Kawhi Leonard’s likeness looks down from some 10 storeys high over Yonge-Dundas Square in the heart of downtown Toronto.
Arms crossed. Serious face. The tagline reads: “Fun Guy.” Leonard looks anything but. And that’s the appeal.
Credit New Balance for capitalizing on what began as an inadvertently funny line from Leonard at his introductory news conference in Toronto, followed by his oddball laugh. It exploded into a meme. And it’s since been embraced by Toronto Raptors fans who’ve fallen in love with the quiet superstar.
New Balance was looking for uncommon personalities in sport. They got one in Leonard, who’s having one of the greatest playoff runs in NBA history.
“What we found with Kawhi, he’s this guy who’s super unique, he’s way different than every other athlete in the NBA for so many reasons,” said Patrick Cassidy, the company’s global director of consumer marketing.
New Balance beat out all the big basketball players like Nike when they signed Leonard, after what Cassidy called an “obsessive pursuit of the right type of athlete.”
“We want a player who is independent in their thinking, not wanting to do what everybody else does, not follow the blueprint that other athletes do,” Cassidy said. “(Leonard) doesn’t need to be on Instagram. He doesn’t need to be on Twitter . . . this is who he is and we want to celebrate that. We don’t want to change it.”
Leonard was spotted wearing a “Fun Guy” T-shirt on a recent Raptors flight.
“He’s in on the conversation without having to actually be replying to comments from people on Twitter . . . burner accounts, etc.,” Cassidy said. “He’s just so different than anybody else.”
Leonard is different in a league that values difference. The NBA, said Cassidy, is in an entirely different class in its celebration of personalities.
“It’s a sport that likes to celebrate individuality on and off the court unlike any other sports in the world,” Cassidy said before giving an example: “There’s no other sport that excessively documents the walk-in to an arena like the NBA does. MLB has tried that a little bit this year, the NHL has tried it a little bit this year, but it hasn’t quite taken off like that.”
Players like Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and enigmatic Russell Westbrook have become fashion icons for their walk-in ensembles. James wore Bermuda shorts and jacket during last year’s finals. Westbrook, who wears his outfits just once then donates them, once arrived in a poncho and wood-brimmed hat. Then-teammate Kevin Durant called him “the conquistador.”
“There’s a social construct that’s not there at this level with other sports,” Cassidy added. “NBA Twitter . . . there’s nothing like NBA Twitter in the world.”
Leonard raised eyebrows when he signed with New Balance. But when his limited edition New Balance OMN1S & 997 Sport pack dropped in Canada, the U.S. and China during the Raptors’ conference semifinal series against Philadelphia, they sold out in minutes.
Why are NBA players so marketable?
The fact their faces aren’t covered is a big part of it.
“They’re not wearing a helmet,” said Toronto’s Randy Osei, the founder of Rozaay Management. “So if you’re watching a basketball game and the camera zooms in on Kyle Lowry, you’re seeing Kyle Lowry’s mustache, his pimples, everything.”
Leonard’s wide-mouthed smile after his Game 7 buzzer-beater was like money in the bank for New Balance. That same game, the camera caught Lowry fighting back tears as he grabbed the game ball. A close-up showed Marc Gasol consoling a weeping Joel Embiid.
“It’s absolutely relatable,” said Osei.
The former U Sports player founded Rozaay, a creative marketing and branding agency, in 2013 and works with Canadian NBA players Jamal Murray, Dillon Brooks and Khem Birch, among others.
Another trait that sets NBA players apart? They’re vocal about social justice issues. So vocal that Fox News host Laura Ingraham demanded in 2018 that they “shut up and dribble.”
The backlash was fierce.
James, who’s often used his platform to speak out on social issues (he galvanized the league’s players after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and he campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016), used it to shine a spotlight on injustice. He produced a Showtime documentary series called “Shut up and Dribble” and the ESPN series “More Than an Athlete.”
Both the NBA and WNBA have become powerful vehicles for social change.
“The NBA as a league has done a good job of representing and using the voices that the players have to speak to social issues,” Osei said. “And then the players themselves have created their own stance to do that. So that adds more spotlight to them off the court.
“LeBron started this ‘more than an athlete’ thing. He’s saying he’s not just a guy who plays 48 minutes per game then goes home and just thinks about basketball everyday. He’s thinking about the next generation,” Osei said. “He’s launched a school (called “I Promise,” the school targets high-risk kids). All these guys are doing so much.”
On a smaller scale, players have taken control of their own personal branding. “Bet on Yourself” are words that Fred VanVleet lives by. The Raptors guard created his own “Bet on Yourself” clothing line. Teammate Norman Powell has his own streetwear line featuring his “Understand the Grind” mantra. Pascal Siakam has his own logo _ the letters P and S in the shape of a heart.
Both Powell and Siakam wore their branded clothing at Sunday’s post-game news conferences following Toronto’s double-overtime win against the Milwaukee Bucks.
“Each athlete has their own unique journey and as an agent, I take pride in helping athletes be the best version of themselves,” said Brian Levine of Envision Sports & Entertainment, whose clients include soccer star Christine Sinclair and sprinter Andre De Grasse. Levine has also worked with VanVleet.
“So that’s a big part, how do you differentiate yourself from everyone else? So, this is me as an observer of Fred, he’s had a different journey than others. That manifest itself in his brand. I think he really nailed it. And that’s something that people can relate to, it’s all about relatability.”
All the brand building and proactive efforts by athletes or agents can’t measure up to performance, Levine said.
“But the combination of the two . . . look at Usain Bolt,” he said.
Levine noted that basketball players are savvy about social media from a young age. Toronto’s Elijah Fisher, who headlines the class of 2023, has almost 56,000 followers on Instagram.
“And he’s in Grade 9,” Levine said.
As for Leonard, Levine said there’s surely no shortage of brands who “would die” to work with him, despite his lack of social media presence and soft-spoken demeanour.
New Balance liked Leonard’s desire to have creative input and share ideas.
“There are a lot of guys who say they want that, and then when you actually get there with them they don’t really want to, and that’s okay,” Cassidy said. “But he bought into the vision for what we want to make New Balance basketball become over a long period of time.”