How Lonzo Ball helped De'Aaron Fox score on the sneaker market

ByNick DePaula ESPN logo
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sacramento Kings rookie point guard De'Aaron Fox has a budding rivalry with fellow rookie Lonzo Ball, famously ending Ball's college career with a win in the NCAA tournament, then saying he wanted to win that game to "shut LaVar Ball up."

But, in a twist of fate, it was Ball's decision to eschew traditional sneaker deals and go the Big Baller Brand route that made Fox the top target for sneaker companies among the 2017 draft class.

"He's getting buzz as the guy," an Adidas source said at the time the company was pitching Fox.

"Fox is the guy!" an Under Armour source texted just before their pitch meeting, perfectly on cue.

Every major brand expressed strong interest in Fox, who had been the face of Kentucky for the one season he was there and was widely perceived as potentially the fastest player in the NBA -- a talent that appealed to sneaker companies, which had to make their pitches before knowing where 2017's top prospects would land in the draft.

"When I was younger, we saw Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and when Reebok had a basketball side," Fox said. "For those brands to be coming at me and talking to me about what they were going to do in terms of commercials, it was just a blessing. I grew up wearing all of their shoes and paying for them, and at the end of the day, they wanted to pay me to wear their shoes."

The offers were strong from the start, with each brand pitching north of a million dollars per year, along with additional incentives. Fox met with Under Armour founder Kevin Plank at the company's Baltimore headquarters on May 15, impressing executives with engaged product questions and marketing conversations throughout their meeting. Fox had worn Under Armour during his early AAU days with the Houston Defenders.

"When Brandon Jennings was the face of [Under Armour]," Fox said, "I was in the Bloodlines, the Jukes and all the Micro Gs."

Rather than bring athletes to its more modest Portland, Oregon offices, Adidas rented out a sprawling mansion in the hills of Los Angeles. Poolside couch pillows featured Fox's name in stitching, with the brand presenting him with the ability to be a "creator," and tap into their expressive and lifestyle-driven current direction.

"You see the numbers and the players that are affiliated [with the brand], and you know which shoes you've liked in the past and you see the progress that everyone has made," Fox said. "If a brand hasn't made that progress, it's like, 'Well, how much further can I help with that progress?' "

None of the brands offered a signature shoe during the course of his rookie shoe deal -- no 2017 draft pick received such an offer.

"Nike was very straight," said Happy Walters, Fox's agent. "[Nike] said, 'Hey, we do have other big athletes here, and if you become a great athlete, maybe you'll get your own shoe. But that doesn't mean you will.' That wasn't as important to him."

Ultimately, there was a familiarity and love for the Swoosh's sneakers that drove Fox's decision. Even now, he says his longtime preference for Nike on the court also went into his decision to pick Kentucky over rival Louisville. Fox signed with Nike this spring, becoming the first rookie to finalize a traditional deal. According to industry sources, Fox's deal is for five years, worth roughly $2 million per year.

"With Nike, I felt like it was an easy choice for me," Fox said. "I've been wearing them for a long time, and they have my favorite shoes."

While at Kentucky, it was his 25 year-old older brother Quentin Fox who let the younger Fox borrow from his extensive stash of size 12 and 12.5 sneakers.

"My brother is actually a huge sneakerhead, like, he needs to tone it down," Fox said. "He's the one that got me into shoes, and my brother and I wear the same size."

From rare LeBron James signature models in green and gold, to mango orange low-top Kobe Bryant editions, Fox was constantly clashing colors on the court, and creating a following for his footwear along the way.

Now in Sacramento -- one of four NBA teams with purple in their color palette -- Fox plans to wear several models of Bryant's signature Nike line, which frequently were made available in the Lakers' particular shade of purple. This season he primarily has worn a combination of the two most recent Kobe AD models, but his brother is already hunting down rare older Kobe colorways in Kings hues, as Fox is looking to once again turn heads with his footwear.

"The Kobe IXs are my favorite basketball shoe overall," Fox said. "The IV is when he started the low-tops, and I'll definitely try to get my hands on those."

In a fun coincidence, the rookie charged with helping to lead Nike's Kobe series isn't "the new face of the Lakers," as Magic Johnson dubbed Ball, but rather Fox, who plays for a Kings team that once had famous playoff battles with Bryant's Lakers.

However, despite the previous bluster between the two players -- or more accurately between Fox and Ball's father -- Fox has chosen to downplay any comparisons between his traditional role at Nike and Ball's unique route, signing with a family brand where his 16-year-old brother already has a signature shoe.

"It is different," Fox said. "His brother [LaMelo] is the most famous high school player ever."

Walters is less impressed.

"I don't think anyone takes [Big Baller Brand] really seriously," he said. "Have they sold shoes more than to curious people? I have friends that have sold that much on their own."

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