Sneaker Stories

How LaMelo Ball became the star Puma needed

His new MB.02 signature sneaker looks to follow the breakout success of its predecessor

For a teenager who grew up with two older brothers potentially headed to the pros and a headline-garnering pops, it turned out that LaMelo Ball proved to be an instant star. 

Now in his third season with the Charlotte Hornets, the All-Star point guard is not only looking to turn around the franchise’s fortunes, he’s also looking to revive Puma’s once-dormant basketball category.

The second colorway of his second signature shoe with the company, the MB.02 Phenom, launches this week, with design details drafted off of his outsize personality, boldly placed tattoos, and love of loud looks.

“He’s Melo, that’s for sure. He is who he thinks he is,” said Jeremy Sallee, Puma Basketball’s head of design. “He’s one of one, rare, not from here – he’s got his own sense of style and he doesn’t care what’s going on trendwise. He’s gonna do what he wants to do, with supreme confidence. That’s the gift with Melo. He’s supremely confident with what he wears, how he plays and who he is.”

To get a sense of just how his star power has led to an immediate impact on the brand, a 24-hour glimpse of his debut game in the Puma MB signature series says it all. 

It was a Tuesday evening in October 2021, the night before his sophomore season in the NBA tipped off.

The 2021 Rookie of the Year award that Ball won as his draft’s No. 3 overall pick in 2020 was clearly not adding to any pressure he felt to follow up his debut season.

The 6-foot-7 point guard was in an uncrowded Charlotte-area gym, weaving through players several inches shorter, but just a few years younger, who played for Ball’s MB Elite AAU team. Ball’s business manager, former NBA player Jermaine Jackson, is the coach of the AAU team, which Jackson’s teenage son also plays for.

There’s nothing on the line during this pickup game against his youth travel squad – except his love of the game.

A heave 3-pointer turns into a no-look pass on the next play. A shifty step back to the left wing comes after that, and myriad drives and floaters soon follow. All were worked on endlessly in Chino Hills, California, then in Geneva, Ohio, with BC Prienai in Lithuania, and even Wollongong, Australia – wherever Ball’s basketball odyssey happened to take him as a teenager.

“He just loves to hoop,” said a Puma rep. “I’m telling you – he just wants to hoop.”

The following night at the Spectrum Center, Ball dropped 31 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists in the Hornets’ home opener win of 123-122 over the Indiana Pacers. He didn’t celebrate the stats on social media afterward. Nor did he post a standard game shot with a clichéd caption like “Great team win!”

Instead, from the players’ parking garage, he posted a photo of himself wearing his outfit on Instagram, where his screen name is @Melo. He was draped in a custom neon green suit of the elongated variety alongside his custom-wrapped, matching neon green Lamborghini Urus of the excessively stunting variety.

The post tallied more than 1.8 million likes. It had earned no less than 50 million impressions by the following morning and was reposted by every tier of basketball-related social media accounts on every platform.

Just 20 years old at the time – and after once launching a signature sneaker under his family’s Big Baller Brand on his 16th birthday – Ball was stepping into his lane as one of the athletic industry’s most impactful endorsers.

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball wears the Puma MB.01 in 2021.

He made his regular season debut that evening in his first signature sneaker with Puma, the MB.01. The vivid “red blast” colorway didn’t remotely match the Hornets’ teal and purple accented uniforms. But it was a perfect fit for someone drawn to showing off the loudest style possible.

He’s also shown love of bright neons, rocks iced-out grills, and 3D UFO chain pendants in the arena entry tunnel. He primarily sticks to a series of emojis for his social post captions. He’s kept his more traditional media sessions about sneakers to a minimum.

“It felt great,” Ball told Andscape following his first game in the Puma MB.01. “You gotta love wearing your own hoop shoes.”

Five weeks later, the shoe smoked out at retail upon its launch. During its first 90 days, more than 120,000 pairs of the MB.01 in four colorways were sold, according to an industry source. Those numbers made the sneaker launch one of the most successful signature debuts in the last decade, ranking with LA Clippers guard Paul George’s Nike PG 1 and Stephen Curry’s first Under Armour model.

