The Puma Clyde: The Story of the First NBA Player Shoe Endorsement Deal
Basketball sneakers have come a long way since the first contract
Success in the modern NBA isn’t simply measured by on-the-court statistics and championships. Increasingly, it’s what a player can accomplish off the court, with lucrative contracts from sneaker companies being a major status symbol. Some footwear has taken off more than others, but they all trace back to Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who was the first player with a signature shoe deal.
Naturally, Michael Jordan’s 30-plus-year affiliation with Nike is the absolute gold standard for basketball shoes. His iconic sneakers have appealed to a wide swath of people that has extended well beyond the confines of a basketball court and bled into lucrative athletic apparel. Like many other things in life, his billion-dollar side hustle would not have been possible without Frazier who became the pioneer a decade before him.
Frazier was a flashy point guard who starred in 13 NBA seasons with the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers between 1967–1980. He spent the first and best 10 years of his career in the Big Apple and was known as much for his extravagant fashion and taste in cars off the court as for his success on it. He finished with career averages of 18.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists; earning enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987.
During the height of his career, NBA players received free shoes from companies like Adidas and Converse, but they were designed more on function instead of comfort and visual appeal. Unsurprisingly, such a bland product contributed to the lack of need for pitchmen. Even so, companies jostled for the market, wanting a bigger piece of the pie, if not just a piece, which could necessitate thinking outside of the box. It was this competition that ultimately brought players into the mix.
A pair of German brothers by the name of Rudolph and Adolf (Adi) Dassler started a shoe company in 1924. They enjoyed some success, including having Jesse Owens wearing their product during his historic run at the 1936 Olympics, where he won four gold medals. By 1948, contrasting views on how to run their joint venture led to a split and each brother started their own independent company. Adi opened Adidas and Rudolph created what came to be named PUMA.
Frazier had already won one NBA title with the Knicks in 1970 and was on his way to another in 1973. As of that same year, Puma had made some inroads with athletic shoes, particularly in track and field, but was seeking a greater toehold and focused on basketball. They decided to take a different route than the other companies and chose to work with a specific player. No NBA player was more fashionable than Clyde.
The guard explained to One37PM how the idea for his own shoe first got pitched to him by Puma. “It was a friend of mine. He just approached me and said Puma would be interested in using me like a spokesman. They’d pay me some money and they’d give me [shoes].”
With as much stock as Frazier put into his appearance, the shoe obviously had to look right if he was going to put his name behind it. He had previously worn Converses in games with an orange lace on one shoe and a blue lace on the other in order to stand out. Unfortunately, the existing Puma basketball sneaker was heavy and unappealing; something which he didn’t hold back from company executives. “Even if you paid me, I wouldn’t wear that shoe,” he later recalled telling them.
Since Puma had committed to pay Frazier, they decided it might be a smart idea to ask the NBA star what he might want in a shoe he would wear in a game. He suggested something that was light, flexible and had padding. Using his input, they developed was a revised version of their Puma Suede.
While the shoe didn’t explode nationally, it was a hot seller in New York, especially for kids. Frazier explained to One37PM that “You had to sacrifice like it was something special. If you got a pair of Clydes, you were taking the money out of your savings to get those shoes. A lot of people tell me that today.” Despite bearing “Clyde” on the side, its long-term impact was becoming better known as a street shoe than one that was used in games.
Puma and Frazier have maintained their relationship over the years, with the basketball legend getting inked to a life-time contract by the shoe giant in 2018. “I came up with a lighter shoe, a little more padding on the inside and that was the beginning of the Puma Clyde and the shoe has been timeless,” Frazier told Footwear News. “During my career I endorsed Puma and then there was a lull in the action. Then, the break-dancers brought it back. After that fling, the retro craze brought it back. Here we are 40-some years later — I’m still synonymous with Puma Clyde and passing the tradition on to younger guys.”
Puma has also maintained a relationship with Knick players. Young New York players, Kevin Knox and RJ Barrett, were recently signed to shoe deals — certainly for significantly more money than Frazier’s initial arrangement.
While the Puma Clyde didn’t make the kind of impact as basketball sneakers that many of its successors have, it did become an important part of culture — getting embraced in the worlds of dance, hip hop and skateboarding among others. Even more importantly, it paved the way for generations of players to design and market shoes — and get paid handsomely for doing so.