FINDING THE PERFECT shoe was one of the final steps in Desmond Bane's frustrating return from injury.
Bane visited multiple doctors after suffering a Grade 2 sprain of his right big toe during the Memphis Grizzlies' Nov. 11 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. What was originally expected to sideline Bane for two or three weeks kept him out for most of December, after an injury to the sesamoid, a small bone in the joint of the big toe that Bane will likely need to get surgically repaired this summer, complicated matters.
Bane, the Grizzlies' second-leading scorer with 21.5 points per game during the regular season, accepted he'd have to play through pain the rest of the season. Managing and minimizing that pain and the possibility of aggravating the injury became a priority for the shooting guard, as well as the Grizzlies' medical and equipment staffers.
That meant, in part, finding a comfortable sneaker that had a stiff bottom to support his toe. Because of Bane's shoe deal, it had to be Nike.
Across the league, 22 players have their own signature shoe, but only a handful have a series with Nike. Bane had worn PG 6s, Paul George's signature shoes, in all of his games this season. Those didn't satisfy these extenuating circumstances. Neither did any of the various models of Kyrie Irving's signature Nikes, many of which Bane had worn in the previous two seasons. He tried some of the Nike Zoom GT series. Those weren't quite right, either.
Finally, Bane found his solution: the LeBron XX, the latest and 20th edition of LeBron James' series of signature shoes.
It was a bittersweet development for Bane, who wasn't happy to wear the shoe of the Los Angeles Lakers' active legend, considering their contentious history.
"Nah. I mean, nah, I [wasn't]," Bane told ESPN, pursing his lips and shaking his head, weeks before the second-seeded Grizzlies and No. 7 seed Lakers met in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
"But you know, I got to leave my pride to the side and do what's best for my body and my career."
A confrontation between James and Bane during Memphis' blowout road win over the Lakers on Jan. 9, 2022, can be considered a landmark moment of sorts. James, loudly enough to be heard clearly on the television broadcast, chastised Bane for "talking s---." Bane barked back, a scene that helped solidify the young, cocky Grizzlies' status as a team that established NBA veterans loved to loathe.
"That's your last time," James yelled at Bane. "That's your last motherf---ing time. That's your last time disrespecting me."
So Bane, who wore LeBron XXs in all 46 games after his return this season, certainly felt some anxiety entering the Grizzlies' Jan. 20 road game against the Lakers, the first time Bane faced James in the LeBron XXs. Many NBA players follow an unwritten rule forbidding the wearing of an opponent's signature shoe while facing that star, but Bane felt like he had no choice.
James broke the ice early in that game, approaching Bane and glancing at his feet, which were adorned with a pair of the LeBron XXs in a colorway celebrating James' chapter with the Miami Heat.
"He asked me if I had enough of 'em," Bane said, "if I needed any more."
Was James, who was wearing a bright orange-and-blue pair of his NXXT Gen model, taunting or truly being helpful?
"I felt like it was love, for sure," Bane said. "We moved on. I think we separated and settled our differences."
After the Lakers' Game 1 win, James confirmed that his offer to assist Bane was indeed genuine.
"Respect. Respect," James told ESPN. "I joked about it a few years ago, like, if a guy's wearing my sneakers I'm going to have to bust your ass and s---. Like, I'm not even in that type of energy no more, that type of space. I just think that's super dope. And I got to send some more to him now.
"I got to make sure he's a LeBron athlete now."
TYUS JONES PAID especially close attention to the Dallas Mavericks' injury report on March 11 and 13. The Grizzlies point guard wanted to know whether Irving, who was listed as questionable because of a right foot injury, would play.
This wasn't just a matter of Jones, who was filling in as a starter during Grizzlies star Ja Morant's eight-game suspension, figuring out who might be guarding him. A footwear decision was at stake.
Nike and Irving terminated their deal in December, after the All-Star guard posted a link on social media to a book and movie containing antisemitic messaging, but his signature shoes remain popular around the NBA, worn regularly by more than 80 players. That includes Jones, who has considered Kyries to be his "go-to" throughout his career -- specifically the Kyrie 7s.
