Dwyane Wade isn’t following in anyone’s footsteps. The crowd forms behind him here in Long Beach at ComplexCon, where chaotic product drops and celebrity appearances fuel a weekend of hype.

Yes, there’s a point person out front, but one gets the sense that Wade is steering the ship, followers arranging in his wake in a pyramid: him up top, brand reps behind him, media in back of that, and then stragglers from the general public still seeking a photo op behind that. Wade, wearing fluorescent orange shoes from his Way of Wade sub-brand under Chinese sneaker company Li-Ning, is on the move.

They go across the show floor, through double doors, left turn, right turn, down the hallway, through more doors, down a carpeted staircase into a quieter section of the convention center and then, through one more clicking set of doors, into a private room with more than enough space for the media, brand people, security, and Wade’s own team to spread out. Here, in the depths of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, the NBA veteran takes a seat.

“Just a normal day,” he jokes as camera people set up equipment and occupy couches on the perimeter.

It’s normal enough that his presence generates a mob, but as of late, he hasn’t gotten to participate in the spectacle like this as much. These are not normal times—lingering coronavirus concerns mean a degree of caution has to be exercised in interactions with supporters who line up at the Li-Ning booth for a chance to see Wade.

Dwyane Wade meeting with a fan at Li-Ning's ComplexCon booth
Wade met with fans at the Li-Ning booth at ComplexCon in Long Beach. Image via Li-Ning

“You can’t touch your fans like you normally do,” he says. “So it kinda becomes a little weird to come out because you kinda gotta be away when you really want to be more in.”

Wade is both at the moment, sequestered in a room away from the commotion, but also still at what is, for the weekend, the epicenter of sneaker and streetwear culture. It’s an important space for Li-Ning, the company that Wade signed to in September 2012 as he left Jordan Brand. 

Li-Ning’s being at ComplexCon is a marker of its wider efforts to expand its imprint beyond China. Two weeks before, the company said it would sell $1.35 billion worth of new shares, part of the money from which would fund expansion into new regions. This summer it started a skateboarding line with the help of American skater Erik Ellington. In 2018, it entered into a new contract with Wade, its most visible athlete, in what was described then as a “lifetime deal” but is now being referred to as a long-term partnership.

Wade is not hesitant to imagine, on the cusp of a decade doing business with Li-Ning, what another 10 or 20 years in would look like. In this interview, he discusses how he got to Li-Ning, how his 19-year-old son Zaire might be next up for Way of Wade, and how the sneaker scene in China is taking shape. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

You’re coming up on 10 years with the brand. How much does that mean to you? 
It means a lot. I’ve been in the sneaker game for awhile. I was thinking about it on the way over here. I was like, I have five signature shoes with Converse. I had three with Jordan, and I got 10 with Li-Ning. 

There’s not a lot of people who have a résumé like that.
I think I got one of the dopest résumés. You know, when you go down and just see the time I’ve been in it. Since, what? I had my first signature shoe, probably 2004-05 season, somewhere around there, and still rolling.

It’s definitely been a journey. We’ve watched the sneaker game go through its ebbs and flows, moments where it’s hot—everybody want it—to times where sneakers is not really the hot thing, it’s designer shoes, it’s this, it’s that. But it’s been a cool journey to be a part of for sure.

Dwyane Wade wearing white Li-Ning Way of Wade sneakers
Wade wore his Li-Ning sneakers through his final NBA season. Image via Getty

Do you remember those conversations around when you were first leaving Jordan Brand and what about Li-Ning convinced you to make the switch? 
I do. I remember the only thing that would have kept me there was the cool factor of it all. But from the opportunity to create and build something, the opportunity of a legacy, when you think about legacy, something I was thinking about as I was 30 years old. I was at a different point in my life and I had to make this decision.

So for me it was just an opportunity to grow and build. And I didn’t know, I had no clue what it was gonna turn out to be. Only thing I knew was I had signed a seven-year deal. And for seven years I knew we would have a relationship that we would try to build something. And so to now be going into year 10 and see that, you know, we’re still young. We’re only 10 years into this thing and hopefully we can go 20, 30, and continue to watch the brand evolve, from a Li-Ning perspective and a Way of Wade as well.

Was the equity a part of it, too? Because I know there were reports around it initially that you had a piece in it. So it allows you to be more engaged in a way. 
Yeah, that’s something that was important for me. Because when I got into the brand, the brand was kind of in the red, right? It wasn’t a brand anyone was checking for. So if I was going to be a part of the reemergence, one day, of this brand, I wanted to be a part of the equity of it. So, that was something else.

