At the NBA Finals, an unusual change of footwear
For the first time in over a decade, players aren’t wearing special Finals-themed sneakers. Instead, supply chain issues have forced them to get even more creative.
Every season since LeBron James first appeared in the NBA Finals in 2007, players have debuted new or special-edition sneakers specifically for the Finals – until now.
Marred in part by ongoing factory and shipping delays that have stymied the sneaker industry’s launch calendar throughout the 2021-2022 season, along with the league’s loosening of the footwear color rules in 2018, this year’s NBA Finals are showcasing more variety and surprising choices on the court.
Headliners such as Stephen Curry, Jayson Tatum, Klay Thompson, Marcus Smart and Draymond Green have been pulling up in everything from purple and red, to olive cheetah print, neon blue and vivid orange.
And then there’s Boston Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, whose Adidas endorsement deal expired in October 2021. He’s been wearing Nike’s Kobe 6 Protro sneaker throughout the Finals — for free.
As has been the case in most recent championship matchups, Nike is dominating the branding battle, with nearly half of all players playing in its swoosh sneakers. (During the regular season, Nike is worn by around 68% of the league’s players.)
This year, 16 players are lacing up Nikes for the Finals, although not all of them have an official endorsement contract. Next in line for visibility would be the three athletes each sporting Nike and Under Armour’s player-led subsidiary brands, with Tatum, Otto Porter Jr. and Malik Fitts each wearing Jordan Brand shoes, and Andre Iguodala, Damion Lee, and of course, Curry, are wearing Curry Brand.
Additionally, Thompson and Kevon Looney are both wearing Anta, while Puma (Smart), New Balance (Aaron Nesmith), Adidas (Nemanja Bjelica), Peak (Andrew Wiggins) and Converse (Green) are each officially repped by a lone player.
Thompson’s bright blue low-top Anta KT7s were unmistakable in Game 1, and Green was spotted in an olive green cheetah print pair of Converses one night, and a “Money Green” dollar bill-graphic pair the next.
Curry wore his new Curry 9 Flow sneaker in light blue, purple and violet to open the series, a colorway originally made for International Women’s Day in March. It features unicorn and butterfly graphics on each insole in honor of his daughters Riley and Ryan.
The Curry 4 Flotro he broke out for Game 4 was a hand-painted custom by Dez Customs and Kreative Custom Kicks, designed by UConn star guard Azzi Fudd. Fudd became the first college basketball player to sign a name, image and likeness (NIL) deal with a connection to an athletic brand in November 2021, when she landed a multiyear partnership agreement with Curry’s SC30 Inc. The shoes created with Fudd featured a message across each toe: #RetireInequality. The hashtag is part of a campaign that Fudd has partnered with TIAA on to raise awareness of the retirement income gap between women and men. Next week, the collective plans to sell two pairs of the shoes on the NTWRK platform, with 100% of the proceeds benefiting The Equity Project.
Fellow Warriors guard Jordan Poole, an official Nike endorser, is sticking to his rotation of Kobe 11s that were originally released in 2016. His teammate, Wiggins, has been wearing a bright yellow pair of the Nike Kobe AD Exodus, a move that has turned heads given that the All-Star starter is currently under contract with Peak.
While playing in Kobes since the start of the team’s second round series, Wiggins used athletic tape to cover up the Nike swoosh logos during the last two rounds of the playoffs. For the Finals, he filled in the shoe’s main panels with a custom black paint job. Barring any ongoing design issues, he’s expected to receive his signature Peak Wiggins 1 shoe next fall.
Throughout his Eastern Conference finals MVP run, Tatum wore a Bryant-tribute version of the Air Jordan 36, with black snakeskin, purple and gold accents and a motivational charge from Bryant during one of their workouts together: “How much does it mean to you?”
“That was my idol,” Tatum said during a media availability. “That was my inspiration. That was my favorite player.”
As the Finals got underway, he wore more youthful themes of the newest Air Jordans he’s headlined previously. For Game 1, he rocked a blue and teal video game graphics-inspired look dubbed “Hesi-Tatum.” He followed those up with a black patent leather and metallic silver trim execution inspired by his favorite vintage Mustang, then veered yet again to an avocado-centric colorway in shades of green dubbed the “Taco Jay,” a fun play on Tatum’s go-to Mexican food order (hold the guac!).
Decades ago, long before Finals sneakers had become carefully crafted debuts, players simply continued wearing the shoes they had worn all season long as their teams continued through each round of the playoffs.
Michael Jordan, a fixture in the postseason in the 1990s, would follow a quarterly sneaker cadence throughout his Chicago Bulls career, typically debuting the black and red edition of his newest Air Jordans during the summer stretch that saw him seal six championship wins. Occasionally, players would debut a shoe slated for a fall release in early June.
In 2007, all that changed when LeBron James debuted new footwear during the NBA Finals.
