Three months and what seems like a lifetime ago, Kemba Walker guided an undertalented and overlooked UConn Huskies team to a national title. Now the 6-1 guard is aiming to help distinguish another underdog from the pack—Under Armour.
“It’s not the biggest shoe company, but they’re up-and-coming,” says Walker, who signed a multi-year deal with Under Armour yesterday, joining Brandon Jennings and Greivis Vasquez as the face of UA’s upstart basketball line. “I like starting from the ground up, and that’s just how Under Armour is. And me, Brandon and Cam [Newton] and the rest of the guys, we’re going to try our best to build it up. That’s how we are.”
Drafted ninth overall in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats for his ability to break down defenses, score and create, Walker, in part, was recruited by Under Armour for those skills, but in full, it was his winning pedigree that they coveted.
“He’s a winner,” says Kris Stone, Director of Sports Marketing for Professional Basketball at Under Armour. “He embodies the spirit of what Under Armour is building in basketball. It comes from that underdog story, someone who sort of refuses to lose.”
Born and bred in the Bronx, Walker’s been sidestepping detractors off the court—the crime and drugs that were prevalent not far from where he was raised—and on the court—the pundits who deemed his relative lack of height and jump shot fatal flaws—his entire life. That’s what makes his alignment with Under Armour even sweeter.
“It’s crazy. It’s unreal, to tell you the truth,” says Walker. “Everyone grows up and thinks about having their own sneaker, so for this opportunity and this dream to come true is a blessing.”
As enthralled as Walker is about making it this far, Under Armour’s equally excited about where Walker comes from.
Says Stone: “I think him being a New York City kid, from the Bronx, he’s gonna really help push our brand and stretch us and take us into a direction I think ultimately we need to go.”
To date, UA’s pinpointed most of their basketball efforts and focus on Brandon Jennings, their initial NBA endorsee. Expect that to change now, albeit slowly, thanks to lessons learned from working with Jennings.
“We put a lot of noise on Brandon early, and I think it added maybe a little pressure,” says Stone. “We want to somewhat stay out of Kemba’s way and let him go play and get used to the NBA and that lifestyle. We’re gonna find creative ways to work him into a lot of our marketing campaigns in late 2011-2012.”
The West Coast Yin to Walker’s East Coast Yang, Jennings is anything but threatened by the new kid on the UA block. In fact, he’s downright giddy.
“If there is anyone who is the happiest, it’s Brandon,” says Stone. “He finally has a great teammate with him, and he’s really, really excited about Kemba being a part of the team.”
Well, maybe Jennings is only the second happiest person.
“It’s a perfect fit,” says Walker. “They work hard. They love what they do, and I love what I do.”
Though Stone says Under Armour will take their time and be cautious in exposing Walker to the pressures of big-time marketing—don’t expect a signature sneaker during his first season in Charlotte—they already have future plans for a personalized lifestyle line and shoe.
“Over the next year, what we’d like to do is really collaborate with Kemba and really get inside his life so we can figure out everything he would love to see in a sneaker,” says Stone. “But that’s going to take some time. So the plan is, let him go out there and let him be great on the basketball court. We’ll start working on all those other things as we start building a relationship.”
Walker knows he’ll have to exercise patience, and he’s cool with that. He isn’t as cool with the lockout that’s potentially going to postpone his NBA debut.
“Man, I’m so anxious, I can’t wait,” says Walker. “I wish this lockout wasn’t going on, but we as players have no control over that. But the first day I get the chance to wear my sneakers and wear my jersey, it’s going to be a great day.”
In the meantime, until NBA balls start bouncing again, UA’s going to do their best to look after their freshest family member.
“This kid’s heart is humongous,” emphasizes Stone, “so it’s for us to wrap our hands around something like that and just be there for him. The journey’s going to get tough for him, but hopefully we can be an extension of his family and make it a little bit easier for him.”
It wasn’t easy leading UConn to 32 wins and a title, and it won’t be easy leading Under Armour to the forefront of the shoe game. But Walker’s up for the challenge.
“I’m definitely a leader, and I’m just trying to get other kids to follow me,” says Walker. “It’s about that time for a new company to rise up.”