How an Allen Iverson classic reborn for March Madness speaks to cutting nets and cutting checks.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy to choose Michigan State,” Mateen Cleaves told Boardroom.
For fans of college basketball — from East Lansing and beyond — that statement sounds crazy itself.
In hoops history, Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State go together like Diana Taurasi and UConn, Bobby Hurley and Duke, Carmelo and ‘Cuse.
However, it almost wasn’t so.
“I was a McDonald’s All-American, so I pretty much had my pick to go wherever I wanted,” says Cleaves. “But there were two people crazy enough to think that we could turn that program around and win a championship: That was me and Coach Izzo.”
In the year 2000, Mateen made good on his crazy confidence by helping Tom Izzo win his first and only national championship.
Twenty-three years later, Izzo is entering the Sweet 16 with his eyes on a second title and an annual salary of $8.3 million. He’s among the most decorated and celebrated coaches in all of athletics.
His 25 straight NCAA Tournament appearances are a record in the college game while he’s also excelled at placing players in the NBA as All-Stars, world champions, and even team owners.
Though Tom and Mateen made history at Michigan State by winning multiple awards, it’s one pair of sneakers that’s forever tied to the team’s legacy in footwear lore: the “Green Toe” Reebok Question made exclusively for the Spartan squad en route to the ’00 title.
For years, the Allen Iverson team take was reserved as a relic for those crazy enough to think Cleaves could take his team all the way. A time capsule of hope and heart for fans fixated on Izzo’s one shining moment.
This weekend, as the Spartans return to the Sweet 16, the elusive sneakers are also returning to stores.
Digging deeper than the box score, Boardroom explores just how MSU’s original Reebok deal came to be and just what these shoes mean in the totem poll of college hoops history.
By the mid-1990s, college basketball was a merchandise mecca.
In 1994, The Washington Post reported that NCAA schools generated $2.5 billion in retail product sales. Naturally, Reebok wanted in and there was no school hotter than the one in Ann Arbor.
Reports suggest that the Shaq-stamped brand was looking to woo the University of Michigan Wolverines with a school-wide endorsement deal similar to the one that Nike just inked in Chapel Hill: a $4.7 million move set to outfit 24 North Carolina Tar Heel teams.
Coming off the eruption of the Fab 5, Reebok could make the same splash in the Midwest.
Instead, Michigan signed with Nike in September 1994 by way of a six-year deal worth $8 million.
Months later, Reebok ran a counter move.
In May 1995, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo and then-head football coach Nick Saban signed separate five-year deals with Reebok. As Sports Business Journal reported, the contract came with $1 million worth of free Reebok footwear and apparel for the entire athletic department.
Additionally, the newly hired Izzo, who had just replaced Jud Heathcote, was to receive $110,000 or more in his first season from Reebok.
“When I was in high school, they were with Converse,” says Cleaves. “But when Izzo took over they went to Reebok.”
Licensed to Ill
Considering the massive sum paid by Nike to outfit the blue school in Ann Arbor, Reebok got an absolute steal when they signed Michigan State in 1995.
As a sophomore, Mateen Cleaves led MSU in points and assists, putting Izzo in the NCAA Tournament for the first of his 25-season streak. Cleaves won Big Ten Player of the Year, despite being an underclassman, while Izzo won Coach of the Year for both his conference and the country.
In a span of seasons, Reebok had an All-American wearing its shoes and the nation’s top coach sporting a Vector pin on his sport coat.
“Reebok laced us!” Cleaves says. “Especially when we started winning.”
Just as Reebok made the right bet on Izzo in the college game, they were forecasting future stars in the pros.
Months after Mateen made Michigan State his school, Reebok bet big on a brash point guard out of Georgetown named Allen Iverson.
“The deal was $60 million for 10 years,” former Iverson agent David Falk told Nick DePaula in 2015. “It was the highest guarantee that anyone had ever gotten in shoes.”
Much like Mateen choosing MSU, Iverson picking Reebok was deemed a wild decision by outsiders but a no-brainer to those understanding the opportunity.
In ’96, Reebok was miles behind Nike in regard to market share. In the footwear category alone, the Swoosh owned 43% of the space, with the Vector claiming only 16%. Because of this gap, Reebok ran a risk in betting big on Iverson.
However, they could make him matter in more than just the NBA.
Sensing an inordinate demand for Iverson’s marquee model, the Question, Reebok did something so counter-culture most missed it: They turned Allen’s signature sneaker into a team shoe.
“That was like wearing Jordans when you were playing with the Iversons on your feet,” says Cleaves.
Having an answer to Air Jordan, the fighter jet fuel that propelled powder blue pandemonium for Nike apparel far beyond the Dean Dome, Reebok began running specialty SKUs of Iverson’s iconic Question for its sponsored schools across the country.
Out in California, blue-toed takes outfitted Baron Davis and the speedy squad at UCLA. Over in Madison, Duany Duany and the Badger boys brought out red-toe takes similar to the pair Iverson wore when putting up 40-point nights as a Sixer.
Heck, the John Calipari-coached Memphis Tigers even donned AI’s signature I3 logo on their game uniforms and practice gear.
“[Iverson] was somebody I could identify with,” says Cleaves. “The swagger he had, the way he played the game? He was talking my language. I grew up in the inner city in Flint, so he was someone that I could relate with. Someone I looked up to and had a lot of respect for.”
Soon, it’d be Mateen Cleaves that was synonymous with respect.
