By Kareem Copeland
AP Sports Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO — While the U.S. men’s basketball team’s first order of business is to win the gold medal at the Rio Games there will be some other basketball business taking place on the court.
Shoe business, and it can get personal.
Michael Jordan is the shining example of how on-court moments can take on another life through sneakers in this global multi-billion dollar industry. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and other members of the United States Olympic men’s basketball team could have a similar opportunity in Rio. In an ideal world for players and shoe companies there will be a memorable golden moment that goes viral — leading to an ‘it must be the shoes’ phenomenon.
Nike is the official apparel provider for the team, but Jordan Brand, Adidas and other companies know the Olympics provide a unique chance to build a legacy around their product. And while it wasn’t obvious in a Nike promotional photo of the team, Harrison Barnes and Kyle Lowry are sponsored by Adidas; Klay Thompson by ANTA — and all are allowed to wear their non-Nike footwear during the games.
“The one thing that’s a little bit different between a lot of the Olympic models versus a new signature shoe for an athlete like Kevin Durant or LeBron James, is a lot of the Olympic stuff ties back into the history that’s happened previously,” said Brandon Edler, Finish Line content manager and creative strategist. “Nostalgia is still one of the best forms of marketing and retro stuff continues to be a very strong product point for a lot of these brands. It’s a fine balance between that and anything that’s new that’s being unveiled around the Olympics.
“There’s a good opportunity for somebody like Carmelo Anthony to go out there and drop 44 in an Olympic game and that being an iconic moment. Something like Vince Carter dunking over a 7-foot guy in the Nike Shox. That made Nike Shox one of the biggest shoes after that happened.”
Carter had fans around the world on their feet with his dunk over 7-foot-2 Frenchman Frederic Weis in the 2000 Olympics.
Many sneaker enthusiasts associate the Jordan 3 with Jordan winning the 1988 dunk contest. The red and black Jordan 12 was nicknamed the Flu Games after Jordan scored 38 points in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals despite an illness. Michael Johnson’s gold shoes are still talked about from when he broke the 200- and 400-meter world records at the 1996 Olympics.
Much of this year’s Nike Olympic products have been planned for 24 months, according to Nike Basketball color lead Eugene Rogers.
Durant’s latest signature shoe, the KD 9, first released in late June in a grey colorway, but the red, white and blue version is what Durant has worn during the Olympic exhibition games.
“We kind of knew Kevin Durant would be the guy who would almost be the leader,” said Nike Basketball senior design director Leo Chang, who worked on the KD 9, Kyrie 2 and Hyperdunk 2016. “It was kind of his time to shine and we wanted that moment to be great for him.”
Durant certainly isn’t the only player rocking new kicks. Anthony and Jimmy Butler debuted the Jordan 31 in the team picture two weeks ago. Paul George has been wearing the Nike Hyperdunk 2016 Flyknit. Kyrie Lowry is wearing Adidas’ summer release of the Crazylight 2016.
“I think everybody’s going to be watching us. So for the brand, it’s very important,” Butler said, “with me and (Carmelo) being here and both wearing the shoe, I think everyone gets to see what it looks like, how it performs and hopefully it makes us play to the top of our game.”
Each company benefits from a global audience that dwarfs the NBA Finals, Super Bowl or World Series, but each also hopes for an iconic moment that builds a storyline that lasts decades.
“You always kind of have to anticipate a moment of greatness like that,” Chang said. “That means the best execution of the product out on the floor at that time so when that moment is remembered, people remember the product as well.”
The marketing opportunities have gone beyond what the athletes wear at the Olympics. Sneaker companies have re-released several models from the past with Olympic-inspired colors or other attachments.
Edler said the hype and patriotism surrounding the Olympics always drives consumers to the stores and people in the United States are drawn to red, white and blue colorways.
Companies aren’t just putting out special editions to coincide with the Olympics, but also giving planned product an Olympic theme. James, Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry have had red, white and blue versions of their signature line this summer — and none are playing in Rio.
Nike has been releasing the Nike Air Prestos during the last year, “so that’s going to be a shoe that’s Olympified,” said Corey Bullough, owner of Fice Gallery and Boutique in Salt Lake City. “Same thing with the (Nike Air More) Uptempo, that’s a shoe they decided to bring back six months ago. … They tend to stick to their formula for the year.”
This year, players and shoe companies are hoping the formula includes a memorable golden moment at the Rio Games.