Why Are People Obsessed With NBA Star Kawhi Leonard and His New Balance Sneakers?

The pairing of NBA star Kawhi Leonard and New Balance is still puzzling to some. Leonard is one of the league’s best players, but is also quiet and reserved. (He made light of that yesterday by wearing a “Fun Guy” T-shirt.) And New Balance hasn’t been involved in the sport in years. But the partnership is working.

The athletic brand released the “2-Way” pack in limited quantities Tuesday boasting the court-ready OMN1S and the lifestyle-focused 997 Sport. The styles sold out in minutes and quickly landed on the resale market with exorbitant price tags. However, Newbalance.com has a wait list for alerts on the next drop.

New Balance OMN1S 997 Sport 2-Way
(From top): The New Balance OMN1S and the 997 Sport from the “2-Way” pack.
CREDIT: New Balance

But why is the combination of Leonard, a former Jordan Brand ambassador, and the running-focused New Balance working? It could be how the brand uses his personality traits.

“I feel like his new partnership with NB is a much better fit, and they’re doing a great job playing with his quirky personality traits. What we, or maybe just I, once considered ‘boring’ is now being rebranded into a really fun persona for him that embraces his personality,” said Anna Bediones, a Toronto-based influencer in the sneaker space.

“Seeing ‘Fun Guy’ on the chest of a man who never smiles is a brilliant play. The sneakers themselves are cool — in fact, I recently felt a more urgent calling to get myself a pair of NBs, stat. Not to mention he’s a great basketball player, and he is bringing a new energy to Toronto.

Sneaker-obsessed TV personality Tamara Dhia admits she’s fond of Leonard’s personality traits.

“I love that Kawhi isn’t this huge over-the-top personality that we usually see in our favorite NBA stars. He comes to work, gets the job done and goes home.” Dhia said. “At the end of the day, when you are putting up those numbers, people can’t say anything. Maybe laugh at a meme or two, but his talent is undeniable. But does that translate to sneaker sales? Apparently yes.”

And Dhia believes the move from Jordan Brand to New Balance, although criticized at first, was the right one to make.

“When he left Jordan Brand for New Balance, the internet does what it does best — roasted him. With good reason. What NBA player leaves Jordan for NB? A calculated one, apparently,” Dhia said.

“Kawhi has his own hands in the designs of his NB’s and has been showing off different colorways since debuting them in February’s All-Star Game. When they dropped this week and sold out instantly, many were surprised. But it makes sense. This is one of the best players in the league, currently making incredible plays during the playoffs while wearing his signature shoe. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that?”

However, not everyone is convinced of Leonard’s ability to resonate with sneakerheads.

“I’m not sure [sneakerheads] do love him that much. I’m not a numbers guy, so I don’t know how many of his sneakers sold, but I’d say he’s less popular than his basketball skills warrant,” said YouTube sensation Mr. Foamer Simpson. “Either way, I think the appeal when it comes to Kawhi is that he’s different. He’s unique. And in a time when social media has made almost everyone seem accessible, Kawhi kind of isn’t — or less so at least, and there’s a coolness in that.”

Although New Balance released the first run of Leonard’s shoes this week, the brand stated a broader launch of his is OMN1S performance sneaker is scheduled for the fall.

Watch the behind-the-scenes video below of NBA star Carmelo Anthony’s cover shoot with FN.

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