Baron Davis and Jay Li stood outside of the Li-Ning store Monday night in Portland with a light rain falling on them. Li, the general manager of the US-side of the Chinese company’s operations, apologized to Davis.
“I said, ‘Baron, sorry, I promised you when I first met you that we were going to launch your stuff in a year. Sorry it took two years to get here.’ He said, ‘No no no. Patience is a Chinese virtue,'” Li recalls.
Li’s story speaks volumes for the collaboration between Davis and a shoe company that’s taking steps to shed its new kid on the block image. Monday marked the grand opening of the Li-Ning USA store at 910 Hoyt Street in Portland. Davis signed 50 vinyl BD action figures for the event, with the store giving them to the first 50 customers through their doors.
Davis’ signature sneaker, the BD Doom, complete with a cartoonish Beardman logo on the tongue, has generated its share of Internet buzz since the Clippers guard started wearing them this season. Now that they’re available at their first US retail outlet and online (with Champs Sports scheduled to begin carrying them on the West coast in time for back to school in August) Li and his team are hoping they’re on the path to establishing some legitimacy in the sneaker world.
“The biggest issue with basketball is that it requires a ton of marketing,” Li says. “On the other hand, basketball and the way the game is defined is about individualism.
“It’s about counter-mainstream, it’s about the counter-culture. In many ways it’s a juxtaposition of the mainstream: these (sneaker companies) are big guys making big dollars.
“Then on the other hand you can have a small brand that comes into the big basketball (market) and do very well. We like to think that with a figure like Baron Davis we have a good chance.”
The key to turning that good chance into success, Li says, is the virtue that he’s sold B-Diddy on: patience.
“One thing I always preach is that we’re a Chinese company and one of the Chinese virtues is patience.
“We have to be here (Portland) to be relevant, we have to be in the game of basketball to be relevant and with a figure like Baron, we have a legitimate shot at being a player. Are we going to be a player that is going to be a multi-billion dollar franchise immediately? I don’t think so.
“We can still be relevant. We can still be an important name in the game of basketball, but we have a lot of patience.”
Setting up shop in what Li calls “the epicenter of footwear” is crucial, he says. He points to the hiring of former Converse/Nike designer Eric Miller, who led the job on creating the BD Doom as an example of the Portland emphasis paying off (read more on Eric Miller here ).
“Eric Miller was hired right here in this office,” Li says. “He brings credence to the whole patience process. You can see that it’s authentic, it’s not fake.
“We’re not just bringing a shoe and slapping the Beardman logo on it. We (Li-Ning and the design team) met with Baron two-and-a-half-years ago. “The sneakerheads are going to believe us. They’re not going to say that this is just a fake. This is an authentic shoe.”
Of course, it’s all gonna come down to the sneakerheads. The enthusiasts who lined up outside of Li-Ning to get their hands on the first available pairs came into the store out of loyalty to BD, curiosity on the shoe itself, or a little of both.
“This is my first time here and first purchase from this brand,” says Peter Lo, a 29-year-old who’s originally from Hong Kong. He says Li-Ning first got his attention at the 2008 Olympics. The company’s longevity in basketball is up in the air, at this point, he tells me.
“When I talk to my friends here they don’t know anything about this brand,” he says. “I guess they are trying to get more recognized here. I know this brand, I watch basketball and I know they are sponsoring the Spanish basketball teams. Other people might not realize that. Maybe they have more work to do to have people recognize the brand more.”
BD’s feeling the shoe and it’s piqued the curiosity of just about everyone who’s seen it. He tells the story of when LeBron James caught his first glimpse of the shoe when the Clippers were playing the Cavs.
“We were playing Cleveland and LeBron looked at me and said, ‘Yo BD, why do your shoes look better than everyone else’s?'” The story gets a great response out of everyone at the grand opening event.
“That was a compliment there and every time I’m on the court, guys are like, ‘What are those, what are those?’ I’ve signed like over 50 pairs of shoes and I’ve never ever signed shoes for anybody.”
On the surface, the Li-Ning/Davis pairing seems like an odd one. While the brand is upwards of a billion-dollar machine in China, where it sells footwear and gear for badminton, table tennis, gymnastics and soccer, it had been completely off the radar until they landed Shaquille O’Neal for an Asia-only endorsement. With Toronto’s Jose Calderon the only other Li-Ning NBA player in its roster, Davis’ leap from Reebok took many people by surprise in 2008.
Li says that Davis liked what he saw in the brand from the second he met with them.
“When I first met Baron, we met in Portland. We weren’t even in this office yet. We were in a hole in the wall, he came to the office and he walked in, looked and said, ‘Wow, this is the Google of footwear.'”
Despite having spent his career wearing two longtime established hoops brands in Nike and Reebok, Davis says he appreciated the input that Li-Ning would let him have with their flagship basketball shoe. Quality of the product was never a concern for the 30-year-old.
“I wasn’t too much worried because when I met with them, all I asked of Li Ning was to have a little bit of participation with the shoe,” he says.
“Just the marketing of the brand in the US. They’ve been so receptive as far as giving me an opportunity to do that. I think that for the team, they went out and got some of the best people in the industry to come on board. It’s made it a smooth and easy transition. Something that like I said, going forward, the best is yet to come from the brand.”
With one cool-looking sneaker in the books already, the future looks bright for Davis and Li-Ning. It’s a simple enough equation: Take BD’s creativity and enthusiasm for web promotions, which are through the roof. Add to that a company who seems to be ready to take their time in establishing themselves as a reliable and fun option in the basketball sneaker market, who is entirely open to working with their main athlete to maximize his and their strengths. It’s kind of like a Jerry Maguire situation, except Rod Tidwell’s already a star and the agent has the backing of a near billion-dollar foreign branch.
Li is confident that in time, it’ll happen.
“Someday, when people think of Li-Ning, they’ll think of a global brand that happens to be Chinese,” he says. “We’ll get there.”