Signing before his first NBA game, Adidas and McGrady took over global markets. Boardroom explores their storied partnership.
Thursday evening, the sportswear industry was sent an unexpected shockwave. Speaking at the Hashtag Sports conference in Las Vegas, Hall of Fame hooper Tracy McGrady indicated the ending of his quarter-century relationship with Adidas.
“I’ve been with Adidas for 25 years — I think we’re coming to an end,” McGrady said on stage. “Tweet it. Put it on Instagram. Whatever you want to do, I don’t give a s–t.”
As detailed by Boardroom’s Nick DePaula, McGrady’s now “rocky” relationship with Adidas comes at the tail-end of a historic past.
Discovered in some senses by the brand at the famed ABCD High School Camp as an unranked prospect, the Florida native now known as T-Mac went on to become one of the sport’s most prolific scorers — selling slews of signature sneakers across America while doing damage at retail for years on end out East.
In light of this breaking news, Boardroom dives deep into the T-Mac timeline of his days with Adidas.
The Come Up
The folklore surrounding teenage talent that climbs from virtual unknown to top-ranked prospect in American basketball is one applied to only a few hoop heroes: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady.
Famously, a young Mike Jordan washed dishes at Five-Star Camp to cover the cost of room and board all while destroying the nation’s top talent. Years later, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant begged Sonny Vaccaro to let his lanky son into Adidas ABCD Camp, culminating in Kobe crossing over from suburban swan to the first guard to go pro out of high school.
Just one year after Jelly Bean Jr.’s shocking ascent, Sonny struck gold again.
“Growing up in Florida, yeah, I had a name around my area and in my county, but outside of that, nobody really knew who I was,” McGrady told me in 2016. “[Adidas ABCD] was an opportunity to go up against the most talented guys in the country because we’re all here at this camp.”
In his first game at the camp, McGrady matched up with New York City sensation Lamar Odom.
The Queens kid, then a 6’10 Point God with buzz all over the nation, met his equal in McGrady who “put it down” in the crowded gym. At that moment, McGrady quickly realized he had “just as much game as anybody there” upon holding his own against Goliath.
Needless to say, everyone was impressed, including the Godfather of basketball’s biggest shoe deals.
“I had a great rapport with Sonny Vaccaro when I left that camp,” McGrady continued. “I was with them after my junior year when I moved my senior year to [Adidas-sponsored] Mt. Zion Christian Academy, so the relationship was there. It was great with them.”
After uprooting from Florida to play his senior season at the college prep powerhouse, McGrady stole all awards, taking over the state as North Carolina Mr. Basketball despite living there for a lone year. Moreover, he made mainstream headlines by becoming a McDonald’s All-American and earning USA Today National Player of the Year honors.
Though Adidas was somewhat responsible for his No. 175 to No. 1 rise in the rankings, he still considered college at Kentucky and visited Nike to talk shoe deals.
Nevertheless, he went straight to the league. Adidas gave him an unprecedented 6-year, $12 million deal at only 18 years old.
Not only was Adidas paying McGrady more than Kobe, but the Toronto Raptors taking him at No. 9 in the 1997 NBA Draft eventually set him up to become teammates with his distant cousin, Vince Carter. That rookie year in Canada saw the phenom from Florida fight with loneliness and brutal bench splitters, however, struggling to take over the pro game the same way he did that at infamous summer camp.
Advocates at Adidas still saw his potential.
“I would actually look at the sixth man on the Toronto Raptors,” Jon Wexler told execs at Adidas when interviewing for a job in the brand’s basketball department. Prophetic in his powers, the man later responsible for signing Kanye West saw similar promise in a young McGrady, envisioning a world where lifestyle appeal and sport collided.
By year three, McGrady was averaging double-figures up North. He became the fresh face of Peter Moore‘s prized Adidas EQT line. The increased energy around McGrady’s growing game gave him the leverage to leave Toronto in free agency, signing a seven-year, $92.8 million deal with the Orlando Magic.
It was there that the world came to know Tracy as T-Mac.
Scoring a Signature
Out of his cousin’s shadow and back in his home state, T-Mac was the face of a franchise.
In his first game with the Magic, he balled out: 32 points, 12 boards in a win over the Washington Wizards. The opening night explosion set the stage for an amazing first season in Florida, where McGrady became an All-Star starter, won the league’s Most Improved Player award, and led Orlando back to the playoffs.
