Puma Basketball’s Resurgence After 20 Years Reset
During June’s 2018 NBA draft, Puma turned heads in an effort to revitalize its basketball division after essentially two decades of irrelevancy. The German sportswear company signed the draft’s two top selections, Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley Jr., as well as fellow eventual first-round pick Zhaire Smith, to footwear and apparel deals.
The news shocked the hoops world and quickly turned into a Twitter Moment that announced the NBA prospects had become “the first basketball players to sign with Puma since 1998,” when Vince Carter inked a rookie contract with the brand. Skylar Diggins-Smith, the four-time All-Star point guard of the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, saw the post surface on her Twitter feed and couldn’t help but point out an error. “Wrong!” she quote-tweeted. “But welcome to the family!”
That’s correct. It all started with Diggins-Smith, who signed an endorsement deal with Puma in August 2017 after spending the first four seasons of her career rocking Nikes and another wearing Adidas. Last year, she became the first pro hooper to roll with Puma since Carter. In 2013, she was the first female athlete to sign with Roc Nation Sports — the agency founded by rapper Jay-Z, who also joined Puma in June as the creative director of basketball.
“It was pretty dope being the first athlete, male or female, to be signed to Puma Basketball.”
After receiving her deal from Puma, Diggins-Smith was allowed to keep wearing pairs of her Nike Zoom HyperRev PEs (player exclusives) until the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game on July 28, when she
Upon returning to Dallas after the All-Star break, Diggins-Smith discussed how she landed with Puma in 2017, the brand’s recent WNBA sponsorship and why Jay-Z matters to this movement.
What factored into your decision to join Puma last August? Why did it make sense to you?
I was definitely ready for a change. I work over at Roc Nation Sports, and we had talked. I heard the brand Puma come up. I was like, ‘Man, are they in the basketball sector? Are they gonna get back in it?’ I thought it was pretty nontraditional as far as basketball goes. I really loved the brand. I had always seen it around, obviously with Fenty by Rihanna … the way that she brought high fashion to a sportswear brand. Really, Puma’s at the top of that list when it comes to versatility and fashion. Most sports brands just focus on performance, so I really love the lifestyle aspect that Puma has. Me being an athlete, a basketball player, that’s only part of what I do. I’m a woman. I have other things to do. I have errands to run. So I really love how the brand caters to my lifestyle. It’s not just about performance. There’s a lifestyle aspect to it that I really admired … so we started talking. I went up to Boston and met with the folks at Puma, had a great conversation, and I thought it was pretty dope being the first athlete, male or female, to be signed to Puma Basketball and go forward with their ideas as far as getting back into the basketball sector.
Exactly how much did it mean to you to be the first basketball player to sign with the brand since Vince Carter in 1998?
It was pretty cool. The things they had in store for me, and my opportunities to not only be in the basketball realm but also lifestyle, fashion, training, it was unheard of in terms of anything I’d ever experienced in the past working with a sportswear brand.
Clyde Frazier Has PUMA Life Time Deal
You continued to wear Nikes up until the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game. Why was that the moment to debut the Puma Clyde Court Disrupt?
That was actually the day that Puma and the WNBA had signed its partnership. It just kind of worked out that around All-Star we were able to finalize that deal, and I got cleared to wear Puma on the court finally … and it was a big weekend. A lot of people were talking about it. I got a lot of comments from players, fans and media. It was really a big hit.
How long had you been testing the new Pumas, and how do they feel out there playing?
They feel great. They’re form-fitted to my foot. I went up to Boston and they took my measurements … my foot, my toes, my arch and all those other things go into putting a shoe together. So it kind of feels like I just had my orthopedics in. A lot of shoes, when you wear them for the first time, the balls of your feet hurt or the heel of your foot hurts. But with these, they … felt like a glove.
What does the WNBA’s partnership with Puma, the brand’s first deal with a professional sports league, mean?
It’s awesome to see. When I think of Puma, I think of Walt “Clyde” Frazier being in the mecca of pop culture where it all started, in New York, and intertwining everything that comes with re branding. It’s dope that Puma wants to support our league. There’s so much diversity in our league, and now we’ll have diversity on the court with the footwear we’ll wear.
Jay-Z is on board as a creative director of Puma Basketball
It doesn’t hurt, right? (laughs) Everything he touches turns to gold. He’s a basketball fan. He’s an awesome creative mind. And people check for him, as far as music and fashion. He’s the best out here doing it as far as businesswise and in the rap game … maybe of all time. He’s been in the sports world for a long time too … he has a lot he can bring to the table. … It’s the brand that’s gaining the most traction right now.
Have you had a chance to talk to him about his vision for Puma Basketball?
