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t a time when some NBA All-Stars get no more than free apparel from their shoe contracts, Cleveland Cavaliers reserve Damon Jones seems an unlikely candidate to be earning a six-figure sum for endorsing a particular brand of hightops. Jones, 29, has averaged 6.8 points during a career that has seen him play for a dozen professional teams. Yet Jones's irrepressible grin adorns thousands of billboards, and his crackling voice is heard on television spots broadcast to hundreds of millions. A case of mistaken identity? Hardly.
In what might be called a Sino-the-times, Jones is the face for the basketball line of Li Ning, a publicly traded Chinese sporting goods company. Founded by the eponymous Chinese Olympic gymnast, Li Ning was the dominant brand in China before the forces of globalization intervened. Once Nike and Adidas were able to penetrate China--with their rosters of international athletes as pitchmen--they siphoned market share and knocked Li Ning to third place. Given that there are more Chinese in the coveted 21-and-under demographic than there are American citizens, the stakes are high, so Li Ning sought its own NBA player to drive home the company's message: "Yiqie jie you keneng," which translates roughly as, "Anything is possible."
Working on the assumption that its marketing budget couldn't accommodate a bona fide star, the company tapped Jones, who not only drips with charisma but also, as a teammate of LeBron James, appears often on Chinese television. "It was a great business move by Li Ning," says Terry Rhoads, a former Nike executive who's now the general manager at ZOU Marketing, a Shanghai-based sports consultancy firm. "They're working hard to convince young Chinese basketball players that their product is NBA quality."
The unlikely alliance began when Jones's Cleveland-based agent, Mark Termini, heard that the company had signed a deal with the NBA and was searching for one of the league's players to wear its brand. Negotiating with a foreign company, a dozen time zones away, that had never before signed an NBA player presented significant challenges for Termini. Virtually every point of the deal was contentious--from hammering out the details of the royalty provision to agreeing on something as simple as the class of air travel on promotional trips. (Eventually Li Ning agreed to spring for first.) "There's a Chinese saying: 'Without a fight, you don't get to know each other.' Well, we got to know each other," says Termini. "But we got it done."
For years Hollywood stars and American athletes have quietly made millions filming commercials in Japan. Now there are similar opportunities in China. The Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho, for instance, currently lends his imprimatur to everything from the Chinese computer brand Lenovo to a Chinese brand of ice cream.
Jones brought far less star power to Li Ning, but after an unremarkable 2005--06 regular season, he earned his keep during the playoffs. The self-professed "best shooter in the world," Jones sank a bloodless game-winning jumper in overtime against the Washington Wizards to give the Cavs their first playoff series victory in 13 years. Never mind that Jones played only 14 seconds the entire game. The shot was replayed time and again on China Central TV. (Whether it was compelling footage or whether the state-owned television network was doing its part to bolster Li Ning against its foreign rivals is open to interpretation.) "Hitting a game-winning shot in the NBA playoffs is the stuff of dreams for Chinese kids," says Rhoads. "And Jones hit his shot while wearing Li Ning shoes."
Two weeks ago Jones was in China on an eight-day promotional trip. He opened Li Ning stores, spoke at kids' clinics and finalized plans for an apparel line, all the while marveling at how small the world has become. "Kids were wearing shirts that said 4.8," says Jones. "That's how many seconds were on the clock when I hit that game-winning shot. I was amazed at how everyone knew me and followed my career. It was wild, man." A few years ago Jones was playing for the Black Hills ( S.D.) Posse of the International Basketball Association. Now he is the figurehead for a Chinese brand. Anything is possible indeed. ?