Shoes, Shirts, You Name It, College Basketball Players Get It. Free.
Among the potential difficulties facing college basketball players, being the recipients of too much branded (and free) gear surely qualifies as a first-world problem. But it is one of the most noteworthy byproducts of lucrative endorsement deals that prominent programs like North Carolina, U.C.L.A., Kansas and Michigan have with sports apparel companies like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.
The N.C.A.A. will remind anyone within earshot that these players are still amateur athletes, and the mere suggestion of compensation — beyond their scholarships — opens the door to a swirl of complications. But they do receive gear — so much gear — and the N.C.A.A. allows them to give it away. They just can’t sell it.
For the companies, the arrangement has obvious benefits: team after team filled with players who serve as walking billboards on one of the sports world’s biggest stages. In the brands’ view, the more clothing and shoes they hand out, the more likely it is that a player will wear their logo. For the athletes, who are often oversize teenagers who struggle to find clothes and shoes that fit, the free gear — including coveted sneaker styles that can cost $200 or more a pair — comes in handy.
But the question eventually becomes: What to do with all of it? Sweatshirts wind up going to moms and dads. Shorts get shipped off to siblings. Old sneakers are handed out to pals back home — whether they fit or not.
Gabby Williams, a star forward for the women’s basketball team at Connecticut, said she had set aside a stack of UConn clothing as gifts for her family members to wear during the Huskies’ latest tournament run.
“It’s always nice to give back to everyone else,” she said. “We do get a lot of stuff, and we’re very lucky, so I love to give my stuff away.”
Charlie Noebel, a senior guard at Oregon, said that he constantly hears from friends desperate to get their hands on a pair of the Ducks’ custom Nikes.
“All the time,” said Noebel, who wears size 12.5 shoes. “Most of my friends are 10s, so they can’t fit into them. But they’ll always be like, ‘Hey, I can wear two or three pairs of socks, I don’t care.’”
Oregon T-shirts seem to be popular, too. In recent years, the Ducks have worn a different one for every game, and unloading those is rarely a problem. As Noebel explained, “A lot of people like the color green.”
At Michigan, where the university has an apparel deal with Nike that could be worth as much as $173.8 million through 2031, some players said they had received as many as 13 pairs of Jordan brand sneakers this season. Sometimes, they said, the shoes just appear, tucked inside fresh boxes left on locker-room chairs before random practices.
“It was pretty cool just to get free stuff,” said Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, a junior guard who, before he joined the Wolverines, would spend his own money on the Jordan gear he now gets gratis.
Bob Bland, Michigan’s longtime equipment manager, is responsible for the surprises. When a new shipment of sneakers arrived this season, Bland showed up for a team film session with a bin full of them. He called players up by name and number to receive their allotments.
Moments like those are a big deal for Brent Hibbitts, a sophomore walk-on from Hudsonville, Mich. Growing up, he said, he was such a fan of Jordan sneakers that he would camp outside stores just for the chance to buy the newest release.
“I think I waited outside one time for 10 hours in a blizzard,” he said.
Hibbitts no longer has to subject himself to such ordeals. Nor do the players at North Carolina — Michael Jordan’s alma mater — which also has a deal with Nike. White, for example, said he had stacks of Jordan sneakers in boxes. Some live in his locker. Others take up real estate in his dorm room. He has even sent a few to his parents for safekeeping.
“Stockpiles,” White said.
And while he is happy to part with T-shirts and also has bequeathed used pairs of sneakers to friends, White was clear that there is a line even friends and family cannot cross. “They’re not,” he said, “getting any of the new stuff.”
Alex Olesinski, a sophomore forward at U.C.L.A., said his classmates were always in the market for his Adidas-provided freebies. “They’ll be like, ‘Give me a shirt,’” he said. Most are not particularly discriminating, he added. “They’ll take anything, honestly.”
There could be a lot for the taking soon: The Bruins are in the final year of their multimillion-dollar contract with Adidas and next season will switch to Under Armour. Despite that coming change, the Bruins’ equipment cupboard is anything but bare. This season, Olesinski said, Adidas provided each U.C.L.A. player with more than 15 pairs of sneakers. In the locker room after the team’s practice session on Thursday afternoon at FedEx Forum, Olesinski pointed to a nearby pair of colorful high-tops.
“Today is the first day I’ve worn those,” he said. “Comfortable.”
Dillon Pulliam, a sophomore guard at Kentucky, has laid in about a dozen pairs of sneakers that he has never worn. He has lent a couple pairs to his younger brother, Zach, who plays at Division III Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., far down the equipment-deal food chain. The occasional giveaway is no problem, Pulliam said. He still has more than enough for himself.
“I’m going to be good for basketball shoes for the rest of my life,” Pulliam said.
Some of his friends, though, are more discerning collectors. Pulliam said he had heard from several people this season who coveted one team-issued item in particular: custom-made Nike Kobe 11s with the Wildcats’ interlocking UK logo on the inside heel. Each Kentucky player, he said, had received three pairs, one each in three color schemes: blue, white and gray.
Nike made similar versions for Duke, Michigan State and Oregon, but if you want a pair, good luck: Because they were team-only items, you would need to find a player willing to part with his.
Sneakers are seldom in short supply at programs like Kentucky, North Carolina and U.C.L.A., the three blue bloods that cohabitated in Memphis over the past few days for the South Region semifinals and final. The fourth team left in the region when the weekend began, Butler, is a program with its own rich basketball history — but one that appears to take a more judicious approach to equipment.
Nate Fowler, a sophomore center, said each Butler player typically receives three sets of practice shorts and jerseys at the start of the season, along with one pair of sneakers. They get another pair about halfway through the season, and then maybe one more at the start of the postseason. Fowler said he was aware that players at other programs get more free stuff, not that he minds.
He knows he can always get more — as needed. Butler, you see, has a storage closet.
“If anything rips,” he said, “they’ll replace it.”
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