‘The Swag Guy’: Behind Dejounte Murray’s decision to rep New Balance
The Spurs point guard is part of the brand’s reemergence in basketball shoes
Dejounte Murray pushed the ball up the court at full speed, crossed left, then back right, before lunging into the paint toward the basket. He split two defenders, but lost control as he fell out of bounds, grimacing in pain while reaching for his leg.
The five-second sequence that unfolded during a preseason game on Oct. 7, 2018, temporarily hit the reset button on the promising career of the young San Antonio Spurs point guard. On that play, Murray tore his right ACL, which forced him to sit out the entire 2018-19 NBA season.
“It’s hard to put in words … ,” Murray said. “I’d never been hurt. It was new to me. All of it was new. Obviously, I got to see the game from a different aspect … but it was long. It was a whole year.”
Three hundred and sixty-three days, to be exact, passed before Murray saw his next game action. San Antonio’s preseason opener on Oct. 5, 2019, marked a new beginning for the 23-year-old in more than one way. After spending his first three NBA seasons endorsing Nike, Murray gave another brand’s basketball shoe a shot. In his first game back, he laced up the white and gold “Reign” colorway of New Balance’s OMN1S sneaker. Murray wore pairs of the OMN1S for the rest of the preseason, teasing an official partnership that would soon be announced.
“When I got hurt, my agent actually told me [New Balance] really liked my story,” said Murray, who’s represented by Rich Paul, the founder and CEO of Klutch Sports. “They really were fans of my basketball game and of me as a person. That was huge for me. … It’s rare for a dude to get hurt and sneaker companies reach out right away. As time went on, I was able to communicate with people who were part of the brand, they just seemed like genuine people. They seemed like a family. They had a plan. They always had a plan. And most of it was, ‘Be different.’ ”
On Oct. 21, 2019, the same day Murray and the Spurs agreed to a four-year, $64 million contract extension, it was also reported that the 6-foot-3 point guard had signed a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with New Balance.
Murray joined Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, the reigning NBA Finals MVP, and Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Darius Bazley, the 23rd overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, as the only three players in the NBA signed to New Balance, as part of the brand’s reemergence in the game of basketball. After experiencing success in the 1980s with Hall of Famer James Worthy as a signature athlete, New Balance’s presence in the NBA faded over the next few decades. The brand last released models of performance basketball sneakers in the late 2000s and had only two NBA players — the now retired Charlie Bell and Matt Bonner — endorse the brand until partnering with Bazley, Leonard and Murray.
“Dejounte, 100%, took a chance on New Balance,” said Pat Cassidy, the brand’s global director of consumer marketing and athlete activation. “Dejounte had been on our radar for awhile … because he doesn’t fit any one mold on the court. And it’s almost like he’s getting better every time you see him. That’s compelling. … His off-court story has yet to really be told … but here’s a guy who has a unique mindset, is clearly not locked in by the same blueprint trappings like everybody else is. He’s a diamond in the rough. So it was like, ‘Let’s build with him.’ What does he want to do? Who does he want to be, as we develop his role within the New Balance family?”
When Murray entered the NBA in 2016, as the 29th overall pick of the Spurs after playing just one season at the University of Washington, he didn’t think twice about which brand he’d join.
“It was easy for me, because I was a Nike dude,” Murray recalled. “We grew up liking Nikes, Air Forces and Jordans. … But after I got into the league … got more mature and [was] becoming a man, it was up to me to make a decision for myself — not just off of what we grew up on.”
At the same time, Murray vividly remembers lacing up pairs of New Balance 574s, a heralded running shoe, which was first released in 1988, during his childhood in Seattle.
“What’s funny is now that I’m with New Balance … me and my mom talk about how I just used to wear the 574s a lot,” Murray said. “Now I pretty much got every pair. Back then, it was like one or two pairs. And you wore them over and over. But they were comfortable shoes. And it was funny, when I signed with New Balance, my whole family, everybody back home, was like, ‘I’m gonna wear New Balance again.’ … You could just see the energy with me going back to New Balance.”
