How Syracuse standout Carmelo Anthony went from a $40 million deal with the Swoosh to being handpicked to fill the shoes of the GOAT.
When Carmelo Anthony cut down the nets at the 2003 NCAA Tournament, he had plenty to ponder.
Would he return to Syracuse for his sophomore season? If he jumped off the ladder and into the NBA, would his Nike Shox support him in his leap?
While Melo had questions, executives across sportswear were riddled with million-dollar decisions of their own.
“It was a very interesting time,” Calvin Andrews, then Melo’s agent, told Boardroom. “We hadn’t seen a college guy come out in a while that had the fanfare that Melo had.”
In Anthony’s single season at Syracuse, he proved best-in-show in an era where one-and-done wasn’t a familiar phrase.
Never rushed, Anthony excelled in college thanks to God-given talent and a Baltimore-built belief in his ability.
Example: When Melo won the ESPY for Best Male College Athlete just weeks after bringing Jim Boeheim his first and only national championship, he thanked himself.
That confidence inspired kids and appealed to brands.
“We were going on the shoe tour,” Andrews recalled. “But Melo didn’t want to do anything but Nike, he was locked in.”
And so was the Beaverton brand — or were they?
On the heels of his recent retirement and 20 years after Carmelo Anthony signed his first footwear contract, Boardroom breaks down the nuanced Nike deal that started it all.
Carmelo Anthony & A Roundball Reset
The summer of 2003 was a hot one in Oregon. It wasn’t so much the temperature, but basketball’s best players and prospects making Nike execs sweat.
Somehow, just months after Michael Jordan played his last professional game for the Washington Wizards, every existing NBA All-Star or All-Star-to-be was a footwear free agent.
For a brand reporting $10.7 billion in revenue in ’03, this was both enticing and stressful.
Around the league, Kobe Bryant was in the latter days of his one-season sabbatical from wearing one single sponsor.
Having ended his existing Adidas deal ahead of schedule, the split forced him to wait a year before signing with another suitor. Naturally, Nike was at the top of that list.
However, it was more than just Kobe that Phil Knight had to prioritize.
“It was an amazing time for an influx of young superstars coming into the league,” Andrews said. “People were really excited about Melo and LeBron.”
With Michael exiting the NBA, talks of an incumbent king were owning all media narratives. LeBron James, a high school senior from Akron, OH, had been getting free shoes and C-suite sales pitches since he was old enough to drive a Hummer.
In some senses, Adidas had an inside edge as it had sponsored his private high school for the last few seasons. Just the same, Reebok was expected to bring out the Brinks truck to the tune of a $110 million deal.
Adjacent to all the action were Andrews and Anthony.
“We had suitors,” Andrews said. “I was really close to Sonny Vaccaro at the time and Sonny was ready to do some amazing stuff at Adidas. But Melo was locked in. I said, ‘Let’s at least go to Adidas and visit, we’ve got to use this to our advantage.’ But he just didn’t want to.”
Just as Andrews was exploring all options, Nike had a handful of decisions to make domestically and abroad.
Before the Swoosh signed the next year’s Rookie of the Year, it had to decide if it’d retain and renew the reigning No. 1 draft pick, Yao Ming.
Having only played a single season in the NBA but under contract with Nike since his Shanghai Sharks start, the already All-Star starter had just come off a successful rookie campaign. Playing in the sizable Houston market with an even bigger one back home, Yao could cost Nike millions but net billions.
It was a lot to tackle for the brand that ended 2002 with an almost 40% share of the US footwear market — almost double that of Adidas and Reebok combined.
Unbeknownst to outsiders that summer, Nike was also eyeing an acquisition of Converse, the brand that basically invented the American basketball shoe. Never shy to spend, the first domino fell on May 20.
Just weeks after cutting down the nets for Cuse, Carmelo Anthony signed with Nike.
“If I had to wear something else, I guess I would deal with it, but I’ve been wearing Nikes since I was a little kid,” Anthony told ESPN‘s Darren Rovell at the time. “They brought me in like family, and I felt at home when I signed with them.”
“We went into negotiations with Nike and came out of it with a nice deal,” Andrews said. “At the time, I believe it was the largest rookie deal Nike had ever done.”
Reported to be $40 million over the course of six seasons, the signing was seismic.
Historically, the only NBA rookies to see bigger guaranteed money in the footwear space were Allen Iverson’s $60 million from Reebok in 1996 and Vince Carter’s $50 million from PUMA in 1998 — both 10-year deals. Carter ended up breaking his contract with PUMA after only one year while Iverson ended up re-upping with Reebok for a lifetime deal in 2001.
