• Kaunda Chama

African NBA players have been kickin’ it

As Nigerian-Greek NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounpo debuts his Nike Zoom Freak 2 sneaker at the restart of the 2020-2021 season, we take a look at some other players with African connections that have either had signature shoes or enjoyed the privilege of having a player-exclusive sneaker.

The face of the Milwaukee Bucks came out with his first sneaker – the Feak 1 last season during the NBA All-Star weekend, which appropriately coincided with his MVP season. As his popularity and brand grows, he should continue bringing out new versions annually, much like some of the greats that came before him.

One of the best ways an NBA player can ensure that above and beyond their game-play, their name remains cemented in the NBA fans’ minds is having their own branded apparel especially a signature shoe.

The first names that come to mind when one thinks of signature shoes are Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O'Neal and more recently Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. However, there have been a few African players that have had their own.

Perhaps one of the greatest Africa exports to the NBA Hakeem Olajuwon, who was drafted into the league in as the first pick in 1984 ahead of great like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, was the first African players to get the privilege of having a signature sneaker.

In the 90s when the popular shoes were Nike, Air Jordans and Reekoks, Olajuwon opted to deviate from the norm and opted to with brands like Etonic, LA Gear and Spalding. His most memorable signature sneaker was the Etonic “Hakeem The Dream” shoe.

Ten years after retirement from the league, Olajuwon got back into the shoe game and launched what he called an upscale yet functional DR34M signature shoe line, which he wore during the NBA Africa Game in Johannesburg South Africa in 2015.

Another African Legend that had his own signature is Dikembe Mutombo. His basketball shoe was released by adidas in the 1992/93 NBA season. The shoe was designed in line with Mutombo’s personal history as a native of Zaire, now Congo, in mind.

Designed for his second professional season, this high top shoe is made of modern synthetic polymers, synthetic fibers and rubber. Its most distinguishing features are the shield logo on the tongue and the number 55 (as worn by Mutombo) and a printed geometric pattern over the forefoot. These signifying markers made the sneaker quite unique, and specific to Dikembe, and place it within a long trajectory of signature shoes in the basketball market.

Players with Player Exclusive shoes

Emmanuel Mudiay

With the success of Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry’s signature range, Under Armour tried its luck with a then budding African talent by enlisting Emmanuel Mudiay as the next guy up. Ideologically, the Congolese-born Mudiay fitted right in with Under Armour’s underdog mentality and the day after the 2015 NBA Draft, Under Armour’s ClutchFit Drive 2 Low Emmanuel Mudiay PE was already in stores. It also helped that he was selected seventh in the first round.

Mudiay immediately provided Under Armour with an international appeal that they had hoped to get with Brandon Jennings and one they have built with Curry. With Congolese roots and playing days in China already under his belt, Mudiay is a true international baller and, also helped turn UA Basketball into an international brand.

For Under Armour, the duo of Curry and Mudiay were the brand’s best shot at challenging Nike for supremacy.

Luol Deng while at the Bulls

Sudanese forward Luol Deng, who maintained his across-the-board production for his 15-year NBA career, spent most of his 10 years at the Chicago Bulls in Player Exclusive colorways of Nike's Air Max Hyped.

A shoe suited for open court players, the Deng exclusive Air Max Hyped was made in Chicago Bulls "Home" colours. White leather made up the majority of the upper, with black carbon fibre along the base and ankle. Red was used for the Swoosh border, heel counter, Air unit and outsole. Deng's name appeared up on the heel in black.

Serge Ibaka

Meanwhile, more NBA players are wearing sneakers outside of their uniform colourway, and Congolese NBA champion Serge Ibaka was one of the front runners while at the Oklahoma City Thunder with his Adidas Crazy Fast player-exclusive shoes.

The vivid red, yellow, green and black colourway was designed to pay homage to Ibaka's Congo roots and to express his admiration and respect for his Congolese countryman and NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo. Ibaka's Crazy Fast shoes feature the heritage African mud print first seen on the adidas Mutombo which was relaunched in 2013.

Ibaka idolized Mutombo for his shot-blocking ability. With a career total of 3,256, “Mount Mutombo” is the NBA's second all-time leading shot blocker. If Ibaka has a long NBA career, he can potentially become one of the top five shot blockers of all time, and possibly even overtake his hero.

As more and more Africans enter the league and their standard of play remains high, many more name will be added to this list and many more sneakers will be having familiar names for Africans.

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