striped brand if they matched Nike's offer.

“At the time everybody started recruiting me about what shoes to wear, I was pro-Adidas the whole time and then when I went through the presentation with Nike, they really made a great effort about having my input in the shoe design of any shoe I wanted to wear but then again I was very loyal. I went back to Adidas and said see this is the Nike contract if you come anywhere close I will sign with you guys.”

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Adidas executives had to cringe when they first heard MJ mouth these words in the interview. Imagine how things would have turned out if the brand matched.

Now this is where things get a bit more difficult for Adidas. According to a USA Today report, longtime marketing guru, Sonny Vaccaro accompanied Jordan to an Adidas meeting to meet with former Nike executives Peter Moore and Rob Strasser. Could it be possible Jordan almost signed with Adidas not once, but twice? There were reports Jordan wasn’t fond of the Air Jordan 2 when it released and was in search of something new which aligns.

Jordan could have spurred a revolution with Adidas, an up-and-coming entertainment/sporting company that wasn’t afraid to sign rappers like RUN DMC. They could have had the best of both worlds. Maybe Adidas, not Nike, would have become the king of the basketball sneaker world. With the addition of Tinker Hatfield to work on the Air Jordan 3, however, the Jordan signing never took place. It was the shoe that saved the brand and the Air Jordan empire. From there, Jim Riswold of Wieden+Kennedy turned Jordan into a global star with the “It’s Gotta be the shoes” commercials starring Spike Lee. The rest is history.

What if Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill never got hurt?

When Michael Jordan retired in 1994 to play baseball, the game of basketball was in need of a new face. The players with the best chance to assume that role were Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway. Both were young, blossoming stars in the NBA—and both shined in the commercial spotlight while Jordan was gone. Penny made iconic commercials with Nike and his alter-ego puppet “Lil Penny” while Grant Hill made Fila into a basketball brand for a brief stint.

Unfortunately, both players endured injuries and never lived up to their potential. But what if they remained healthy? While neither outshined Jordan in his return, it would have made the sneaker competition a bit more interesting when Jordan retired a second time. Penny looked like the second coming of Magic Johnson​ when he played with Shaquille O’Neal in Orlando. Even as big and marketable as Shaq was in the '90s, he admitted his envy for Penny’s ascending commercial fame in the ESPN 30 for 30 ‘This Magic Moment’.

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As their relationship deteriorated and O’Neal left for Hollywood, Penny endured troubling seasons after injuring his knee. Penny’s signature line is still regarded as one of the best in history, but there could have been so much more if he stayed healthy.

When Grant Hill entered the NBA in 1994, he was a force of nature. A true point-forward—think LeBron James in terms of all-around game—he averaged 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists in six seasons with the Pistons. But it wasn’t until he left for Orlando that left ankle injuries derailed his potential. Hill had it all: the professionalism, the Duke legacy, and the game.

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What if Kobe never signed with Nike?

It seems like so long ago that Kobe Bryant was once the golden child of Adidas Basketball. The brand was searching for their own Michael Jordan and hit the jackpot with the young Lakers star. As Kobe starred in memorable commercials and released some bold sneakers, the world seemed to be at the palm of his hand. Like Penny and Grant before him, he was the NBA’s heir apparent to Jordan’s marketing legacy. Unlike Allen Iverson’s “bad boy” image, which created a culture of its own, Kobe was the guy the league wanted as its premier face. He was clean-cut, flashy, and played in Los Angeles.

After his tenure with Adidas ended, Kobe enjoyed a brief and memorable sneaker free agency until he inked a deal with Nike. But as a newly minted Swoosh athlete, he dealt with sexual assault allegations that damaged his marketability so harshly that nearly every brand but Nike dropped him. Throughout the process, Nike prevented the use of Kobe’s image on any products, including a signature line. 

