Black History Month Spotlight: Tim Day’s Journey From an NFL Career to Turning LeBron James’ Sneakers Into Big Stories

In honor of Black History Month 2019, FN is celebrating African-American movers and shakers in footwear and fashion by recognizing their accomplishments and inviting them to share insight into how the industry can make bigger diversity strides.

If Tim Day sets a goal for himself, he will achieve it.

The product of Las Vegas was an Academic All-American athlete at the University of Oregon, and post college competed in the NFL for roughly six years, lacing cleats up for the Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles.

But he’s best known for his work at Nike, developing the compelling and timeless stories behind NBA icon LeBron James’ sneakers as the brand’s senior global product line manager for Nike basketball footwear.

Here, Day shares insight on his relationship with James, his beginnings in the footwear industry and thoughts on having a shoe he worked on being on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

What made you want to pursue a career in the footwear industry?

“I grew up around sneakers. When I was in high school in Las Vegas I worked for Footaction. My school was across the street from the mall so I was able to play sports and work there. I got a love for sneakers at looking at how it affected culture and how it affected me and how I felt when I put them on. Then I went to [college in] Oregon and over the summer I stayed and did extra classes to graduate early. In the summer I worked at Foot Locker at the Springfield Mall like 30 hours a week with that referee uniform on. I was spending most of my check on shoes because we got that 30 or 40 percent off. And going to the University of Oregon we got some exclusive Jordans all the time, and that was even more encouraging. After [college and my career in pro] football I got a job at Cole Haan, which Nike owned at the time. I worked at the retail store in Bridgeport [Village] in Tigard, Ore., I worked there for a year and a half and as the product specialist. I learned dress shoes, women’s purses and handbags, pumps, flats, jackets, scarves — everything. That was sweet because I got different tiers of experience before I came into Nike, so not only do I know sneakers but I also know really nice Cole Haan dress shoes, jackets and everything. That knowledge and idea of on-court, off court was huge, especially with what I do here at Nike working with LeBron [product]. Out of any of our signature athletes ever he really has that appeal back and forth.”

How did you eventually land the senior global product line manager job at Nike?

“My background was really helpful. I kept meeting with a ton of people here and networked — networking is a big thing here, letting people know your background. I had the opportunity to play in the NFL for six years and took everybody here through the things I learned in regards to teamwork, leadership and playing at a high level in a competitive sport, as well as the side things I have done like public speaking.

“This was the time when Nike was taking over the NFL contract to have the Swoosh on everything, they hired a ton of people to come into the company because it was basically an NFL overtaking — we’ve got sweaters, hoodies, we’re trying to re-outfit the entire NFL organization. They hired me basically as a data entry person, I was entering the data of all the SKUs and tags of everything that was going to retail, and it was a pretty intense job because it was all manual entering numbers into the system. But I didn’t care what I was doing — I could be mopping the floor. My mindset was I just want to continue to grow and be the best I could be.

“I slowly worked my way up the apparel side of things but I knew I wanted to jump in footwear because of my background. I started meeting with people in footwear at the highest level and was able to get myself into the athletic training side of things. I did what they called Week Zero, which is all the college football stuff we used to do, I started that program, I worked on the Metcons — the 1, 2 and 3, I worked on Cristiano Ronaldo product, I worked on [Colin] Kaepernick product, I worked on product for Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman. And then I moved over to basketball, my initial projects were KD and LeBron — I did a little bit of the KD 9 and the KD 10, and then I transferred over to just LeBron because he’s such a big part of the basketball product marketplace. They moved me under him about three years ago and I’ve been doing that ever since.”

What is your relationship like with LeBron James?

“I come up with most of the stories of his shoes, so I talk with ‘Bron about some of the things he wants to get after. When I met with LeBron the first time he asked me, ‘How do I bring the fashion, off-court thing to my shoe?’ When you talk about the 7, the 8, the 9, the 10, people wore those off court. He was like, ‘How do I get that back to my shoe?’ The next thing was women’s, he said, ‘I really want to get after this women’s initiative.’ My goal coming in was to get after those two things and telling stories around that, so I scripted stories and narratives, worked with our brand marketing team to try and push those things out. We meet with LeBron probably once every two months or every month, depending on what we need. We talk with him about performance, how he feels in the current shoe, does he want to change things. And he has a lot of shoes — it’s not just the game shoe. It’s the low tops, the Soldier, the Ambassador which is China-only, the Witness and the sportswear shoes as well. Creating separation between all of his shoes is key, and he’s a vet, he knows the specific feedback to give us because he’s done this so many times. He approves every single color, he approves every single shoe, nothing goes forward without him having a say and his eyes on everything.”

