Originally published in KICKS 15

by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad

For sports apparel giant Under Armour, the decision to enter basketball footwear half a decade ago may have seemed futile at first, but the team at UA has been creative and embraced the challenge of building from the ground up. By combining innovative technology and savvy marketing, Under Armour is well on its way to becoming a footwear force.

As a company and brand, Under Armour, which was founded in 1996, enjoyed near-immediate success in outfitting athletes in sports with its moisture-wicking technology and cool, aggressive look. To many observers, a dive into basketball footwear—where established brands  already had a headlock on the game—didn’t seem like a necessary move to make. Instead of avoiding that lane, though, the brain trust at UA felt confident that they could compete in hoops and help basketball players better themselves through their sneakers. “In order to be a full athletic brand, you have to be in footwear,” says Mike Parker, Brand Marketing Director of Basketball at UA. “Under Armour’s goal is to be a global athletic brand, and basketball is one of the few global sports. It was a natural fit for us because what we were able to do in apparel is provide innovation and an advantage to the athlete. We know that we can bring that same kind of innovation and improvement of the athlete into the footwear category and specifically into basketball.”

Just because they decided to do sneakers, though, didn’t mean UA was going to follow anyone else’s script. When they made their plunge into basketball footwear in ’08, instead of signing an already established NBA star to be their lead spokesperson, Under Armour went left and inked the oft-criticized, college-skipping, ultra-flashy and undeniably talented Brandon Jennings while he was an 18-year-old on his way to play in Italy. The electric southpaw, who arguably deserved an All-Star reserve spot last year in his third season for the Milwaukee Bucks, has always prided himself on doing things differently, making the partnership with UA a match made in heaven. “I was attracted to Under Armour because they were a different brand, unique,” recalls Jennings. “It was something new, and I could relate to their vision.”

Adds Parker, “It takes a certain kind of personality to go against the norm. When you think about basketball, there are certain brands that people naturally gravitate toward because it’s the easy thing to do. Doing something different—and not just for the sake of doing something different, but to be better—that’s what Under Armour offered Brandon.”

Since signing with UA, Jennings has released two signature shoes, the Micro G Black Ice and the Micro G Bloodlines. Both sneakers have Young Money’s’ fingerprints all over them, and his input is valued by the company—so much so that he was brought on as an intern during last summer’s NBA lockout. “I’m very hands on with the apparel and sneakers,” says Jennings. “Everything that they do comes back to me, and if I don’t like something, I tell them that I don’t like it.”

Jennings was the first, and for a while, only player rep for Under Armour. But over the past three years, UA’s NBA roster has grown to five, partnering with Kemba Walker, Derrick Williams, DeAndre Jordan and Greivis Vasquez. While these names might read random, the four were not chosen arbitrarily. Each and every one of them saw something special in Under Armour, and Under Armour saw something unqiue and special in them as well. Something that could help a burgeoning brand—at least when it comes to sneakers—become a household name.

A native of The Bronx, the 22-year-old Walker provides Under  Armour with a great opportunity. Not only does Kemba call the East Coast basketball hub home, but in the Spring of ’11, the 5-11 Walker led his UConn Huskies to 12 straight wins and Big East and NCAA titles.

Walker surely had a slew of endorsements at his disposal after that magical spring, but he feels right at home with the burgeoning brand, who inked him shortly after the Charlotte Bobcats made him the ninth pick in the ’11 Draft. “It’s been nothing but the best with these guys; it’s just a great environment. They work hard and they want to be the best, just like me,” says Walker. “These guys work very hard to put us out there, get us on billboards, put us in commercials. These guys are really different. If I were talking to a young guy, I’d just let him know that.”

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Derrick Williams may represent  Under Armour’s blue collar work ethic better than anyone. Williams’ journey has taken him from unheralded college recruit to Pac-10 POY to No. 2 pick in the ’11 NBA Draft and now a sneaker deal. With that type of topsy-turvy journey,  Williams serves as an inspiration to every kid who has ever been doubted. “A lot of people said I couldn’t make the NBA, a lot of people said I might not even get a Division I scholarship. It was a lot of hard work and I have achieved a lot. It really added more fuel to the fire,” says Williams, who participated in this past year’s Dunk Contest. “I always thought I was gonna be pretty good, I had to just put in the work. I never doubted myself or my talent.”

