Sneaker brands compete in a league of their own. Their league revolves around the same players as the NBA, but the similarities end there. Their league is totally unhinged: there is no salary cap and no limit on roster size. There is no player draft to ensure that all teams secure some talent. There is no concept of parity. The goal is to be as big as possible, and four teams are way bigger than the rest.

Two-thirds of NBA players rock Nikes. Five of the first seven picks in this year’s Draft signed with adidas. Each lob from Chris Paul to Blake Griffin is presented by Jordan Brand. The MVP reps Under Armour.

In this climate, it is easy to wonder how a fifth team could succeed—or even exist—for long. After all, there is no obvious reason why an NBA player would choose to be sponsored by a lesser-known company over one of the big four.

And yet here is Li-Ning, surviving behind its marquee star, Dwyane Wade, and his signature shoe line, the Way of Wade. Li-Ning was founded in China in 1990, but Wade’s arrival (after a stint with Jordan Brand) in 2012 drastically elevated its prominence in the stateside sneaker game.

Previously, the brand’s greatest triumph had been a brief partnership with a fading Shaq. Wade’s endorsement represented a massive score for a brand not known for, well, anything—at least as far as American consumers were concerned. Today, Li-Ning is among a small handful of brands repped by at least five NBA players. In exchange for such validation, Li-Ning has provided Wade with an opportunity to become distinct in his own right.

“Dwyane has started his own footwear brand here—it’s the Way of Wade in partnership with Li-Ning,” says Eric Miller, the lead designer on the WoW. “The goal was to be not just an endorsement athlete, but to really transcend that paradigm of endorsement deals. To come up with something new—an entire brand, a legacy.”

As Wade once told SLAM: “I have a title, man! My title is Chief Brand Officer. That means I have work to do. I have to keep my eye out for players to help build this brand. I’ll be helping this brand even when I’m done playing, and having my own brand—similar to Jordan.”

If Wade encounters a player who might fit the WoW image, he passes the name off to Miller, who takes over from there.

“Wade is extending his brand beyond himself,” Miller says. “It’s not just, Here’s my shoe, you’re gonna wear it, thanks. It’s, Here’s my designer, here’s my business, work with them, come up with stuff you’re proud of. Things become collaborative beyond Wade, so that it’s a brand and not just a signature.”

Li-Ning has connected with a number of Wade’s former teammates, including Gerald Green, Udonis Haslem and Dorell Wright, who have all worn some variation of the Way of Wade. Evan Turner has rocked Li-Nings since entering the League as the No. 2 pick in 2010.

To the common fan those might not come across as flashy names. But Li-Ning has battled strong competition to secure proven players, and they are proud of each feat.

“Our philosophy is that we’re gonna put signature-level attention around anyone we get,” says Miller. “We’re designing their logos and colors. A lot of these dudes haven’t had that opportunity.”

Perhaps more dudes will get that chance soon. Wade signed with his hometown Bulls in July, which will open two large doors for Li-Ning: one to a new major market, and one to a new roster of potential endorsers.

The timing couldn’t be better. On the same day that Wade’s signing went public, Li-Ning dropped a special “Chicago and Miami” pack of the Way of Wade 4. The release featured one pair of WoW 4s in Chicago Bears orange and one in Miami Dolphins blue. (Miller swears it was coincidental.)

About a week later, the Way of Wade 5 hit stores in China (and will do so at the brand’s North American retailers prior to the upcoming NBA season). Miller sees the newest shoe as a nod to its predecessors.

“One of Dwyane’s favorites is the WoW Encore 1.5, so, for the Way of Wade 5, we merged some of the aesthetics from that model with some of the modern and unique WoW 4 stuff,” he says. Last year, the company ditched leather in favor of a more handcrafted look around the 4. “D-Wade wants his shoes to be his and his only—not tied to any other trends. People can look at Wades and say, ‘That’s the Wade of this year.’”

And what an odd year it figures to be for Wade, the player. On the floor, he will have to seamlessly squeeze between Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler. Fans will feel the change, too. The Bulls and Heat may have similar color schemes, but it will surely be strange to see CHICAGO written above Wade’s No. 3.

Thankfully, if nothing else, his kicks will ring familiar.

“Dwyane’s identity is set as a foundation in any city,” says Miller. “Now we can do new seasonal things, maybe—like winters actually exist in Chicago, as opposed to in Miami. But, design-wise, we’re still driving in the same lane.”

Photo: Bob Metelus