Each eventual Rookie of the Year was tasked with rebuilding a basketball brand, but those stars had veteran help.
Carter came into the game represented by Tank Black, at the time an agent of 10 years famous for repping Sterling Sharpe and having a company approaching $100 million in worth. Though the PUMA partnership ended poorly, Black was still a power player in 1998.
Conversely, Anthony was backed by somewhat of a rookie himself, taking to task the Beaverton execs with next-to-no leverage, since his client was already all-in on inking with Nike. It’s a testament to a young Andrews rising to the occasion and just how enticing Carmelo was.
“It was amazing for my career,” Andrews said. “Believe it or not, it was only my second year in the business. To be at the table with one of the largest brands in the world negotiating a deal of that magnitude was a feather in the cap of my career and really cemented me as a legitimate agent.”
For his talents, the Nike deal was said to be on par with seasoned pros. Some reports stated the number was as high as $40 million over the course of six seasons while others estimated Melo would make about $3.5 million a year. Both numbers placed a 19-year-old Anthony at or above what the Swoosh was paying four-time All-Star Penny Hardaway.
Melo was the man at Nike — for a week.
“And then nine days later LeBron signs the $90 million,” Andrews laughed.
Quickly, Nike broke its own record by handing King James more than double what it gave Anthony — a record rookie deal that stands today. Back on top, the spending didn’t stop.
That same summer, Kobe also landed in Beaverton at the $40 million mark. With almost $200 million tied up in the three young wings, Yao walked to Reebok and came away with $75 million on a 10-year contract.
It was a series of big swings for Nike, taking them back to the signature athlete formula that made them a billion-dollar basketball brand in decades prior.
In a matter of months, Nike had their men. But did they have too many?
For much of his time as a high school hooper at Oak Hill Academy, Melo played in seeded styles from Brand Jordan.
Once at Syracuse, a Nike-endorsed school since the days of Pearl Washington, Melo wore mostly team takes provided through the program, starting his season in an unreleased Air Jordan 9 for fun.
“One of my first pairs of PEs I gave to Melo,” Quentin Richardson told Boardroom.
In a sense, Air Jordans were technically Nikes, and Melo as a professional was to be a Nike athlete. Still, both the baller and the brands were figuring out just what he would have on his feet as he had the world at his fingertips.
“When Nike signed LeBron they came up with the brilliant idea to move Melo to the Jordan Brand,” Andrews said.
Andrews couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
Already fielding phone calls for other rookies under his guidance like Troy Bell and Rick Rickert, representatives for the greatest player to every lace them up were asking if his client would take the company into its next era.
“Let me get this straight, you want to move him to the Jordan Brand and eventually he’ll have his own signature Jordan shoe?” Andrews recalled. “I didn’t even need to consult with Melo. It was a beautiful match and they put a lot of energy behind Melo.”
In fact, more energy than any athlete under MJ had ever seen before.
While each athlete on the young roster had charm and star power of their own, none was tasked to fill the shoes of the legend that just left the game. This was true from a face-of-the-brand and signature shoe standpoint.
Across campus, all of Nike’s new signees were being considered for relocation within the company to best align abilities and audiences.
Ultimately, LeBron and Kobe would wear Nike while Dwyane Wade would endorse Converse.
Handpicked by brand brass, it was up to the teenager from Baltimore to carry the torch passed by MJ.
Inside the offices at Nike, it’s illustrated just how pivotal placing each athlete in the right spot truly was.
Through LeBron, Nike Basketball had a Day 1 signature star with a Kobe collection waiting in the wings. Even at Converse, Wade was marketed as part of a team of rookies ranging from Kirk Hinrich to Chris Bosh.
In some sense, Carmelo would be going at it on his own at Jordan, carrying the weight of a billion-dollar legacy. That’s inordinate pressure — unless you’re Melo.
“I think it was a no-brainer,” Anthony DiCosmo, Vice President of Sports Marketing at Jordan Brand told Boardroom. “The qualities of Melo embody many of the qualities of MJ. That’s why he came here and this was the place for him.”
Regardless of composure, it was a time of transition for MJ, the NBA, and each brand as a whole.
Though Mike and Melo may have shared values, their aesthetics couldn’t have been more different. Carmelo’s effortless energy and accessorizing swag was a recharge, appealing to kids who mostly knew Mike through retro releases and their parents.
Joining Jordan gave both parties the push and priority they needed.
