Reebok Isn’t a ‘Hobby’ for Shaquille O’Neal

Shaquille O’Neal, who had a signature shoe from Reebok during his playing career and is now president of the company’s basketball division, in Houston, Texas on May 17, 2024. (Arturo Olmos/The New York Times)
Shaquille O’Neal, who had a signature shoe from Reebok during his playing career and is now president of the company’s basketball division, in Houston, Texas on May 17, 2024. (Arturo Olmos/The New York Times)

In mid-March, Reebok staged its annual brand summit for about 500 business partners at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter, an events space in Boston, where Todd Krinsky, the company’s chief executive, was harboring a secret.

Krinsky told his audience that Shaquille O’Neal, the new president of Reebok’s soon-to-be-resuscitated basketball division, had been hoping to attend. But in lieu of being there in person, O’Neal had sent along a prerecorded video message.

And there, on a big screen, appeared the unmistakable presence of O’Neal, all 7 feet 1 inch of him, as he lounged in bed at home in Atlanta. He said he felt awful about missing the event and offered his apologies.

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But as soon as the video ended, O’Neal appeared in person — surprise! — strutting onto the stage. He greeted the crowd and soon joined Krinsky for a Q&A that the chief executive figured would be light and breezy. But O’Neal, as he often does, had other plans.

Krinsky had just asked his second question — a softball along the lines of which of O’Neal’s four NBA championships was his favorite — when O’Neal made an impromptu speech that Krinsky recalled as part sermon, part pep talk.

“Listen, we’re getting back into basketball,” O’Neal said. “And I want everyone in here to understand there are no excuses. Everyone needs to be 100% in on this, because I’m 100% in on this.”

He then doubled down on his personal commitment: “I’m not doing this because this is a hobby. I’m doing this because we have a rightful place in basketball.”

To basketball fans around the world, O’Neal, 52, is impossible to miss. As a player, he was one of the most dominant big men in the game’s history, a 15-time NBA All-Star who won championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat. He entered the Hall of Fame in 2016.

But rather than take his millions in retirement and decamp to a tropical island, O’Neal has remained uniquely visible. When he isn’t co-hosting TNT’s “Inside the NBA” or interviewing guests on his podcast, odds are decent that O’Neal is trying to sell you car insurance. Or Icy Hot. Or Papa John’s pizza. Or printer cartridges.

Now, the man with a gazillion jobs has one more — and it is personal, he said. In reentering the hypercompetitive world of basketball sneakers, Reebok is looking to the future by banking on a larger-than-life figure from its past. O’Neal said he was aware of the stakes.

“If this doesn’t work, everyone’s leaving,” O’Neal said. “Everyone’s going to get gone, including me.”

Pumped Up

Reebok was largely known for fitness sneakers and apparel until 1989, when it moved into basketball with the launch of the Reebok Pump, a sneaker with an inflation device that gave the foot a snug fit. Pumps were bold, innovative, incredibly heavy, almost prohibitively expensive — and a hit.

“No one at Reebok needed to be tasked with convincing pro players to wear Pumps,” Russ Bengtson wrote in his book, “A History of Basketball in Fifteen Sneakers.” In fact, after Dee Brown wore Pumps while winning the NBA’s slam dunk contest in 1991, Michael Jordan, a star synonymous with Nike, confronted Brown, telling him that he had kicked off “a shoe war,” according to Bengtson.

Sure enough, in 1992, Reebok was hoping to cement its new position in the marketplace by signing the biggest star coming out of college basketball that year: Shaquille O’Neal, who had spent three seasons demolishing defenders as a rim-shaking, shot-swatting star at Louisiana State.

When O’Neal met with Reebok executives, he told them that he wanted his own sneakers with the “Dunkman” logo, which was a silhouette of himself hanging from the hoop, legs akimbo, after a ferocious slam. He also wanted to be involved in the production of his own TV commercials.