You see what he’s done in a short amount of time … Roc Nation, as a whole, is a well-oiled machine. Nothing that he does is going to be half-ass. He’s going to make sure that it’s … well-thought-out, just like all of his business ventures. You’ve already seen the traction that Puma’s gaining in a short amount of time. There’s a lot of things in store. A lot of surprises, I’m sure. We’ll just have to see.
What do you think of Puma Basketball’s roster of athletes so far — — and do you have relationships with these guys already?
I don’t know any one of those guys. You gotta think Deandre Ayton … I’m like 10 years older than him and these kids. I’m 28 and they’re like what, 19, 20? They were kids when I was playing in high school and college. But it’s awesome to see their success, and their futures look really bright. … With Terry Rozier, this year was huge for him. We’ve never spoken, but we both played in the Big East, so I know him from Louisville. I love his confidence, his game, his swag. It’s great for the culture, for the brand … and obviously Rudy Gay is someone who’s been in the league a long time. He’s a vet who has a lot of respect in the NBA and the game. … We’ll see a lot more players who will want to roll with the brand because of its uniqueness.
What is the future of Puma, and what will the brand mean to the culture in the years to come?
I think we’ll see Puma get to a point where it’ll pass a few of these brands in the basketball sector. A lot of people are checking for what we have in store as a brand. You’ll see different designs of shoes … I’m sure you’ll see different PEs, and players getting their own shoe. I’m excited to be a part of it. I’m excited to be the first. It’s gonna be great for the culture.
Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas hasn’t laced up the sneakers in what seems like forever. But they certainly remind him of the pinnacle of his playing days, and a bold chance he took with a footwear brand trying to make its mark in basketball.
“Keepsakes,” said Thomas, now 57, of the kicks in his closet from the 1989-90 season. They’re not Converse, Nikes or Adidas. They’re Pumas. That’s right — Thomas, the leader of Detroit’s “Bad Boys” era and one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all time, was once endorsed by the German sportswear company. He rocked Puma’s basketball shoes on the court and on life-size cardboard cutouts. They’re also the shoes Thomas wore when he was named MVP of the 1990 NBA Finals after the Pistons beat the Portland Trail Blazers to claim back-to-back titles.
“I won a lot of games in my Pumas,” Thomas said. “My fondest memories are winning a championship in them and pouring that champagne on my head. … I was killing ’em in those shoes.” Thomas’ time with Puma is part of an almost forgotten history: storied yet short-lived, the partnership lasting just one season.
PUMA Wants To Go Toe To Toe With Nike And Underarmour Brands
Thirty years later, the brand is again striving for basketball relevancy. The ongoing NBA season marks Puma’s return to the sport for the first time in nearly two decades — and things are off to a good start, with Jay-Z as creative director of the rejuvenated basketball division. “I couldn’t ask for a better partner in building the vision for what we’re doing,” said Adam Petrick, who’s been with Puma since 1999, when he joined the company as web content manager. He’s now the global director of brand and marketing. “Jay-Z is a savvy business partner who understands how the market works … He’s also extraordinarily knowledgeable about the culture surrounding the game.”
@PumaHoops has a strong social media presence, its own private jet and a fresh new on-court sneaker, the Clyde Court Disrupt, inspired by true Puma icon Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who now has a lifetime deal with the company he joined in the early 1970s.
There’s also now a new generation of Puma hoopers serving as ambassadors for the relaunch. Skylar Diggins-Smith, Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Danny Green, Kevin Knox, Michael Porter Jr., Terry Rozier and Zhaire Smith. It’s a loaded roster: five of the first 16 picks in the 2018 NBA draft, including the top two selections; two grizzled NBA veterans; a four-time WNBA All-Star; a 6-foot-11 monster of a big man who made a major comeback from a gruesome injury; and a brash backup point guard playing in Beantown, who signed to the brand with a point-blank proclamation: “I ain’t f—in’ with nobody else but Puma.”
PUMA Sneakers Popolar As Ever In NBA
More players are wearing Pumas on the court than at any other time in NBA history. They’ve joined the Puma basketball family, which has a deeper and more tantalizing history than most would imagine. As Converse, Nike, Adidas and Reebok starred on court from the 1970s to the early 2000s, Puma placed its products on the feet of Hall of Famers and world champions, even once persuading a scoring titleholder to come on board. Pumas have graced the hardwood of high school showcases, college games and NBA Slam Dunk Contests. Deals were inked with everyone from the NBA’s tallest player ever to a high-flying phenom from the University of North Carolina who the company hoped would change its basketball fate.
