Kawhi Leonard, Darius Bazley, Dejounte Murray play key roles inside the return of New Balance Basketball

There's a powerhouse brewing in the NBA sneaker scene. A brand that hasn't been considered a player in the spectrum since the '80s has made a calculated return and is establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with. Nothing about New Balance's return to the basketball has been conventional and that just means everything is going according to plan.

For those on the outside looking in, New Balance Basketball reintroduced themselves to the NBA during All-Star Weekend a year ago. That's when Kawhi Leonard - a bona fide game-changer and one of the league's biggest stars - debuted his signature shoe, the New Balance OMN1S. 

But the work to bring New Balance back into the basketball world, and do it in a way that sets a lasting impression had been going on behind the scenes long before Leonard laced up his first sneaker with an oversized "N" on the ankle. 

"It's been a long time in the making," said Patrick Cassidy, Global Marketing Director of Consumer and Athlete Activation at New Balance. "Even though the first thing people saw from New Balance Basketball officially was last year's All-Star Game the planning has been in the works now for over three years."

The years of planning for such a massive move isn't what makes New Balance's return to basketball extraordinary. The essence of the plan is what sets them apart. New Balance assessed the market and its competitors and strategized not what to take away from the competition, but rather what doesn't the competition do that they can.

"Before we even had a shoe designed, even sketches on paper, athletes or anything like that," Cassidy said." Before we had any kind of basketball business it was years of strategy building and discussion on how to do this the right way and for us the right way is a highly differentiated approach that's going to keep us in the category for a long time."

Being different was the starting point. And that's what made the relationship with Leonard so seamless. When Leonard parted ways with Jordan Brand, some wondered how he would fit as a signature star with a major brand. He isn't your prototypical modern athlete in the sense that the limelight and attention doesn't do much for him. 

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Kawhi Leonard with his signature New Balance OMN1S shoes. New Balance

What major brand could look at Leonard's introverted personality and see the star of a marketing campaign? Only a brand that wanted to be different than those already in the game.

"The things that make him different from all of those around him and, arguably, every other player in the NBA are the things that are all massive positives for us in building our partnership with him," Cassidy said. "The fact that he's so different, does not feel the need to be on social media, does not feel the need to follow what everybody else does, makes his own decisions, has a distinct point of view on product and design. These are all positive things, there are really no setbacks."

New Balance brought Leonard on as the star that would help build a foundation for years to come. But in order for that to be successful it was time to let the work do the talking … in a way.

In a full 30-second promo for Leonard, his signature New Balance kicks and his new home in Los Angeles, the brand managed to relay a message about who he is, why the sneakers are the next wave and make it clear they're all on the same page when it comes to taking over in LA with the Clippers.

That's a helluva job in 30 seconds. What else is impressive? Leonard's rundown for the entire stretch consisted of everything BUT talking. The face of the brand didn't need to say a word.

"Just because he's the face of New Balance basketball doesn't mean he's going to turn into a comedian on Twitter overnight. So much can be said without saying anything. We're not going to try and change Kawhi," Cassidy said. "I like to think that those notes are coming through in any of the marketing that you've seen with us around him. We're showing how he's different from any other player in the NBA and now we're really leaning into what his voice and vision are."

The Intern

The New Balance Basketball story remains unconventional and unique outside of Leonard and, again, that's all part of the blueprint. 

Next in line is NBA rookie Darius Bazley

Bazley could've been like every other elite high school basketball player. He was a five-star recruit who at one point was committed to playing college basketball at Syracuse. Playing college ball wasn't in the cards for Bazley, who de-committed from Syracuse and decided his path to the NBA would be one of a kind.

In a completely unprecedented development, Bazley signed a multi-year endorsement deal with New Balance in October of 2018 that included a three-month internship at the brand's Boston headquarters. 

Bazley and his team looked at his options and decided no to college basketball, no to the G-League but yes to New Balance. 

"He was not afraid to completely go in the opposite direction. He didn't know New Balance. He didn't know anything about New Balance," Cassidy said. "He grew up in the same AAU system that everyone else did with the two or three big players, but he understood our vision and even though he didn't know about us at the time he grew to learn very quickly."

Bazley was able to learn quickly because the internship, despite comments from detractors, was a legit one. New Balance wasn't handing out school credit, he needed to work and prove himself as an asset to the brand. 

He lived across the street from the office. He had meetings every day. He was reporting into the marketing department. He would spend time with the social and digital teams.

"Our goal with this internship was for Darius to come out of the other side as the most knowledgeable player in the NBA for how the shoe business and the product creation and marketing works around the shoes that he wears every night," Cassidy said. "We wanted him to be the most knowledgeable on this in the NBA and I'm pretty sure he is. He can talk to you about the path from a designer's idea for a shoe all the way through to getting it on a store shelf. I don't know many athletes, I don't know many people in general who could draw that out the way Darius can do that. It's a pretty amazing thing."

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Darius Bazley is a building block for New Balance at just 19 years old. New Balance

In addition to Bazeley's full-time workload during his internship, he also worked around the clock to stay in the best shape possible in order to accomplish his ultimate goal of being a first-round pick and establishing his NBA career. 

"He managed an extremely aggressive schedule for several months," Cassidy said. "He put himself in a position where if something were to ever happen on the basketball side and he doesn't want to do that anymore, he has a job at New Balance because he knows the operation and knows how the brand works."

Fast-forward and the job waiting for him at the New Balance headquarters will have to wait because Bazley is doing just fine as a first-round pick and on the court for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

When people look back on this moment, I hope that the say that I left an impact on the game by being me and doing things my way," Bazley said in a video released by New Balance after being drafted and realizing his NBA dreams.

The Latest Piece Of The Puzzle

For some brands it's easy to make an initial splash. A big-name signing takes over the news cycle for a while, but then the buzz dies down. The next step after the initial display remains key when it comes to keeping momentum and remaining on the right path.

That's where Spurs guard Dejounte Murray enters the mix. 

New Balance announced Murray would join Leonard and Bazley as the third member of its basketball roster on Nov. 21. 

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Dejounte Murray after officially joining New Balance. New Balance

Murray fits the mold New Balance has established for the kind of athletes they want. His path to becoming a fixture in the starting lineup for the five-time champion Spurs was riddled with challenges. He's overcome injuries and stints in the G-League just to raise his game and become an All-NBA defender.

"Dejounte is a super unique character and athlete in and of himself. He's someone that we talked about for a long time, before there was ever really even an opportunity to go out and build a partnership with him," Cassidy said. "He's writing his basketball story in real time as he's discovering what he can do almost on a nightly basis."

The 23-year-old does have a lot to fill in terms of writing his basketball story, despite already accomplishing so much in his short career. New Balance dubbed him as one of the pieces of its puzzle, and he already doesn't need much help to motivate himself to keep pushing his game to the next level.

"The hard work that I put in every day is a testament to my attitude and outlook as a professional athlete. No matter what obstacles you have in front of you, dedicate yourself and you can overcome adversity," said Murray when joining New Balance. "I surround myself with my family and my teammates to stay motivated. This is why I partnered with New Balance – to join a brand that inspires and is a catalyst for positive change."

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