Adidas leveraged McGrady’s blossoming brand by giving him a pseudo signature in the Adidas Mad Handle, placing posters of T-Mac in mall displays, and advertising him all over TV. By 2002, he had his own shoe in the Adidas TMAC 1, a model which Wexler called “vapor in the marketplace” in 2014 when speaking with George Kiel.
Drafting off Bryant’s brand of avant-garde signature shoes, the TMAC line became the people’s performance shoe much in the same manner that the Nike Kyrie line lived throughout the ’10s. Early iterations designed by Natalie Candrian of Omorpho and Saysh fame were approachable in price while swaggy in style.
Summer after summer, early Adidas TMAC signatures owned high school basketball camps in the same fashion as the endorser himself.
Notably, pairs were seeded to an up-and-coming talent named LeBron James. Much like his childhood hero, Penny Hardaway, the new No. 1 in Orlando was a superstar when it came to commercial success and selling sneakers. By the summer of 2002, McGrady made good on his straight-out-of-high school sneaker deal by signing a monumental lifetime contract with Adidas.
“This is an unprecedented deal for Adidas,” then-Adidas executive Erich Stamminger said in a statement at the time. “Tracy is one of the most exciting and respected players in the NBA, and we are impressed by his passion both on and off the court. We are excited about his future impact on the sport, our brand, and our global basketball business.”
Coming off the heels of another All-Star season in Orlando, McGrady made money off Kobe Bryant infamously exiting his long-standing sneaker deal with The Three Stripes by signing his extension that same summer. Furthermore, McGrady proved palatable at retail, said to surge category sales by nearly 40% in 2001 with the release of his first shoe.
Though off-the-backboard alley-oops in All-Star outings made McGrady a fan favorite in America, and his shoes vapor on the market as expressed by Wexler, that was only the tip of the iceberg.
It was Stamminger’s statement about T-Mac’s impact on Adidas’ “global basketball business” that would soon appear prophetic.
Heading West, Selling East
After securing scoring titles in 2003 and ’04, McGrady made good on his end of the Adidas lifetime deal quickly. A trade to the Houston Rockets in ’04 would bring the brand an audience it could have never prepared for.
McGrady’s shoe line leaned into a new narrative of color story — not far from that of MJ on the Bulls — sure to shift sales. But Adidas really hit the jackpot thanks to T-Mac teaming with a new running mate: Yao Ming. By pairing with the 2002 top overall pick from Shanghai, China, McGrady suddenly had a global audience.
Though fans from the Far East flocked to All-Star ballots to make Yao a starting center, they showed their affinity for T-Mac by buying shoes.
In October 2004, McGrady came to China to play an exhibition game against the Sacramento Kings, and he participated in a press conference with Ming. By August 2005, he was flying from Beijing to Hong Kong by way of an Adidas jet to launch his fifth signature shoe.
Not only was the market massive, but the timing for Adidas was also crucial to their basketball category’s growth abroad. Just recently, Yao Ming had moved on from Nike to Reebok. Additionally, the Swoosh slipped up unintentionally due to controversy surrounding the Zoom LeBron 2‘s “Chamber of Fear” advertising campaign.
Because of all this, McGrady became the man out East, even if his shoe sales were slipping Stateside. When considering the competition and market size, this was a swap the Three Stripes had no trouble making. McGrady remained the man at the brand.
“T-Mac was on a whole ‘nother level,” Adidas athlete Gilbert Arenas shared on All the Smoke in 2021. Arenas went on to tell tales of the gravity McGrady possessed when it came to the category, shifting six-hour-long photoshoots to capturing content in a matter of minutes.
To some, the “whatever Mac say goes” sentiment shared by Arenas may sound wild when considering the brand also boasted Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett at that time. Though the T-Mac tales could be exaggerated, they still shed light on just how much power he had in his deal.
“I went to China with him,” Arenas recalled. “When we got off the plane at the airport? All you heard was, ‘Mac! Mac! Mac!’ I’d had my Agent Zero tours over there, so I’m big! They know me…but Mac was in front. He’s in a Rolls Royce, and I’m in a taxi cab, and we came here together! Man, that’s a superstar.”
Through his overseas exposure and lifetime Adidas deal, the money behind T-Mac was massive. Despite topping out at over $20 million a year in his final season with the Rockets, it was the Three Stripes that took tender care of him.
“He had a jet for a while, fresh off Adidas money,” Stephen Jackson added on All the Smoke. “It had nothing to do with NBA money. It was all Adidas money.”
