D-Wade talks Li-Ning, sneaker legacy

Dwyane Wade says a private meeting with Olympic gold medalist Li Ning helped inspire him to sign with the champion gymnast's sportswear company. Courtesy of Bob Metelus

Although there was much surprise to the news Dwyane Wade was leaving the iconic Jordan Brand, the root of that reaction was precisely the reason he wanted to sign with Li-Ning.

Wade wants to create his own sneaker legacy, just like his idol and fellow Chicagoan Michael Jordan did.

After signing with Converse as an NBA rookie in 2003, then with Jordan Brand in 2009, the Miami Heat All-Star is now ready to take on China and the world as his own brand.

Last week in Beijing, before the Heat were to play a preseason game against the Clippers, Wade officially signed with Li-Ning -- the company of Chinese Olympic champion gymnast Li Ning -- and showcased the sneaker, which is expected to be available in the U.S. next year for about $130.

Much later that night, Wade was still up to talk about his new venture.

That's when, precisely at 3:15 a.m. early Thursday (Beijing time), Wade called ESPN Playbook in New York City to talk about how Li-Ning provides something that Jordan and Converse could not, what makes his new kicks special, and his friendly shoe rivalry with LeBron James.

To start things off, how did Li-Ning first jump on your radar, and how did the relationship forge from there?

I think being into sneakers and being in the shoe world, you keep your eye out, and my eye was open. Actually in 2006, Shaquille O'Neal signed with them when he was my teammate in Miami, and then in 2008, I watched the Olympics and saw Mr. Li Ning light the torch. I saw the brand take off from there at the Olympics. But even when my eye got open to the brand, I still didn't know a lot about it. I like to ask questions about different things that I'm interested in, that I think are cool and something that has a story behind it. I thought this brand would be cool because of Mr. Li Ning and what he's been able to accomplish and do as an Olympian. It came on my radar kind of like that and now this opportunity presented itself and, to me, it was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up on.

I know you've spent some time in China before this trip, and the NBA is continuing to expand its footprint there. Did the incredible market exposure have a big influence on your decision?

Oh, no doubt, man. I mean, this is global. We are trying to get over here. The NBA is sending us here and different brands are sending us over here. To be here all year round, to represent it and to really be a part of the culture here, to me was something that was an unbelievable opportunity. It's an opportunity that I haven't been able to have in many different facets.

And the deal itself, man. I really am a partner. I am chief brand officer of my own brand in a sense. It's kind of like what Michael Jordan has built in the U.S., and I'm kind of taking a similar format to try to build my own brand through a very successful company. Hopefully by doing that, both sides can prosper in a sense. Coming over here to China and seeing the way that the fans accept you and how much they love the game of basketball, it makes you say, "Wow." It's something that I've never even dreamed of outside of the U.S. to be as big as you are, to be as loved as you are in a sense. So, yeah, the opportunity to travel here was awesome.

From Court Grip last year to Li-Ning this time around, I see something in you where you like to be involved with the development of a product -- not just putting your name on it. Where does that startup mindset come from?

Yeah, man. It comes from when I went to Harold L. Richards High School [in Chicago]. There were other schools that were more popular that even my dad wanted me to go to, and I was like, "Nah, I want to go here." It wasn't even a basketball school. It was a football school. And then going to Marquette. Marquette hadn't been successful in many years and I kind of wanted to go there and help bring that basketball program back. And I look back now and they're still relevant, they have one of the best recruiting programs this year. I look back and see what I've been able to accomplish by certain moves, like going to the Miami Heat. We had a 25-win season the year before I got there and a few years later, we won a championship.

Just being a part of change and making a change, and that's what I am. If you even see the way I dress, I don't follow the status quo. I'm just a different person in that sense of what I do -- things that aren't necessarily always the popular choice, but eventually it can change into being that. And I'm comfortable with that. I understand that everyone won't understand certain things and certain moves because that's just the way we are. Change is not something that we love to do, but, to me, it's exciting. It's challenging, and I love a challenge, and I love to be me and I love to be different, and I love to change the perception of something in a sense.

What was it like to meet Li Ning and discuss the future of the brand together?

I've gotten a chance to meet him a few times. It's been awesome. Everyone knew my deal with Jordan was up Sept. 30, so before that, we had a short window to be able to sign the deal that was best for me. He came down himself to meet with me, man. I thought that was just the coolest thing in the world -- to have someone who has a billion-dollar brand, in a sense, to come down and really tell me and show me how important this would be for me to join the family -- and how important it would to be a partner, in a sense, and stand next to him. I admire him for what he was able to accomplish as a gymnast, being the first to do it in China. It's never easy to be the first, to step out on a limb and say, "I'm going to do this," and then people really support you and believe in you. And he's done that. That's kind of how I am, so that's one of the main reasons why I wanted to sign with this brand.

Li-Ning has several track-and-field stars, such as Asafa Powell from Jamaica. Do you have plans to do cross-promotion with Li-Ning's other athletes down the road, especially as the brand moves ahead to the 2016 Olympics?

Yeah. This is, like I said, a team. This is a family that we're building and we'll have other interaction with certain guys -- even in the NBA with [76ers guard and Chicago native] Evan Turner. We are the two guys who represent the Li-Ning [basketball] brand. We'll have moments throughout this process were we are sharing moments, but I'm going to continue to focus on the Wade brand and help build the performance base. In China, my job and our job is to be the best in China. In the States, it's to try to slowly make our move in different spots and different places. Hopefully my followers and supporters in the states want to be a part of what they feel is a great product and a fashionable product as well.

You mentioned the Wade brand. Does that include "Team No Sleep," which you popularized on Twitter after you won the championship this year and celebrated nonstop?

