As he looked out into the Beijing crowd of thousands gathered to see him officially sign on to endorse one of China's very first sportswear brands, an overwhelmed Dwyane Wade could muster only one thought.
Whoa, this is big.
In 2012, the former Finals MVP and Chicago native was fresh off of his second NBA championship, but he was leaving the familiarity of Jordan Brand for a company nearly 8,000 miles away from Miami. He had seen the brand's founder and namesake, Li Ning, light the Olympic torch in the same city just four years earlier during the 2008 Summer Games, and here he was, alongside China's celebrated former Olympic gymnast to announce his new 10-year endorsement deal.
"You think you know what you're signing up for, and you think you know the vision that you have, but looking around, it was like, 'This can be something special,'" Wade said recently.
NBA stars such as Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett had signed on with Chinese brands in years prior, but toward the end of their careers and as big men -- a group that has long struggled to captivate the American sneaker-buying market. Never before had a superstar guard who still had a robust domestic sneaker market available to him made the move to a Chinese shoe at the height of his career.
Wade had been the face of the annual Air Jordan shoe -- a dream-like endorsement deal for a 2-guard who grew up idolizing Michael Jordan -- but Li-Ning offered a 10-year pact worth more than $8 million per year with additional incentives and royalties in tow. Ultimately, the financial offer and a market featuring more than 300 million active basketball players was too massive to overlook.
"They have more players playing than we have people living in the U.S.," Wade said.
It's a move that has made waves through the signature-sneaker industry in the years since, drawing the attention of young NBA players who are navigating their own endorsement deals and branding opportunities. There are now more than a dozen players with endorsement deals with the three major Chinese manufacturers (Li-Ning, Anta and Peak), most of them guards -- a significant shift from a decade ago.
Word of mouth matters throughout the NBA, and it didn't take long for the concept of doing a Chinese shoe deal to gain traction. A year after Wade signed, Rajon Rondo agreed to a six-year deal with Anta, following in the footsteps of teammate Kevin Garnett, who landed with the company in 2010 after his Adidas deal was up.
When Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson received an offer from Anta the following summer, his agent at the time, Bill Duffy, suggested he reach out to Rondo, a fellow BDA Sports client, for feedback.
"Wait till you go out there," Rondo told Thompson. "They'll show you so much love."
"At first, you know, you're skeptical," Thompson said. "Then, you come over [to China] and you see it firsthand, how much these people love hoops."
Known for his deadpan personality, the Warriors' 3-point ace fielded initial offers in 2014 from a variety of companies when his rookie deal with Nike was expiring. Anta offered $2 million per year and promised his own sneaker by the following season, along with royalties from the sale of every pair.
"I knew with the other brands in the States, whether it was Nike or Adidas, it was going to be tough for me to get a signature shoe," Thompson said. "I knew with Anta, I would have so much input creatively. I was going to hopefully be the Michael Jordan one day of Anta."
In his first four seasons with Nike, Thompson simply wore the latest edition of the brand's Hyperdunk model in Warriors colors. Early on, Anta looked to incorporate him into the process more than ever before.
"We actually asked Klay to build a shoe by himself so that he can understand how Anta builds his shoe and the attention and the quality that goes into it to help his performance and fit his needs," said Ben Tsai, Anta's basketball footwear director.
"I didn't know how hard it was to design a shoe until I tried to give input," Thompson said. "There's a lot of creative minds out there -- I wasn't one of 'em."
After launching his first two "KT" shoes, just as Thompson rose to All-Star status and the Warriors became a championship team, the two sides tore up his contract early and signed a new decade-long extension that could run through 2026.
"Knowing that I could be really big in China -- that was really cool to me," he said. "The shoe market sometimes is overflooded in the States, and I thought, 'Well, why not branch out and be global?'"
With incentive clauses, the total value of the extension mirrors Wade's 10-year contract and could pay Thompson as much as $80 million. Anta has 8,000 stores of its own and is expecting to sell millions of KT sneakers in Asia, along with signature apparel items and additional KT lifestyle shoes in the coming years.
The contracts for Wade and Thompson caught the eye of the rest of the NBA, paving a new route for endorsements in China. Stateside brands such as Nike, Under Armour and Adidas usually reserve contracts of that size to perennial MVP candidates such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and James Harden.
"Those deals showed other NBA players that Chinese sports brands are serious about them," said Shawn Liu, Anta's director of basketball sports marketing. "The players that go with Chinese brands are getting what Nike, Adidas and Under Armour wouldn't give them here -- massive exposure in China, TV commercials, social content and images in thousands of stores that make them more famous."
Thompson saw that last summer as he celebrated his new extension with Anta with a five-city, seven-day tour of China. Whether it was pickup hoops with locals at an outdoor court in Changsha or showing a more vibrant side of his personality in front of a mall teeming with fans in Zhengzhou, the legion of followers were enthralled with his every move.
"I can do a USA tour, whether it's Portland, Seattle, Chicago or wherever, and I'm not getting these crowds," Thompson said. "But I'm taking a five-city tour in China and there's thousands of people waiting to see me, and I can't believe it. The hunger from these people just to see one of their favorite basketball players is so cool. Knowing I'm 7,000 miles away from home and I can just shake their hand or give them a smile and they freak out, it's unbelievable."
Wade has felt the love of those crowds as he has expanded his pursuits beyond sneakers. His Li-Ning deal allowed him to develop and trademark his own logo, which he can use not only on his signature Way of Wade shoes, but also on any other product he develops and endorses, such as his "Wade Cellars" wine.
"Here we are, and the Wade logo and the Wade brand is known in China," he said. "We have over 10 Wade stores in China, and I never imagined having a Wade store."
In addition to the Wade-specific stores, the Heat star is also heavily featured in the more than 6,000 Li-Ning stores throughout China. The potential across the country is dramatic, creating opportunities simply not available to all players in the U.S.
"With the market four or five times the United States', it could be crucial in my development as a player, person and brand," the 26-year-old McCollum said.
The concept of going foreign isn't so foreign any longer. Before re-signing with Nike earlier this fall, All-Star starter Giannis Antetokounmpo seriously entertained a Li-Ning offer that would have paid him north of $10 million per year. The route is now a viable option for everyone: emerging rookies, role-playing fixtures on big-market teams and superstar icons at the pinnacle of the sport.
While Wade's championship-level play during the height of his career and his Li-Ning deal have extended his brand into regions all over the globe, he'll always be most strongly connected with Miami.
After Wade was traded back to the Heat last month, customers from more than 100 countries bought endless merchandise, such as the Heat's new, vivid, powder blue and pink "Miami Vice"-inspired jersey with his familiar No. 3, sending team sales skyrocketing 8,000 percent, according to ESPN's Darren Rovell. The franchise's most beloved player happened to see the eye-popping stat in real time.
"I told my wife, 'I'm good for business,'" Wade said with a laugh. "We definitely have grown, and being able to be a part of a Chinese brand and being global has definitely helped and opened up more ears and eyes to myself."