It was one of those moments that will live in NBA infamy.
Game Seven of the 2019 Eastern Conference NBA finals between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. The game is tied 90-90 with 4.2 seconds left. Toronto center Marc Gasol is about to inbound the ball for the game’s final possession. Kawhi Leonard pops out at the top of the three-point line and Gasol finds him for the pass. Leonard spins and navigates the perimeter of that outer arc all the way to the other side of the court, to the deepest corner, and launches a long, off-balance jump shot. The clock hits 0.0 as it’s in the air. Twenty-thousand people collectively hold their breath.
One . . . two . . . three . . . four bounces.
Never in his wildest dreams did Pat Cassidy imagine this. Well, him and every Raptors and Sixers fan on the planet. But for Cassidy, as New Balance’s global director of consumer marketing, just a few months after signing Leonard as the face of the brand’s two-year old reentry into basketball, those four bounces changed everything.
“We’d originally announced our partnership and New Balance basketball in general, at All-Star [Weekend] last year, and everything was great,” says Cassidy. “People were intrigued, momentum was solid, people loved the shoe he was wearing. But there was something about that last-minute, Game 7 shot against the Sixers that was so improbable—and so clutch, rising above the moment and the pressure—that acted as jet fuel for Kawhi, New Balance basketball, and our partnership together.”
Basketball fans around the world were already on a first-name basis with Kawhi, but this moment put him in more pantheon conversations. There was more demand, more interest, in whatever Leonard, and subsequently New Balance, was doing. That followed as Leonard left Toronto to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers.
What people wanted to know most, was when, when, when the Kawhi Leonard shoe was dropping.
“He debuted it at the All-Star game in Chicago back in February, and ever since the outcry and demand from consumers has been off the charts,” says Cassidy. “We can post anything on any social channel, and the first comment is always, ‘When can I get the Kawhi?'”
Now the company is using that four-bounce, last-second shot as a symbol in its launch of Leonard’s—and the brand’s—first-ever signature basketball shoe. Its debut colorway is called . . . you guessed it: “The 4 Bounces.”
As much as that shot was a pivotal moment for the brand, the launch of the Kawhi shoe is just as crucial. It’s the most high-profile symbol of how New Balance is trying to be a viable, exciting alternative to giants like Nike and Adidas.
“From the start, before we talked to any athletes, we were very conscious about wanting partnerships, not sponsorships,” says Cassidy. “If there are athletes out there who want to just take a check from a sneaker brand to wear products and not be bothered or engaged, that’s fine. It’s worked for a long time for a lot of athletes, but that’s not what we’re interested in. We have to be different.”
They consciously looked for athletes who undoubtedly had the skills, but also a tangible independent spirit. “The kind we have as an independent company,” says Cassidy. “Part of that is an entrepreneurial spirit, one that wants to be involved in the design process, that wants to help build their marketing strategy with us. That’s not for everybody.”
This approach first raised eyebrows when the first major signing for New Balance Basketball was a high schooler named Darius Bazley. Instead of going the D1 NCAA route, or even the NBA’s G-League, before getting drafted into the NBA, Bazely—now playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder—worked as an intern at the company’s Boston headquarters.
Similarly, Leonard is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser as the face of a brand. He’s known as the antithesis of the modern celebrity athlete—one that keeps to himself, isn’t posting a constant social media stream, and primarily lets his on-court play do the talking. It doesn’t exactly scream “marketing gold” in the context of the modern, self-promotional, always-be-branding NBA.
But that’s just Cassidy and the brand was going for. Something different.
After that last-second shot, the brand learned to balance between the strategy it had long-planned and adapting the the culture. “Kawhi hits that shot, what comes next is we have to learn how to be faster, more aggressive, and opportunistic,” says Cassidy. “Within a week, ‘Fun Guy’ billboards started to appear in Toronto. The t-shirts were flying online and in stores.”
Leonard may be quiet in public, but Cassidy says he’s not shy when it comes to designing and developing a marketing strategy for his new shoe.
“To his credit, Kawhi is hyper-involved on a daily basis,” says Cassidy. “The stuff you’re going to see from the Four Bounces marketing, Kawhi’s fingerprints are all over it. Same with the shoe design. Our partnerships work best when that’s how it is.”
Much as it did for the entire sporting world, the pandemic obviously threw a monkey wrench in New Balance’s original launch plans for the shoe. Cassidy says the lessons in adaptability from those four bounces have helped.
“It’s still about keeping to who we are and what makes us unique,” he says. “That means carving out our space, for fans and athletes who are looking for something different. It’s not about playing the same game as everyone else. That game has worked for some, but it’s also put other brands in the basketball graveyard.”