When Kobe Bryant first came into the NBA 14 years ago, he signed a massive six-year contract to be the new face of Adidas. He was worth a cool $48 million before he ever took the floor in a professional basketball game.
When LeBron James became a pro prospect, he signed a megadeal with Nike before he was even drafted. Seven years, $93 million.
The No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft, John Wall, got a healthy chunk of change from Reebok, reportedly around $25 million.
The No. 2 pick, Evan Turner, signed with … Li Ning?
OK, Li Ning.
It may not be a household name here in the States like the other three, but the up-and-coming name has quickly blossomed into the top athletic footwear brand in China. Founded in 1990 by Li Ning, renowned gymnast and three-time gold medal winner at the 1984 Olympics, the corporation has steadily grown over the course of the last two decades and is now worth the equivalent of over $1.2 billion.
The Chinese apparel giant was looking for an American sports icon to gain some crossover appeal and cut into the U.S. market. Now in Turner, they may have found one.
Welcome to a new era in the global basketball scene as we know it. China is here, and it's here to stay.
It's only natural that China, with the fastest growing major economy in the world, would extend its realm to the hardwood. Basketball is bigger in the People's Republic than it's ever been.
That's why Yao Ming is the biggest hoops star on the planet. He sells jerseys like hotcakes and starts every single All-Star game, regularly pulling in millions of votes from all over the globe.
It's why Kobe and LeBron were treated like deities when they landed in Beijing for the Summer Olympics in 2008.
It's why former NBA stars like Stephon Marbury choose China over a prolonged career as an NBA journeyman or a stint in Europe. In China, he can be a celebrity again, with droves of fans chanting his name and wearing his sneaker.
Turner is angling to become the next big star in Chinese basketball culture. He will immediately begin appearing in Li Ning's global marketing campaign, he'll wear their sneakers every night as a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers, and he'll have his own branded shoes and apparel in year two. He's on the fast track to becoming an icon over there, and he hasn't even played a game at the pro level.
This isn't the first time the Chinese shoe giant has landed a big American star. Shaquille O'Neal and Baron Davis are among the NBA players who previously endorsed Li Ning sneakers before Turner. But those two were both previous Reebok clients and turned to Li Ning as a backup plan, having already sold themselves out elsewhere.
Turner's brand is Chinese to start, and exclusively so. When he's introduced to the world on Oct. 27, taking on the vaunted Miami Heat at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, he'll be wearing Li Ning. A generation of young Sixers fans will come of age watching their star in Chinese kicks.
If all goes well for Turner and Li Ning, this could start a trend. More players could flock to China for the big endorsement dollars, and more Chinese brands may turn to the NBA as a place to leave their mark stateside.
It's not just Nike and Adidas competing for the big names these days — the competition is global, and it's more wide-open than we ever thought possible. Evan Turner could just be the beginning of something big.