In the sneaker world, the endorsement often makes the brand.
Would Nike have become a worldwide giant if it had made Air Sam Bowies? Would Adidas still exist today if it bet on Vitaly Potapenko becoming the breakout star of the 1996 draft over Kobe Bryant? Would even Portland's most dedicated Blazers fan ever be caught dead rocking a pair of Meyers Leonard Signatures?
There's a reason you don't know Nautica and Warner Bros. tried to break into the shoe market, and it often has less to do with the quality of the shoes than of the players trying to sell you on them. Here are some of the most obscure endorsements in shoe history.
Billy Ray Bates
Then: A cult hero of the post-Walton, pre-Drexler Blazers, the high-flying, hard-partying two guard went to the Philippines after drug issues forced him out of the NBA and became a superhero—specifically, Black Superman, the name of the shoes a local company made in his honor. His acts of heroism included chugging beers before games, working out by lifting cars by the bumper and challenging Wilt Chamberlain in total number of sexual conquests.
Now: Following a stint in jail for robbery, Bates returned to the Philippines as a skills coach, which led to a revival of his signature sneakers. He was fired in 2012 for "acts detrimental to the team," and is trying to find someone who'll publish the handwritten autobiography he penned while in prison.
LA Gear, 1991
Then: As arguably the second-best player of his generation, no shoe associated with the Mailman should be considered obscure. Yet the Catapult is remembered only by hardcore sneakerheads. One reason is that Nike sued LA Gear for allegedly ripping off its spring-boosting patent. Another is that the shoe once literally fell apart on a college player in the middle of a game. And let's face it: It's kind of hard to buy Malone as a sneaker pitchman. He's such a bumpkin he probably would've preferred to play in a pair of muddy work boots if possible.
Now: Sliding into Vanessa Bryant's DMs, probably.
Then: It's probably safe to say the former Duke guard is the only player with a signature shoe to average fewer than 4 points per game in the NBA. (To be fair, his pro career was derailed by a serious car wreck his rookie year. But still, fuck Duke.) At least the commercial for the shoes is pretty classic: Over a righteous cheese-rock cover of David Bowie's "Heroes," Hurley declares, "I'm not filling anyone's shoes—I brought my own!"
Now: Coaches at Arizona State University, the Duke of the Pac-12.
Warner Bros., 1995
Then: Appropriately for a franchise named after a large, lumbering animal, the center known as Big Country—because he was big, grew up in a small Oklahoma town and was presumably really into '80s Scottish folk-rock bands—was the first-ever draft pick of the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995. When Warner Bros. ventured into footwear, it naturally identified him as the perfect representative. Because when you think of the company that created Bugs Bunny, you think of slow-footed hillbillies from the Ozarks.
Now: Lives on a cattle ranch in his hometown. Because when you're Big Country, dreams stay with you.
Then: Speaking of Warner Bros., it also briefly signed the journeyman sharpshooter to an endorsement deal. But that's not even the weirdest brand Rice has been associated with: Shortly after winning Most Valuable Player at the 1997 All-Star Game, he put out a shoe with Nautica, the favorite clothing line of seafaring dads and preppie teen-movie villains. Also, he claims to have had a one-night stand with Sarah Palin back in the '80s. That has nothing to do with anything, but it seems worth noting.
Now: Got arrested for beating up a dude he found hiding in his ex-wife's closet, then started a mixed martial arts company, as one does.
Karl Kani, 1997
Then: The Syracuse product was drafted by the Knicks in 1996, signed with iconic street fashion brand Karl Kani, then went on to have the nondescript eight-year career befitting a No. 18 pick. In the '90s, sportswear companies must've just handed out shoe deals to any incoming NBA player who bothered to show up at the draft combine.
Now: Where's Wallace? Where's Wallace?! WHERE'S WALLACE?!?! Coaching the Gotham Ballers, a squad of recent NBA retirees in the Champions Basketball League.
Then: While best known for popularizing pained groaning as an expression of ebullience among hip-hop fans, the No Limit impresario managed to parlay his moment of dominance over the late-'90s rap charts into a successful side gig cosplaying as an NBA player. He got on preseason rosters for the Raptors and the Hornets, wrote the second-best basketball anthem behind John Tesh's NBA on NBC theme, and then somehow persuaded Converse to give him his own shoe. Truly, an inspiration to both mushmouth MCs and delusional YMCA ballers everywhere.
Now: Goes around to sports talk shows claiming he once beat Michael Jordan in a pickup game. Don't stop believing, Percy.
Damani Dada, 2004
Then: Most famous for choking P.J. Carlesimo during practice in 1997, the five-time All-Star didn't let a little thing like attempted coach murder destroy his marketability. In the waning days of his career, urban athletic brand Damani Dada released Sprewell Spinners, which had an actual wheel implanted in the heel that would rotate like a car rim with each step—just the sort of classy accoutrement you'd associate with a guy who once threatened to beat Jerome Kersey to death with a two-by-four.
Now: After squandering much of his basketball money, he appeared in a Priceline commercial as the physical embodiment of professional failure, which is either keenly self-aware or just deeply sad.
Steve & Barry's, 2006
Then: A highly touted point guard coming out of college, Marbury has led a…let's say "interesting" career. He bounced around the league, playing well in spurts while burning bridges and never quite living up to expectations. Then he went to China and became a national superstar, leading the Beijing Ducks to three Chinese Basketball Association championships. But his greatest cultural contribution might be the Starbury, the astoundingly low-priced line of sneakers he funded with money left over from his last Knicks contract. Originally created in collaboration with defunct retailer Steve & Barry's, he now sells them on his own website, while calling out Michael Jordan and LeBron James for the cost of their sneakers.
Now: He's promoting the Starbury Elite Lightup, with built-in lights that sync with an iPhone app. It'll still cost only about $50 a pair.
Then: Not content providing the NBA with its official game balls, Spalding tried to get back into the shoe game a few years ago by roping in the scintillating trio of Mario "LeBron's Whipping Boy" Chalmers, Chris "Who?" Singleton and, most significantly, Jimmer "The Mormon Steph Curry" Fredette. It went about as well as all three dudes' stateside careers. Fredette dumped the company for Under Armour, then the NBA dumped him on a plane bound for China.
Now: Averaging 38 points per game for the Shanghai Sharks.
Peak Sport, 2016
Then: You might remember Delly from the 2015 playoffs, where he was often seen diving at the knees of opposing players and bugging Steph Curry just enough to imbue Cavs fans with a false sense of hope that they could beat the Warriors without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. That was enough to impress Chinese brand Peak, which issued the Delly 1 last year. Australians buy shoes too, I guess.
Now: Riding the pine for the Milwaukee Bucks. Meanwhile, J.R. Smith has yet to get his own shoe deal, because life is unfair.