Luke DeCock

If the shoe splits, repair it: Nike execs fly in for impromptu talks at Duke

Krzyzewski explains Duke’s decade-long relationship with Nike

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski explains the team's switch from adidas to Nike years ago as the Blue Devils ready for PK80 Tournament celebrating the 80th birthday of Nike founder Phil Knight.
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Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski explains the team's switch from adidas to Nike years ago as the Blue Devils ready for PK80 Tournament celebrating the 80th birthday of Nike founder Phil Knight.

Duke and Nike have been together for 27 years, but sometimes even the best marriages need a little counseling.

A delegation from Nike flew in Thursday evening to meet with Duke officials, underscoring how the role Zion Williamson’s shoe failure played in his knee injury has become a billion-dollar concern.

Nike’s stock dropped 89 cents per share in trading Thursday, 1.05 percent of its value, in the wake of Williamson’s injury, a loss of $1.1 billion in market capitalization. While the university announced Thursday that Williamson’s knee sprain wasn’t as bad as first feared, the lucrative relationship between Duke, Mike Krzyzewski and Nike apparently needed immediate massaging.

“Private conversation between two long-time partners,” a Duke spokesman said. A Nike spokesman declined to comment Thursday night beyond the statement the company released Wednesday.

“We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery,” that statement read. “The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

In many ways, Duke’s affiliation with Nike has been inseparable from the basketball program’s ascension under Krzyzewski. The school and the shoe company first got together in 1992 and signed a 12-year extension in October 2015 that takes the deal through 2027.

Terms of that deal were not disclosed, but amounts can vary based on licensing deals, alumni bases and national appeal. In December, North Carolina signed a 10-year extension with Nike’s Jordan Brand worth $9.5 million per season, while Clemson’s Nike deal is worth $5.8 million per season. Texas and Ohio State recently signed extensions with Nike worth more than $16.7 million per season, while Michigan got more than $11 million – and portions of those deals go directly to the universities and not to athletics.

Williamson was wearing Nike’s PG 2.5 shoes when his left foot tore the sole of the shoe away from the upper on Duke’s first possession, twisting his lower body and causing a mild right knee sprain but no structural damage. He is officially day-to-day, according to Duke’s Thursday update. One unanswered question: Why Williamson was wearing the lighter Paul George-model shoe instead of one of the heavier-duty models specifically designed for bigger players, such as LeBron James’ signature models.

Duke’s next game is at Syracuse on Saturday. Without Williamson for the final 39 minutes Wednesday, North Carolina was able to exploit its inside game on its way to an 88-72 win in Durham.

With its Nike deal, in recruiting and with its one-and-done players, Duke has been a fulcrum of shoe-company drama in recent years (and even going back to Grant Hill’s ill-fated decision to become Fila’s first star in 1997, which some have speculated played a role in his career-long struggle with injuries). Marvin Bagley III played for a Nike-sponsored AAU team and chose to play at a Nike-sponsored college, but switched to Puma and signed a five-year endorsement contract believed to be worth as much as $3 million per season after he was drafted second overall by the Sacramento Kings. (Puma made a cameo Wednesday night with a tweet, since deleted, claiming Williamson wouldn’t have been injured in Puma’s shoes.)

Williamson’s AAU team was sponsored by Adidas, and his name came up in evidence that was unsuccessfully attempted to be introduced during the Adidas corruption trial last fall in which a Kansas assistant coach allegedly discussed possible payments to Williamson’s family to get him. Other than Kansas, all the schools Williamson considered were Nike schools. Williamson’s fellow freshmen, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones, all played for Nike AAU teams.

As the Adidas corruption investigation and the NCAA’s Rice Commission underlined, it’s almost impossible to separate shoe deals from college basketball. And while basketball shoes may not be the money-maker they once were as a product, their fashion imprint and athlete endorsements are invaluable in the larger scope of shoe-company marketing – which is what made Bagley so valuable to Puma as that company got back into the basketball game.

It’s also what makes Williamson so valuable to Nike, even if he doesn’t see a dime. The most popular and marketable player in college basketball has been playing for a Nike school in Nike shoes, product placement worth every penny Nike pays Duke – until Williamson’s shoe literally came apart at the seams.

Whatever benefit Nike had gotten from its unpaid association with Williamson was at that moment jeopardized by the negative impact of the role its product played in his injury. Not that anyone watching ESPN would know: The word Nike was curiously avoided on the broadcast until the shoe company released its statement.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.