by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker
On a rainy Portland morning, as the NBA Conference Finals are winding down, Ricky Rubio limps up a concrete stairway on the adidas campus following a controlled workout. Rubio had ACL surgery just weeks ago, and he’s in the early stages of rehab, on his way back to where he left off for the Minnesota Timberwolves pre-injury, as arguably the most exciting rookie in the NBA. Rubio has worn Nikes his entire career, at least up until today, when he is officially joining the team at adidas.
“My Nike contract was finished last season,” Ricky, who averaged 10.6 ppg and 8.2 apg as a first-year NBA PG, explains, “and we were talking about re-signing, but they weren’t that interested, as much as other brands like adidas. Making my own shoe over here is a big deal.”
Before the ink on the new contract could dry, the team at adidas invited Ricky to Portland for a day of what they call brand orientation. “We do this for a couple of reasons,” says Chris Grancio, head of Global Basketball Sports Marketing for adidas. “The first is selfish, because we want to make sure our partners know who we are, what we expect of them and how they can help support our business. But the other is that they have great insights. They’re just a step past being our target consumer. They’re all, in some cases, one or two years outside of that 14-19-year-old kid, the consumer we’re going for. They’re sneaker geeks, they’re basketball fanatics, they’re people who embrace the game, talk about the game, are into social media. We learn so much from them, spending time in an environment where they can interact with our product and give us direct feedback.”
You often hear athletes talk about the business side of being an athlete with worldwide fame, but you don’t always see what goes into making those relationships work. Well, we did: KICKS spent an entire day with Ricky Rubio as he went through his brand orientation at adidas. Sure, there are a lot of shoes and gear thrown around, but it’s as much boardroom as basketball court, where instead of phrases like “pick and roll” and “help defense,” the operative terms are things like “partnership,” “marketing,” “activation” and “stories.”
The morning begins in the adidas conference center. As we enter the building, the flatscreen TVs that usually serve as directories have all been reprogrammed to read RICKY RUBIO IS ALL IN, a nod to adidas’ current ad campaign. As we wander through the buildings, everyone who crosses our path gawks at the tall, thin 21-year-old rocking three stripes from head-to-toe: adidas running shoes, track pants, a t-shirt and a snap-back hat with an impressively flat bill. (As we stroll past one desk, a woman asks her co-worker, “When did we sign the skateboarder?”)
We eventually reach the adidas basketball showroom, which is full of various employees. Ricky plops down on a couch in front of the room, elevates his left knee, pulls up his pant leg and idly picks at the scar. A physical therapist from the TWolves traveling with Ricky hooks him up with some ice, something he does throughout the day to help with swelling and promote healing. A few mannequins in the front of the room model Rubio TWolves jerseys, and a wall up front showcases dozens of different adidas shoes, from performance kicks to Originals.
The day begins with Grancio running through a PowerPoint presentation. Grancio, who looks like wrestler The Big Show but speaks like the Harvard grad that he is, begins with the “brand architecture,” hitting basic points about how they want this partnership to play out. The presentation closes out with Grancio discussing several of their other brand partners, the level of whom would seem to indicate Rubio is in capable hands: Lionel Messi, Derrick Rose, Real Madrid, FIFA and the NBA.
Grancio is followed by Robbie Fuller and Travis Blasingame, who present a footwear and apparel overview. They begin by talking about things like “base layers” and “transition gear,” and they ask Ricky specific questions about his uniform and his shoes. Blasingame, the Global Director of Basketball Apparel, breaks out several pieces of gear they’re working on that are so far from hitting the market that I’m sworn to secrecy before I’m even allowed to look at them. Fuller, the adidas Global Designer for Advanced Concepts, is the man who designed the adizero Crazy Light 1 and 2, as well as Rose 1 through 2.5. He shows Ricky some experimental designs that are being developed, and then they talk through exactly what Ricky’s looking for in a shoe. Ricky notes that his big toes often take a beating, and Fuller writes this down in a notebook. They talk about potential colorways for the Crazy Light 2, the shoe Ricky will wear next season, as well as little personal touches they could add to his kicks. Their presentation ends with them giving Ricky a few minutes to design a custom pair on miadidas.com.
After a break, Ricky hears from adidas Originals, and then the head of adidas sports marketing in Spain, freshly arrived in the States, takes the podium. He cues up a video of several of adidas’ Spanish stars, like Xabi Alonso and Iker Casillas, welcoming Ricky to adidas. The video ends with Vicente Del Bosque, coach of the Spanish national soccer team, holding up a Spain soccer jersey with RICKY 9 on the back; then the actual jersey is handed to Ricky and he beams with delight. We pause for lunch, then return to the conference room for a brand activation presentation, in which members of the marketing and PR teams discuss everything from possible social media hashtags (#rickyisallin) to new ways Ricky can engage with fans on Facebook.
Once the presentations end, we all head over to Athlete Services, where we’re escorted into a room that looks like a high-tech shoe store, albeit a shoe store with tools hanging on the walls. Ricky sits in a seat that resembles a barber’s chair, removes his shoes and socks, and places each foot on a sheet of plexiglass. A technician boots up a laptop and painstakingly scans Ricky’s foot. As he moves the scanner back and forth, a 3D image of Ricky’s foot develops on a screen in front of us, like something from a sci-fi movie. Years ago, shoe companies took plaster molds of their athletes’ feet. These days, it takes 10 minutes and a laptop and they’ve got an exact form. Then we head upstairs, where Ricky undergoes a body scan and is fitted for TechFit padded compression—Ricky tells the technician that his thighs don’t get banged up like many guys; instead he needs extra padding on the hips, where he often gets clipped coming off picks.
Finally, eight hours after we started, we head down to Grancio’s office, where Ricky sits, icing his knee again. Before he hits the employee store to stock up on gear, we finally get a chance to sit and talk…
KICKS: Tell me about your rookie season. Was it fun?
Ricky Rubio: It was so much fun. After a tough year in Spain, I was thinking about how fun basketball was when I was a kid. But the last year wasn’t like this. Since my first game in Minnesota, when the team was together, it was a different feeling. I felt freedom again. It was amazing.
KICKS: The first time I saw you was in ’07, and people wondered when you were coming to the NBA. Were you tired of hearing that?
RR: I wasn’t thinking about that. People can ask, people can talk, people can make their opinions, but I’m the one who will have my own opinion. I was ready in ’09 when I entered the Draft, but I couldn’t come. Finally, last year I was making a big step coming here to the League. Maybe it wasn’t after my best year in Spain, but I was sure I could play here, because when we played the US in the Olympic Games, that’s the kind of style I wanted to play. Seeing a lot of NBA the last couple of years, I was thinking about playing here some day. It finally came.
KICKS: You said your last year in Spain was tough. Why?
RR: I had a lot of pressure, even when I came here, and I was worried about that. It was a different pressure over there, because you must win, no matter how. Sometimes you prefer to have fun. Sometimes you lose, but if you had fun, for me that’s the most important thing, and the same level as winning. So sometimes when I lose one of them, I lose my identity, you know?