Basketball has been riddled with trademark sneakers from the bulk of the league's most marketable talents since Walt "Clyde" Frazier became the first player to have his own signature shoe in the NBA. By establishing himself as a design leader, Frazier was able to create one of the most sought-after collections in sports marketing history.
He made his debut on October 11, 1973, at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks. The original plan was for him to wear uniforms that had "Clyde" written across the back of them, but this was changed at the last minute due to concerns about violating the rights of another baseball player named Clyde who also wanted to be called "Clyde". So instead, he wore uniforms with "WF" (for Walt Frazier) printed on them.
His first pair of Adidas debuted two months later on December 29, 1973, in a game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls. They cost $50 each and were immediately sold out. Since then, every NBA player has worn some version of a signature shoe designed by Nike or Adidas.
Frazier died in November 1987 after suffering heart failure during a game at age 36. He is still considered by many to be the best basketball player never to win an MVP award.
Some shoes have taken off more than others, but they all have a connection to Walt "Clyde" Frazier, the first athlete to have a trademark shoe contract. Michael Jordan's 30-plus-year association with Nike is, of course, the ultimate gold standard for basketball sneakers. But don't discount the role that Frazier played in the evolution of basketball footwear.
Frazier debuted on October 23, 1970 at The Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He wore size 11 shoes made by Converse because no other team in the league had any players who went bigger than size 9. As you can imagine, it wasn't easy playing in those shoes, so after one game he requested a size 10 pair. The Summit League obliged by sending him two pairs of shoes -- one white and one black -- along with letters informing him how to properly wash and dry his new shoes for maximum longevity.
In 1971, the National Basketball Association (NBA) began its own season earlier than before, so Frazier got a chance to show off his shoes again. This time he wore sizes 12 and 13 Nike shoes that had been customized with the words "Walt Frazier" on their sides. The next year, the Summit League adopted the rule that required all players to wear uniform pants during games, which eliminated any chance of seeing Frazier's now infamous low-rise jeans.
Shoes are simple to market, and several of the NBA's greatest players have contracts with shoe companies that dwarf their playing contracts. Michael Jordan should be thanked by several current and past NBA players for revolutionizing the NBA signature shoe line. He created unique designs for each of his brands that attracted fans around the world.
In 1992, when he was with the Bulls, Jordan made $750,000 per season. Yet, his contract included rights to sell millions of dollars' worth of shoes each year. In addition, Nike had an endorsement deal with Scottie Pippen at the time, so they paid him as well. If you include other sponsorships, endorsements, and product lines, these two players made over $90 million between them in 1992!
Other big names who make a lot of money from shoes include LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, and Bernie Mac.
The top earner in the NBA is currently LeBron James, who makes $23 million per year. He launched his own brand of shoes in 2010 called "LeBron James Shoes". They're very popular with fans and sell out quickly whenever he launches a new design.
Another famous athlete who has a huge influence on basketball shoes is Michael Jordan. His brands have generated billions of dollars in sales for Nike over the years.