Globe Trekker

Today, recently retired 7-6 center Yao Ming turns 31 years of age. Despite an unfortunate amount of unreached potential, Yao had a huge, undeniable effect on both the game of basketball and the international sneaker market. In KICKS 14—on sale now—SLAM senior writer Khalid Salaam penned a piece on this intense globalization, which you can read below in its entirety. Happy born day, Yao!—Ed.


by Khalid Salaam

Admittedly, a Yao Ming piece in KICKS is a surprise. Even for a notoriously non-sizzle position such as center, Yao’s shoes were fairly ho-hum. His sneakers were utilitarian, workman-like in their look. Yet here he is in the KICKS issue, and with more than one page at that. Why? Because up to this point, we’ve focused on the wrong thing.

For the record, I think Yao Ming is a Hall of Famer. That’s been the question since news broke over the summer of his injury-related retirement. Remember, this is the Basketball Hall of Fame, not just the NBA’s. The numbers themselves aren’t incredible (19 ppg, 9 rpg, 1.9 bpg) but his game wasn’t really about numbers anyway. Yao Ming’s NBA career never got him past the second round, yet he deserves to go to Springfield for opening China up to the basketball world, and opening the basketball world up to China. In recent years, the HOF has opened its doors up to the likes of Yugoslavian coach Aleksandar Nikolic, who’s credited with calling attention to Eastern Europe as a talent base, and Meadowlark Lemon, whose career with the Harlem Globetrotters elevated the sport to an entertainment level previously undiscovered. Neither of those men worked in the NBA, yet their worldwide impact was worthy of enshrinement. Yao’s is, too.

One of the 7-6 gentle giant’s most enduring legacies is the way he made the sneaker market truly international. Having a shoe deal is one of the more prestigious accomplishments bestowed upon a player. The best-case scenario is to have a signature line, where your name and logo are prominently placed, where you can shoot commercials and become the face of a brand. You can say that Yao’s shoe deal underwhelmed since he never quite became the face of Reebok (his most famous ad was probably Visa’s “Yo/Yao” spot), but he was a consistent presence in the market. “We wanted him to be a brand ambassador and add credibility to not only the Reebok Basketball Category but also to the overall company as well,” says Brian Lee, head of Global Reebok Basketball.

Yao’s game was hard to translate into shoe language. He wasn’t quick and he didn’t jump high or cut or dunk. His game was predicated on jumpers and slow spins to the basket. Reebok did the best they could with that package.

The best-selling Yao shoe was the Pump Omni Hexride in 2008, which leads you to think that the brand was positioned for an upswing. Given that his popularity peaked around the ’08 Beijing Olympics, it’s safe to say there was a window where things could have gone another way. Instead, ’08 was the beginning of the end. A foot injury in the semifinals against L.A. in ’09—following a multitude of previously suffered ones— proved debilitating, and he only appeared in five games the rest of his career. It wasn’t Reebok’s fault—at 7-6 and 310 pounds, Yao’s body just couldn’t handle the stress.

“We met with both Yao’s trainer and surgeon, and the key attribute for him was keeping the underfoot stiff and firm,” Lee explains. “We used an engineered stroble board that was stockfit to an injected foam midsole of a higher than usual hardness. This proved to be a benefit in keeping the load-bearing forces in check. In addition, we built up the forefoot to accommodate the issues he had with his toes.” The science in the shoe couldn’t save Yao’s career, but that’s not where the big-picture story ends.

Before Yao, players wouldn’t dream of signing with smaller, overseas shoe companies; it simply was not an option. But Yao’s worldwide impact on the League opened the door for several international brands—especially Far Eastern ones.

Yao’s one-time teammates Shane Battier, Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson are all signed with China-based Peak, Luis Scola has a deal with Anta and it doesn’t stop there. Li-Ning has deals with Baron Davis and Evan Turner, as well as a distribution deal with Shaq. Additionally, Jason Kidd rocked Peak in the Finals, and last summer Kevin Garnett inked a deal with Anta. And it’s not like Chinese companies aren’t going for the gusto and targeting stars, too. When Kobe Bryant’s old Nike deal expired in ’07, Li-Ning made a bid to sign him. Did they have a chance? Probably not, but that just shows you the ambition and confidence that brands have on the international market.

Some of this is due to the overall growth of China as an economic superpower and on some level probably would have happened at some point regardless. But Yao’s presence on the world stage definitely helped create the climate in which these possibilities could flourish.