Reed: It’s Adidas vs. Nike in Saturday Shootout at Rupp

Billy Reed clearly is not a fan of the influence shoe companies have on college basketball. And he’s got good reason. 

By Billy Reed

“If you look closely at the various forces at work in basketball at every level of the sport—the AAU programs that funnel players to college programs, the agents looking to land players as early as NBA rules allow, the shoe companies, coaches, franchise owners, front-office executives, players—it eventually dawns on you that they have one thing in common: William Wesley.”                                                           — Sports writer Henry Abbott

You may think you’re watching a basketball game between Louisville and Kentucky at high noon Saturday in Rupp Arena, but you’re really be watching a battle between the highest-profile programs for the dominant shoe companies, Nike and Adidas. Yes, it’ll be Team Nike Big Blue against Team Adidas Cardinal Red for bragging rights in the netherworld of college commercialism.

Team Nike Big Blue’s only loss this season came to Team Adidas Cream-and-Crimson — that would be Indiana — in Bloomington so there will be a sort of revenge factor at work Saturday that nobody but people such as William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley, the nefarious and mysterious Nike-linked flesh peddler, will notice. But make no mistake, shoe-company money and ESPN money drive big-time college sports these days far more than any coach, athletics director, or university president is willing to admit.

When I read that more than 9,000 consumers had stormed the Jefferson Mall to get their hands on a new brand of sneaker, I assumed that maybe LeBron James, Nike’s No. 1 endorser not named Michael Jordan, had released a public version of the special sneaker with which he has blessed the basketball programs at Akron (his hometown), the University of Miami (the site of a monster football scandal this fall), and, of course, Nike Big Blue.

But, no, it was only a new, $180-per-pair version of Air Jordan, the shoe that put Nike on the footwear map, so to speak. When Michael Jordan played at North Carolina in the early 1980s, Converse pretty much owned the franchise on shoes. But then Jordan signed with Nike, came out with his own shoe, and Converse soon found itself as a wholly-owned Nike subsidiary that today only makes retro shoes that aren’t even good for playing basketball.

The shoe-company wars may be waged mostly behind the scenes, but don’t make the mistake of believing they aren’t an essential part of today’s basketball culture. As exhibit A, I give you Marquis Teague, the true freshman point guard for Team Big Blue Nike who was once thought to be a mortal lock for Team Addidas Cardinal Red.

The convoluted story began back in the early 1980s, when Shawn Teague was a point guard at Boston University for a young coach named Rick Pitino. Teague eventually moved to Indianapolis and became the father of two sons, Jeff and Marquis, who inherited his hoops genes.

After graduating from Indianapolis Pike High, Jeff played two years of college ball at Wake Forest (a Nike school). As a sophomore, he averaged almost 21 points a game and was one of the leading point guards in the Atlantic Coast Conference. One of his friends was Tim Fuller, a former Demon Deacon player and assistant who was then working for Nike as an NBA sales rep.

While Jeff was playing at Wake Forest, Pitino renewed his friendship with Shawn Teague, his former Boston U. player, and began to recruit his son Marquis. For two years, the Teagues were fixtures at U of L games. It becomes a foregone conclusion in the hoops recruiting world that Pitino had Marquis locked up.

Now pay close attention to the following timeline:

March, 2009 — While Wake Forest is in Miami to play Cleveland State in the first round of the NCAA tournament (the Deacons lost), there is a hotel incident in which Maggie Hurt, a Wake Forest student and band member, accuses Teague and teammate Gary Clark of sexually assaulting her. The charges are eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.

April 8, 2009 — Jeff Teague announces that he is leaving Wake Forest to put his name in the NBA draft.

June, 2009 — Apparently unconcerned by the sexual-assault charges against Jeff Teague, the Atlanta Hawks take him with the 19th pick in the draft’s first round.

Summer, 2009 — Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played together on a USA Basketball summer team. As Teague says later, they talk about playing for the same team in college. Kidd-Gilchrist is so close to Worldwide Wes that he calls him “Uncle Wes.”

November, 2009 — Jeff Teague signs an $8 million endorsement contract with Nike, not bad for a guy who played about five minutes a game his first season. His shoe of choice is known as the Hyperdunk 2010. So Jeff remains a Nike guy (it also was Wake Forest’s brand) while his littler brother is apparently headed to an Adidas school.

