To call the NBA’s draft eligibility rules controversial would be an understatement. The policy, which has been a topic of contention since Spencer Haywood’s 1970 lawsuit against the league, has been scrutinized for its perceived motives, namely racism and greed. Modified throughout the league’s history, the most recent change came into effect ahead of the 2006 draft, just a few years after LeBron James entered the NBA directly from high school in 2003. Although there’s regular discussions around lowering the age to 18, the abbreviated version of the current rules stipulates that players must be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school. This in turn means that many NBA hopefuls choose the “one and done” route, spending a year at college before entering the draft. Others, like rising Oklahoma City Thunder star Darius Bazley, opt for less conventional paths.
In March 2018, Bazley, a then-senior and top prospect at Sharonville, Ohio’s Princeton High School, announced that he would withdraw his commitment to play college ball at Syracuse and instead play a season in the NBA G League prior to officially entering the draft. By the following month, Bazley had signed with Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports Group agency, a partnership that would later help him pave an even more unusual route to the league. By the summer, Bazley had canceled his G League plans altogether, instead deciding to train for a year. In October, the streak of unexpected moves continued. Paul set Bazley up with a three-month, $1 million internship with New Balance. Intended to precede an official shoe deal should Bazley get drafted (he was selected 23rd overall in 2019), the internship paid him $1 million no matter what, with the potential to earn up to $14 million depending on performance incentives.
Documented in the recently released Gap Year film, Bazley’s New Balance internship was a first-of-its-kind endeavor. Although it’s becoming more common, skipping college en route to the league is untraditional, but interning with a sneaker brand during the waiting period is even more unorthodox. Why would a soon-to-be professional athlete choose a desk job? What made New Balance, a brand that’s looking to regain its footing in the basketball space after decades away, the right fit? What exactly does a potential NBA draftee do during an internship with a sneaker brand, anyway?
We caught up with Bazley over a Zoom call fresh off of his 19-point, 7-rebound W over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday to find out these answers and more.
What made you choose this alternate route to the league? What made you decide that you wanted to train and do the New Balance internship?
A lot of thinking and weighing options went in behind it. My ultimate goal was to play in the NBA and so that was always in mind. But talking with Klutch and talking with my family, we decided that was the best thing for me to do, the best path for me to take in order to reach that goal.
What was it about New Balance? Was there anything specific that drew you to the brand?
Me and New Balance, we connected during the summer [of 2018]. I started training and we connected. I was in Las Vegas, they were in Las Vegas with the Summer League and I was going there. This is obviously during my year off, I was going there to check out Summer League. Obviously I was preparing for the NBA so if I got there, I would be in Summer League. They were there and we met in this meeting, boardroom, whatever, and they pitched an idea, and that’s all unfolding right now.
They just showed how they’re going to go about it, what it means for them to get back into the basketball game, how they plan on doing X, Y, and Z. I know you’ve seen part of it in the “Gap Year.” I had a smile on my face. I was trying not to show it. I guess that was the business side of it, but I was super excited, I was sold on New Balance. The shoes were great. The people that I met that day, they were incredible people. Like I said, they had a plan and had a vision and I’d seen it as well.
You mentioned New Balance getting back into basketball. How did you feel when you heard that? Because I feel like it lines up around the same time, their re-entry into basketball and you coming on board.
Yeah. Our stories kind of combined and so that’s what made it pretty cool because we both were able to tell our stories through each other. But when I first heard it I kind of was like, “Hmm,” you know? I wasn’t too familiar with New Balance at the time. I knew a little bit. I had no idea they would come back into the basketball game so when they told me that I was definitely fascinated. When we had that meeting and they showed me what they had planned, I thought that would be really dope.
Can you tell me about the transition from growing up around Cincinnati to working at New Balance in Boston and what that was like?
It was quite the transition just because I went from being around my peers, familiar environments, people I know, to going to Boston, the Brighton area. Not really knowing anybody, I’m living on my own for the first time. The weather is crazy cold. I mean it gets cold in Cincinnati, but Boston is different. Sometimes in Cincinnati you can get away with a hoodie, Boston you need a puffer, a bubble coat at all times, hat and gloves. The transition was a bit difficult, but it definitely helped me in the long run.
How about your first day at work? I know that was something that stuck out to me in the documentary, you just walking in there for the first time. How long did it take you to get acclimated and used to everything?
The first day of work was scary. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what it was going to look like, what it all entailed, so going in I was definitely nervous. It took me a while to really get used to the day and what it looks like and what I would be doing. I did so many different things, so sometimes after a week something would change and I would keep working on something else, but I’d be meeting with a different person.
It was all just a learning experience. It took probably a week and a half for me to really get it down. I started off with marketing and then I would work with apparel, then I would work with sneakers. I was going back and forth sitting on six different meetings and stuff. I was always learning something new. I went to the factory a couple of times down in Lawrence (Massachusetts) to see how they shipped from there and stuff. With that internship, I was able to see the whole [picture]. This is how they go about putting out [shoes], how they go about marketing it.
The coolest thing to me, I was in Lawrence down where the shoes are made and they also have headquarters there as well. Everyone was meeting up, so you had baseball, you had tennis, I think it was running, it might have been a lifestyle shoe as well. Everybody met up and I guess shoes were about to go into, I don’t want to say production but everyone was showing their shoe and it all had to have the same theme. They all had to have the same story, which I thought was important because going into it you just think they have designs of shoes and people just come up with colorways and you just throw them out there. All the stories had to match up, all the shoes had to make sense.