Whereas Williams may have risen from obscurity to a top Draft pick, DeAndre Jordan has had a humbling journey since being one of the most sought-after recruits in the country back in ’07. After a mediocre freshman season at Texas A&M, Jordan declared for the ’08 Draft, then slipped into the second round. Since then, the L.A. Clippers starting center has refocused, worked on the nuances of his game and shown flashes of brilliance. Jordan may not put up huge numbers (yet), but he does all the dirty work for Lob City, and that’s exactly what UA looks for in its players. “He does all the things that help make the team overall successful and makes the sacrifice that he has to for the betterment of the team, and that all plays into who we are as a brand,” says Parker.

Vasquez, a graduate of the University of Maryland, No. 28 overall Draft pick in ’10 and member of the New Orleans Hornets, gives Under Armour an opportunity to build in the relatively untapped South American market. The guard, who is from baseball-crazy Venezuela, can help take the brand international with his hungry, relentless style of play. “We haven’t even scratched the surface internationally with Greivis yet,” says Parker. “He is The Guy down there from a basketball standpoint. We need to really focus on that and the impact that he can have on the Latin community.”

Despite clearly being proud of partnering with these five rising NBA talents, Under Armour is well aware that it’s at the grassroots level where they have truly staked their claim in basketball. The brand currently sponsors 22 top AAU teams, 40 high school programs and 20 colleges, allowing them to slowly but surely build a rapport with the next generation. “The foundation for Under Armour is really built on grassroots,” explains Parker. “Our grassroots team has done a great job aligning with the right AAU and high school programs, which gives our grassroots players a platform and a place to showcase their talents and  really experience the brand. [Grassroots] has been a way of life for the Under Armour brand. We have taken that formula and applied that in basketball and made it relevant, talking to that future generation and that kid that’s ‘next,’ because we are that brand that is ‘next.’”

With such an emphasis on grassroots, it’s fitting that Under Armour and its representatives are constantly in the community, giving back to the people who helped them get to where they are today, such as last fall’s lockout-induced “Are You From Here?” tour of the East Coast that had UA stars playing in bandbox high school gyms with young fans just an arm’s length away. “That’s why I call myself the ‘Hood Favorite,’” says Jennings. “I’m always doing stuff in the community and for the kids.”

Adds Williams, “Next season we’re going to sponsor the high school (La Mirada High in CA) I went to. Little things like that really make the brand look good, as well as myself giving back to the community that I came from and the people that helped me.”

The aforementioned tour was one of the better moments of the lockout, and “Are You From Here?” has become a calling cry for the brand in its advertising and all-around messaging. “That ‘Here’ message doesn’t go away, it just evolves,” explains Parker. “Where ‘Here’ was a philosophy and a mentality for basketball and training for athletes last year, this year ‘Here’ is, We still want to work hard, and now we’re going to provide the equipment that’s going to make you better going forward with your journey.”

Since entering the world of basketball, Under Armour has grown leaps and bounds toward becoming one of the top brands for ballers at every level. While they still have a lot of work to do, the future is bright and with the current combination of players and staff working tirelessly to be the best, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on. “I think we got the potential [to be one of the top sneaker brands],” adds Jennings. “Our owner is probably one of the hungriest guys I’ve met besides Kobe. I think we’re going to get some great pieces and we’re going to be fine.”

“I think the generation before me was all Jordan and Nike guys,” says Williams. “But I think the generation we’re in now, a lot of people are saying it’s not the shoes that the people are buying but the player, and I believe in that. I think if you give us a few years, we can be really relevant out there, especially on the NBA court.”

The idea of having fresh-faced ballers represent a brand isn’t groundbreaking, but the way the idea is being executed by Under Armour is slowly but surely turning heads and causing people to take notice.