Under Armour Basketball’s grassroots presence, innovative technologies and close-knit atmosphere have the brand pointed in the right direction.
by Ben Osborne / @bosborne17
Striding through Under Armour’s ever-expanding corporate campus in Baltimore on a recent Saturday, Brandon Jennings and Raymond Felton are laughing and talking about other NBA players like my friends and I would. Team X “gets all the calls.” Player Y “always cheatin’.” Proper names were dropped and the language was saltier, but you get the point.
Steps later, BJ and Ray, along with their fellow UA endorsers Greivis Vasquez and Kemba Walker, stroll on to the three-quarter court plopped into the middle of one of the office buildings. All four guys—along with assorted UA staff and the KICKS crew—have been on campus for more than three hours at this point. There have been print and video interviews conducted, minor makeup and grooming, three different photo set-ups and double-digit outfit changes. As far as I’m concerned, this shoot has been a success—and is done. The guys can go back to their hotel, in other words. But, says Ray, “You can’t bring four basketball players through a gym and think we’re not gonna shoot.”
Greivis can’t do much because of an ankle injury he’s recovering from, but the others are drawn to the three-point line like kids to an ice-cream truck, launching threes, talking shit, having a good old time.
The jovial, basketball-obsessed atmosphere is reminiscent of the wind-down time at an NBA practice or shootaround before a game. With one noticeable difference: The guys aren’t liable to be traded from this team any time soon—and it doesn’t take much prompting to get the NBA players present to speak on this incredibly timely contradiction.
Vasquez, a day removed from being introduced as a Sacramento King and just months after completing a breakout season with the New Orleans Hornets, certainly gets it. “I was surprised by the trade, yeah,” says the 26-year-old GV, who averaged a career-high 14 ppg and 9 apg last season. “After the year I had, and the good relationships I’d built with the coach and the front office. I was watching the Draft and I saw we got a big guy [Nerlens Noel]. I was excited. Then I saw we had traded for Jrue [Holiday]. I was, like, Guess I’m getting traded. But it’s not bad. Sacramento has a new coach, a new GM and excited fans. Under Armour, though? I’ve been with them since college. [CEO] Kevin Plank, everyone here, has been good to me. I identify with this company and I love being part of this family.”
Jennings, the 23-year-old near-All-Star with career averages of 17 points and 6 assists per over his four NBA seasons, is looking at a completely uncertain future as of this morning. “Part of me will be very sad if I’m done with the Bucks,” BJ says. “I had a 55-point game there. Made it to the Playoffs twice. There’s a lot of memories, and some unfinished business. But change isn’t bad. I think it could be good for me to go somewhere else. I’ve learned in my four-to-five years in this League that the NBA is just a business. Under Armour has treated me a lot differently than that.”
[Sure enough, the very day this issue went to press, Jennings was moved to the Pistons in a sign-and-trade.—Ed.]
The 29-year-old Felton, eight years into an extremely steady career (been a starting PG since day one, usually averaging around 14 and 7) that always saw him in adidas, is beginning just his second season with Under Armour, but he knows all about how fleeting NBA “families” can be. After all, the Knicks are his fourth team, and it’s already his second stint with them. “Being with Under Armour has been great so far, really cool,” says Ray, who has spent the last several days doing UA photo shoots, public appearances and meet-and-greets with employees. “I’m doing more with them than I’ve done in the past. This is an up-and-coming organization as far as basketball and it’s been great to be with these guys.”
In a way, the former Final Four hero and now-23-year-old Walker has the most stable NBA situation. He’s coming off an 17.7-ppg/5.7-apg/18.86-PER (the best of this foursome by a good margin) sophomore campaign and is the leader of his team. Then again, that team is in Charlotte, where a two-year stint makes you a graybeard and the team nickname won’t even exist in 10 months. Who knows how long Kemba will be in CLT? Not as long as he’ll be in Under Armours, it says here. “Losing is frustrating,” Kemba says with a shake of his head. “The first two years have been a learning process that has made me better, but I don’t want to lose anymore. We’ve made some good moves, though. New coach [Steve Clifford], a real post presence [Al Jefferson]. It should be nice. We’ll still be an underdog, though, just like Under Armour. Here, we’re just growing, giving input and doing better with each sneaker.”
Ah yes, sneakers. SLAM doesn’t sell—and shoes definitely don’t sell—on the strength of a “family atmosphere.” It can be a selling point as you sign athletes or hire employees, but everyone in this business knows at the end of the day—or quarter, or at the least, fiscal year—at some point, you better move some product.
More and more, the folks at Under Armour feel they have the product to move. On the footwear front, the push this year is the Anatomix Spawn, which all four of our cover subjects are wearing at this shoot. A mid-cut shoe with innovative UA proprietary foams in the tongue and full-length Micro G midsole, the real story of the Spawn’s design is its close adherence to an actual human foot.