“At Nike, I don’t know if he would’ve gotten that type of energy with LeBron sitting there,” Andrews said. “Melo was that person to reach that demographic. At that time, MJ was more mature in regard to his audience. Melo came in with a little bit of edge, street cred, and appeal. It really worked for the time.”
Just months after a 40-year-old Michael hung up his royal Air Jordans in DC, the 19-year-old laced up his powder blue pairs in Denver.
“Melo embraced it, they embraced him, and he played his butt off,” Andrews said.
That last part may be an understatement. As a rookie, Melo averaged 21 points, six boards, and three dimes a night.
Like Mike, he started all 82 games, rotating retro releases and prized PEs from the Air Jordan line.
Night to night, fans never knew what Melo was going to wear. In Denver — and inside the walls of Jordan Brand — it was immediately evident what he was going to do.
“You can be the most popular guy in the world, but if you don’t perform on the floor? It goes to nothing,” Andrews said. “He met the challenge. He took teams that won 17 games before to the playoffs. He was putting up crazy numbers, so the energy was a really good mesh at the time.”
“He represented the brand in a major way,” Richardson added. “Once he came into his own as a rookie? He took the mantle and ran with it.”
Case in point: On April 24, 2004, the Nuggets hosted their first home postseason game since 1995. In the crowd: newly minted Rookie of the Year LeBron James, there to watch his friend. Staring down Carmelo: league MVP Kevin Garnett.
On the court, Melo matched KG bucket for bucket, scoring 24 points and leading the No. 8 seed to a 21-point upset after being down 2-0 in the series.
In a moment of marketing magic, Jordan Brand released an Air Jordan 2 quickstrike that same Saturday, styled after Melo’s PE pair worn against Garnett.
The shoes sold out immediately, cementing Carmelo’s status as bankable at retail and reliable in big games.
Over the course of his rookie run, Carmelo added energy to retro releases and flagship MJ models alike. He could make old things new and edgy things adoptable.
This all mattered much for Jordan Brand’s biggest investment to date.
Five years prior when Mike said farewell to Chicago, the Air Jordan 15 floundered without MJ endorsing it on court. In Carmelo, the brand had someone who could modernize the new silhouettes of the highest esteem without it coming off as cosplay.
Heading into his sophomore season, the script would change.
“He came out with a really nice first shoe,” Andrews said. “And it did really well.”
Andrews did not have to sell Carmelo Anthony on being a Jordan Brand athlete.
Being blessed with endless player exclusives, a record-setting salary, and the ability to take the Air Jordan series into a new era was an unequivocal ‘yes’ for anyone.
What made it all sweeter was that by season two, Melo would have a signature shoe to call his own.
Debuted during the 2004 Summer Olympics and released on Black Friday the following Fall, the Jordan Melo 1.5 played off the DNA of Michael’s memorable first and second signature shoes.
Like a sample-driven hit, the Melo 1.5 was more than retro retread as it infused innovation and flavor from Carmelo himself. A terry cloth tongue played off his trademark headband while the molded collar bared both the famous Wings logo and the name of the Nuggets’ new star.
“It was amazing the amount of energy they put in,” Andrews said. “They had dedicated designers to him and they really put a lot into his brand and his line.”
Note: his line.
Rather than recreate the past or manufacture Melo into the modern Michael Jordan, the brand leaned all the way into his Baltimore upbringing and block-savvy style.
It was a welcome zag from the traditionalism focused on former endorsers.
“They did an excellent job with the imagery, they let him be himself,” Andrews added. “They didn’t make him cut his hair or tell him what to wear. They embraced what kids were about, really got behind him, and let him be him.”
Upon introduction, the Jordan Melo 1.5 catered to two audiences: the youth that idolized the transcendent star and adults who worshipped the Jumpman logo.
“The Melo with the cursive on the side? Those are still crazy,” Richardson said.
Shifting the shape of an entire enterprise, the Melo was a Jordan the same way a square is a rectangle. At first glance, the defining lines are present, while upon further inspection it proves a fortified structure all its own.
“That’s my favorite Melo ever,” Richardson said. “I still love that shoe like it’s new.”
Coming in at $120, the Jordan Melo 1.5 was both accessible and aspirational. The shoe’s successor, the Jordan Melo 5.5, kept the same seasoning with subsequent styles, ditching the .5 premise for more modern looks.
If there was any concern internally if Nike made the right move by signing and realigning Melo, the consumers quieted any doubts.
“It was the product that the kids wanted,” Andrews said. “When it comes to complete sales, they put more LeBron product out in the world, but Melo’s sell-through numbers were exceeding LeBron’s product. Melo was just that cool guy that the kids really gravitated to.”