“The Puma name is well-recognized as a leader in sports,” Vince Carter said in 1998, “and I’m looking forward to making that name even more well-known on the court.”
Puma tried again and again to thrive with some of the biggest names in all of hoops.
So how come it never worked?
“Jay-Z has been extremely influential,” Adam Petrick said. “He was the person who said to us, ‘It’s all about Clyde … You gotta go back to the beginning to really reboot this thing.’”
It all started in 1973, when Frazier became not only Puma’s first signature athlete but also the first player in basketball history to get his own sneaker. At the time, Frazier had a championship ring and was after another, averaging 21.1 points, 5.9 assists and a career-high 7.9 rebounds a game during the ’72-’73 season as the All-Star point guard for the New York Knicks.
Puma Clydes were before Air Jordans
Frazier wanted a shoe that was wide, light and designed with sufficient interior padding. The brand followed his vision like a blueprint and delivered a product that featured an unprecedented element: Frazier’s nickname “Clyde” etched in cursive under the brand’s logo on the outside of each shoe — hence the term “signature sneaker.”
It definitely was a big ego trip,” the Atlanta-born Frazier said in 2015, “because I was the only guy in any sport that had a shoe named after him.” Yet, even before Frazier dazzled in his own sneakers at Madison Square Garden, cats on asphalt courts throughout New York City swagged Pumas.
Frazier catapulted Puma onto the world’s biggest basketball stages indoors, wearing Clydes when he and Willis Reed led the New York Knicks to a championship over Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1973 NBA Finals. The Clyde ultimately emerged as one of the most influential sneakers of all time — a shoe that, after being embraced by hip-hop culture, transcended the sport of basketball. It was the epitome of style and embodiment of cool. Everyone, from ballplayers to break dancers, wanted to wear Puma — and Frazier was a huge reason why.
“I’d been a Frazier fan since I was a little kid,” said retired two-time NBA champion Wes Matthews, 59, who endorsed Puma from 1984 to 1986. “In high school, I wore No. 10 like him. I wanted a Rolls-Royce like him … wanted fur coats like him. I wanted to be a player like Clyde. He got me really into Puma.”
Soon after the Clyde’s 1973 debut, Puma signed George McGinnis, a back-to-back American Basketball Association (ABA) champion with the Indiana Pacers and the MVP of the league’s 1973 playoffs. In the first game that McGinnis, a 2017 Hall of Fame inductee, wore Pumas, the sneakers couldn’t handle the 6-foot-8-inch, 235-pound big man. On his second touch of the night, he ripped right through the top of one. “I’m very hard on shoes,” McGinnis later told the Indianapolis News. “When I cut, they rip.” He finished the game with Puma on one foot and Converse on the other.
The Puma roster is loaded. Five of the first 16 picks in the 2018 NBA draft, including the top two selections.
“Should you wear Puma?” Bobby Jones, an eight-time NBA All-Defensive first-team selection with the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers, posed in a first-person print ad from 1978, promoting the Puma Super Basket shoe. “All I can give you is my opinion.” Yet by 1979, Jones had switched to Adidas.
In 1980, Frazier retired. Coming off All-Star MVP honors and an NBA title with the Boston Celtics in 1981, Nate “Tiny” Archibald became Puma’s next big endorsee. Like Jones, however, Archibald lasted only one season with the brand. Spoiler: Supershort deals with players would continuously haunt Puma’s journey through basketball for decades. But it’s a trend that briefly changed in the mid-1980s, when the brand began courting star players such as Nuggets small forward Alex English. During the 1982-83 NBA season, no one could put the ball in the basket quite like the slender 6-foot-7 English, who made all 82 regular-season starts while posting an average of 28.4 points a game to win the league’s scoring title. English’s proficiency caught the attention of Puma, which lured him away from a previous shoe deal with Pony.
“Puma didn’t have to sell me too much,” said English, an eight-time All-Star and Hall of Famer. Now 65, he represented the brand from 1983 to 1987, primarily as one of the faces of the Puma Sky II. “The Nuggets back then, we were … very fleet-footed. We pushed the ball up the floor. We ran. So I envisioned my Pumas being the animal that they were — getting me up and down the floor. … I liked my Pumas a lot better than I did my Ponies
The same year English began wearing Pumas, the Houston Rockets selected Ralph Sampson with the No. 1 pick in the 1983 NBA draft. The 7-foot-4 Sampson had a history of wearing PRO-Keds in both high school and at the University of Virginia. Yet, as Sampson recalled during a discussion at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which he entered in 2012, PRO-Keds went on a hiatus shortly into his first season, halting the production of basketball sneakers. Puma scooped up Sampson, making him the company’s highest-profile basketball signing since Frazier. But there was one problem: Puma didn’t manufacture shoes in his gargantuan size 17. So the brand had to produce prototypes, which Sampson wore for most of his rookie year, including in the inaugural NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1984.
