Chinese Basketball Association All-Star Guo Ailun grew up in the rural, northern Chinese city of Liaoyang, and remembers the first time he encountered NBA star Michael Jordan -- or at least a piece of him -- in the early 2000s.
"The first time I remember Jordan was on a Japanese cartoon called Slam Dunk," he said. "One character on the show was a basketball player and he was wearing the Air Jordan 1. Ever since then, I loved Jordan."
Jordan the player had already cemented his legacy in the sport as a globally recognized superstar well before the time he last played for the Chicago Bulls in 1998. However, It wasn't until the 1997-98 season that his Jordan Brand, a subsidiary of Nike Inc., had actually gone fully global and entered into Asia with the launch of the Air Jordan XIII.
Two decades later, the company has established itself across Asia with its innovative shoe designs and the legacy of Jordan Brand basketball players who have signed onto the brand long after Jordan left the game for good in 2003. That roster now fittingly includes rising star point guard Guo, the first Chinese Basketball Association player signed to Jordan Brand. Guo, 23, will also become the first international athlete to have his own Jordan signature sneaker. The shoe deal, negotiated by the Wasserman agency, will pay him more than $3 million annually after incentives throughout the contract. This season, he'll once again be expected to lead the Liaoning Flying Leopards, his hometown CBA team that he has played for since 2010.
In recent seasons, Guo had been signed with Chinese athletic brand Li-Ning, who also had an exclusive footwear rights deal with the CBA. League wide, players were provided Li-Ning footwear to wear in all games. During the first four seasons of the deal, if a player had another endorser, they could pay a fee and still cover the logo on their shoes, but this past season, the final year of the deal, all domestic CBA players were required to wear Li-Ning shoes, making lucrative deals with other brands difficult.
That sponsorship agreement just expired, and the league is now going through a series of options for the upcoming season. It's expected that the league will go back to allowing all brands to have logo visibility on court, as no company has stepped up with interest in paying the $60 million per season that Li-Ning had been paying.
In Guo's case, his individual Li-Ning contract expired before this past season. He decided to play in 2016-17 without a shoe deal and bypass the brand's 90-day exclusive negotiating window, making him free to sign a new deal with the company of his choosing after January of this year. That opened the door for Jordan Brand, which quickly rose to the top of his list of suitors.
"Jordan allowed him to be unique in the China market," a source close to Guo says. Much like the most marketable American players, Guo has developed a reputation for standing out off the court, thanks in part to his distinctive hair style, penchant for dressing well and use of social media on the Chinese platform Weibo. Jordan Brand will look to position Guo not only individually throughout China in both basketball and lifestyle campaigns, but also globally alongside its current NBA endorsers. The importance of being the latest member of the storied brand isn't lost on Guo.
"When I first played basketball, I'd see Jordan shoes on TV or on other players and loved them," he says. "At the time, we couldn't afford them, so I was always envious of other players that had the shoes. That makes this such a dream come true now."
For the love of the game
"In the beginning, I just played basketball for fun," Guo says. "I was just a normal kid, but when I was chosen to get on the provincial team in my hometown, I started to think about playing at the professional level and playing hard."
At a lean but built 6-foot-4, Guo is often credited most for his work ethic. The repetition has resulted in developing a shifty handle all over the floor, allowing him to attack the rim at will. His 3-point shot and NBA-level set reads are still a work in progress, so he utilized this past offseason to work on individual improvement in the United States.
"In China, there's no personal training like the U.S.," Guo says. "We train together as a team, and it's harder to really improve individually like that. The trainers don't really focus on just one person."
For six weeks this summer, he grinded daily with renowned skills trainer Rob McClanaghan in Los Angeles at a Bel-Air estate's private gym, where McClanaghan routinely hosts summer workouts for NBA players Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings.
"He's a relentless worker man," McClanaghan says of Guo's sessions. "Just nonstop."
The longtime pro trainer noted three key areas that Guo has routinely developed: "He's got great handles. Very good midrange shooter. Great feel for the game."
His approach and effort during daily training sessions didn't go unnoticed by the NBA players, who've spent endless summers in Los Angeles through the years training with McClanaghan.
"It was almost like he didn't know how to rest," Jennings says with a laugh. "He just kept going. He was working out [with fellow Wasserman-represented players] in the morning. Then going to our workout at noon. Then he'd go and do conditioning for two hours. After, he'd want to play 1-on-1 too. I admired his work ethic."
Representing a new era of Chinese basketball
Historically, most of China's best players who have played in the NBA are big men 7 feet or taller. Whether it was Yao Ming, Wang ZhiZhi, Yi Jianlian or others, Chinese players still received shoe deals in the NBA because of the known visibility they'd generate back home. The ratings throughout Asia continually climbed during the 2000s, now outpacing viewership even in the U.S.
"More NBA basketball is being watched in China than anywhere else in the world," commissioner Adam Silver confirmed during an NBA Finals news conference earlier this year.
Despite their varied talents and tuned-in audience, the collective of NBA big men from China -- even Hall of Famer Yao -- never made an impact on the footwear industry. Guo aims to break that mold.
"A few years ago, Guo played a private game with Chris Paul in Tianjin," said Victor Sun, a longtime publisher of basketball magazine DIME in China and a sneaker historian for the region. "I was there, and I saw that this boy is a mean guy. He wants to win. He wants to play against the high-level athlete. He couldn't find a guy that can compete with him in his current environment, so he tried his best and wanted to defeat CP. He was still young and CP is much more smart, but Guo learned a lot through that game."
Guo is now a three-time CBA All-Star. He has led his once-struggling hometown team consistently to the playoffs. After starting with the franchise in 2010 at just 17, Guo helped Liaoning slowly climb the standings, ultimately reaching back-to-back CBA Finals in 2015 and 2016.
"Stephen Curry is famous here because he's got two rings and played in three NBA Finals," Sun said. "Guo's team is one of the best in the Chinese Basketball Association. He's been to the Finals, so that's why he is getting so famous now."
In a culture that rewards winning, he's hoping to continue building on that team success, in the same way that Michael Jordan's pursuit of excellence carried the Chicago Bulls decades ago. As their partnership continues to grow, Guo and Jordan Brand are also hoping to impact the game and his local community in new ways.
"I want to help kids that love basketball in China to have an opportunity to grow up being able to play," Guo says. "I want to start some training camps in my hometown with Jordan. I want to go to some rural and poor areas in China and donate courts and do a lot together."
The hope is that providing more resources can inspire other kids from that same rural region to follow in his steps, as far as even the NBA. As he's set to enter his eighth season in the CBA this fall, playing in the world's premier league is still a near-term goal.
"I want to do both," Guo says firmly and confidently. "CBA is a really competitive league, and I think I can keep improving there. Once I feel ready and at that level, I want to go to the NBA."
As it stands, Jordan didn't sign him with the expectation that they'd be getting in early on one of the sport's next crossover stars in America. They signed Guo to further entrench the brand in China, regardless of the league in which he plays.
"If he doesn't want to come to the NBA, he could become the most successful Chinese basketball player ever in the CBA," an industry source says. "Everyone leaves China at some point, and no one has embraced that path."
Wherever his future takes him down the road -- CBA or NBA -- for now he can hold the pride of being the first Chinese player to be hand-picked to carry Jordan's legacy through the region, as he continues his rise in the game.
"The fans here in China are all proud of me," Guo says with a smile. "My teammates always tease me though, and ask for free Jordans."
Nick DePaula is the creative director for Nice Kicks and former editor-in-chief of Sole Collector Magazine.