In the early 1990s, the signature sneaker landscape was just in its infancy. Michael Jordan’s shoe series with Nike was an instant success, but outside of the Air Jordan phenomenon, the competition was still finding its way.
Patrick Ewing had his own “Ewing” footwear line that gained some traction in the New York market, and other stars had deals with both major and emerging brands, which were trying to break into the athletic industry.
Clyde Drexler was wearing Avia, Isaiah Thomas wore Asics, and Larry Johnson had a major shoe deal with Converse as the brand was transitioning beyond the iconic careers of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The marketing of sneakers had evolved into mainstream multi-million dollar advertising campaigns throughout the year, all centered around the personalities and skills of the NBA’s biggest names.
By the time Shaquille O’Neal was selected first overall in the 1992 NBA draft by the Orlando Magic, there was already a preconceived notion around the industry that’s long defined the footwear world: “Big men can’t sell shoes.”
O’Neal, who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, was looking to break that mold and became heavily involved in his marketing early on while still at Louisiana State University.
“I remember being in a marketing class one day and my professor said to me, ‘Big men can’t sell. I don’t know what you’re doing in this class,’ ” O’Neal recalled at a Reebok event in 2013. “I was so [expletive] pissed, I almost got out of the class. [Instead,] I wanted to learn all of the concepts. What I took out of the class, and what I knew I wanted to do, was that I’ve got to create commercials that will get people to have a reaction.”
In addition to helping influence commercials, O’Neal also entered the league with his own signature logo. He isn’t shy to admit where he got the initial inspiration.
“When I saw the Michael Jordan dunk, his legs spread and how that became a logo – you know, my dunk is with my knees up,” O’Neal said. “I was in college when Michael really got huge, and we were in class learning about trademarks and all of that stuff. Right afterwards, I went down to the Baton Rouge office and I trademarked my dunk. It cost me like $60.”
The similarly outlined silhouette logo – trademarked simply as the Dunkman – would appear on O’Neal’s sneakers and a wide range of clothing throughout his career. His signature dunk has also been immortalized on the LSU campus as a monstrous 900-pound statue just outside of the school’s practice facility.
Typically, brands will design a signature logo for their athletes, like Ken Griffey Jr.’s Nike “Swingman” silhouette and Charles Barkley’s “CB34” logo that featured him harnessing a rebound. The brand then owns the rights to the logo in all commercial and retail uses going forward. If a player ends his endorsement deal with a company, he’s on his own to create a new branding identity with his next partner.
O’Neal’s logo was all his own, which allowed him to incorporate the Dunkman icon onto several brands of footwear throughout his career.
“I did it big time, did it right and got all the correct trademarks,” O’Neal said.
He entered the league as an instant force. He wasn’t worried about how he would fare on the court, but he wanted to make sure his marketing met the level of his play.
“I knew I was good, I thought I was going to be great, and it was my job and my people’s job to convince [the brands] that I was going to be great and convince them to want to sell the product,” O’Neal said. “The hard thing to do was make them believe in it, because no big guy in the history of marketing from the game [of basketball] has ever sold anything.”
O’Neal’s outsized personality and lofty hopes for his personal brand led him to a six-year deal with Reebok. The company was at the top of the industry in the fitness market at the time, but was still looking to make stronger inroads into basketball. O’Neal became the brand’s first signature athlete, and Reebok launched the Shaq Attaq during his Rookie of the Year campaign.
Before signing with Reebok, O’Neal remembers meeting with Nike at its Beaverton, Ore., headquarters – just once.
“Nike actually didn’t want anything to do with us, and they definitely weren’t going to give me my own signature shoe,” O’Neal said. “I’m known for wearing all my Reebok [gear] to Nike and getting kicked off the campus.”
The meeting with Nike co-founder Phil Knight – O’Neal indeed arrived in a full Reebok tracksuit – didn’t go well. O’Neal met again with then-Reebok CEO Paul Fireman just after getting booted from the Nike’s campus, and they agreed to terms.
“Fireman loved that story, and he threw in an extra few [dollars] on top of the contract,” O’Neal said.
The two sides then got to work on his very first Reebok commercial, which aired during his rookie year. He was certainly looking to get people to “have a reaction.”
The ad featured Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Willis Reed, Bill Walton and coach John Wooden, each reading a line from Rudyard Kipling’s motivational poem “If–.” The message boldly set the tone and expectation for where O’Neal’s career was headed.
“Reebok was real pissed because it cost like a million dollars, which no one had ever done before. Most of the money was spent on bringing all of the legends in,” O’Neal said. “I had just gotten done watching ‘Terminator,’ and it had all that futuristic and gooey [stuff]. So I said, ‘I want to walk through something like that.’ Everyone was all, ‘What the [expletive]?’ ”
O’Neal wasn’t worried about the brash expectations the commercial would create and liked the idea of building in some added pressure to live up to by incorporating his personal favorite legends of the game. Just five years later, he would be named to the NBA’s “50 Greatest Players” list. He went on to have a storied career that included 15 All-Star appearances, four NBA titles, one league MVP and three Finals MVPs.
“It was a good commercial, because no one had ever seen nothing like that before,” O’Neal said. “Then, for the older crowd, you had five of the legends, and that introduced people to who I am, but it also told them, ‘Hey, if he continues dunking like that, he can be like one of them one day.’ ”
Nearly 25 years after entering the league, O’Neal is still just as involved in his own personal brand. He’s taken his Dunkman logo from Reebok to a short-lived Dunk.net venture in the late 1990s to his own Dunkman series of affordable sneakers sold at value chains such as Payless and Wal-Mart. He even licensed the Dunkman logo to Chinese brand Li-Ning as a volume play in the late 2000s. O’Neal recently said that he’s sold 120 million pairs of sneakers at Wal-Mart, which started with the intent to sell an NBA signature shoe for less than $40.
“I wanted to be socially conscious, and I wanted to have a shoe that was affordable. That’s why I started my own line and had my own brand,” he said. “I had much success with Reebok, but I always tell people that you have to take advantage of good opportunities that present themselves.”
O’Neal partnered again with Reebok in the last few years, re-releasing his Shaq Attaq and Shaqnosis sneakers for retro footwear fans.
O’Neal, now 44, enters the final chapter of his spectacular career Friday in Springfield, Mass. He plans to take the stage for a proud and lighthearted speech, detailing his rise through the basketball ranks as one of the most dominant players the NBA has ever seen. Born in Newark, N.J., but playing his high school ball in San Antonio, O’Neal has an interesting perspective on his Hall of Fame path to join his idols Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar.
“My biggest accomplishment is listening,” O’Neal said. “I know about a hundred ifs. I remember the first time I saw someone get shot, and if I would’ve went that way, or if I would’ve dropped a bag off with one of my cousins. There are about a hundred ifs that I could’ve gotten myself into that I never did.”