The personal bankruptcy case of Marvin Bagley Jr. and his wife officially closed in 2011, when their Phoenix house was foreclosed and sold for $85,000. Court records show they claimed $133,542 more in liabilities than assets with a combined pretax income of $43,848.
Four years later, the family reportedly was living in a $1 million home in a gated community in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles. His 6-foot-11 son, Marvin Bagley III, attended Sierra Canyon High, a private school with a tuition of $36,250 that educates the children of Hollywood stars.
Bagley Jr. is a union plumber and pipe fitter by trade, but he had a new profession: basketball coach. Nike paid him handsomely to coach his son’s club team, named Nike Phamily, and provided boxes upon boxes of shoes and apparel, which he proudly chronicled with photos on Twitter when the FedEx truck showed up.
Bagley III dutifully played for Nike-sponsored Sierra Canyon during the high school season and picked Duke, one of Nike’s prized programs, for his only year of college ball.
And late last month, just days before being taken No. 2 overall in the NBA draft, he announced a blockbuster endorsement deal with … Puma?
The German shoe and apparel company didn’t stop there. It also signed Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick who spent his first two years of high school at Under Armour-sponsored Balboa City School in San Diego before heading to Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix and then Arizona, both swoosh properties.
And Michael Porter Jr., the No. 14 pick, was rated the top player from the high school class of 2017 before getting hurt. He played for a Nike-backed high school and Nike-backed club team, initially committed to Nike-backed Washington, then decommitted and attended Nike-backed Missouri.
“That’s a problem,” Ayton told Bleacher Report. “That’s going to catch everybody’s eyes. That’s a huge step for Puma, too. To have the top two prospects in the NBA draft is amazing. Everyone is going to be like: What? Puma?”
Puma was last in the U.S. basketball market 20 years ago, when it signed rookie Vince Carter to a five-year deal. Carter backed out after two, Puma sued for breach of contract, and Carter was ordered to pay back $13.5 million while not wearing or endorsing a competitor’s sneakers for three years.
Instead of signing one high-profile rookie this time, Puma signed four from the first round (Zhaire Smith, picked 16th by Phoenix, is the fourth). It also hired rapper Jay-Z as a “creative director,” vowing in the words of a top executive to “blend the influences of performance, fashion, music and culture … to re-enter the category.”
This means two things for Puma: It saw a vulnerability, an opening, in a market controlled by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. And it must not be worried about potential sanctions or limitations on sneaker companies from the FBI probe into college basketball corruption.
For the consumer, it means more competition, more sneaker options, more apparel styles, maybe cheaper prices.
For the players, it means more money.
For grassroots and college basketball, it means, well, it’s not good.
Nike isn’t about to sit by idly and watch Puma steal clients with whom it has, ahem, cultivated a relationship. Adidas and Under Armour aren’t going to willfully let Puma grab market share. This is how you incite sneaker wars.
The collateral damage, history tells us, becomes the integrity of the game.
“This isn’t going to solve any problems,” one person closely linked to grassroots basketball told me. “It’s just going to make things sleazier.”
Several insiders point to 2013 as the last escalation of the sneaker wars, when Under Armour was trying to establish a beachhead in the industry. It paid the father of talented twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison to “coach” their club team in Under Armour tournaments. The presumption was that they would pick Maryland, the company’s flagship program and the alma mater of its founder.
The Harrisons picked Kentucky. The swoosh.
Under Armour responded by stepping up its presence in amateur basketball and, according to several metrics, passed adidas in market share behind Nike.
Adidas’ response? According to federal indictments, Jim Gatto, its director of global sports marketing, funneled up to $150,000 to the families of five-star prospects in exchange for them attending adidas-sponsored universities and agreeing to wear the three stripes once they turned pro.
One of them was 6-foot-7 forward Brian Bowen, who had played in adidas-sponsored prep events but was said to be leaning toward Nike schools like Michigan State and Arizona. He suddenly committed to Louisville, an adidas school, despite having virtually no contact with it on the recruiting trail over the previous two years.
Merl Code, Nike’s former director of elite youth basketball now working as a consultant for adidas, allegedly explains on a federal wiretap: “You guys are being introduced to … how stuff happens with kids and getting into particular schools, and so this is kind of one of those instances where we needed to step up and help one of our flagship schools in (Louisville), you know, secure a five-star-caliber kid.”
Without any basketball pedigree for two decades, Puma had to take risks. It threw silly money at guys who have yet to play in an NBA game (the contracts for Ayton and Bagley are believed to be the biggest for rookies since Kevin Durant’s seven-year, $60 million deal in 2007). And they signed big men, who historically don’t sell sneakers like guards and wings.
They also played the music and culture card with Jay-Z, promising Bagley III, an aspiring rapper, it would help along his music career. Another attraction: Not having to share the brand’s spotlight with LeBron James (Nike), Steph Curry (Under Armour) or James Harden (adidas).
But mostly, money.
In an interview with CBS Sports, Bagley III’s father was asked about his prior relationship with Nike that, records indicate, helped pull the family out of bankruptcy. He refused to answer, making a buzzer noise after questions involving Nike.
At least Ayton was honest.
“Anybody can really make your shoe,” Ayton told Bleacher Report. “If adidas is giving you like $2 mil and Nike is giving you $1 mil, who would you pick? If you have history or chemistry with Nike, I can see that. But when it comes to business, business is business. … You don’t want just product. You’re not a kid anymore. You’re really trying to get bank.
“That’s about it.”
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