He left the University of North Carolina a champion, a key player in getting Dean Smith his first NCAA title. He entered the NBA as a junior; as a top draft pick he was expected to do the same in the League. When he signed a shoe deal it was understandably a big deal and something completely new. He ended up signing with a relatively small company, an American original. The player, of course, was James Worthy. The shoe company was New Balance. It had to be weird-o shoe company so close to Boston placing so much of their trust in a Los Angeles Laker. True, Converse already had Magic Johnson on their roster, but they also had Larry Legend. Reebok, when they finally entered the NBA market, went with local favorites Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson. But up until they signed Worthy, New Balance wasn’t really into basketball much at all. In fact, they didn’t even make a basketball shoe until 1983’s Pride 480 (which was worn by a Celtic, M.L. Carr). The company was originally founded in Boston in the early 1900s as a manufacturer of arch supports and the like. In 1961 they produced the first-ever ripple-soled running shoe, the New Balance Trackster. By the ’80s, New Balance was primarily known for their high-quality American-made running shoes. But a change was coming. When Air Jordan exploded onto the scene in 1985, everybody wanted a piece of the quickly expanding basketball market. And Big Game James wouldn’t be the only baller to become the face of a company who previously had little to no presence in the basketball arena(s). Hawks high-flyer Dominique Wilkins had already signed with Brooks, and Akeem “The Dream” Olajuwon signed with Etonic. Worthy was joined on New Balance by All-Star forward Adrian Dantley and Jordan teammate Charles Oakley, among others.
Worthy had already been wearing New Balance when they offered him a then-enormous million-dollar deal in 1986. He also got a signature shoe — the 740 -although the models he wore previously were known as “Worthys” to those in the know. The 740 was a fairly basic shoe, a white high-top with black accents and “EVA CORE” cushioning (in other words, foam) that wasn’t very different from the basketball models that New Balance had already been offering. About the only difference was the WORTHY name across the tongue. Worthy himself got a white and purple player-only version, but even they weren’t that flashy. They may not have looked all that high-tech, but they were available in multiple widths and utilized the same technology as their state-of-the-art running shoes. They were even made in the U-S-of-A.
Then came the 790, which was the jumpoff. Higher-cut and more colorful, they were available in white/navy/red or Laker white/purple/yellow, both of which popped hard. They retailed for S90-plus, which was an important number for basketball shoes when you were a high school kid looking for an edge in the hallway fashion wars. And while they may have been New Balance instead of Nike or Reebok, they were a top-of-the-line pro model shoe, which was all that really mattered. The best thing though-at least out on Long Island where l grew up-was that you didn’t see too many pairs of them. There were always a select few kids with Jordans, and a big assortment of high-end Nikes, Reeboks, Adidas and Converse. Still, if you had the 790s, you were in. They had the big tongue you could spread out over the front of your jeans, WORTHY spelled out in all caps so no one could miss what you were wearing. New Balance’s investment never really paid off, unfortunately. While Worthy more than proved himself in the L (his 36-point, 16-board, 10-assist triple-double in game seven of the ’88 NBA Finals remains one of the best clutch performances in NBA history), New Balance couldn’t compete marketing-wise with the Big Three. And you get the feeling their hearts just weren’t in it. The last Worthy shoe, a super-high cut model with a Velcro closure across the back of the upper, looked like it was designed for Frankenstein. Worthy would go on to finish his career in Nikes after a brief stint with Adidas.
And after Worthy was done with New Balance, New Balance was pretty much done with the NBA-and pro athletes in general. They adopted the slogan “Endorsed By No One,” and only recently have New Balance shoes been once again spotted on the feet of NBA players, mostly benchwarmers and role players. They also recently re-released a couple of the Worthy models, without Big Game James’ name attached. That was a good thing, too, because quite frankly, they’re not worthy compared to the originals. Squashed uppers (God forbid kids today have to wear an actual high-top), washed-out colors-they can’t compete with one of the coolest basketball shoes of all time.