I mean, to be able to walk away from the relationship I had with Converse and Jordan, which is Nike, that wasn’t easy to do. But to be able to go into a place where I felt like they were going to build around me. I went into it with a long-term, lifetime mentality, you know, and we’re still rocking. So definitely the brand has grown and it’s a good thing for Li-Ning, it’s a good thing for the faithful Chinese customers and even the ones that’s in the US that can’t really get the product, but we got some faithful customers here. It’s good for them as well to see the brand grow. 

I feel like there’s been ebbs and flows too, in terms of how much Li-Ning has been in the US and how accessible it’s been in the US. I feel like there was a push when you first joined the brand to have more of it in the US and then for a while, it was kind of hard. And now it seems like there’s a resurgence. How involved in that are you? 
When we first get in there, obviously I’m a US athlete, so the push is there. We’re trying, we’re trying.

And your people are in America, all your fans.
All my fans. But that was also something I knew. Like once again, leaving the Jordan Brand—that cool factor, that accessibility, I was losing that because I knew it was gonna take a while to kind of build. It’s hard to get someone to—in the States, we’re brand loyal. We grew up in a brand, we stick with that brand regardless.

Dwyane Wade Li-Ning Way of Wade 9 Infinity Caution Orange
Wade wore the orange 'Caution' colorway of the Way of Wade 9 Infinity at ComplexCon. Image via Li-Ning

Especially you, being from Chicago.
Right. So I knew how hard it was going to be to crack this market. So we decided when I first got in, we were trying, and then we decided, you know what, we actually gotta get better in China first. We gotta take care of the home base of where the shoe company is built and made. And so I think we’ve done a pretty good job with it. And now we feel like it’s our time again. And hopefully we bring in the right athletes, the right influencers, the right faces and voices to take this brand to the next 10 years and see where it goes.

I just wish the people in the US could know how big it is in China to know you have, what, 11 stores in China? Over here, they never know. 
Yeah, it’s a business. It’s a part of me that wished that more knew. It’s also a part of me that, it’s OK as well. The right time, if the time is gonna be there, it’s going to be the right time. And China will find that right place, that right person, the right athlete, the right one that can bring us over here. You know, if I would have got with Li-Ning at my younger age [snaps] it would have got over here immediately. But then being 30, a little older, we had to work on really building a brand in China. And now, like I said, I’m looking for the next face, the next Wade, and who’s going to carry the torch. Who’s going to make it more accessible to the kids? They’re going to want to support this athlete, this person, this influencer. 

Your son’s one of those people right, Zaire? Is he gonna join the brand?
Hope he is, I mean, this is his brand.

You said that in 2015, that in a way what you were building was for him to take over one day. Do you still feel that way? 
Yeah. To me, this is a family brand. That’s why it’s called “Wade,” it’s not “Dwyane.” As he’s on his journey through basketball, he’s been in this brand for 10 years. It was crazy, I was thinking the other day, I was like, I grew up in the Jordan Brand. I grew up as a Jordan fan. My son is growing up on the Wade brand.

It’s like, he’s the perfect prototype for that next generation of people, because he’s at the point where he’s grown up, having those memories attached to the brand. 
Definitely he’s the perfect story that you can build. You know, it’s a lot of pressure, too. You don’t want to put too much pressure on a young guy like that, 19 years old. But I think the cool thing for him is that this is his. He don’t feel pressured to have to wear something. To have to promote something, he’s promoting his whole life. And so, as he starts his journey through professional basketball, we want to be right there every step of the way. So, we’ve been talking as a group and I think all of us are excited about the potential and opportunity.

Li-Ning's Steven Harrington sneaker collaboration
A collaboration between Li-Ning and artist Steven Harrington. Image via Li-Ning

Do you have to do contract negotiations with your son then? How does that work? 
I rep my son right now, so I do the contract negotiations vs. myself vs. the team in China. And when it comes to my son, I don’t look at it as like, an athlete, like the D. Lo deal, it was different. This is lifetime. This is not a “let’s get in and get some money and get out,” this is longevity. And hopefully we can build something throughout this process of trying to teach him, too. We haven’t signed anything yet, but I think Zaire is very confident that this is his family. This is his brand. And hopefully he’s one of the faces and voices that we can sit down and say that this was a part of something special as we go into this next decade. 

It’s an interesting fatherly thing too, where I feel like where you want your kids, on some level, to be interested in the same things as you are, but you don’t want to push them too hard. Was that a factor in how you approach this stuff?
Some and some not. I think that you gotta know—in my case—you gotta know your child. You gotta know where you can push and where you cannot. I think with Zaire, it has never been a push. As much as he feels the pressure from the outside, he’s never felt it from the inside about any of this.

