With nearly 60 NBA players as clients and a viral online following, thanks in part to his All-Star-laden summer pickup games, New York-based basketball trainer Chris Brickley has blurred the lines of coaching, social media influence, style and hoops culture in recent years.
Now he has signed an exclusive sneaker deal with Puma, the first-ever multiyear shoe deal of its kind for a basketball trainer, as the brand continues its push back into the NBA landscape. Brickley and Puma will kick off the partnership with a free basketball camp for Charlotte-area kids as one of many brand events at All-Star Weekend.
Brickley's rise to becoming one of the most recognizable pro trainers took a sharp trajectory over the past two summers. A walk-on at Louisville a decade ago and later a Division I assistant coach, Brickley's first client was the older brother of his former teammate and close friend Chris Smith: then-New York Knicks sharpshooter JR Smith.
The elder Smith and Brickley would often work out late into the night in New York, as Smith looked to get up extra shots and work on his game. As team staff continued seeing Brickley around the practice facility, Smith suggested they hire him. He eventually was given an entry intern role to continue training players, and the following year he was named a player development coach.
After earning the trust of both Smith and teammate Carmelo Anthony, Brickley soon established a growing web of contacts who would come to train with him at Life Time Athletic Club in New York. In advance of its 2016 opening, Anthony helped design the darkened hardwood flooring and 45-degree striped gray support padding throughout the luxury apartment tower's basketball gym, which became instantly recognizable in videos across Instagram, where Brickley now boasts more than 530,000 followers.
Over the past two summers, it became not only a place for players to work on their games but also a destination for competitive summer pickup games. LeBron James and Kevin Durant flew in to play in a game that ended up tallying 1.7 million views on Brickley's Instagram account and was reposted on countless other pages. Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and others have become staples at the runs. Anthony's "Hoodie Melo" phenomenon was born through a summer of workouts there in 2017.
Last summer, just before the NBA draft, Brickley was preparing to run Rudy Gay through an hour of drills at the gym when he noticed the longtime Nike athlete lacing up a pair of sneakers he'd never seen before.
"I'm thinking, 'He's wearing a Puma basketball shoe?'" said Brickley. "I thought it was pretty cool, so I posted the shoe on my Instagram, and it went super, super viral."
"Puma Hoops is about to be the new wave," the caption read.
The image of the brand's new Clyde Court sneaker in a simple black-and-white became the unofficial first look. Brickley, and everyone else outside of the Puma circle, hadn't seen the shoe yet. Every sneaker blog reposted the photo almost immediately. Nearly 500 comments and 18,000 likes later, there was a curious interest in the return of Puma Hoops across social media.
That week, Puma officially announced they'd signed several of the top lottery picks in the draft. The signings caught the attention of rival brands and players alike. Jay-Z signed on as Puma creative director.
Brickley texted his manager, Alex Koblenz of 7x Media, that night:
"We need to get a Puma deal."
As the summer went on, players were using the viral workouts and pickup runs to debut new sneakers and clothes. After signing with Puma during the offseason, Terry Rozier announced the deal by wearing the Clyde Court and a Puma logo tee during a pickup game. LeBron James unveiled upcoming Versace collaboration basketball shorts in another workout. The gym had been cemented as a new stage for players, with Brickley's Instagram account serving as the platform.
"If it wasn't for social media, I might not be signing this Puma deal," he admits. "I might not be getting all of these other players."
While basketball is without question his passion and focus, in many ways Brickley isn't just a trainer. He's been incorporated into the latest NBA 2K video game, launched his "Black Ops Basketball" training company, his own "Color Blind" clothing line, and counts several players and rappers as personal friends.
"I have tattoos, I wear jewelry, and I'm into fashion. I'm not your stereotypical coach that wears a button-up every day," said Brickley. "There's no problem with that, that's just not me."
The brand looks at him as a hybrid personality with a hoops-frenzied following and plans to launch a series of T-shirts around his "You Can" mantra, along with potential sneakers in the future. Yes, he'll even have access to the Puma Jet.
"He sits in the middle of this world of music, sports and culture," said Koblenz. "It's a melting pot for all of that, and this partnership is going to be touching on all sides of that."
Early on, there was a consideration that signing an exclusive deal could potentially dissuade some of his biggest clients from coming to work out and play in pickup games this summer. Many of the household names are signed to signature shoe deals with Nike, Jordan and Adidas.
"For a second, I didn't know," said Brickley. "I was talking to a bunch of guys about it, and before I do any big deals, there's like four or five players that I'll talk to and that I really trust. They said, 'Well, are they going to have a Puma logo around the gym?' No. 'Is it only going to be for Puma guys now?' No. I just said, 'It's basically like an athlete deal, and I'll be the one wearing Puma.'"
"Man, I've never heard of a trainer signing a sneaker deal," Anthony told him. "You gotta do it!"
Brickley isn't expecting the roster of players who come to change, as he looks to marry the offseason workouts for pros with a series of Puma-powered free camps for kids.
"I think it's cool, and I can still work with any player from any brand that I want to work with," he said.
For the company, which signed a mix of 10 rookies and veterans prior to this season, signing partners beyond players is a way Puma is looking to take a unique approach.
"We want to bring people into the Puma world that are different looks and bring a different dimension to how we can activate and tell stories around basketball," said Adam Petrick, Puma global director of brand and marketing. "We're definitely thinking very broadly in how we can bring ambassadors and partnerships to the world of Puma hoops and hopefully push the boundaries of what brands traditionally do."