April 22, 2010 — Marquis Teague announces he has jilted Team Adidas Cardinal Red for Team Nike Big Blue. “[Louisville] really wanted me to come there,” he said. “They’ve been recruiting me for two years, so I really don’t expect them to be to happy.” Teague said he changed his mind because of Calipari’s record of getting point guards ready for the NBA in only one year of college competition (Dejuan Wagner and Derrick Rose at Memphis, John Wall and Brandon Knight at UK).

Spring, 2010 — Team Adidas Cardinal Red announces that it has hired Tim Fuller to be a recruiter and assistant coach. Cynics say Fuller was hired to use his contacts with Nike and Jeff Teague to get Marquis Teague back into the Team Adidas Cardinal Red fold.  Said Fuller, “I know we have a great school down the street (in Kentucky), but they’re not going to beat us on guys. I’m going to give it my full time, devotion and attention to make sure Louisville has premier talent in the country.”

May 18, 2011 — Last signing day ends with Marquis Teague still committed to Team Nike Big Blue.

Spring, 2011 — Fuller announces he’s leaving U of L after one season to rejoin Frank Haith at Missouri. He had worked for Haith when Haith was at the University of Miami in the early 2000s and says that Haith was “like a father to me.”

August, 2011 — Haith is named in the Nevin Shapiro recruiting scandal at Miami in which Haith was purported to have “acknowledged” that Miami assistant basketball coach Jake Morton received $10,000 from Shapiro to recruit DeQuan Jones. Haith and Miami president Donna Shalala were photographed with Shapiro in a 2008 basketball fundraiser receiving a $50,000 check from Shapiro (which Shapiro said came from his Ponzi scheme).

Anybody smell anything odd here? Just a string of random events, unrelated? Or is there something more sinister? Could Jeff Teague’s contract with Nike have any impact on his little brother’s change of schools (and shoes)? Cynics seem destined to be as frustrated about the Teague story as they are about finding out who took Derrick Rose’s college entrance exam for him.

Whatever, that’s how it came to be that Marquis Teague will start at point guard Saturday for Team Nike Big Blue instead of serving as Peyton Silva’s backup for Team Adidas Cardinal Red.

One thing is certain: Dr. Eli Capilouto would be remiss if he didn’t ask basketball coach John Calipari to introduce him to “Worldwide Wes.” As Shalala has learned at Miami, a university president needs to know everything possible about donors and other “friends” of the athletic department. That’s only common sense. It also might enable a university to avoid a scandal.

Heck, Saturday would be an excellent time for Capilouto to meet Wesley because he will surely be there, at courtside, where he has been seen leading the cheers for Team Nike Big Blue, most particularly for Kidd-Gilchrist. If LeBron James or Derrick Rose happen to show up, they’ll be seated near Wesley. It’s all part of what Calipari calls “The Kentucky Effect.”

Teague had better have his Nikes (wonder what type he wears? Air Jordans? The LeBron James Big Blue specials? His brother’s model? laced up tight on Saturday because Silva and backup Russ Smith will test him on both ends of the floor.

Not that Pitino, whose first two-plus years at UK (1989-’92) are more impressive than Calipari’s first two-plus years at the same place, needs any advice, but I’d like to see him use the kind of 1-3-1 zone that West Virginia’s Bob Huggins used to upset Calipari’s first UK team in the 2010 NCAA Elite Eight.

If you put a long-wingspan player like Rakeem Buckles or Jared Swopshire on the point of the zone, you would seriously hinder Team Nike Big Blue’s ability to drive to the hoop or work the ball inside. And you could stretch the zone to play matchup on Doron Lamb’s side of the floor. He’s the only Wildcat who has shown the ability to consistently hit the three.

Whatever, Pitino needs to do something different in order to shake his team out of the doldrums created by the homecourt loss to Georgetown Wednesday night. A soft early schedule — only one game away from the KFC Yum! Center — enabled the Cards to pad their record and inflate their fans’ egos. But at no point have they deserved to be ranked as high as No. 4 in the country.

On Saturday Pitino will find himself in the same place that Calipari found himself when he took his team to Bloomington. His players simply haven’t been properly prepared for the maelstrom they will encounter in Rupp Arena. That’s the price the Cards will have to pay for their schedule. Still, the matchups aren’t as one-sided as some experts would have you believe. And if fouls come into play, well, Pitino definitely has the deeper bench.

Team Nike Big Blue 78, Team Adidas Cardinal Red 70.

As Mars Blackmon would say, it’s all about the shoes.