All Aboard The PUMA Revolution

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Last summer, I downplayed the launch of LaVar Ball’s Lonzo Ball’s signature shoe, the ZO2. Fifteen years earlier, in the summer of 2002, I made runs to the sketchy gas station to pick up cases of liquor with my fake ID in hand and a pair of PUMA Suede Classics on my feet.

The two timelines cross in an unlikely convergence this summer of 2018. I noted in my breakdown of the ZO2 that in the 1990s, shoe stores with overflowing with NBA players’ alternative-brand signature shoes. These off-beat kicks weren’t exactly flying off the shelves, and with its $500 price tag, neither were ZO2s.

Class of 2018 rookies Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley are taking a more measured risk than 2017 counterpart Lonzo Ball, albeit a risk just the same. Both announced signing apparel deals with PUMA in the past week, bucking the conventional wisdom that sends high-profile rookies to the safe haven provided with Nike or Adidas.

PUMA is an established brand to be sure — more so than Bobby Hurley sporting ITZ or John Wallace rolling with Karl Kani in the ’90s, and certainly more than ZO2 — but far away from the NBA hardwoods.

I rocked my PUMA Suede Classics in the summer of ’02 with a pair of long Dickies shorts and various band or skateboard company t-shirts. I venture to guess that’s a much more common uniform associated with PUMA than a basketball uniform.

The company has gained a foothold in golf over recent years, thanks to PGA Tour stars Rickie Fowler and Ian Poulter. I live not far from the PUMA golf HQ in Carlsbad, California, and a few years ago, passed the campus in a day of celebration for Fowler.

Team sports aren’t completely unfettered territory for PUMA. Before Reebok signed exclusivity rights with the NFL in the early 2000s, PUMA ranked among various other outfitters that produced replica jerseys.

Meanwhile, the PUMA name carries a lot more clout in the international version of football than our American incarnation.

But as far as getting a foot in the door of basketball arenas? The company’s history is sparse.

Researching this column, I thought of any memories I may have had of previous PUMA endorsers in the NBA. The first name that came to mind? Clyde Drexler.

Only…that was incorrect. My recollection came from old posters of Drexler from the 1980s, in which he’s donning a pair of red high-tops that looked like the PUMA Sky High. However, those are Roos: The only shoe with a pocket in the tongue.

The Glide joined the Road Warriors among noteworthy Roos wearers. Seriously.

Drexler moved on from Roos to Avia later in his career, though his attempts at blazing a new footwear trail never made much of an impact.

With Jay-Z reportedly at the helm, and Zhaire Smith joining Ayton and Bagley in theĀ  launch roster, PUMA evidently has designs on securing a chunk of the sneaker market. It’s hardly the first company, as the bevy of off-shoot brands in the 1990s market prove. The proverbial other shoe dropped on them all.

Since Reebok fizzled last decade, UnderArmour’s recent rise closest any competitor has come to infiltrating the space Nike dominates, along with Adidas to a lesser extent. But even the popularity of UnderArmour’s apparel and uniform ubiquity in the amateur ranks — including Zhaire Smith’s alma mater, Texas Tech — don’t entirely translate to popular signature shoes.

Even a big-name flagship player in Steph Curry does little to put UnderArmour basketball shoes into the forefront — beyond providing fodder for social media with these Dad Shoe abominations.

In UnderArmour’s missteps, however, are clear paths to success for PUMA. Any one of Ayton, Bagley or Smith developing into stars helps, but is out of the shoe company’s control. PUMA does have control over the look and feel of its sneakers.

Produce a good-looking, comfortable shoe. It’s that simple.