When you step onto the court, whose play do you emulate? Kareem’s hook shot? Kobe’s underbite? Iverson’s swagger? Jordan’s buzzer-beaters? We all have heroes on the court — who we think our game is similar to — but the closest most of us can come to being like Mike is wearing his shoes. The signature sneaker went from a sales tactic to a must have item when Nike began their Jordan line back in His Airness’ ’84 rookie season. But how do you design a shoe that bares an athlete’s name? How much of the pro goes into a shoe?
After speaking with Brandon Jennings’ on how he sees his style in his new sneaker, the Under Armour Micro G Black Ice, it seemed only appropriate to go to the source.
Ryan Drew is the basketball category manager at Under Armour who supervised the launch of the UA basketball line and Jennings’ signature footwear. I had a chance to ask him what it’s like to turn a player like Jennings’ into footwear, and how Under Armour intends to take on the titans of the basketball footwear industry.
Megan Wilson: How long has Brandon Jennings’ signature shoe, the Micro G Black Ice, been under development? What was the timeline like, from initial concept to retail launch?
Ryan Drew: We’ve been working on the concept for the Micro G Black Ice since the day Brandon first visited Under Armour in the fall of ’08. He has a very sophisticated eye when it comes to his shoes and his clothes. He was very specific about what he was looking for in a shoe, and how he wanted his shoe to represent his game and his lifestyle. There are aspects of the shoe that can take 18 months to develop, and there are ideas that come up in the middle of the development process that might be incorporated into the shoes six months prior to the shoes being in stores. Brandon’s life and game were changing so quickly in those first two years that we had to be open to changing different aspects of the shoes to reflect where he is in his life today.
Wilson: What’s it like to collaborate a signature shoe with an athlete? How different of a design process is it than when you design another Under Armour shoe from the Micro G collection?
Drew: Brandon was by far the most collaborative athlete that I’ve ever worked with. He made himself available, he was interested, he had great insights, and he was honest. He was looking for a shoe that was a reflection of his style and swag on the court, but had the right look and feel to be worn off the court. While he was directly involved in the development of his shoe, he game and lifestyle heavily influenced the rest of our line. We were able to take insights that Brandon shared during our meeting to discuss his shoe, and incorporate those ideas and concepts into our other designs.
Wilson: How does designing a shoe for a guard differ from a designing a shoe for a forward or centre?
Drew: The point guard position is the most dynamic position on the floor. Those players are typically the quickest players on the floor, they run the most, and they’re usually guarding the quickest players. A guard’s shoe needs to be lightweight, generally lower cut for a broader range of motion, well cushioned to stand up to the physical toll of running as many as two to three miles a game, with exceptional traction for the extreme changes of direction. Brandon is on the extreme side of what a point guard needs in a shoe. He cuts and stops violently, he is one of the fastest players in the league with and without the ball, he’s fearless when he drives to the basket, and on top of it all, he’s a showman, and needs his product to stand out on court.
The reality of our business is that “big man” shoes don’t sell. There have been a number of different shoes over the years that were great products designed for bigger players that never checked in stores. I’m also of the opinion that all players view themselves as guards, regardless of their size. There isn’t a big man alive that doesn’t want to be quicker, more agile, or jump higher.
Wilson: How specific were Brandon’s requests when it came to overall design, materials and styling of the sneaker?
Drew: Brandon wanted a strap … so we designed a forefoot strap that helped to contain his foot during extreme cutting on court. He wanted his shoe to be all black, and to have a certain “Dark Knight” feel to it … so we used black materials in various shades and textures that gave the shoe some depth even though it was all one color. As an added commitment to the black on black “Gotham” theme, we muted our own logos — fairly risky for a brand going into a new category.
Brandon wanted elements of his life incorporated into the design, so we designed an asymmetrical collar shape that mimicked his “Gumby” hairstyle. The number three is significant to him because it represents the bond he shares with his mother and his brother, which is reflected in the triple stitching in the rear quarter of the shoe. The strap itself is done in a material that mimics one of Brandon’s favorite watches.
Wilson: Where can we see your design aesthetic in the shoe? Brandon seems like he was very detail orientated about what he wanted in a signature shoe.
Drew: My aesthetic, as well as that of the Designer, John Humphrey, is very clean and simple, yet bold. Discovery details are very important to us. Kids should be more excited about a product the closer they get to it. We were very lucky to find an athlete whose personal style mirrored our own design vision.
Wilson: Why is Jennings the right choice to launch the Under Armour basketball brand?
Drew: Brandon is a great player, he’s stylish, he’s fearless, and kids look at him and they see themselves. He’s an incredibly focused, hard-working athlete. He hasn’t shied away from challenges in life or on the court. His story of “the underdog” who accepts every challenge, puts himself on the line, wears his emotions on his sleeve, and prevails, has a lot of parallels to the story of Under Amour.
Wilson: How important is it to have competitive pricing of the shoe?
Drew: The Micro G Black Ice was priced at a level that would allow us to incorporate all of the performance features in the shoe that allow Brandon to play at the highest level, but not price ourselves out of the game. The greatest endorser in the world and a high price tag mean nothing when that shoe is on your foot with 5 seconds left and the ball is in your hands. Our goal is to make sure our product performs at crunch time.
Wilson: How important was it for Under Armour to build the hype around the signature Jennings shoe releasing it? Was there ever a plan to release the Prototype 1 or 2 (Jennings’ shoes for Italy and his rookie season) to retail?
Drew: With the limited number of shoes we are releasing, the true hype is in the exclusivity of the product. We don’t have plans to re-release these shoes, so once they’re gone, they’re gone. Our original plan with the Proto 1, 2, and 3 was to create product that we could use as part of our weartest program and to outfit our sports marketing assets — 12 Division 1 college programs, 33 elite level high school programs and 10 AAU teams — totaling over 18,000 pair of shoes in the last two years.
Brandon’s success in his first year, especially his 55-point game, has given the Proto 2 a certain status amongst collectors. The first pair of Under Armour basketball shoes that were ever sold went for $1,200 dollars on eBay — they were a signed pair of the White/Red Proto 2’s, which have been referred to as the “Double Nickels.” We never intended to sell those shoes, and I like the purity of the story that they were never sold. We’re a company that is always moving forward, so we don’t want to spend too much time looking back at things we’ve done.
Wilson: What are you most excited about going forward with the Under Armour basketball division?
Drew: I get excited when I go to a gym and see kids 13 and under wearing our running and training shoes to play ball because they can’t get the basketball shoes yet, but they want to wear the brand. Our brand resonates with the next generation of ahtletes, and in five years when those kids are in high school, we’re going to be a very relevant brand in the category.