What began as a $40 million deal with Nike suddenly blossomed into a Jordan Brand partnership that’s lasted two decades.
Carmelo Anthony: The Next Chapter
Believe it or not, Jordan Brand has been around for a quarter century. Introduced in September 1997 on the backs of BLACKstreet and the feet of Michael Finley, the original intent was to set up a broader business for MJ as he transitioned into his second career.
Courting colleges ripe with fertile fanbases and athletes made in his professional pedigree, the young company adjacent to the Beaverton brand built out diffusion lines inspired by Mike’s most memorable looks.
While Eddie Jones and Vin Baker brought new skillsets to Team Jordans and the likes of Richardson and Darius Miles brought new energy to old shoes, Anthony epitomized the best of both worlds.
“We talk about MJ’s legacy and what the brand meant to footwear culture and Black culture,” DiCosmo said. “Melo embodies all of those things. You moved him into Jordan Brand and he immediately caught that wave. He’s the people’s champ. Even though he’s of such large stature, everyone feels a connection to him.”
In Melo, there was a model to build a brand within the biggest brand basketball had ever known.
Now in 2023, a time when four different modern Jordan Brand ballers possess signature shoes sold at retail, Melo’s model as an ambassador and influence still holds true.
“There’s a lot of players on our roster now that if you ask them their favorite player growing up? A lot of them will say Melo,” DiCosmo said. “He’s been that influential to Luka, Jayson Tatum, and Rui [Hachimura]. Remember, Rui grew up in Japan. Melo has a global impact on generations of players. He guarded Scottie Pippen and some of these young kids today.”
To the youth, Melo serves as the bridge to Jordan Brand’s past, present, and future, appearing as comfortable in a meeting with Michael as at a concert with Travis Scott.
To old heads at the time of Melo’s 2003 signing, it would be easy to anoint the $40 million freshman phenom as the anti-Jordan.
MJ was R&B and while Melo was hip-hop. Mike’s red-hot motor was always on while Melo was defined by his methodical cool.
Look under the accessories and you’ll see similarities that define both men. Look at their shared ethos and you’ll find the heart of Jordan Brand.
“Courage under fire,” DiCosmo said. “When you look at the journey he’s been on from Red Hook to Baltimore to winning a National Championship? The resilience through the years at the Knicks? I’ve rarely seen an athlete, especially in New York, go through tough moments with such grace. He stood tall through all the criticism. He never pointed a finger, he just took it.”
Like Mike, Melo’s road to success was not always a smooth one.
Like Mike, Melo was the consummate professional, even if his introductory appearance was youthful rather than corporate.
“Melo took everything with a grain of salt,” Richardson said. “You never saw him going back and forth with the media, he took accountability and kept it moving. He never tried to fight narratives or argue and I respected that. No matter what was being said or going on, he was truly staying Melo.”
Like Mike, the love of the game pushed Melo to come back when the world thought he was done.
Like Mike, he’ll play a pivotal role in building the brand roster for years to come.
“He has been and will continue to be an amazing sounding board for potential athletes and moves that we make,” DiCosmo said. “He’s been a great confidant for players that I’ve been thinking about signing and the skillsets we need. He’s involved in deeper things like what the Jordan Brand Classic should look like or what an athlete tour should feel like. He’s seen it all and been on both sides of it.”
20 years in with Jordan Brand, the same sentiments that made Melo a relatable figure through footwear and advertising will assist his efforts in mobilizing community outreach from international tournaments to philanthropic scholastic endeavors like the WINGS for the Future Foundation.
Having a son in Kiyan that’s nationally ranked and on his own ascent keeps Carmelo connected to the next generation of the game and style. The father and fan has front row seats to see where both are going. This proximity and experience isn’t lost on his colleagues.
“Being able to tap into that knowledge is only going to enhance what we do as a brand, how we reach consumers, and how we carry on this legacy,” DiCosmo said. “He’s gonna help bring the next athletes on to be who he was and beyond. We’ve laid building blocks and he is a cornerstone for us.”
Building on the backs of a legend is something Melo knows well. Though gone from the game, his footprints are all over the NBA and Jordan Brand.
It’s not a set of shoes Tatum, Luka, or Zion need to fill. Just like Melo 20 years ago, it’s the standard of excellence and authenticity they’ll strive to shoot for.
“There’s only one Melo,” DiCosmo said. “The goal for the next guys is to be the best versions of themselves but take those learnings from Melo. I’ve never met a player that doesn’t respect Melo at the very top echelon of players. He’s literally seen everything.”
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