Sampson’s exclusive prototypes, some game-worn versions of which have sold at auction over the years, turned into pairs of his own sneakers that Puma then cranked out tirelessly. One ad from the mid-’80s promoted the release of “seven new Ralph Sampson signature shoes from Puma” — for real, seven at once. And, similar to Frazier, the Rockets center soon got a shoe named after him: the Puma Ralph Sampson.
“I wore that Ralph Sampson shoe all through high school. It’s the best basketball shoe I’ve ever worn … even to this day,” said Cedric Ceballos, who joined the brand in the early 1990s while playing for the Phoenix Suns. “Let me rephrase that … it’s the best basketball shoe ever made.”
Sampson’s contract with Puma paid him approximately $400,000 from 1984 to 1989. “Ralph received a megadeal,” said Petrick. “It was the first time a player got a significant check for an endorsement.” After Sampson, a 21-year-old named Michael Jordan, the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft out of the University of North Carolina, signed a contract with Nike worth $500,000 annually for five years. During the ’84-’85 season, Wes Matthews started 38 games at point guard for the Chicago Bulls as the backcourt mate of the young M.J., who debuted the iconic Air Jordan 1. On Matthews’ feet: the Puma Sky LX.
“The Jordan 1 paled in comparison to the Puma Sky LX, which was just a better ball-playing shoe.”
“I had some of my best games when I played in my Pumas with Michael Jordan,” Matthews said. “I took pride in my Pumas. I made sure they were clean every day. I made sure they gave me a couple extra pairs that I’d take on the road in case they got scuffed up or tore. … I felt like, OK, I’m wearing one of the baddest shoes in America.” And he wasn’t the only one.
“The Sky LX, by leaps and bounds, was the most superior performance shoe Puma ever did up until that point,” Garcia said. “The polyurethane midsole, great cushioning on the ankle — it became one of those coveted sneakers. … The Jordan 1 paled in comparison to the Puma Sky LX, which was just a better ball-playing shoe.”
With a strong product and perfect placement, Puma began to experience a basketball renaissance. “I’m playing alongside Jordan, who’s getting fined every game for wearing his shoes …,” Matthews said. “He’s getting a lot of publicity … so I figured Puma would get a lot of publicity and the brand would take off.”
Matthews was right — English, Sampson and Milwaukee Bucks power forward Terry Cummings appeared in the 1985 All-Star Game, all wearing Pumas. Sampson was named the MVP with a game-high 24 points and 10 rebounds. “You’re talking about three high-powered athletes,” said English, who also recalls an offseason tour of Munich and Madrid with Sampson and Cummings on behalf of the brand. “We brought respect to Puma. … People saw us every night, and that brought a lot of other guys on board.”
The 7-foot-7-inch Manute Bol, who holds the distinction (along with Gheorghe Muresan) of being the tallest player in NBA history, wore Pumas briefly in 1985. The brand also served as the official shoe supplier of the marquee McDonald’s All American Game in 1986 and became the footwear sponsor of college teams across the country, including Boston College, Cleveland State, DePaul, UCLA, Villanova and Wake Forest.
“I’ve always loved Pumas, the style and look, having played in them at UCLA,” said Hall of Famer and NBA on TNT analyst Reggie Miller at the beginning of this season. “I’ve always thought they were sleek, and ahead of their time.”
Puma also added Cummings’ Bucks teammate Paul Pressey (who wore Pumas in the 1986 dunk contest), Lakers power forward A.C. Green and New Jersey Nets power forward Buck Williams to the mix. “Puma at the time was aggressive and ahead of the curve,” Petrick said, “for what would come later, and what Nike would ultimately dominate — sports marketing.” Puma basketball was diversifying. Yet, according to a worldwide research company’s report included in a July 1986 story from the Chicago Tribune, the brand earned only 5.6 percent of the basketball sneaker market in the fourth quarter of 1985, compared with Nike, which checked in at 46.3 percent, and Converse at 17.4.
“Nike and Converse were the big boys on the block,” recalled Isiah Thomas, a Converse endorsee from 1981 to 1989. “No one else was really able to break through.” Whether due to the strength of competitors, durability problems with shoes, trial-and-error product design, or a combination of them all, Puma’s 1980s resurgence in basketball eventually lost steam. As the decade drew to a close, the brand’s athletes began making moves. English left for ASICS, and Matthews turned a brief sneaker free agency into a deal with Converse. Pressey only stuck around for a season, and Green decided to roll with Nike. Buck Williams, who was contacted for this story, didn’t recall endorsing Puma at all.