Foot Locker was so sure of his star power that it locked in an exclusive distribution agreement for the MB series, showcasing Ball’s latest model in elevated store wall displays and ramping up availability to more than 700 Foot Locker locations across the country.

“It came at the right time for Puma and the right time for our relationship with them. It also came at a perfect time for basketball,” said Jed Berger, who was chief marketing officer of Foot Locker at the time of the interview in March and was named president of Kenneth Cole in August.

“It’s really good for the sneaker industry when basketball is hot. It’s really good for the industry when multiple brands have talent that is doing great,” Berger said. “We have an amazing partnership with Puma, that is really focused around LaMelo.”

When Puma Basketball was relaunched in 2018, after nearly two decades following a canceled deal with Vince Carter in 1999, the first move they made was not to give out a signature shoe.

“The signature model concept construct is a little broken, and it needs to be challenged a little bit,” Puma chief brand officer Adam Petrick said at the time.

The industry has hovered just shy of 20 signature sneakers for NBA players in recent years. Around 75% of the league’s players wear Nike Inc.’s Nike, Jordan, and Converse shoes in games. In 2015, basketball sneaker sales peaked at $1.3 billion but fell a staggering 13.6% by 2017, according to research from the NPD Group.

Overall sales of current performance hoop shoes, not including retro Jordans, have continued to decline since that peak in 2015.

Puma was looking for a different approach. The company formed deals with a mix of top draft picks and veterans with expressive personalities and had one model for each half of the season that all players wore.

That all changed once the brand had a chance to land Ball in 2020.

“[To be] a signature athlete, it’s more than just the basketball player. There’s an aura around them,” said Sallee. “Whether that’s a mysterious aura, or a personality thing. It’s like the whole [Allen] Iverson thing, where he was just so different from everyone else. That’s what makes Melo special. He came in with a life of growing up on social media and a family dynamic that we’ve never seen before with a NBA player. We watched him grow up.”

From a Foot Locker perspective, the familiarity that Ball entered the league with added to their excitement for his eventual series. 

“The basketball community has known about him for years, and they always called him ‘The best Ball.’ There’s been this enthusiasm for him for a long time,” said Berger. “That also allowed for Puma to have a little more confidence to produce a signature so early on. When they thought they had something, they had the confidence to press the accelerator. In this business, you gotta be willing to be wrong if you’re going to get wins.”

That bet paid off.

When Ball laced up his signature sneakers for his first All-Star Game in February, it was the first time Puma shoes had been worn in the NBA’s annual showcase game since 1990, when Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas wore Puma at All-Star Weekend in Miami.

“It was warranted,” said Sallee. “He’s exciting to watch, and he’s a perfect dude to go to an All-Star Game. He’ll just get better. Just like us, it’s just the start for him. I know he’s working on his game, and he’s a true basketball player. He’s not worried about what’s going on off the court as much as he is on the court. He’s doing it right, and we should see him in a lot more All-Star Games.”

Puma head of design Jeremy Sallee’s computer rendering of the progress of the MB.02.

Fast-forward to his second signature model, the shoe Sallee designed carries over many of the elements that made the first shoe, designed by Jacob Garcia, a success. The silhouette is essentially the same, and there’s a more integrated approach to celebrating the “world of Melo,” as Sallee calls it. Once again, the launch colorway is a blinding blend of bright red and orange.

Wordmarks and phrases such as “1 of 1,” “Rare,” and “Not From Here” were splashed across panels of the first shoe. The second shoe takes a less literal approach with the words designed into the panels and grip pattern on the bottom.

The Phenom edition of the MB.02.

Puma

The second colorway, dubbed Phenom, brings a different approach with a more balanced black-and-blue execution. The cushioning has been upgraded from Nitro Foam embedded in the heel to now being included in the heel and forefoot of the MB.02, a first for Puma in a basketball shoe.

