Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Deandre Ayton

Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier and Deandre Ayton have joined forces with Puma to relaunch the company’s basketball footwear and apparel division.

Sports and the “shoe game” have been intertwined ever since Charles “Chuck” Taylor and Converse rolled out the All-Stars aka “Chucks” way back in the early 1920s. It took approximately 50 years for the first NBA athlete to land a signature shoe deal when Kareem Abdul Jabbar received his own specialized version of the Adidas Superstar in 1971.

Since then, we’ve seen sneakerheads rush to the stores to cop the latest kicks from endorsed by their favorite NBA stars. Iconic players are known to endearing fans by their shoes as much as their skills. Players such as Julius Irving, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, “Penny” Hardaway, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and, of course, Michael Jordan, all have signature sneakers attached to their legacies.

I’ll never forget the first pair of Jordan’s I owed. After much begging, pleading and praying, I somehow convinced my mom to shell out 125 hard earned dollars for the Jordan 11 Concords. It was the unofficial shoe of my high school basketball squad. The classic white and black color combination with the black patent leather around the base and clear outsole was, in my very biased opinion, the greatest basketball show ever made.

During my junior year of high school, our team’s fans made signs with drawings of our swaged out shoes. Though they were extremely expensive for the time, sold out quickly and were hard to find in stock (Sound familiar?). Yet I owned a pair. Now, whenever I see a pair of retro 11s, it takes me back to the fond memory of my OG Concords.

Throughout the years, different brands have had runs of being in style. Nike and Adidas have remained relevant for decades. Other companies such as Converse, Reebok, Fila, Puma, Pony, Ewing Athletics and others have come and gone in terms of relevance. The retro market, which owes a lot to those Concords, has helped keep some of those brands alive.

In recent years, newer companies such as Under Armour, Brand Black, Anta, Li Ning and Big Baller Brand have made their mark on the court by signing NBA stars to lucrative endorsement contracts. Fashionable, high-performance models with the right endorser can mean the difference between a shoe selling out on Day 1 or sitting 70-percent off shelf at Marshall’s or Kohl’s for years to come. The willingness for star players to embrace shoe companies other than Nike or Adidas is helping to kill off brand loyalty amongst shoppers.

NBA stars are abandoning the idea that they need to have their “own” teams and are joining forces by twos and threes. Sneakerheads are making moves in a similar fashion. The idea of only rocking one brand of kicks is getting played out. U.S. consumers are following their favorite players and/or style and copping whatever they like, regardless of the logo on the side.

Kicks on neighborhood basketball courts almost exclusively featured a Swoosh (Nike) or Jumpman (Jordan Brand) over the past decade. Now, it’s not uncommon to see Currys (UA), Hardens and Dames (Adidas) or other logos squeaking across the local hardwoods and playgrounds.

Puma has seen the writing on the wall. The big cat backed out of the basketball market in 1999 after a deal with Vince Carter went south. Since then, Puma mainly focused on soccer, running and lifestyle shoes. Now the company is making a major comeback into the basketball shoe market.

Over the past week, Puma announced that it signed probable #1 pick Deandre Ayton to a lucrative endorsement contract, as well as likely lottery picks Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith. The multi-million dollar deals signed by Ayton and Bagley are reportedly the largest sneaker deals for rookies since Kevin Durant’s 7-year, $60 million Nike deal in 2007. If that wasn’t enough of a splash, Puma also announced that it signed former endorser Walt “Clyde” Frazier to a lifetime contract and that Jay-Z would serve as creative director of Puma Basketball.

Bringing in “Hov” to help resurrect the basketball division makes sense. Jay-Z has his own line of Puma signature shoes. Smith is signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation’s sports agency. Rihanna, a Puma lifestyle shoe endorser, is a Roc Nation artist on the music side.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z has gone from Puma celebrity endorser to Puma Basketball’s creative director. He is expected to help the footwear company continue its ascent into sneaker relevancy.

Other musical artists such as Big Sean, Meek Mill and The Weeknd and given Puma “street cred” in hip-hop culture, which is in many ways identical to hoops culture.

Puma’s recent emergence on the lifestyle side of things, combined with the big name signings in the new basketball division almost guarantees that Puma’s basketball division will make major noise in its comeback.

Also, regardless of what people think about Big Baller Brand, it’s reasonably successful launch means that more player-owned brands like Ewing Athletics and BBB will likely pop up in the near future.

Considering that basketball shoes rake in billions of dollars each year, there are boatloads of cash out there for shoe companies and athletes alike. More relevant brands mean more competition, innovation and consumer choices. Though I’ve been on an Under Armour kick lately when it comes to shoes, I can’t wait to see what Puma has to offer.

Follow Ishmael and In the Clutch on Twitter @ishcreates.

Ishmael H. Sistrunk is a columnist and the website coordinator for the St. Louis American and www.stlamerican.com.

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