The last time an NBA Finals MVP wore New Balance sneakers on the court was 1988 when James Worthy, goggles and all, helped the Los Angeles Lakers topple the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons in seven games. Two years later, he was dropped by the brand after he was arrested for solicitation of a prostitute in Houston. The brand’s most notable basketball moment after that was Matt Bonner playing in a dated pair of the Zip basketball sneakers, which had gone out of production, and the sole coming off the shoes in the middle of a game. New Balance as a basketball brand seemed like a faint memory of the past -- that’s until the company signed Kawhi Leonard in November 2018 to relaunch its hoops division. And it’s the best, most-calculated move the brand has made in ages.
New Balance is a niche brand, to say the least. Its “cool” shoes—which are typically Made in USA versions of its running sneakers from the ‘80s and early ‘90s—have been able to build occasional hype over the years, but it remains very much a connoisseur's label. The brand exists in pockets. It’s adored by people who live in the Washington, D.C. area for its grey suede running shoes with high price tags. European footwear enthusiasts clamor over New Balance and its limited-edition, Made in England shoes. White suburban dads love the company because they make inexpensive shoes in wide widths. It also has a rep as serious performance running brand. With all of these disconnected groups, New Balance at times has a hard time making mainstream statements. That’s why Leonard is so important to the company. He gives them a visible face on a large stage. His offbeat personality and dominant, yet understated playing style has allowed for New Balance to connect with people who don’t know the company outside of a few models.
To understand why this is big for New Balance, you have to look at how the brand was able to land Leonard. For all of his NBA career, and even dating back to his days at San Diego State, he’s been a Nike or Jordan guy who’s balled out in retros and got his own editions of performance shoes. Jordan Brand even gave him his own Air Jordan 1 last year. But Leonard needed a change in his life in multiple ways. Following a controversy filled final season with the Spurs that led to his trade to Toronto, he ditched Jordan for New Balance—which many thought was an odd move at the time New Balance didn’t have a basketball program. What sneakers would he even play in?
The relationship between them worked. Kawhi’s a boring guy. New Balance is a boring brand. But they both embody a strong work ethic with core values. Leonard doesn’t have social media. He’s not a flashy guy on the court. But he makes plays, plays defense, and does what it takes to win. New Balance may not be the shiniest footwear brand with the latest and greatest tech innovations, but they’ve found what works for them and hasn’t strayed far from it. But when it comes to the materials and construction on its best-made shoes, the brand is at a level that Nike or Adidas can’t sniff.
So why would New Balance even need someone like Leonard if the brand was happy being themselves? The past few years have been interesting for the company. It all started around the 2016 election, when a representative for the brand said they were happy with Donald Trump’s election, because his policies would be beneficial to the company’s American-made business. In hindsight, nothing the brand did or said was outrageous, but there was strong backlash from the portion of the country that opposed Trump's election. People burned their shoes for social media likes. I even knew people who said they “couldn’t look at the brand the same way anymore.” Some people still feel that way. All because they wanted to protect their workers? Strange times we live in. Either way, the brand needed to reconnect with the sneaker community. It went all in on the 990v4 model, which at the time was the latest iteration of its top-end grey suede running line, and officially connected it with the neighborhoods that gave it its credibility.
But if a sneaker brand really wants to align itself with the greater footwear culture, it needs a basketball line. We’ve seen Puma enlist Jay-Z and sign a plethora of OK-but-not-transcendent players. But the shoes were always kind of suspect and the design isn’t good. New Balance needed a sureshot and went chips-in on Leonard. The biggest advantage that New Balance had over Puma, besides a genuine admiration for their product, was the foundation to build a true performance shoe. That’s where the OMN1s was born. It’s a real-deal basketball sneaker. No frills. And it looks OK—at least good enough to get the job done. Leonard wearing the shoe on the biggest stage and giving it memorable burn time would ensure that people would pay attention to the shoe. His Game 6-winning shot against the Philadelphia 76ers gave New Balance its own version of “The Shot”—Michael Jordan’s legendary game-winner over Craig Ehlo, 30 years ago, that moved the Chicago Bulls past the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Outside of wearing the sneaker on the court, the true value of Leonard and New Balance lies in him wearing New Balance before games. We’ve come to a point where people care more about what NBA players wear before the game than what they during it. And New Balance has given Leonard its latest and greatest cool-guy shoes: collaborations with Kith, Amie Leon Dore, Bodega, and more. People are going to pay attention to Leonard anyway and they’re noticing his shoes, too. On top of that, he looked comfortable through all of it. He was being himself.
The real gold of this partnership has been how well-timed and in-step each move has been. Only two Kawhi sneakers have released: His OMN1s and a reworked version of the 997 sneaker. It was a hyper drop, out of the blue, and the shoes were quickly snatched up. The basketball version is reselling for over $600. There was also a “Fun Guy” T-shirt, a play on Leonard’s lowkey personality, done in the classic New Balance font. They’ve even made a “Board Man Gets Paid” shirt, which is a mantra of Leonard’s going back to high school days, where he viewed rebounds and hard work as the way to make it to the NBA. The commercial that launched the partnership also said, “Kawhi doesn’t need your attention. He already has it.” His quirks have become memes and New Balance has capitalized on it. Give the people what they want and do it in a cool way. Marketing 101.
Of course it’s still early on with Leonard and New Balance. They could have a falling out. His line might not grow the way we expect it to. Whatever. But no one really saw this partnership coming, much like they didn’t think the Raptors would win the Finals. New Balance has their man. He wore them on the biggest stage and won. New Balance is having a moment right now, whether it be with Kawhi Leonard or the popularity of its chunky, boring shoes worn by dads. Let them have it.