After a settlement and notable public apology to his wife, the brand stayed loyal and granted Bryant his own shoe in 2006, the Nike Zoom Kobe 1. He had become the most hated player in the NBA, but without Nike’s loyalty and storytelling, Kobe’s career could have taken a darker route. He embraced the most hated tagline and used it as motivation to score 81 points, win two more championships without Shaq and create his own alter ego, the Black Mamba. Kobe’s Nike line has since become one of the most innovative shoe lines in history.

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What if LeBron signed elsewhere?

LeBron James will go down as the biggest sneaker prospect of all-time. Every brand came knocking on the door. LeBron’s hype was so high that he could have instantly elevated any brand he joined. Like Jordan, LeBron was Adidas’s athlete to lose. He wore Adidas throughout his time at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s—and it wasn’t by accident. Sonny Vaccaro, the man behind deals for Jordan at Nike and Kobe at Adidas, made sure LeBron’s team was outfitted in Adidas gear. He also had a customized pair of Adidas sneakers made for James.

But as Vaccaro mentioned in the ESPN 30 for 30 ‘Sole Man’, Adidas had a chance to sign LeBron with a 10-year $100 million deal. They lowered the offer to $70 million in their official meeting with him. That sealed the deal for Nike, which eventually to came in and landed him for a cool $90 million out of high school. It’s another heartbreaking story for Adidas, a brand that could have had three of the best young wings in the league with Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and a soon to be superstar in LeBron James. Now LeBron has earned billions for Nike and recently signed a lifetime contract worth a billion.

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What if Nike's presentation for Stephen Curry went smoothly?

Here is a rare story where the stars didn't align for the Swoosh. Prior to Stephen Curry's ascension to superstardom, Nike had the best chance to keep him on their roster after his contract expired. He had worn Nike throughout his college and professional career, but there were a couple issues during Nike’s pitch meeting. Ethan Strauss of of ESPN explained that all Curry wanted was a basketball camp, much like other Nike stars such as LeBron, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving. The Swoosh was unprepared and showed they weren’t committed to Curry. They even pronounced his name wrong during the meeting.

Since joining Under Armour, he has become the face of a brand full of underdogs. It is easy to judge Nike in hindsight for not being committed to Curry, but no one could have predicted this—​he was injury prone and did not have an all-star appearance yet. There was also no telling if a Curry shoe line would sale. Pair that with the fact that Kyrie Irving who was being groomed to become the latest Nike signature athlete. While Nike really didn’t have a setback after it failed to keep Curry, they could have had the closest thing to a basketball sneaker monopoly. If they retained their full roster from 2013, Nike would have James, Kevin Durant, Curry, Irving, James Harden and Paul George. Let’s not forget about the Jordan Brand guys, like Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard. While that's a crowded marketing group—maybe too crowded—it's an impressive lineup.

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What if Derrick Rose never got injured?

Derrick Rose was a bright spot for Adidas as they made their way back into the spotlight after a few down years. Adidas went all in on the former MVP and things seemed to be shaping right until Rose tore his ACL in the 2012 playoffs. While Adidas has been killing things thanks to a change in strategy, their ascension could have come earlier if D Rose stayed on track. He has seven signature models under Adidas, but the hype is just not there for a Derrick Rose sneaker anymore. He has taken a backseat to guys like James Harden and Damian Lillard on the brand.

What if Under Armour landed Kevin Durant?

During the Summer of 2014, Under Armour tried to lure Kevin Durant to join Stephen Curry on the roster. The move would have caused a huge shift in the basketball sneaker market, as UA would have stole not one, but two megastars from Nike. Under Armour offered a reported massive $200-plus million contract that included stock and other incentives, but Durant eventually stayed with Nike.

If Durant would have picked to join sides with Curry, he could have caused some issues for the Warriors. There might not be a superteam in Golden State if UA wanting their two stars to be spread out. Maybe KD stays in OKC and this Westbrook situation never happens. Maybe he returns home to join the Wizards and stays close to Under Armour’s Baltimore campus.  Maybe Steph loses some of his appeal because Durant becomes the new face of Under Armour. Funny how things workout in the end. 

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