Joe Hampton and Alani Moore were having fun with a basketball in the DeMatha Catholic High School gymnasium a couple weeks ago, launching half-court shots and underhand shots from beyond the 3-point line — any form of trick shot — until Victor Oladipo came over and lightly scolded the pair of up-and-coming Stags.
“You can’t use that ball,” Oladipo said with a straight face, uncharacteristic of the amiable former DeMatha and Indiana University standout and recent Orlando Magic NBA Draft lottery pick. Confused, Hampton looked down at the ball and twirled it around, unsure of why exactly it was he couldn’t shoot around with it.
“Nah,” Oladipo said, though only joking now. “That ain’t Nike. You gotta use a Nike.”
This might seem like a perplexing scene to many unfamiliar with Oladipo or his past allegiances. After all, at the time, Oladipo had not yet been drafted. He had yet to accept an endorsement deal or sign on with any of basketball’s biggest companies. But to those who have known Oladipo for some time, says Team Takeover coach Keith Stevens, this wasn’t unusual at all.
What anybody in Kathy and Morgan Wootten Gymnasium witnessed that day is called brand loyalty. Oladipo’s has been building since the day he joined Team Takeover, a Nike-sponsored Amateur Athletic Union team. Through Takeover, Oladipo and his teammates received free backpacks, uniforms, shorts, shirts, socks — anything the kids needed that could be basketball related, and sometimes not even that. All they had to do was show off the Nike swoosh.
“I’ll tell you what,” Potomac High coach Renard Johnson said. “This obviously wasn’t that when I played. When I got back into coaching I honestly did not know how big it had become. Because I wasn’t into coaching, I didn’t have an appreciation for it.”
There are two very different ways to view Nike and other companies’ interests in youth sports and their complimentary-style of advertising in youth basketball. Under Armour provides similar services to the world-class AAU team, D.C. Assault, and Adidas has dipped into the local talent as well. One could see this as a public service.
Many of these players, possessing an incredible amount of basketball ability though not necessarily an incredible amount of expendable income, could not afford the $120 pair of Nike shoes they wore for that day’s game. They wouldn’t be able to travel to Las Vegas or Milwaukee for a national tournament, where pools of college coaches, the potential for a free education, await. They might not be able to afford to play on the team at all.
“From a self-esteem point, they’re developing,” Johnson said. “They’re going to tournaments they couldn’t play in, playing in this gear many of them wouldn’t be able to play in. They don’t get a sense of entitlement, they get a sense of pride, of appreciation.”
Oladipo was proud that day back at DeMatha, less than a week before he was taken on June 27 by the Magic with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Johnson was proud when he could send his Wolverines trotting out in Nike warm-ups and Nike backpacks, a personal favor from Stevens, who coaches Johnson’s standout at Potomac, Dion Wiley, with Team Takeover.
“Last season, Keith Stevens was very generous, Nike was very generous with our program. Keith is a friend,” Johnson said. “He got word that we were struggling with certain things and they helped us with backpacks, warm-ups, that sort of thing. I would never ask Keith for a pair of socks, he did this on his own generosity.”
Nike, a heavyweight company in the basketball industry, has long been involved in the Washington, D.C., area. The Assault was actually the first team to take on Nike as a sponsor some 18 years ago, a favor from former Georgetown University coach John Thompson, Jr., who notified the company that an exceptionally gifted AAU team was budding in the area.
“We were young, ambitious — he liked what we were doing,” Assault General Manager Damon Handon said. “And he ended up tying us into a contract with Nike.”
A year later, Adidas made a “more lucrative” offer, and the Assault signed on. For about 15 years then, the Assault operated as a branch of Adidas. But then Under Armour expanded in the region, and Kevin Plank’s company “made us a lucrative deal that was probably double Adidas,” Handon said, though he couldn’t reveal the exact terms of the contract. “Under Armour is a local brand with a lot of new ideas. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
While the monetary figures he couldn’t elaborate on, Handon did say that the gear distributed out to the Assault “is about that of a Division I college.” Which is to say, a lot.
“I’m able to take care of several high schools in the area,” he said. “It saves their parents a lot of money when you think about it with the shoes, the backpacks, the shirts — our kids are well taken care of.”
And it’s not just his kids. Handon will host backpack drives in Washington, D.C., handing them out to those who can’t afford one or need an upgrade from the tattered bag they are currently toting around. Like the Assault, Team Takeover volunteers in similar philanthropic measures, such as helping out Johnson and Potomac.
But, like anything, there is a flip-side to that coin: Are these companies exploiting the talents of kids too young to understand that they are, in a way, marketing tools? Michael Beasley and Nolan Smith, former Assault players when Adidas was the main sponsor, went on to sign enormous deals with Adidas in lieu of other offers when they turned professional. Oladipo probably won’t be far behind with Nike.
“It’s all marketing for these companies,” Handon said. “It’s free advertising. Not free, but much cheaper than you see on TV. Who would have thought, five years ago, that Under Armour would be marketing at the grassroots level?”
It’s not as crazy a thought as many would think. Tracy McGrady signed a $12 million contract with Adidas straight out of high school, prompting other companies to “start looking for the next McGrady,” Handon said. And they really aren’t too far off.
Wiley is the No. 1 ranked recruit in Maryland. Upper Marlboro resident Melo Trimble, another D.C. Assault product, is the No. 1 ranked player in Virginia (he plays at Bishop O’Connell). Roddy Peters, a backcourt teammate with Trimble at the Assault, was a highly sought-after recruit and ended up with the University of Maryland, College Park, conveniently another Under Armour-sponsored program. Handon, however, doesn’t view these companies as using his players, warping their talents into advertising ploys.
“I don’t think any of these kids are being exploited,” he said. “We’ve had a lot more kids go to college, get their degrees and become productive citizens than professional athletes. I think it’s a win-win situation for the kids.”