Though Dwyane Wade was rarely the first of his 2000s-era peers invoked when people talked about the mythical “Next Jordan” — that distinction was generally reserved for one-name icons like LeBron and Kobe — he has looked every bit the part at times.
The main promo image for the Air Jordan 2010 featured Michael Jordan and Wade side-by-side, both invitingly brandishing the sneaker at the camera. With Wade the first official pitchman for a Jordan flagship game shoe since MJ himself, it certainly looked a whole lot like a torch-passing.
At this point, D-Wade had a championship on his resume, won in decidedly Jordan-esque fashion when he willed the Heat past an arguably better Mavs team. He also had a couple of Jordan signature models under his belt and had starred in some interesting, if not eminently memorable ads. (I personally liked his turn as a secret agent.) Factor in his Chicago roots, his high-profile team, and even the black and red jersey, and he seemed a logical standard-bearer for the Jordan Brand for years to come.
But in his three years with Jordan, something didn’t quite seem to click. Though the Fly Wade 2 was a move in the right direction, Wade’s signature line didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, and though it came as a pretty big shock when Wade departed for little-known Chinese brand Li-Ning in October 2012, it kind of made sense if you take the man himself into account.
Remember, Wade didn’t need to go anywhere to become a key part of the Heat’s Big Three; he stayed in his own lane, continuing to carve out a legacy on the only pro team he’d ever played with. Though LeBron James tends to block out the sun in any room he’s in, Wade remained a potent superstar, deferential when needed but always essential, and hardly riding on anyone’s coattails.
The shine of repping the Jumpman works for many. But in retrospect it seemed a bit anticlimactic for Wade — who had been an elite centerpiece of an NBA champion, not to mention something of a fashion trendsetter — to share the spotlight with CP3 and ‘Melo, with Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin on the come-up. Not to mention, no matter what Wade would do on or off the court, Jordan himself casts an eternally long shadow.
In certain ways, Wade’s prior endorsement of Converse was a harbinger. Though Converse somewhat quietly resides under the same Nike umbrella as Jordan does, it was not a performance basketball entity at the time — other than Wade, of course. As such, Wade had a suitable palette on which to sculpt his own image, producing the most significant and striking ad of his career.
Last year’s excellent ESPN the Magazine profile on Wade and Li-Ning was illuminating as to how this unorthodox pairing came together. Founded by a famous Chinese gymnast, Li-Ning was a major player in the Far East that had come upon some tough times. With basketball skyrocketing in popularity in China, Wade offered a potential passageway back to prominence in a country it once dominated.
“They’re not Nike, they’re not adidas, they’re not Jordan,” Wade told ESPN. “Li-Ning has to do it the way Li-Ning sees fit. Right now, people might not understand why they are doing this, or the bottom line doesn’t look that great, but they have a future plan. And they have to do it their own way.”
So, for that matter, does the face of the company.
With Li-Ning, Wade not only gets input into the Way of Wade line, but he actually has the ability to design sneakers in close conjunction with lead designer Eric Miller. That’s a level of involvement and authenticity he didn’t have before.
Though the silhouettes are mostly pretty basic, Li-Ning’s quality is stellar and the colorways are radical, especially a blood-soaked homage to serial killer drama Dexter. Wade’s out-there collaboration with designer Alejandro Ingelmo on the high-end “Third Element” collection indicates an intriguing and luxurious future that goes beyond even the boutique performance line Way of Wade has primarily been so far.
Perhaps most importantly for D-Wade, with his 10-year deal said to be in excess of $60 million, Li-Ning represented a significant financial step up. But that might only be the beginning. Li-Ning offered some extra incentive: An equity stake in the company. Though the ESPN profile painted an uncertain future for Li-Ning, they’re a known commodity that spans three decades. It’s not inconceivable they again become a major player.
If they do get it turned around, this isn’t just an endorsement deal for D-Wade. It’s a significant part of a legacy that would exceed most others. It’s become apparent Li-Ning’s current slogan, “Make Your Own Way,” isn’t just marketing jargon. It’s a perfect representation of its star’s vision and potential. As Wade himself describes it, ”It’s largely about, ‘Listen, guys, I’m gonna show you that it’s okay to change, that it’s okay to wear something different from what your friends are wearing because of the name of the sneaker.’”
Will enough people buy into that concept to make Wade’s gambit pay off big time? It’s unclear, but it was definitely worth a shot to find out.
Five years ago, D-Wade stood beside the greatest player ever, wore his shoes, and carried his flag. As Wade turned 33 today, he remains an excellent player, sixth in the league in scoring as of this writing. And he now is the singular star for a unique company, of which he owns a stake.
Having the Jordan Brand on his resume is a tremendous achievement in itself, and his sneaker legacy is no doubt better for it. But it’s become perfectly evident that to truly follow in Michael Jordan’s footsteps, D-Wade merely had to go his own way.
Follow Bryan on Twitter at @SportsAngle