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NBA Endorsements: When Players Sell More Than Shoes

Bethlehem Shoals@freedarkoNBA Lead WriterNovember 16, 2011

Basketball players usually sell shoes. Even before Nike and Michael Jordan turned sneaker endorsements into a second career, the NBA's stars had some marketing muscle to their name.

The formula is remarkably simple: If an All-Star likes the shoe, then clearly the shoe is doing something right.

Except NBA players, perhaps more than any other athletes, are never just performers on the field.

They are celebrities, personalities with cults to prove it, figures we feel we know, like, or maybe even trust. That's what happens when a sport trots out a small number of barely clothed athletes who run around expressively and, in the case of the best ones, leave a permanent imprint on fans' minds with every game they play.

In short, they can make great pitchmen for products all over the map. NBA players have crossover appeal simply because they are visibly demonstrable people. Michael Jordan pioneered the shoe game, but he didn't invent it. Similarly, while his numerous endorsements remain the gold standard, MJ was hardly the first—and he certainly won't be the last.

The 1980s Celtics were known as hard-nosed competitors who never let ego or entertainment value get in the way of the win. But they also had a working-class charm that prefigured the "dude you want to have a beer with" strategy in electoral politics.

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At the height of their powers—and with that lovable goof Bill Walton on board as the sixth man—the team's core shilled for Scotch 'N Sirloin by showing us what a meal with this team would be like. Larry Bird loosens up, wearing a purple shirt and sitting closest to the flowers. Robert Parish cracks a smile for a change. Walton cleans up at the salad bar. But it's Bird who starts the wave. Scotch 'N Sirloin is the kind of place where Larry Bird can lead a cheer at the dinner table and keep his dignity intact. Isn't that the place for you?

Magic Johnson, flashy and possessor of a mega-watt smile, had his share of ads."Showtime" wasn't just about lighting up the basketball court.

But the greatest Lakers' ad of the Magic era didn't involve Ervin himself, because Vlade Divac had two things the team's superstar never could muster: a funny accent and a propensity for facial hair that were tailor-made for a shaving ad. Here, in a 1990 Shick spot, he gets a bit of rookie hazing, courtesy of A.C. Green and Mychal Thompson. Divac also makes a crack about his "irritating" personality, which proved to be prophetic given his long career of arguing with refs and flopping like nobody's business. What makes this ad truly priceless, though, is the end, where Green—who ended being known as much for his virginity as for his rings—is checking out some fly young ladies with Thompson and Divac. 

Three years before Space Jam, this Ballpark Franks ad depicted His Airness as a superhuman cartoon who could bend the line between the real word and other realms. In Space Jam, Jordan played hoops against a bunch of animated monsters. He levitates to grab himself a hot dog mid-game. Admittedly, he seems to be having a pretty easy time with his anonymous opponents, but the thought of the NBA’s all-time most intense competitor busying himself with thoughts of snacks is pretty silly. He would be relishing (ha!) the beatdown, not letting up and allowing his thoughts to drift. Not the reprisal of the shrug that he made so famous in the 1992 Finals against the Trail Blazers. 

Back before Kobe Bryant was his own man, when his every move—on and off the court—seemed to have been cribbed from the Michael Jordan playbook, he too made a perfectly silly ad for meat products. But while Jordan pushed delicious franks cooked the privacy of your own home, the more sinister Kobe was in bed with McDonald’s, the brand synonymous with destroying the health of America (not to mention more than a few NBA players). And while Jordan shows us that he’s great before moving on to lunch, with Kobe, we’re told that he’s huge. The only shot he takes is missed.

By 2001, anyone doubting Bryant was foolish, yet the decision of Kobe to place himself in an ad about hype being vindicated is pretty darn telling. 

Dwight Howard likes to smile and joke. He’s also a showman when given the opportunity, like at the dunk contest. For a minute, it looked like Howard was going to be the new king of endorsements. Then, he got overexposed and just plain exposed. Howard was everywhere, hamming it up and working way too hard to make us love him and whatever product he was repping at the moment.

The problem was, that shtick—tonally, the total opposite of Jordan’s cool—only goes so far. It wears thin.

Plus, Howard himself began to grate. He was a musclebound clown who liked lifting weights and acting like an overgrown kid. That kind of image is meant to fly high and burn out. Dwyane Wade, lately on the rise and now T-Mobile’s sole player spokesperson, is a low-key dude with some personality. In other words, built for the long haul. 

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