Interview: Dwyane Wade On His Li-Ning Partnership and Building a 'Family Brand'
From signing with Converse as the fifth overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft to serving as one of the faces of Jordan Brand and eventually becoming a long-term Li-Ning partner with his own Way of Wade line, Dwyane Wade has had a sneaker journey that only a few NBA players can match. Now, almost 10 years into his partnership with Li-Ning, Wade has taken on a role as the company's hoops OG – helping to steer the direction of Way of Wade while providing guidance to younger players on the Li-Ning roster like D'Angelo Russell and his son Zaire. The future NBA Hall of Famer sat down with Sneaker Freaker to discuss what's changed for him since retirement, building a 'family brand' with Way of Wade and where he sees his partnership with Li-Ning going in the future.
It’s been almost two decades since you got your first signature sneaker. How have you seen the market for signature sneakers change since then, both as a player and post-career as an ambassador?
Sneaker culture has reached crazy heights. When I first got into the sneaker game back in 2004, giant events and conventions weren’t happening and sneakers – though popular – weren’t always mainstream news like they are now. It’s just great to see the progression, from my very first Converse sneaker to 10 years with Li-Ning.
So you feel like there’s a brighter spotlight on sneakers now than there was before?
100 per cent. They’ve become sort of like grown-up trading cards. Sneakers are something that are valuable, that you can hold on to, that are personal to you. You can buy ‘em, sell ‘em, trade ‘em – kinda be a GM, right? [laughs]. There’s so much to think about in sneakers, and once you see everything for yourself you understand why the business is booming the way it is.
The long-term partnership you have with Li-Ning is a rare thing. What does having a deal like that mean to you? A lot of guys have signature shoes, but not a lot of guys really have a ‘say’ in their products like you do.
I’m definitely blessed. I was 30 when I signed the deal with Li-Ning, and wanted to be one of those rare athletes who had a deal that extended beyond their career. There’s not many: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson in basketball and Ken Griffey Jr. in baseball are a few names that come to mind. [The deal] meant a lot to me when I was on the court, and still does now that I’m off the court because it represents my life. People identify with that as well, not just my play! I had five signature shoes with Converse, three with Jordan Brand, and 10 with Li-Ning – that’s a different class. I don’t know a lot of people who had that many.
For you, what makes a perfect basketball shoe?
I’m old school so my answer might be different than someone like Trae Young, who just got his first signature shoe, but you gotta go comfort first. After that, it’s finding the perfect weight. You obviously don’t want a heavy shoe, but you don’t want one that’s as light as a feather either. When I was playing in the NBA, my game was based on explosiveness and quickly changing direction, so I needed my shoes to be solid. The science of that is all really brand-driven, so I just trust the people that are way smarter with materials than I am to make sure it’s right [laughs]. As a player, you have to understand that the company making your shoes needs to evolve their technology.
It sounds like it’s important for players to be open-minded when it comes to technological advancements.
You definitely need to. Sometimes you’ll see a guy wear one shoe through the regular season, then switch to a different model for the playoffs. At the beginning of the season, your legs feel light, and at the end of the season, your legs are definitely a lot heavier. You need to be aware of that when choosing your footwear. Colours, materials and design are all important, but above all else, you want to build something that anyone would want to play in. You don’t want your toes bleeding while you’re trying to hoop!
Post-career, are you still providing performance feedback on the new Way of Wade models?
My son does all of that now [laughs]. I’ll still put the new Way of Wade model on and shoot around a little bit, but I’m not exploding, cutting to the hoop or anything like that, so I’m not really the right one to give that kind of feedback. Nowadays, I spend more time listening to the marketplace, trying to see what’s out there, trying to make sure Way of Wade is still evolving. I use my brain more than my body.
The next generation has kind of taken performance testing on – Zaire [Wade] and D’Angelo Russell provide a lot of feedback. Zaire has always been part of the brand, but now that he’s started his pro career he can be even more of the process. This is really his brand, I’m just holding it down until he’s ready to take over.
How does it feel to see Zaire wearing Li-Ning as he starts his own pro hoops journey? The second generation of a signature line is unprecedented!
When I first signed with Li-Ning, building a family brand was in the back of my mind. I wanted to build something my kids could be a part of one day if they chose to pursue basketball as a career. It’s pretty cool as a father to have a son who’s been wearing my sneakers for 10 years and is now playing professionally himself. It’s a step into what’s hopefully a lifetime partnership for him too!
Looking over your partnership with Li-Ning, what are you the proudest of – and what about the future excites you the most?
Being 10 years in is what makes me the proudest. I originally signed a seven-year deal with Li-Ning, and after it was up we decided to extend the partnership. Here we are a decade later, and I feel like we’re just getting started as a brand! I’m very proud of that. I’m also proud to have a brand that is a great launchpad for not only my son, but any young basketball player.