Sunday, May 20, 2018
Sports

Footwear-influenced futures? A reality for coveted hoops recruits

TAMPA — Kevin Knox has an impressive stash of sneakers. He stores some of them in his closet. The ones that do not fit are stacked neatly in boxes on a bedroom wall.

His collection includes all the name brands: Nike, Adidas, Under Armour. The latest inventory count was 113 — a number that will grow once Knox returns from New York City after playing in the Jordan Brand Classic.

The Tampa Catholic senior bought a few pairs. Most, however, were given to him by the shoe companies, one of the perks of being ranked among the top 10 players in the nation.

The free footwear is part of a battle waged by shoe companies to cultivate relationships at the grassroots level with projected stars. Shoes are not the only thing handed out. So are uniforms and trips.

It starts on the travel circuit.

In the offseason, Knox plays for Each1Teach1, a Florida-based, Nike-backed program that is considered one of the best in the country. Knox's dad is a director and coach for one of the teams in the league — a league whose alumni include D'Angelo Russell (Montverde/Ohio State/Lakers), Ben Simmons (Montverde/LSU/76ers) and Austin Rivers (Winter Park/Duke/Clippers).

Nike pays for all expenses, including play in the Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) that the sneaker brand also sponsors.

The influence extends to the high school level, too. Nike gave Tampa Catholic $10,000 to $15,000 worth of gear this season, according to Crusaders coach Don Dziagwa. And the Crusaders wore the swoosh, despite being under contract with Under Armour.

This is not a new phenomenon. Sickles High coach Renaldo Garcia said his team wore Nike in 2009 when John Henson (North Carolina/Bucks) played his senior season for the program.

Tampa Prep coach Joe Fenlon said his team had a four-year contract with Nike from 1997-2000 when former standout Casey Sanders (Duke) was on the roster.

"The money was crazy back then," Fenlon said. "We got 36 new pairs of shoes every year and Nike paid for us to play all over the country when Casey was a senior."

The evidence suggests swag sways recruits. Russell, Simmons and Rivers all played for Nike-sponsored college programs. So did Henson and Sanders.

Not everyone is happy with the amount of influence shoe companies have. Louisville coach Rick Pitino was miffed in 2014 when Antonio Blakeney, who played for Each1Teach1, backed out of a commitment to the Cardinals, an Adidas school, to attend Nike-backed LSU.

"What I personally don't like (is) I can't recruit a kid because he wears Nike on the AAU circuit," Pitino told the Associated Press. "I had never heard of such a thing and it's happening in our world. Or he's on the Adidas circuit, so the Nike schools don't want him."

Knox has his eyes trained beyond college. The 6-foot-9 forward hopes to be to selected in the first round of the 2018 NBA draft. Depending on how high he is taken, Knox could also receive a six-figure contract from a shoe company.

That is why he is keeping his options open. He attended Adidas- and Under Armour-sponsored events this past summer.

"It's crazy with the shoe companies because all of them have different events and they're in your ear 24/7," Knox said. "They all want you to be a part of their brand so they send you a bunch of shoes. The brands definitely fight over you, and it's going to be really hard."

One thing is certain: Knox will wear Nike in college. All five schools on his short list — Duke, Florida State, Kentucky, Missouri and North Carolina — are backed by the company. The one school Knox trimmed off his short list last year was Kansas, an Adidas school.

To create more room in his bedroom, Knox has donated some of the sneakers. He even offered to sell his shoes to help repay his parents for school-related activities such as prom and Grad Bash at Universal Studios.

"I told Kevin we're okay," said his mother, Michelle. "We have that budgeted. He can pay us back later."

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