Since shoe brands first set foot in the Rose City over four decades ago, they’ve had a close connection to the local pro team and its biggest players. One year after the Portland Trail Blazers joined the NBA as an expansion team in 1970, University of Oregon grad Phil Knight officially launched the Nike brand in nearby Beaverton.
By the following NBA season, Nike was on its way to establishing itself in footwear through a series of running models, and Knight pegged the local team’s first-ever Draft pick, a scoring wing out of Princeton named Geoff Petrie, as the Swoosh’s first hoops endorser. The debut hardwood shoe that Petrie headlined for the 1972-73 season? The aptly-titled Nike Blazer. As a young startup mostly selling sneakers out the back of Winnebagos across Oregon at running events, the ’70s were humble times for Nike. At one point, the brand had fallen some $40,000 behind to Petrie and offered to settle their debt by giving him stock in the company. According to Petrie, he and his agent fought for the cash instead, turning down shares that some have since estimated to be worth tens of millions today.
The growing pains of the industry’s early days are now long forgotten, as Rip City played host to some of footwear’s premier stars. From Petrie and fellow early Nike endorser Sidney Wicks, to Bill Walton’s Championship-winning adidas Pro Models in the late ’70s, both Nike and adidas have long been repped by the Blazers.
As the millennium wound down and after some slow years on the footwear front, it was the throwback-inspired Rasheed Wallace and his strap-dangling Air Force 1s that helped put the Blazers back on the KICKS map, while LaMarcus Aldridge has done work in a variety of Nikes since arriving in ’06.
The Blazers’ newest star, PG Damian Lillard, is the latest to carry the shoe torch. He’s gone from little-known Lottery pick to All-Star Weekend headliner in just two years, and he even hosted his own launch event this past spring with adidas Basketball for a special quickstrike of the Crazy 1, all themed around the city’s nickname.
“Portland is the Rose City, and I love that whole thought process of the roses, the color and it being tied into Portland,” says Lillard. “It’s fun to be able to interact with people in the city, because they don’t always get the opportunity to meet us and see who we are. To have a shoe that’s dedicated to the city and for people to come out and support me the way they do, I feel like I owe it to them to show up and let them see who I am off the floor.”
Dame may be headed toward joining the long line of NBA greats to call Portland home, but he’s also eager to put people onto the Three Stripes. “Representing adidas in Portland is a lot of fun,” beams Lillard, who is just as excited about the Blazers’ bright future in the wake of a shockingly successful 54-win, second-round-of-the-Playoffs season. “I’ve come along as a player and contributed to our success as an organization the last two seasons, and it’s helped me shine some light on adidas.”
Nike was the first major footwear brand to call Portland home, but companies have been flocking west since the early ’90s, notably because of the hotbed of design talent, the state’s lax tax laws and the (relatively) short flying proximity to factories in Asia. After kickstarting their own Portland headquarters in 1990 with the hiring of former Nike marketing execs Rob Strasser and Peter Moore, adidas has based their North American design and marketing operations in the Northeast region of the city for the past 24 years.
Soon after, several brands followed suit. AND 1, then based in Philadelphia, launched its own design and development satellite office in downtown Portland for a decade-long stay that began in the late ’90s. Li-Ning, one of China’s premier sportswear brands boasting nearly 8,000 retail stores of their own in Asia and a sprawling Beijing-based corporate campus, also launched a design space in Portland in 2008 to service its NBA athletes, like Baron Davis and, eventually, Dwyane Wade. More recently, Baltimore-based Under Armour opened its own Portland innovation center, picking off longtime footwear vets to lead new materials and construction methods.
“Portland is an interesting and diverse city that has great art exhibits, nature all around, extreme sports, and a music and design scene,” says Marc Dolce, Nike Sportswear’s Design Director. “The city is all about connecting creatives, bright minds and people looking to do things different.”