In the year leading up to his decision to join New Balance, Murray learned the ins and outs of the brand by observing the two athletes who signed before him — Bazley, another client of Paul’s, and Leonard, his former teammate in San Antonio for two seasons.
“Dejounte wasn’t necessarily going in blind,” Cassidy said. “But he didn’t grow up playing ball in the 574s … Dejounte did his homework.”
Bazley signed with New Balance first, in late October 2018, 2½ weeks after Murray tore his ACL. Bazley became the poster child of an unprecedented deal, tactfully negotiated by Paul, after the top-15 high school hoops prospect decommitted from Syracuse University and decided to forgo his college eligibility. Instead, Bazley, then 18, took a $1 million internship with New Balance, which ultimately turned into an endorsement deal once he entered the NBA in 2019.
“I actually remember when Darius made that decision,” Murray said. “I got to meet him when he was going through his process. … We had lunches, me, our agent and him. So I got to know him. When his deal happened, we were all just happy for him, from all the backlash he was getting from people saying, ‘He needs to go to college. He’s not gonna get drafted.’ … I think everybody was happy for him for setting his own goals and reaching them, just doing it his way.”
A month after Bazley teamed up with New Balance, Leonard reportedly agreed to a multiyear endorsement deal with the brand. Even though they’re close, Murray had no idea about his former Spurs teammate’s power move.
“When it happened, I saw it on the internet,” Murray said. “It shocked the whole world. Nobody expected it. But Kawhi’s a different dude … I wasn’t too shocked, but I was shocked, if that makes sense.”
While New Balance finalized the design of the OMN1S, Leonard continued to wear sneakers from the Jordan Brand, which he endorsed from his rookie season in 2011 until parting ways with the company in October 2018. During the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, Leonard debuted the OMN1S, which he wore for the remainder of the season en route to leading the Toronto Raptors over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. The title run even birthed a successful marketing campaign from New Balance, which dubbed Leonard the “Fun Guy.”
That summer, as Murray rehabbed his ACL while his contract with Nike drew closer to expiring, the Spurs point guard began testing the waters for other basketball sneakers. He received pairs, in his size 12.5, of Lenoard’s Raptors-themed OMN1s player exclusives.
“When it was getting toward that time when I knew my Nike deal was up,” Murray said, “I didn’t wear no other shoe. I didn’t wear Adidas, Under Armour or Nike. When I put on the New Balance shoes, that was it.”
On Oct. 5, 2019, Murray returned for his first game in a year and made his on-court debut rocking the OMN1S. On Nov. 21, 2019, New Balance officially announced the signing of Murray with a 36-second commercial and the rollout of a new black and white OMN1S colorway called “Lights Out,” which complements San Antonio’s uniforms.
Until that moment, Murray says only his inner circle knew about the deal. He also wants to make another thing clear — that he came to the decision to sign with New Balance on his own.
“I made the decision off of Dejounte Murray,” he said. “I never talked to Kawhi about it. I never talked to Darius about it. When I got hurt, [New Balance] showed interest in me. That went a long way. When it was time to make a decision … I had my mind made up.”
Now, if Bazley is the “$1 Million Intern” and Leonard is the “Fun Guy” — who is Murray for New Balance?
“The one with the swag,” Murray says with a smile. “I’m the ‘Swag Guy.’ ”
And together, Bazley, Leonard and Murray are ushering in the new era of New Balance basketball. On February 27, in conjunction with the announcement of a multiyear agreement to make the sportswear company an official marketing partner of the NBA, New Balance launched a global brand campaign titled, “We Got Now.”
“You got three good human beings … great men … respectful men … dudes who care about their family, care about their brand,” Murray said. “And when I mean their brand, that’s just everything all around as a person. When you got great character guys, the sky’s the limit.”