But he’s gravitated to what he’s gravitated to and that’s business. He started his own company, YnG DnA, at 16. And he’s been playing basketball since he could walk. So he’s kind of gravitated to the same world that I’m in. So for me, it’s cool to be able to help guide him through it. As he gets to that age where he’s gonna start wanting to make his own decisions, he’s always known I’m here, he can run things by me.

But right now I’m repping. I’m the agent, the manager, the everything. It’s a blueprint to follow and that’s not always a bad thing. It’s a good thing sometimes when you have something that you can follow, and then now you start adding your own flavor to it. And I hope that’s what he starts doing.

It’s interesting too, ‘cause I wonder if you can use him kind of as a focus group. Because again, thinking about him as this next generation of person who can appreciate the brand and know what’s cool about it. Do you ever get feedback from him on shoes and things like that? 
No. I think now that he’s a pro, he’ll start giving more. Being a young kid, he’s just getting them and wearing them. You try to watch and see what he’s not wearing. We talk about, the goal is to be able to have him so involved from the start. Like I said, I was 30 when I came in and I started to learn how to really get involved. Well he’ll be 19, 20 years old. So get him started with the bread from the beginning of putting his DNA into our company, his company, and see where it goes.

Dwyane Wade visits a Li-Ning store during a trip to China in July 2013
As part of his Li-Ning deal, Wade makes trips to China to meet with the brand. Image via Getty

So those trips out to China, being out there, does that help you get closer to the manufacturing of the shoes? It’s one thing to be signed to a US-based brand and you’re so far from where the production happens. I would think that maybe getting to take so much time in Asia would allow you to maybe be closer to the design and the production. Do you get to see that sort of stuff?
You get to see it. I think obviously the positive to it is, when you do go over there, you’re able to kind of hit the ground and be integrated into all that goes on, Way of Wade and Li-Ning. But that’s only when I was able to go to China, that’s only two weeks out the year. And so throughout the rest of the year, there’s so much communication that has to go on. And it’s times where balls get dropped, it’s a little easier if you’re there. So we’ve had our challenges obviously with that, but we’ve also learned throughout this process, that it’s all about what we know, it’s all about communicating at a high level. But yeah, I definitely love going because I love to be able to experience how the brand is thought of, how we built this brand, and how to sustain it as well. So really getting out there and feeling the energy, asking the right questions. Just seeing how the work is done. 

Does it surprise you, the extent to which the consumer is different or it’s a different market? Because I feel like sometimes being in the sneaker scene, everything feels so globalized and it feels like a lot of those old ways that people liked shoes in particular geographic areas have been erased because of the internet. But it seems like a lot of people are neglecting this idea that in China, there’s still brands that in the US we don’t necessarily know how big they are, but you can still go over there and it’s a totally different sneaker scene. 
It is. I think the thing with China, we’re in that generation and we’re really going to continue to get in that generation, is understanding that it’s really no disconnect when it comes to sneakers. You know what I mean?

Dwyane Wade's Li-Ning Way of Wade 9 Infinity signature sneaker
The Li-Ning Way of Wade 9 Infinity. Image via Li-Ning

We all understand that it’s an important thing, identity wise. 
I think for us, a lot of it, too, is like being an athlete in the wine business. You gotta go through people thinking, “Oh, he’s an athlete. You have wine, it’s probably terrible. He don’t know nothing about wine.” So it’s the same thing and it’s different.

But it’s weird, in China it’s like, they’re making shoes in China with this Chinese company and it’s an immediate stigmatism. Then it’s like, do you know all the shoes that you’re wearing? 

But once again, I think it’s just been cool to be able to see the evolution and the growth of the sneaker culture, man. Growing up, the Jordans was fire, but the culture wasn’t like it is now. It’s really its own atmosphere, its own community. And so to be able to still be a part of it, for me, has just been fun. Whether we’re winning or we’re losing in sales, or whatever the case may be. To still be a part of this game, I’m 39 years old, you know what I mean? And to be a part of it when it’s at its highest, it’s been dope.

You have the long-term partnership right now, 10th signature shoe coming up, what’s the plan for the future?
Evolution, always evolving. I think that’s one thing we have the capabilities to do, and I’ve always tried to push and push and push the envelope when it comes to our designs and our thought process of how we’re designing things, and that’s just it. It’s, continue to evolve and whatever that looks like—I’m not going anywhere.

So hopefully, like I said, we sit here in year 20 and we can sit down and talk about like, dang, that was just a small business back then, but now we’ve grown. So, the biggest thing is just to stay true to who we are. And I think we’ve done that over these 10 years. It’s crazy that I’m saying 10 years, it’s wild. I swear it’s so wild, but I’m excited for what’s next, even more excited than I was when I started this 10 years ago.