Inside Joel Embiid's sneaker free agency

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Philadelphia 76ers franchise center Joel Embiid has signed a five-year deal with Under Armour that is expected to make him the highest-paid player at his position.

But the reason why, Embiid says, goes beyond money or sneakers.

As part of the deal, Embiid and Under Armour will partner not just on branded footwear and apparel, but also on charitable initiatives in and around Philadelphia and in Cameroon. Early on, give-back events and an ongoing series of basketball camps in his current home and his homeland were major priorities for Embiid. It was the access to fellow Cameroon native Luc Mbah a Moute‘s basketball camp as a 16-year-old that made the NBA a reality in just a few years.

“When I sat down with Under Armour, one of the first things we talked about was how this can be bigger than just shoes, bigger than just basketball,” Embiid wrote. “I want to help change people’s lives like Luc changed my life.”

Embiid holds the trademark for “The Process,” and he’ll kick things off by unveiling a series of collaborative Under Armour T-shirts and hoodies later today during a surprise event for kids in Philadelphia.

Having long circled Embiid as the top sneaker free agent of the year, Kris Stone, Under Armour’s senior director of global sports marketing for basketball, had organized a detailed official pitch meeting for late August in Baltimore, once Embiid had returned from playing in the NBA’s Africa Game exhibition.

Riding in a helicopter first with Embiid’s CAA reps from New York to Philadelphia, the group then stopped to pick up its most oversized passenger, with Stone offering up a lint brush as Embiid hopped aboard. A dubious detail to most, Embiid is known among his closest friends and associates to be constantly looking for a brush to clean off his pants before meetings.

It was just the beginning of a series of small gestures that Stone and Under Armour had researched about Embiid to show their level of seriousness and commitment to signing him. For Stone, who also closed the brand’s breakthrough Stephen Curry signing in 2013, the appeal around Embiid was immediate.

“When I started at Under Armour 10 years ago, there was this very aggressive, entrepreneurial spirit of the brand that attracted a lot of people to it. I feel like Joel represents that spirit today,” said Stone. “He’s not afraid to predict a win or say he’s going to have a big game ahead of a certain matchup. He backs it up. I love that type of attitude and energy.”

During the pitch presentation at the brand’s harborside offices, company founder Kevin Plank held court, hosting Embiid and his team through an overview of Under Armour’s brand history, upcoming technologies and future plans, with key execs each walking him through detailed specifics from a variety of categories.

With Philly just a two-hour drive from Under Armour’s headquarters, the company plans to send footwear specialists often to meet with Embiid for feedback and product input, as they look to build shoes hitting on his preferred attributes of support, fit and breathability. Embiid also came away impressed with Under Armour’s commitment to marketing him, which will largely be focused on simply allowing the dynamic social media star to “be him with no guardrails,” according to Stone.

“Joel is young, and he’s very provocative,” said Stone. “He has this rebellious, charismatic spirit. It’s somewhat Ali-like, in terms of his bravado and his confidence.”

After the presentation, Plank requested additional one-on-one time with the engaging Embiid, as the two connected in the self-made billionaire’s office for more than 30 minutes, discussing Embiid’s journey, personal interests and long-term aspirations more deeply. Plank was drawn to that same brashness and competitive nature that the two shared.

Within the next week, Under Armour’s current face of the company, Stephen Curry, sent Embiid a welcoming text message, encouraging him to join the brand and help grow the company together. In many ways, the brand feels the 76ers star serves as a great complement to the Warriors’ three-time champion, as the two represent opposite coasts and basketball positions, and have different footwear preferences.

Soon after, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whom Embiid simply refers to as “The GOAT,” sent a text message to offer up his excitement for Embiid to also potentially be signing on with the brand. He has long stated that the five-time Super Bowl champion is his all-time favorite football player.

While big men have historically struggled to market sneakers for companies — a stigma now nearing almost three decades since Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal and Dikembe Mutombo entered the league — Under Armour believes Embiid could be a generational exception to the rule, with his emerging MVP-level play amplified by his natural dominance of social media and his mastery of both Instagram and Twitter.

“I mean, listen … I’m gonna make sure they design some shoes as pretty as I am. Don’t worry about that. We’re gonna take care of that.”

Joel Embiid on his new sneaker deal with Under Armour

“There’s a stereotype about big men that can’t sell shoes. When I look at myself, I’m not a big man — I’m a guard,” Embiid said with a smile. “I can do everything on the basketball court. You can name it — pass, post up, shoot the ball, bring the ball up, being a playmaker — so I’m excited to break that stereotype.”

“We didn’t view Joel as a big man,” said Stone. “We’re not gonna put him in any sort of box. He’s a great player who has all sorts of incredible skills and a bigger-than-life personality.

“He’s an All-Star starting center and talented franchise player leading a team that’ll be in contention for years to come,” said Stone. “On top of that, he’s hilarious on social media, and some of the data we’ve seen shows his fans connect with him as much as anyone else in the league.”

Embiid boasts an engagement and interaction rate on Instagram that is three to four times higher than more accomplished players like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who already have their own signature shoes. While the current shoe deal will start with player exclusive editions of models like the HOVR Havoc, Embiid is hoping to one day soon see a potentially dubbed “Process 1” come to life.

Until then, his current excitement in joining the brand is more centered around the roadmap for camps, clinics and givebacks that the two sides are working toward in the near future.

“Basketball has given me everything, but it has to be bigger than basketball. … This isn’t about a shoe deal,” said Embiid. “I mean, listen … I’m gonna make sure they design some shoes as pretty as I am. Don’t worry about that. We’re gonna take care of that.”



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