Nike prepared ahead for James’ eventual ascent to the top of the game during his first NBA Finals appearance in 2007. As the Cleveland Cavaliers moved through the Eastern Conference, James wore white and navy Zoom Soldier 1 sneakers. Once they reached the Finals that year, Nike made the Cleveland star a white patent leather pair of Soldiers accented with gold and red.
Although those were the Cavs’ colors at the time, the custom embroidery along each collar of the new colorway added an elevated touch to the sneakers. Playing off of the Nike swoosh campaign that pushed fans to tune in to see James’ touted greatness, the outer collar of the shoes read “WITNESS,” and the inner portion was emblazoned with “2007 FINALS.”
A year later, Adidas, the NBA’s official apparel sponsor at the time, also planned ahead, placing the official NBA Finals logo along the inside of Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett’s sneakers for his first Finals appearance.
Though the TS Commander model was styled in just two versions — white, black and green, along with a black and green makeup — Garnet had seven pairs at his disposal, each of which had the specific game number highlighted in green embroidery along the side of the shoe. His signature staring face was featured along the collar.
While Garnett won his only ring against the Los Angeles Lakers that season, it wasn’t until the following year that Lakers star Bryant laced up his own special-edition sneakers for the league’s final matchup.
Unable to call them “the NBA Finals edition” for legal reasons, Nike instead coined the sneakers Bryant wore during the 2009 Finals the “Big Stage” Kobe 4. Along with splashes of gold throughout, the sneakers featured a collection of his stats and milestones from the regular season, and were created just a couple months in advance.
Across the floor, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard had his own custom kicks awaiting him after an upset win over James’ Cavaliers. Donning a gray and royal Adidas Commander LT, Howard’s size 18s were emblazoned with the official NBA Finals logo along each heel.
Bryant returned to the Finals for a third straight year in 2010, besting Garnet’s Celtics, wearing another “Big Stage” edition of his new Kobe 5 low-tops. After that, the foundation for special-edition Finals kicks was set.
As a member of the Miami Heat, James again led the way with annual NBA Finals footwear for each of his four trips with the franchise from 2011 to 2014.
As Nike designers planned for what they hoped to be an inevitable championship appearance during James’ first season in South Beach, Miami Heat president Pat Riley gave them a simple message:
“All of my soldiers wear the same color boots.”
If Nike wanted James to don a red pair of sneakers, the Heat needed several months’ notice to allow for the footwear partners of every player to provide them with matching red sneakers.
When the 2011 NBA Finals series shifted to Dallas and the Miami Heat took the floor for Game 3, James’ debut of the LeBron 8 PS in red didn’t quite stand out, as initially intended, with the entire Heat roster rocking red as well.
In 2012, James wore the LeBron 9 Elite in red, black and gold, then black and gold, and eventually white, black and gold during the series when he won his first NBA title with the Heat. There was also a yellow and black version of the shoe that was released in stores, but it didn’t find its footing on the court because it was deemed too much of a departure from the team’s primary colors.
The following year, Riley relented, as James and Wade often wore contrasting shoes, starting out the series against the Spurs in a red, black and gold LeBron X Elite and a metallic gold Way of Wade Encore sneakers.
Soon after, trophy-gold kicks became an annual tradition, with James often debuting versions of his newest shoe as his Finals appearances began to mount, or Curry breaking out a gold-accented pair of his annual Under Armour signature series, beginning in 2015 with the Curry One.
For his first four Finals forays, Curry wore gold-accented kicks each year, before switching things up for his fifth trip to the Finals in 2019, the first season of the league’s new anything-goes color rules.
It was also the Warriors’ final year playing at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, so Curry debuted a black and yellow pair of Curry 6s featuring an Oakland tribute on the side, along with a vibrant red and neon version representing a maxed out decibel meter, a nod to the longtime frenzied fans at “Roaracle,” the Oracle Arena.
Though Tatum is set to receive his own Jordan Brand signature shoe next season, this series marks just the second time in the last 15 years that the NBA Finals did not feature a signature Nike Inc. athlete on the court. The Warriors’ last championship appearance, against the Kawhi Leonard-led Toronto Raptors in 2019, is the other. Since 2007, at least one top Nike signature player — James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving or Bryant — has played in every other Finals series.
You’d have to go back nearly two decades, to the Spurs versus Nets series in 2003, to find the last time the NBA Finals was held without a player wearing his own signature shoe. Tim Duncan, that year’s Finals MVP, had just left Nike to sign with Adidas, and his eventual Three Stripes signature model wouldn’t be released for another year.
There could still be some sneaker surprises ahead in this series, with Curry and Thompson touting their signature lines, and the star power of Tatum hinting at a potential debut of the upcoming Air Jordan 37, which isn’t scheduled to be released until the fall.
As it stands, gone is the gold atop the Finals footwear for now, marking a hiatus for special-edition sneakers on the league’s grandest stage for the first time in a decade and a half. As supply chain issues hopefully ease during the coming season, maybe we’ll be seeing NBA Finals-themed kicks return next year.