[Laughs.] Actually, man, that's one of the things I do have coming down the line: a "Team No Sleep" shoe coming out a little later. It'll just be one of shoes that's part of the Wade brand. I will dedicate a moment to "Team No Sleep" through the design of the shoe. It's going to be something that's going to be pretty cool and something that my team is excited about. It's "Team No Sleep," man. We do these things, man, and I have an unbelievable opportunity with the doors open. I don't let them close. I step inside the door first before I let it close to see if it's something that I want to be a part of.

Let's talk about the structure of the sneaker. What were some of the important design and technology cues to you?

The biggest thing, and the first thing when I talked to the design team, I'm all about comfort. So it was about making sure that my sneaker had what I needed in the sense of performance first. We did a great job of working with my trainers and doctors and everybody with my history of what has been a problem, what hasn't, and build the shoe so it was comfortable for my feet.

And then, you go into having a small window of trying to create a shoe that can create a buzz in a sense. I thought that I wanted to stay classic, I wanted to stay with something that can live many years from now in a sense. I didn't want to make it too wild, too crazy. We can do that with colors. So when you see the shoe, man, there's not a lot going on. It's simple in a sense. We'll have different leathers on the shoe, different materials on the shoe as the year goes on. We'll change the shoe up, but it'll still give you that classic look and brings it back to the basics in a sense, and not really going too crazy right now.

What kinds of different leathers?

Like the shoe I'm wearing in Beijing will be more so the cut-leather kind of look with a little suede on it. Some may be softer leathers in a sense, so it's different leathers that you need to change the shoe up. I've seen it in many different ways and I'm like, "Oh my god." It looks like a different shoe, but it's similar with how I switch up the leathers from the back to the toe to the mid-part. It's putting different leathers, different combinations together to give the shoe a different look.

Do you like to write things on your sneaker before games, like a Bible passage or a shoutout to your family?

I have before in certain moments. I think initially what I try to create and try to do is different points of the shoe when you look at it. On the side of my shoe, I have the initials "ZZDG." That's my family that I've created. My sons, Zion and Zaire, my nephew, Dahveon, who lives with me, and my beautiful lady, [actress] Gabrielle [Union]. So I dedicate a moment to them on every shoe. I have a Bible verse that my mom used. Everyone knows the story of my mom addicted to the drugs, and there's a Bible verse that really helped her. It's on the back of both shoes. So I have different things on my shoe that's kind of personal to me where I don't even have to write it. They're on every shoe and everybody will get them. That means a lot. My grandma's age, [91], is on the bottom of the shoe, and my kids' ages, [10 and 5], are on the bottom of the shoe.

I know you're a big style guy, so are you going to have your own Li-Ning fashion line?

Yeah, good question, man. We've got things we're working on, and I think the one thing that you will see with this shoe is they designed it well. And that's why I brought up the part about the leather. Depending on what leather we go with the shoe, it fits very well to performance and also to fashion. We also have another shoe that we're working on. This shoe right here was actually done by two different designers. It was done by a fashion designer first, Alejandro Ingelmo, and then it was changed and molded by Li-Ning's basketball performance designer, Eric Miller, as well. So we have another shoe that we're working on as well that I will be wearing to the games, but it has some of the similar brother-and-sister kind of view to them -- different, but similar in a sense. We will find an opportunity for it to live somewhere as well.

A fashion and performance designer? How long was the design process? A year?

[Laughs.] No, it wasn't, and that's the crazy thing. Normally it takes at least a year. We did it in a month and a half, two months. It was crazy. So to go out and look and try to find the deal, they felt like they had a great opportunity. They met with us and said, "What would you like to see to create a shoe for you?" And I kind of told them what I would like to see, and before I made a decision, they came back with what they felt what was the product. They really showed me that they wanted me, and they really gave me the opportunity to do something that I've never been able to do with Brand Jordan or with Converse. It's a legacy that I've never had the opportunity to really do before because Brand Jordan has a legacy. They have Michael Jordan, an unbelievable player for many years. I didn't really have that opportunity and I felt like I had to have my own in a sense. And I've kind of learned from what he's done.

I've got to ask: Is any part of you nervous about putting on a sneaker after only that short of development time and without additional months of usual testing?

You know what? The reason I'm not is because I have, as I said, an unbelievable team, man. The one thing that the Li-Ning guys did is they didn't come in and say, "Listen, we've made shoes. We know how to make them. This is what you're going to wear." They came and said, "OK, we want to learn about Dwyane Wade's feet. What makes a comfortable shoe for him?" And they got with my trainers, they got with my doctors and they did everything possible to create this shoe. So I'm comfortable already because I know what's in the shoe. I know the plates that they put in the shoe, I know what was built for the shoe was built for me. They really took time to say, "All right, let's meet with the people we need to meet with. Let's make sure, first and foremost, that the performance is first, and I'm comfortable in that."

Are you still going to use Court Grip on the bottom of your sneakers for better grip on the court?

Yeah. Obviously they're a sponsor of the NBA now, and then every arena that you go in, and colleges as well. No doubt.

LeBron has a new sneaker out, the LeBron X. Now with your new deal, have you guys started a fun rivalry with your different shoe games?

First of all, Nike is a machine, man. I can't catch up to Nike in a day or even in two years. But I think the biggest thing, especially with this, people are starting to see a little bit of my personality in my sneakers. When people know me, they say, "OK, I understand why Dwyane's shoe is like this or it's like that." LeBron obviously is a Nike guy and he has his own brand to run in a sense. But he supports my decision to think that it's a great opportunity for me and I think it's going to be interesting as the season goes on. We all look at each other's shoes. We all look to see what each other's wearing, and we know right now the Heat has the hottest shoe in basketball in a sense. And my job is just to make him turn his eye a little bit a couple of times.