They may say, “That color really didn’t sell that good last quarter, buyers aren’t really buying that.” Now you’ve got to go all the way back to the drawing board. It wasn’t just like you just have shoes, you put them out and then they’re out. There’s so much that goes into it.
Another thing that stuck out to me was that you were doing all this intense training on a daily basis, probably two-a-days a lot of times, and still juggling your work at New Balance. What kept you motivated to come into New Balance every day when you know that realistically the bigger picture is the NBA?
I knew that it all was part of the process. I knew that was helping me in a way and also I thought it was cool to see all these different things, learn all these new things. The schedule definitely got hectic sometimes but it also helped as well just making friends. The people that I was in contact with, whether it was the people I was training with or the people at work, everyone was genuine. Everyone wanted to help me succeed, and so that helped as well. Going into work everyday and everyone just accepting me, helping me out if I needed it, that was pretty cool because I didn’t know what to expect when I went into work on the first day. I didn’t know how it was going to be, where I would be sitting, who I would be next to. But it was all pretty good.
You touched on it briefly, but what were some of your favorite moments from the internship?
Going through the line and seeing how shoes were made and being able to do a little myself. Not too much because obviously I don’t know exactly how, but going to Lawrence and seeing how the shoes were made, that was pretty cool.
I did a focus group at Everett High School, and it was crazy because coming into my first year into the NBA, I played with Nerlens Noel and that was the high school he went to before he ended up transferring or whatever, so I got to connect with him on that level. I did the focus group and that was just connecting with young people, seeing what they like. That was a fun moment.
Sitting in on meetings with New Balance when they would have town halls, I think every Friday maybe I had a meeting. Seeing where the company was heading, seeing which products they made, how they stacked up against other competitors that month. That was pretty cool as well.
What can you tell me about the “Gap Year” New Balance 992?
The “Gap Year” 992, it’s a dope silhouette. It’s definitely one of my favorites. But the colorway, when you see it, it’s kind of like an OKC colorway. It’s got the blue, orange, and yellow with some grey in it. If you look at the end goal of things and where I ended up because, like I said earlier, when I went into making the decision, when I went into doing the internship, taking a year off and training, all that was to get me ready and prepare me for what was to come. The dream that I always wanted to have come true. I did get drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder and so we did a colorway that lets you see where I ended up. When you see that shoe, to me it almost speaks as success because there’s a lot of ways that whole gap year could have gone and it went the way I wanted, but above and beyond.
Over the last few years, New Balance has kind of exploded in terms of the hype and popularity. There’s been a lot of huge collaborations. Are they keeping you stocked with a lot of those and your favorite models?
Yeah, of course. We definitely took off. I have a lot of people hitting me up, sending me shoes on Instagram or to my phone like, “Oh, when do these come out?” Or they might post a shoe. I haven’t really been home much, we just took two crazy road trips, but if I get home and there’s shoes there, I’m posting them or whatever. People are always reaching out, hitting me up, saying they’re dope, where can they get them. But New Balance is definitely keeping me laced, that’s one of the luxuries of being with them.
Were there any pairs that stood out recently as some of your favorites?
I’m seeing shoes coming out now back from my internship. It’s like oh snap, I’ve seen those on the wall or I sat in on a meeting where they were going through and seeing what they liked, what they didn’t like. But the 550s are probably one of my favorites, 327s are definitely one of my favorites. They’re just so comfortable and they look amazing, you can wear it with anything. Those two are definitely my favorites right now.
Are there any skills you picked up at New Balance that you were able to use in the league?
Yeah. Just as far as really being professional, I’ve seen that on a lot of levels. Dealing with New Balance and having an internship, that really helped me. That really showed me what professionalism really looks like, coming into work every day and getting the job done. That really helped me and I was able to carry that over when I came over to the NBA.
People consider your teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to be one of the best-dressed players in the league, but we’ve got to tip our hat to you as well and some of the outfits you’ve been wearing in the tunnel. Is there a friendly competition between you two at all, or between you and anyone else in the league?
No, there’s no competition, we just dress. Shai might show me an outfit before he wears it, I might show him one. I might call him or I will call one of the guys I worked with at New Balance. I’ll call and I’ll just ask, “Does this go with this? What shoes should I wear with this?” There’s no competition though.
In general, the Thunder are a pretty young squad. What’s it been like working with that group of guys?
It’s been great. We definitely had some changes but we feel like we’ve known each other or we’ve played with each other for years. Everyone gets along. I think it helps that we’re also young that we all have the same interests. The older guys, it’s not even just us young guys, but it’s really fun playing with everybody. Everyone is really fun, just being around everybody. We’re around these guys more than we are anyone else so we’re definitely gelling, I guess that’s the word you can use. From practice to plane to the hotels to the games. Every step of the way it’s always fun.
Looking ahead, beyond the NBA, can you see yourself getting involved in the sneaker industry again, maybe after your career?
With my experience at New Balance, my internship, that’s an easy yes just because what I did was so…I just got to see so much and it was all just so cool to me. I don’t know exactly what field or what. Like I said, I worked in marketing and apparel and stuff like that, so I don’t know where. But with my experience, yeah I could see that.
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