“We had fit, performance and innovation in mind,” says Ross Klein, Lead Designer of the Anatomix Spawn. “We started this shoe with the idea of no dead space. With that, and keeping in mind the idea of fit, we starting trying to understand the complexity of the foot. The foot has 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 muscles and ligaments and tendons. So you’re finding these matrixes of different entities, but they all work together and become almost like a machine that just churns. Then we started subdividing the foot; there’s the hind-foot, the mid-foot and the fore-foot—three basically different sections of the foot, all with different bones and different systems. So, the densities, elasticities, the strengths, all of those things which differ, are comprised in this shoe. That’s why if somebody looks at this shoe and thinks it’s complex, it’s actually no different than how our foot interacts, it’s just under your skin.”
And, as you can see in the pictures in the gallery above, the shoes—which dropped in team colors on September 1 and will be released in more unique colorways on October 1, all with a $120 price tag—look pretty fresh, too.
“This shoe keeps us moving in the right direction,” says Mike Parker, UA’s Brand Marketing Director for Basketball. “I think our early product was on par with the industry standard but didn’t stand out too much. Then last year we came out with the Charge BB, which was so different. The Spawn is not as drastic as that, but it has a great story tied to fit. It’s a very important shoe for us.”
Kemba and UA teammate DeAndre Jordan have already worn the shoe at the USA Basketball Mini Camp, and they, along with Brandon, Greivis and Ray, will be wearing it when the ’13-14 NBA season kicks off. “I love these new Spawns. We really help each other with them,” Kemba says of the player-designer relationship as new shoes come through the pipeline. “It’s very cool.”
Adds Klein: “Because we’re so small, we really do work hand-in-hand with our players. Each of these players have different needs and different offerings. Somebody wants more collar foam, and someone wants less tongue foam. So, we’re very quick to be able to identify what they need and to filter it through what they’re going to be wearing during the games. We were so hands on in this process that we got the in-line one as tuned to every one player’s needs that it sort of went for everybody.”
On the apparel tip, UA is already in good shape. So good, in fact, that they can go out and do a licensing deal that features some of the most recognizable images in pop culture. While not a strict basketball play at all, Under Armour execs are only too happy to see their high-profile ballers rock their new Alter Ego line of baselayer performance apparel, which features legendary superhero logos from DC Comics and Marvel such as Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk. “Superhuman feats are accomplished by athletes every day. Whether it’s achieving a personal goal or competing on the field, we wanted to enable athletes to feel like a superhero and show off their alter ego,” says Glenn Silbert, UA’s Vice President, Men’s, Youth and Accessories.
Naturally, the players are happy to wear them, giving our photographer his best shots when they were in the gear, and then asking to keep the samples at the end of the shoot.
Whether it’s laughing about opponents they have in common, poking fun at how they each look in the different superhero outfits, or breaking into the “Harlem Shake” mid-photo shoot, each of the four guys we are shooting today can be described as emotional, fun and vocal. They are leaders. They are point guards.
“This is a really good group of guys,” Parker says. “They all have that leadership background. Giving orders, working hard and leading by example. And that’s what we’re trying to do at Under Armour—lead by example.”
Parker is referring to Under Armour’s place in the world, but any conversation with someone who works in UA Basketball also leads to where and how hoops fits within the company, as well. After all, this was a brand built on football, lacrosse and baseball, building a suburban consumer-base that often doesn’t have much in common with the style leaders of America’s big cities.
“Internally, basketball is a very prized possession because it’s so tough,” Klein says. “You have a company that owns an incredible majority of the audience in terms of footwear now [Nike], and we’re coming in as these new guys and we’re causing a lot of disruption. Internally, everybody wants to see how we’re doing that. They want to see what’s locked up in the cabinets because the innovation that goes on with these shoes is pretty advanced. We not only use the factories that we’re familiar with to build shoes, but we also use factories that are unfamiliar to shoe building that are just specialized in one specific aspect of a shoe. Also, with our marketing department, they’re looking at huge assets, like we just signed St. John’s, a big New York City school. We’re chugging away at this grassroots campaign and going in more humble instead of screaming out, ‘We’re the greatest, we do everything.’ We’re very humble as a team, but basketball is a little magical here.”
As the guys slowly end their impromptu shootaround and gather their belongings, they talk about where they’re headed next. After several days together, these four “teammates” will go their separate ways by tomorrow. But their bond will last. “We’re not going to talk too much during the season because we’re going to be trying to kick each other’s butts,” Vasquez says with a chuckle. “But seeing the guys during times like these is always cool. Ray Felton’s got eight years in the League—you think I can’t learn from talking to him? I’ve known Brandon for a real long time. And Kemba—everyone likes Kemba. It’s just a fun group to be around.”
“It’s real tight-knit,” Parker cosigns. “Everybody genuinely likes each other. At some brands, the only people who are allowed to talk to the players are the ones who work in Sports Marketing. Here, everyone can, from Product Line Manager to Marketing. We work with the players, because all of us have the same goal.”