Looking back on your career, what’s your biggest accomplishment?

“The ‘Equality’ [Nike LeBron 15] project was near and dear to my heart. It was cool because people were a little hesitant on us doing it but we ended up pushing it out and it had a tremendous response. We have all these moments that we drop — All-Star, playoffs, start of season, finals — but we didn’t create a movement across the entire year. On opening night, LeBron was playing Kyrie [Irving], and we were trying to get a moment that would last a whole year. We gave him the black ‘Equality’ shoes and at the time there was a really weird vibe with [racial] equality. We wanted to bring positivity to it though LeBron. He does a great job of using his platform and talking elegantly about what’s going on. He wore the shoes that night and the impact was amazing. For the next game we gave him a white pair and he wore half-half [one black, one white], it was in D.C. [against the Washington Wizards] and it was even more impactful. Everybody was like the shoe looks amazing but the story was even better. The game worn pair of the half-half is in the Smithsonian which is like holy hell, we’ve got a shoe in the Smithsonian, the African-American Museum, one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen, just from an idea, a thought, of creating a movement. And that sparked the shoe we did this year in half black and half white. That pushed us into another zone where we could do things differently with the [LeBron] 16 and 17 and so on.”

As a minority, what has been the biggest obstacle you faced in your career? How did you overcome it?

“Growing up, I’m not saying we were not privileged, but we didn’t have a lot of the privileges that most people had. Las Vegas is not like Oregon, opportunities are not as prevalent in Las Vegas as it is here. It was hard to get out. I was able to get out, I graduated from high school and college with honors, but it’s a lot harder for minorities because opportunities aren’t there to get out.

“[And] the opportunities [in the industry] are not there for minorities. We’re doing a good job at Nike for making opportunities for people on the minority side, and we just did an off site to create more awareness and opportunities. But I think we’re doing this because we know that the opportunities may not be as prevalent as we want them to be.

“The way I’ve broken through is I continued to push. I don’t look at those things as negatives, I’m just going to do this until something happens. When I talk to people that are trying to get into Nike, I just tell them to keep pushing and don’t worry about the barriers. Knock down barriers. You’ll be more excited about the situation and opportunities that you get when you do knock those things down knowing you had to try a little bit harder but that you got here. And now when I talk to people from my neighborhood they’re excited for me because they’re like, ‘I’ve got somebody where I grew up, the hood I grew up in, that’s in a position I want and he’s f**king killing it.'”

What is the biggest challenge African-Americans face in the shoe and fashion industry?

“Back in the day there weren’t a ton of minorities within organizations. From 20 years ago to now you do see a lot of minorities moving into the space, but we’re still trying to push people in. We’re into a position where everybody can do everything — everyone’s got the education, everybody’s going through college so it doesn’t matter who you are, what race you are. If you have the right education, if you are driven, you have experience then you can do it.”

What advice would you give to African-Americans looking to break into the footwear industry?

“No. 1 is don’t get discouraged when you think you might not be getting an opportunity — just keep [reaching out to] everybody. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to tell your story because your story is what will inspire somebody to get you into the company. Continue to believe in yourself, continue to push and continue to strive and know that your story is special and that you can make it within the company. Getting into 2019, there’s been a big push in the world to push minorities forward and giving them opportunities.”

What specific steps should footwear companies take to make their companies more diverse?

“We should all be taking the steps to hire people from different parts of the world, different backgrounds that can give insight. In [Nike’s] basketball [division], we got people that played the game of basketball from the hood and places we want to sell shoes, and we got people who are functionally amazing, who are great thinkers and strategists, and we got people who played the game [at a high level]. We put them together and made an amazing team.”

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