“I won’t say I was messing around,” O’Neal said on a video call, “but I was just trying to see how far I could go. And with every demand that I wanted, they said, ‘Yes.’ It was a beautiful thing.”

O’Neal was sold. He still had another meeting scheduled with Nike, and while he was no longer interested, he went to it “out of respect,” he said. He showed up in a Reebok jacket.

“They were kind of upset about that,” he said. “I took all the Nike product for my family.”

Reebok celebrated its new endorsement deal with O’Neal on the grounds of its Boston campus. A huge tent was erected, and Reebok employees wore T-shirts that said “Love Shaq.” Krinsky, who was 22 at the time and working in a company warehouse, was not on the invite list. But he was determined to sneak inside, he said, and even managed to approach O’Neal.

“Hey, man, someday we’re going to work together,” Krinsky recalled telling him.

“All right, dude,” O’Neal told him.

Reebok’s NBA roster later expanded to include several other stars, peaking with Allen Iverson, who signed a $50 million endorsement deal after the Philadelphia 76ers made him the league’s top overall draft pick in 1996.

The result was Reebok having a “really vibrant basketball business” in the 1990s and 2000s, Krinsky said, with a 14% market share. But after acquiring Reebok in 2005, Adidas de-emphasized Reebok’s commitment to basketball. “Adidas really mismanaged the brand,” said Matt Powell, a footwear industry analyst and senior adviser with BCE Consulting.

Krinsky, a Reebok lifer who graduated from the warehouse to the mailroom to various management positions, recalled that period as “a really difficult time for a lot of us.”

As Reebok’s business continued to founder under Adidas, O’Neal kept in touch with Krinsky, who recalled the general gist of O’Neal’s text messages: “Is Adidas selling yet?”

In 2015, O’Neal became a strategic partner with Authentic Brands Group, a brand management and licensing company, providing him with an opportunity to push Jamie Salter, Authentic Brands’ chief executive, to buy Reebok. “He was always harassing Jamie,” Krinsky said.

It worked. Authentic Brands acquired Reebok in 2021 for about $2.5 billion. And while the core of Reebok’s business has remained in its Classics collection, which is driven by its archive, and also in training shoes and apparel, the company wants to expand into sports. Basketball is at the heart of that mission in large part because of the game’s global growth, said Nick Woodhouse, the president of Authentic Brands.

“The resounding feedback from our international partners is: ‘Hey, we’re all in on basketball, and we can’t wait until you have players in the NBA,’” Woodhouse said.

When Reebok formally decided to return to basketball, Krinsky phoned O’Neal so that they could brainstorm. He also wanted to gauge O’Neal’s desired level of involvement. Krinsky thought it was a productive conversation. And then O’Neal called him back.

“I want to be president,” O’Neal told him.

“Of what?” Krinsky asked.

As he digested O’Neal’s pitch — essentially: Put me in charge of basketball — Krinsky became a fan of the idea, he said. He knew that O’Neal would throw himself into the role.

“This is not some PR move,” said Krinsky, who made that point more than once in a recent interview. “He is really committed to this.”

Iverson, who has retained his cachet in the basketball world well into his retirement, soon came aboard as vice president. “He can help me get to the smaller people,” O’Neal said. “If I’m a guard and I get a call from Shaq? Meh. But if I get a call from A.I., that’s a different story.”

Drew Haines, the merchandising director for sneakers at the online reseller StockX, cited Iverson’s cultural influence on basketball, fashion and footwear as an asset for Reebok.

“I don’t see any reason they couldn’t have a really nice resurgence,” Haines said.

Now, O’Neal said, the goal is to replicate the sort of excitement that accompanied the release of his sneaker over 30 years ago. Well, not now, exactly. But soon. Or at least soon-ish: Reebok plans to unveil its new basketball line early next year.

“You can’t just show up on 30 acres and build a mansion,” O’Neal said. “It takes time.”

The Big Delegator

O’Neal prides himself on not being a micromanager.

“My favorite word is ‘delegation,’” said O’Neal, who has weekly Zoom calls with his staff. (His display name, in case anyone needed reminding, is Reebok prez.)