In East Lansing, MI, Tom Izzo and Mateen Cleaves had both found their footing as a new millennium approached.
Heading into the 1999-00 NCAA Basketball season, Cleaves and his comrades were war ready, almost all decked out in exclusive Iversons.
Unlike iterations afforded to UCLA, Wisconsin, and Memphis, this makeup was far different than the tones associated with retail renditions tied to AI’s home team in Philadelphia.
“It had a green toe,” says Cleaves. “You had to be unique to get those. Everybody wasn’t getting their hands on a pair of them.”
With exclusive on their feet and a target on their back, the ’00 Spartans absolutely obliterated their conference play, culminating with a Senior Night shellacking of the Nike-sponsored school in Ann Arbor.
“That was special,” says Cleaves. “Your last game at home and you break the Big 10 single-game assist record with 20 assists? We sent a statement to college basketball: We’re gearing up to go win a national championship.”
Geared up is right. In the Iverson exclusives, Mateen’s team torched each team they played in the Big 10 and NCAA Tournament by 10 points or more. It all aligned with a national championship matchup against Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators.
“They had a squad,” says Cleaves. “Mike Miller? Udonis Haslem? That dude had 27 points in that game. You had Donnell Harvey who was a first-round pick and Matt Bonner who had a great pro career.”
The Spartans may have been rolling, but beating a loaded Gator gang did not come easy.
Early on in the second half, Cleaves had to leave the game due to a severely sprained ankle.
Heroically, he limped back out on the court with his Iverson sneakers on foot to finish the crazy conquest he and Izzo signed up for four years prior. While untimely injury proved a scare for State, it was a win for Reebok.
“The shoes got so much play on the telecast because of his sprained ankle,” 19nine VP and co-founder Josh Barnett told Boardroom. “They kept going in on his ankle brace and zoom in on his Questions. Reebok was getting free ads the entire time.”
Mateen’s injury gave the shoes the spotlight. His passionate performance made him the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
“It was the first time in my life where I cried and the tears felt good,” says Cleaves.
Neither Mateen nor Izzo was crazy. Neither was Reebok as the team-issued Question became a college classic.
The MSU squad would live on history, but their player-exclusive pair would go unseen for years to come.
For over a decade, many basketball fans wondered what happened to Michigan State’s storied Reebok run and the iconic Questions the team wore while cutting down the nets in the 2000 tournament.
Just like money moves made the shoes happen in the first place, a game of musical chairs tied to contracts put them back in the vault.
Months before Mateen made Michigan State the talk of college hoops, Nick Saban left East Lansing for Baton Rouge in a head coaching move that doubled his salary. With Bobby Williams at the helm and Saban off the hook, Reebok’s run in mid-Michigan was quickly coming to an end.
Ironically enough, Nike was waiting for Izzo and company as soon as the clock hit zero in the natty as the Swoosh proved the title sponsor of the 2000 NCAA Tournament.
Once winning, the show-runners at CBS quickly gave Cleaves and the rest of the team fresh Spartan shirts with “National Champions” written across the chest and a Nike tag appearing beneath. Days later at the parade back home down Grand River, Cleaves appeared on crutches with white and green Air Jordan 15s on his feet.
While the NBA called on Cleaves and teammate Morris Peterson, they were also eyeing Izzo.
Restructuring his coaching contract as a champion while being sought after by the Atlanta Hawks, Izzo turned down double the money the NBA was offering by signing on at State for five more years at $1.1 million a season.
Having much more leverage than they possessed in 1995, Michigan State took on a school-wide deal with Nike in July 2000 said to bring the school more than $1 million annually on royalties from athletic apparel alone.
First reported by Larry Lage of the Lansing State Journal, the deal covered 22 teams across campus while paying Izzo $200,000 annually. It was similar to the deal Dean Smith struck with Nike nearly seven seasons earlier and much more than Izzo inked for initially.
The Reebok era in East Lansing was over, and somehow everyone won.
The departure to the Swoosh was hardly sour grapes for Reebok.
Not only did it outfit Michigan State on a bargain when they won the national championship in basketball, but the company was also able to use the leftover money to invest back in the athlete and league that put it on pace in the first place.
Thirteen months after Izzo inked with Nike, Reebok struck a 10-year deal with the NBA to be the official outfitter of all 29 teams as well as all 16 WNBA franchises. Shortly after in November 2001, it re-upped Iverson by making him the brand’s first lifetime endorser with a 10-year extension priced at $50 million.
For the remainder of the decade, the Reebok Question remained relevant at retail and even on-court.
Color codes of the original orientation and new narratives cascaded Champs Sports and Foot Locker walls deep into the next era with one old favorite noticeably missing:
Finally, in 2015, the brand brought the “Green Toe” take to select retailers to the delight of Day 1 fans.
Now in 2023, as Izzo sets the record for 25 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, the OG is back.
On March 25, the Reebok Question “Green Toe” returns to retailers in full-family sizing, starting at $170 in adult measurements.
It’s one of three retro releases Reebok is rolling out for March Madness, but perhaps the deepest story where business and culture are concerned.
“All the shoe heads? Aw, man,” says Cleaves. “They talk about those ‘Green Toe’ AIs. ‘Man, those are some of the sweetest shoes ever!’ To be attached to those shoes and attached to winning a national championship? Those are life-changing moments for me.”
It may sound crazy, but most underdog stories do.
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