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Why the Raptors are ankle-deep in the shoe business

Why the Raptors are ankle-deep in the shoe business
Sports
In the minutes after last Tuesday’s 107-95 loss to the Houston Rockets, Pascal Siakam sat on a folding chair next to his locker, scrolling through his smartphone. The discarded husks of his ankle tape lay near his feet, as did the teal Nike KD10s he wore that night.

Across the room, Danny Green had already removed his Puma Uproars, and soaked his bare feet in a tub of ice water.

Kawhi Leonard and New Balance have an unusual arrangement, with his signature shoe not yet available widely.  (Andrew D. Bernstein / Getty Images)

All-star power forward Kawhi Leonard’s locker sat empty, its occupant having already stepped out of his New Balance OMN1S and into the shower.

No other North American pro sport is as closely intertwined with the footwear industry as the NBA, where the process of selecting shoes takes comfort, performance and marketing into consideration. And the various permutations of the relationships between player and shoe company are on display in the Raptors locker room.

Where Green is a featured performer among Puma’s roster of NBA players, Leonard’s New Balance contract forms the foundation of that brand’s return to basketball.

And Siakam?

He’s a Nike guy with a nightly dilemma.

Nike discontinued the KD10s; the company and the shoe’s namesake, Kevin Durant, moved on to KD11s for this season. But Siakam prefers the KD10s, so he has stockpiled several pairs and hopes to make them last through what the Raptors believe will be a long post-season. His agent keeps nudging him to audition new shoes, but Siakam won’t even consider it until the summer.

“I played with them last year and they felt comfortable to me,” said Siakam, who enters Sunday’s game against Miami averaging 16.4 points and seven rebounds per game. “And that’s all I’m about, feeling comfortable in the shoe.”

Pro basketball rivals elite marathon running in its ability to showcase new shoes to large audiences, but that exposure comes with risks. Where Nike spent two years using virtuoso marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge to , the brand had to scramble to limit the fallout when Duke University star Zion Williamson’s shoe disintegrated on national TV last month.

The footwear malfunction spotlighted the exact model of Nike basketball shoe Williamson wore — the Nike PG 2.5 PE — but it also led to a sprained knee for the superstar freshman, who recently posted an Instagram video of himself wearing an Adidas tracksuit. At the time, Nike issued a statement promising to “identify the issue” and stressing that the “quality and performance of our products are of the utmost importance.”

The company’s share price dipped $1.36 in a day, but from there it has rebounded as the basketball business has moved forward, and rivals such as Puma and New Balance have worked to improve their positions with help from Raptors regulars.

Puma, for example, sent Green to NBA all-star weekend in Charlotte with Uproars model shoes with local flavour — black, but accented with teal, orange and several shades in between to honour the team colours of Charlotte’s NBA franchises.

For Green, comfort is just one consideration when choosing which shoe to wear. He also co-ordinates with Puma to sync his in-game footwear with retail releases of new designs. When he wore Nike, Green says he’d wear 10 to 12 pairs of shoes per season. But with Puma he wears more because his on-court presence is an important element of Puma’s basketball marketing.

“I’m wearing a lot of shoes just to put them on notice,” Green said. “I’m going through and wearing more colourways than I ever have in the past. It’s all the same shoe. It’s just different colours.”

Likewise, Leonard’s footwear choices reflect both his preferences and his sponsor’s broader strategy.

He’s not the first local athlete to align with New Balance, a Boston-based brand best known for running shoes. Former Blue Jays star Jose Bautista wore New Balance in the early 2010s, and top Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic remains with the company.

But carving out a share of a competitive basketball shoe market depends heavily on Leonard, who figures prominently in the company’s social media marketing, and collaborates with corporate headquarters about the best way to leverage his starring role on the Raptors to gin up interest in shoes that won’t retail widely until later this year.

“He saw it as an opportunity to be an entrepreneur, and build this basketball startup with it,” said Patrick Cassidy, New Balance’s global director of consumer marketing. “He’s incredibly ingrained in everything we’re doing … It’s co-authored with Kawhi. We want his input. We want him to help build this business, and he wants to do it.”

For Siakam, the decisions aren’t that complicated yet. He alternates his shoes to extend their lives. Sometimes they match his Raptors uniform, but often they don’t. His teal KD10s are a case in point.

He’ll review his options over the summer.

“My next step is finding my next favourite shoe,” he said. “Hopefully it’s my own shoe.”
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