One of the major benefits of having so many brands centrally located in the city is undoubtedly the impact that current Blazers and visiting NBA players alike can have on future product. Brands generally meet quarterly with their biggest out-of-town endorsers, while Nike and adidas also take advantage of close relationships with Blazers just a short drive away. “It helps a lot having the HQ here, because I can be more hands on with everything I’m involved with,” admits Lillard. “What shoes I wear, the colorways and patterns, and also to shop at the adidas store.”
When it comes to the homegrown talent in the Northwest, Seattle has been stealing the spotlight lately with its collection of pro-level players, but Portland’s own crop of high-school players can hold its own. While players like Terrell Brandon (Grant HS ’88), Damon Stoudamire (Woodrow Wilson, ’91), Mike Dunleavy Jr (Jesuit, ’99) and Kevin Love (Lake Oswego, ’07) have each enjoyed their own windows of time atop the city’s hoops scene through the years, the town’s powerhouse program through it all is Jefferson High.
Nicknamed “The School of Champions,” Jefferson’s winning tradition has been upheld by current head coach Pat Strickland since ’09. His squads have won four of the last six Class 5A state titles. “We’ve been blessed to have some of the best basketball players in Portland want to come to Jefferson,” Strickland says. “In order to have a good program, you’ve got to have good players.”
The standouts Strickland modestly refers to have included Brandon Brooks, Thomas Gardner, Aaron Miles and Ime Udoka. More recently, both Terrence Jones and Terrence Ross helped to keep the Democrats at the top of the ranks. In addition to the tradition of excellence and the school’s proven track record of sending players to DI schools, Jefferson also has another unique tool up its sleeve.
“Since 1999, we’ve been sponsored by Jordan, and that’s a big selling point for the kids that are into the gear and Jordan Brand,” says Strickland.
During his first season as Jefferson’s head coach, just before taking on Seattle’s Kentwood High School in 2010, Strickland got a sense of how much joy and pride the sneakers could bring his players as they were each surprised with custom pairs of Jordan Icons before their nationally televised ESPN2 game tipped off. “It wasn’t a retro, but it was still a patent leather blue shoe and the kids were very excited about it,” remembers Strickland. “It was nice to see an All-American like Terrence Jones get so excited about a team shoe.”
Jones put up a versatile statline that night (20 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals) and the Demos returned to Portland in their rare PEs and Jordan tracksuits with a three-point win to add to their eventual championship season.
Collegiately, Portland residents typically support Corvallis-based Oregon State or the U of Oregon, which is located in Nike-loving Eugene.
The city’s hoopers are at the unfortunate mercy of rain, which falls throughout the year, leaving the summer months of June, July and August as the best time to try and get consistent outdoor runs in. Even then, the weekend can still be rained out at a moment’s notice.
Wallace Park holds down games in the Northwest on weekends, and both Irving Park and Woodlawn Park in the Northeast historically have served as proving grounds for the area’s best. Around town, the games have come and gone over the years, with the city’s best young players opting for gyms and the AAU circuit instead.
“Irvington Park was definitely a hotbed for the talent back in the day, and playing at the parks, that’s where you learn to get an edge in playing basketball. You learn how to be competitive at the parks,” says Strickland. “If you can shoot at the parks, then you’re going to be shooting a high percentage in the gym. That’s a lost art these days with the kids not really playing at the parks anymore, though.”
As you can imagine, that shift from outdoor to indoor in the last decade has led to a huge rise in runs held at the more polished 24 Hour Fitness and LA Fitness gyms all over town instead. Plus, who wants to scuff up their limited-edition sneaks on the blacktop?
HOW WE DO
Besides the slept-on hoops scene, the Portland community has received an influx of industry talent in recent years who hold down a vast array of skill sets, creating a vibe and energy that’s largely driven by people working at each of the footwear brands. As additional brands enter the scene, the increased competition and depth of the workforce around town only continues to grow the industry.
“You may not find the culture and fashion that you’ll see in New York, L.A., Paris or Milan, but in many cases, we’re not chasing trends, we’re looking to create them,” Dolce says. “It’s about leading the industry and trying to define the next innovations for both sport and life, and Portland is at the heart of influencing that.”