Just not when he faces Irving.
That's a policy that dates to Jones' rookie season in 2015-16 with the Timberwolves, whose locker room was ruled by Kevin Garnett, the ruthlessly competitive Hall of Famer who was in his final season in the NBA. Garnett made it clear that any of his teammates who violated that unwritten rule would face his wrath.
"It was a very assertive way of telling me: You don't wear any guy you're playing against's shoes," Jones told ESPN. "I'm listening, no back talk, and that's just kind of stuck with me -- that mindset that you have to have.
"It was not out of disrespect, but he was saying it's just a mindset thing. Like, think about it: If I have a shoe and you look across and your matchup's wearing your shoe, they already got an edge on you. They already got a step on you."
Irving told ESPN that he's "honored" when he notices an opponent wearing a pair of his signature shoes but doesn't consider it a competitive advantage. Before getting his own signature deal, Irving would often wear Kobe Bryant's shoes. But when he faced the Lakers legend?
"No, no, no, no, no, no," Irving said with a laugh.
Garnett explained the reasoning behind the unwritten rule during a recent episode of Showtime Basketball's "KG Certified."
"The mental part of you being in someone's product is you support that person," Garnett said. "Not only that, you a fan. You're probably going to want me to sign these after."
It's a policy that Jones, who switched to a pair of Nike Kobe 6s for the Grizzlies' March 20 win over Irving and the Mavs, attempts to enforce with the Grizzlies.
It's a mentality that Morant, who is Nike's newest star to get a signature shoe, already possessed when he arrived in the NBA. Morant wore Kyrie 5s in the first two games of his career before switching to a pair of Kobe 4s for his third game, when he blocked Irving's shot at the regulation buzzer during an overtime win over the Brooklyn Nets.
But not every young Grizzly gets it.
Jones, a veteran in his eighth season who ranks as the most experienced player on the Grizzlies' playoff roster with big man Steven Adams sidelined by a knee injury, called out rookie forward David Roddy for wearing a pair of Nike PG 5s during the Grizzlies' March 5 loss to George and the Clippers.
Roddy offered no apologies.
"Yep, I did. Yes, I did," Roddy told ESPN. "I mean, that's the shoe that I'm most comfortable in. I know it's like an unwritten rule. I heard of that even when I was younger, but it doesn't impact my game at all."
Jones took accountability for Roddy breaking the rule, saying, "I got to him too late, so that's kind of on me."
The veteran point guard had at least a couple of other infractions by his Grizzlies teammates slip by him just last month. According to KixStats.com, a website that tracks the sneakers worn by every player in every NBA game, reserve wing John Konchar also wore a pair of PG 5s in that March 5 loss to George's Clippers. And reserve power forward Santi Aldama wore a pair of Kyrie Low 5s in the March 20 win over Irving's Mavericks.
Roddy correctly cited a historical case as evidence that the unwritten rule has no impact on competitive reality: Manu Ginobili helped power the San Antonio Spurs' 2014 NBA Finals victory over James' Heat in five games -- wearing LeBron 11s.
BANE'S SHOE DILEMMA met Jones' strict policy before that January meeting with the Lakers.
"I got to wear 'em vs. him," Bane told Jones, who acknowledged his teammate had indeed qualified for a rare medical exemption to the unwritten rule.
"So Des is all right," Jones said.
Would Garnett agree with the medical assessment? Jones, who heard a lot of Garnett's unmistakably booming voice during that rookie year, laughs while pondering the question.
"He probably would say he's not, but in the back of his mind, he probably would accept it," Jones said. "He might say, 'There's probably another shoe we could find that would work for that game.'"
Garnett's actual answer, soaked in sarcasm, during the episode: "I guess there wasn't no other shoes in the world that can do this special s---."
Bane wishes he would have found another Nike shoe that fit his unique needs as well as the LeBron XX, but he'd rather bruise his ego than aggravate his toe injury.
"Once it got to the LeBron and they worked, I was like, it is what it is," Bane said with a sigh.
"And they've been good to me, so I can't hate too much."
ESPN's Nick DePaula and Dave McMenamin contributed to this story.