For five years, Sampson had driven Puma basketball with at least 12 variations of signature on-court and lifestyle shoes. But he spent his final few injury-plagued seasons in the NBA with Converse. “There were tons of great athletes that represented Puma back in the day, but what ended up happening is the product itself wasn’t that good,” said Petrick. “If you look back at Puma’s arc in the last 30, 40 years, that’s where the challenges came for us. We were really strong in marketing but lost our way from a product standpoint.”
Only Cummings remained with the brand in basketball by 1989, when he wore Pumas in the All-Star Game. Later that year, Thomas ended his eight-year partnership with Converse to take a chance with Puma for the ’89-’90 season.
Cummings, the last man standing, made the jump to Nike in 1990. By then, it was all about the Swoosh when it came to sneakers, while Jordan, the player dubbed His Airness, dominated the conversation in the NBA. Historic brands such as Converse and Puma suddenly phased out performance basketball sneakers.
“I don’t think we can say it never worked out for Puma in basketball. It worked very well — at times,” Garcia said. “But there was this phenomenon called Michael Jordan, and Nike and Jordan took over the world. After that it was hard for any brand to
Spring of 1993, the entire company actually found itself on the brink of bankruptcy, “struggling under eight years of losses, $250 million in debt and a warehouse filled with 1.5 million pairs of cheap $10 sneakers,” as The New York Times reported a decade later. “The early ’90s were when we were at our absolute worst,” Petrick said. “That was when the company just fell apart.” In the summer of 1994, Ceballos returned to Nike — another Puma athlete gone, just like that.
Puma anointed the 6-foot-6-inch, long-armed leaper from Jordan’s alma mater as yet another savior. Two months after the Golden State Warriors selected Carter No. 5 overall in the 1998 NBA draft (a pick traded to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for his UNC teammate, Antawn Jamison), the brand finalized a 10-year, $50 million deal with the 21-year-old rookie. He became the only player at the time, and first in almost five years, to wear Pumas in the NBA. Carter joined New Orleans Saints running back Ricky Williams, world welterweight champion Oscar De La Hoya and then-16-year-old tennis prodigy Serena Williams to form a group of promising athletes representing Puma across multiple sports.
“I am pleased to have the opportunity to join the Puma team and be a part of the company’s exciting return to basketball,” Carter said in an August 1998 press release. It wasn’t just his basketball prowess and sky-high ceiling that impressed the brand. The impact Carter, a goodwill ambassador for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, could have off the court was undeniable.
“In order to relaunch in basketball, we were looking to align ourselves with an exciting player who could bring credibility and exposure to the Puma name,” Puma spokesman Don Gibaldo said at the time. “Vince is a great player with a great heart. There’s no need for embellishment with Vince.”
PUMA Well Positioned For A Bright Sneaker Sales Future
Puma had a gem. Carter breathed life into Toronto basketball and emerged into an eight-time NBA All-Star. He put on the greatest show in Slam Dunk Contest history, helped propel Team USA to gold at the 2000 Olympic Games and has remained in the league for 21 seasons — the last of which he’s now spending at age 42 with the Atlanta Hawks. Yet Carter achieved all of these career milestones without Puma.
The core of the brand’s current athletes — Ayton, Bagley, Knox, Porter Jr. and Smith — are all under the age of 21. Yet, days before the Oct. 11 release of the Clyde Court Disrupt, the elder Matthews texted his son again with news of Puma’s latest signing — another early-30s shooting guard, also in his 10th year in the league.
“‘You ain’t too old,’” Matthews’ message read. “‘They just signed Danny Green.’”
Then the brand found a “perfect fit” in the 28-year-old Boogie Cousins, who returned to playing in mid-January after being sidelined for almost a year with a ruptured Achilles tendon. He’s already debuted the Puma Uproar — a new model for the second half of the NBA season, which is set to drop during All-Star Weekend in mid-February. Of Puma basketball’s current athletes, Cousins is the only true superstar. But the future seems to rely heavily on those five rookies.
“One of these young players has to have a standout and successful season,” Reggie Miller said. “The shoes … they’re already fire. Puma faded because nobody had been wearing them.”
“I had some of my best games when I played in my Pumas with Michael Jordan.”
With 10 athletes and counting, that’s no longer the problem. “They’re trending real high right now,” Wes Matthews said. “The visibility is there.” From the world champion Warriors down to a band of rookies hungry for stardom, it’s a new day. “This time around,” Petrick said, “we’re here to see it through, and build success for the long term.”
Puma basketball is back — again.
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