O’Neal prefers to keep the big picture in mind, and he doesn’t exactly lack confidence. He rattled through an abridged list of his applicable skills: that he knows what looks good, that he knows what people like, that he can relate to retailers, that he is terrific in meetings with young players and their parents — a necessity now that high school and college athletes can be paid for the use of their “name, image and likeness,” commonly known as NIL deals.

O’Neal also knows that Reebok needs to come out with a product that “makes noise,” though he acknowledged that the footwear landscape had evolved. During his playing days, sneaker companies marketed their products by signing popular players. But this is the influencer age.

“Now,” O’Neal said, “it’s bloggers, MCs, athletes, designers.”

At the NBA’s All-Star weekend in February, as O’Neal and Iverson made the rounds wearing Reebok varsity jackets that were personalized with their respective titles, Reebok released an NBA-themed collaboration with Victor Solomon, the Los Angeles artist. (The jackets were O’Neal’s idea.)

Star players, though, are still an invaluable piece of the puzzle, and Reebok made an immediate, and somewhat surprising, first splash back in October by teaming up with Angel Reese, one of the most popular young players in the women’s game. A former All-American at LSU, Reese recently joined the Chicago Sky of the WNBA as a first-round draft pick.

O’Neal first met Reese when he accompanied his daughter Me’Arah, a top high school prospect, on a recruiting trip to his alma mater. Although Me’Arah O’Neal later committed to the University of Florida, her father became something of a mentor to Reese.

“She’s like a daughter to me,” O’Neal said. “She’s fearless. She’s herself.”

Reebok, at O’Neal’s behest, signed Reese to an NIL deal in October, making her the first player, man or woman, to be sponsored by the company in the Shaq era.

“No one was expecting a college player, and no one was expecting a woman,” Reese said in an email, adding, “The world’s overwhelmingly positive reaction to it meant so much to me.”

Krinsky described Reese as a “provocative” presence who fits with the company’s ethos of being disruptive. He cited Reebok’s 2001 collaboration with the rapper Jadakiss, who filmed a commercial to promote the release of Iverson’s signature sneaker, the Answer V. The commercial was perfectly timed as the NBA was leaning into its connection with hip-hop and Black culture, a shift led by players like Iverson.

“They understand my values,” Reese said, “and being a girlie girl, changing the stereotype that women can be cute and girlie off the court, and also be a baller on the court.”

With the Sky, Reese has worn a special colorway (pink and white) of the Reebok Solution Low, a retro model from Iverson’s sneaker line.

Several players, including Reese, are testing prototypes of Reebok’s new sneakers. The process started nearly a year ago, Krinsky said, as Reebok brought in designers from other areas of the company who have a passion for basketball. Among them: Jide Osifeso, who helps O’Neal oversee the basketball division.

“Performance stuff is really competitive right now,” said Nick Engvall, a footwear industry consultant. “They would have a really challenging time without spending a lot of money because there are so many brands that are doing incredible things at the $100 to $120 price point right now.”

Krinsky declined to provide financial figures. “I can tell you that we are pitching and competing to sign some of the best players in the world,” he said.

For his part, O’Neal said he was embracing the challenge. “Nike has a lot of players,” he said. “Adidas has some OK players but no one I’m worried about, trust me.”

Consider it his version of boardroom trash talk against a worthy adversary: Adidas already has one of the brightest young stars in the NBA, Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves, locked in with a signature sneaker and is making its own inroads on the surge of popularity in the women’s game by naming Candace Parker, the recently retired WNBA superstar, as its president of women’s basketball.

And while O’Neal was cagey about his own team’s plans — “I don’t want to give up my secrets,” he said, as if he were guarding his playbook from opponents — he did offer morsels. He wants a high-performance product with “a lot of style and innovation.” He wants “funky, fresh designs.” And, of course, he wants to succeed.

“It’s personal,” Krinsky said, “because his name is on the line now.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company