“On the 1, he just wanted all-over, one-color shoes,” said Sallee. “While we have that for the launch color [of the 2], we do have some new finishes for the next releases that are a little bit more dynamic.”

Coming out of the Zoom meeting monotony under which the first shoe was designed, Sallee mentions Melo’s vibrant personality and in-person feedback during a series of meetings at the Puma office just outside of Boston and in brainstorm sessions in Charlotte. 

After the first shoe was drafted from the wings of his chest tattoo, the second shoe continued that design language. Ball added more ink over the summer, with that same batch of phrases and red flames taking up some serious real estate across his forearms and hands. 

“His personality is about supreme confidence,” added Sallee. “He’s got his own fashion sense and he likes a lot of things, whether we or anyone else likes them. He’s gonna wear it proudly and make it cool. There’s a lot of things that he embodies and has a lot of characteristics that have just worked out for a signature athlete.”

Charlotte Hornets point guard LaMelo Ball’s tattoos, such as the wings and halo artwork on his right forearm, are often featured on his signature shoes.

Puma

As he enters his third NBA season, the impact Ball has been able to drive for the overall Puma brand is already being felt.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Berger said of the Foot Locker partnership with Puma on the LaMelo series. “We had high expectations for it, but it’s unbelievably strong.”

“Puma and LaMelo Ball’s MB franchise consistently remains one of our most popular sneaker offerings at Foot Locker, Kids Foot Locker, and Champs Sports,” said Holly Tedesco, vice president of marketing at Foot Locker Inc. “Since the MB.01 first launched through the recent debut of the MB.02, we have seen tremendous anticipation and interest from our customers.”

That impact has even extended into third-party resell platforms, such as StockX, where Puma hasn’t historically held firm footing in aftermarkets dominated by retro Air Jordan and Adidas Yeezy models.

According to Drew Haines, StockX’s merchandising director of collectibles & sneakers, in just a year’s time, the interest level in Ball has far exceeded other athletes and designers.

In the Silhouettes section under StockX Search Spikes, searches for “Puma MB.01” have jumped by 6,008% year over year. In the platform’s People section, inquiries for “LaMelo Ball” have increased 1,660% year over year. The next highest rising person is sculptor Tom Sachs, whose successful General Purpose collaboration with Nike contributed to a 1,008% spike. Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young is a distant third, with a search increase of 213%.

“Performance basketball shoes are gaining popularity on StockX, and LaMelo Ball’s MB.01 is very much at the center of this trend,” said Haines. “Only released in December of last year, it’s already become one of the top-selling performance basketball silhouettes on StockX.”

During that same period, Puma has been the No. 2 fastest-growing brand in the sneakers category on StockX.

“This growth was due in large part to the success of LaMelo Ball’s MB.01 sneaker line,” added Haines. “We’ve seen trades of Puma sneakers increase by 415% year over year on StockX, and that simply wouldn’t have happened without the success of the MB.01.”

The heel of Charlotte Hornets point guard LaMelo Ball’s second shoe features an upgraded heel counter and re-creates the MB1 wings and halo artwork from the tattoo on Ball’s right forearm.

With two colorways of his second shoe out now and a runway for success ahead, the Puma Hoops category has come a long way since its relaunch in 2018.

Landing Ball was the spark the brand was looking for to carry Puma into the next decade. 

“It was perfect,” said Sallee. “It’s what we needed, and we got it sooner than later, which was nice too. Having an athlete that could push the brand forward and push the category forward, for real. When you’re starting up the basketball category, if you don’t do it right, you could ruin it quick. Melo definitely helped a lot, and his personality is perfect for being the lead dude at a brand. It was a godsend for real.”

Nick DePaula is a footwear industry and lifestyle writer at Andscape. The Sacramento, California, native has been based in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade, a main hub of sneaker company headquarters. He’ll often argue that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days is actually an underrated movie, largely because it’s the only time his Sacramento Kings have made the NBA Finals.