Darryl Dawkins: How He Changed The NBA & Sneaker Sponsorships

Darryl Dawkins
Darryl Dawkins playing for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1979.
Getty Images.

Darryl Dawkins, the backboard-breaking baller from the planet Lovetron, died at the age of 58 yesterday. While the legendary basketball player was known for his electrifying dunks and infectious smile, in the footwear world he was known for for something else — switching out of his Nike sneakers midgame for a pair of Ponys.

Dawkins, one of the first players to skip college and head straight to the NBA, was an attractive player to athletic brands looking to sign endorsement deals.

According to a New York Times report from Aug. 2, 1982, Dawkins was in hot water with the Beaverton, Oregon-based athletic brand after removing his Nikes, the brand that gave him an endorsement deal, and changing into a pair of Pony sneakers during a playoff game while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers.

“While far from the largest in the business, the contract Mr. Dawkins signed with Nike in July 1980 involved substantial sums,” The New York Times reported. “In return for wearing Nike shoes during all practices, games and other occasions when in uniform, Mr. Dawkins, along with 25 other N.B.A. players, was made a member of Nike’s Pro Club.

Darryl Dawkins Dawkins on the court wearing Nike sneakers. Courtesy of Twitter.

“Members of the club share a royalty pool to which Nike contributes 10 or 20 cents for each pair of shoes sold, depending on the price of the shoe,” the report continued. “So, besides his $50,000-a-year guarantee, Mr. Dawkins shared in any pool money left after the guaranteed amounts had been paid.”

As a result of the sneaker switch, Nike took Dawkins to court, resulting in one of the earliest brand/athlete sponsorship lawsuits filed. John O’Neil, the then president of Converse, stated in the New York Time report that he was unaware of any previous brands suing an athlete.

Whilst Dawkins may be credited as playing a large role in spearheading NBA players turning themselves into marketing machines — the Nike legal battle he faced also resulted in much tighter contracts and formalization processes.

The outcome of the lawsuit? Well, the man known as Chocolate Thunder went on to sign with Pony, making guest spots in the brand’s marketing efforts, including dancing with break-dancers and dunking in a 1984 commercial. Dawkins went on to wear the brand’s Uptown silhouette on the court, which would see a limited edition re-release in 2007.