After his third ascent in Houston, McGrady’s health faltered. Because of that, he switched teams each of the following four years to cap off his NBA career. However, his Adidas deal and Asian audience remained steady.
Hall of Fame in Two Hemispheres
After up and down stints in New York, Atlanta, and Detroit, Tracy McGrady took his talents to the Chinese Basketball Association as a member of the Qingdao Eagles in 2013.
Mac averaged 25, 7, and 5, proving a good brand brethren by rocking releases from Adidas’ latest lifetime athlete, Derrick Rose. The next season, he’d sign with the San Antonio Spurs for a bench role during an NBA Finals run, hanging up his sneakers shortly after. Over the course of his NBA career, McGrady made more than $162 million in playing salary alone — a sum he can thank Spencer Haywood for in regard to challenging the league’s age limit decades prior.
By the mid-’10s, McGrady was officially out of the game, but he wasn’t out of the news. Over the course of that decade, he’d go on to star on ESPN, try his hand at pitching in pro baseball, and continue to tour Asia as an ambassador for Adidas. The Three Stripes leveraged his likeness by modernizing his signature shoes, releasing retros, and placing pairs on other rising stars such as Jaylen Brown, Nick Young, and Brandon Ingram.
McGrady models continued to have cache on NBA and NCAA hardwoods while moving the needle at retail out East.
In 2017, the sum of his talents took center stage as Tracy McGrady was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. During his speech, he heard the same “T-Mac!” chants Gil recalled in China, thanking the audience and Isiah Thomas who drafted him as a high schooler to Toronto.
Additionally, he showed gratitude to the longtime sponsor who saw his potential as an unknown talent out of Auburndale.
“Thank you to Adidas. I’m proud of what we accomplished together. We sold a ridiculous amount of shoes,” McGrady said to loud laughter. “And we’re not done yet. We’re not done yet.”
For the remainder of that decade, Adidas made good on that repeated statement by McGrady on the Hall of Fame stage. The brand brought out McGrady models old and new, celebrating everything from his Hall of Fame induction all the way back to his high school show out at Mt. Zion Christian Academy.
Sadly, over the course of the last decade, the relationship is said to have soured.
“The treatment that I’ve gotten from them over the last ten years? It is what it is,” McGrady revealed on stage at Thursday’s Hashtag Sports conference. “I deserve better. So yeah, I think it’s coming to an end.”
As noted by Boardroom’s Nick DePaula, McGrady has signed multiple extensions with Adidas over the years including those done during his retirement period. It’s believed that much of McGrady’s frustration with his longtime sponsors stems from their lack of love and support for his Ones Basketball League.
Much more than an athlete, T-Mac has explored endeavors removed from basketball media like that of Web3 and his own sports agency.
In recent years, Adidas Basketball has parted ways with young All-Star endorsers such as Jaylen Brown, Zach Lavine, and Brandon Ingram — all torchbearers of the T-Mac Millenium line. Additionally, Adidas has lost creative talent tied to design from an internal standpoint.
To be fair, divesting in athlete endorsement and dealing with employee turnover is not specific to Adidas. However, the brand has seen struggles domestically with market share in the hoops category.
Where McGrady plays into this puzzle is, well, puzzling. Adidas has more than 10,000 stores in China where TMAC models still sell. Moreover, while Tracy McGrady may be done with Adidas, Adidas may not be done with Tracy McGrady.
Earlier in the year, line sheets seen by Boardroom reveal McGrady retro releases of novelty and note still set to launch late into 2022. Though many models have been pushed back due to supply chain issues, one would imagine they’re still set to release.
At Adidas, telling the story of T-Mac publicly is all the more difficult if he’s in conflict with the brand, not helping retro sales without resolution. Similarly, surface-level quarreling between the brand and who one would imagine being their biggest breadwinner in basketball doesn’t bode well for future partnerships. Such dissatisfaction with icons and corporations is only amplified due to Kanye West’s recent complaints about Adidas as a parent company.
All issues are capable of resolution but still remain uncertain at this time.
Because of McGrady’s major footprint in Asia, one has to wonder if he could carry the same cache with a China-based brand. Notably, the likes of Anta, Peak, and Li-Ning have hitched on to hoopers with established resumes such as Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, Tony Parker, Jason Kidd, and Dwyane Wade. Famously, all those athletes left bigger brands that they had a history with for bigger bags abroad. However, all of those deals took place while said stars were still playing.
What the future holds for Adidas and McGrady is anyone’s guess.
Regardless, what they accomplished in the past proves one of the greatest Cinderella stories in sportswear history.