Toronto ad experts/Raptor fans assess Kawhi Leonard New Balance spot

Toronto Raptors fans are fascinated by Kawhi Leonard.

He is arguably a top five player in the NBA, perhaps the best player ever to wear the Raptors jersey—but he’s also famously inscrutable and enigmatic. As a free agent after this season, speculation about whether he’ll stay with the Raptors or leave for another team has been an important talking point all season.

Does he like it here? Can he make as much money in Canada? Does he want to play for an NBA glamour team? How is he handling this winter weather? Those questions have followed Leonard since he arrived in Toronto last July as part of a trade that saw beloved Raptors star DeMar DeRozan shipped to San Antonio. It’s why Leonard’s comments about Toronto at this past weekend’s NBA All-Star Game (“Good food, good people, bring a jacket”) attracted so much attention, with Toronto fans parsing the quote for possible hints about his future plans.

Leonard’s comments represented a rare moment of candour for arguably the league’s most reluctant superstar. In many ways, Leonard is the antithesis of modern NBA culture and the brash superstars who revel in the spotlight.

It’s that context that makes Leonard’s new ad for New Balance so intriguing. As a distant challenger brand in a sport dominated by Nike and Adidas, Leonard’s anti-establishment persona feels like a perfect match for New Balance, which played up those traits in the new ad. (VMLY&R does creative for New Balance but told The Message the spot was produced in-house.)

The ad dropped late last week, just ahead of the NBA All-Star Game—for which Leonard wore new OMN1S New Balance shoes. The Message asked some Toronto agency basketball fans for their thoughts on the new commercial. Most of them liked it (comments below) but McCann’s chief strategy officer, Dustin Rideout, had some reservations.

“Although I think the ad has done a good job at authentically reflecting Kawhi’s personal brand, I’m not sure how much impact will be felt outside Toronto, or for such a major endeavour [as] launching a signature shoe,” said Rideout, who worked at the Raptors’ parent company, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, before joining McCann. Prior to joining MLSE, he was lead strategist on Sid Lee’s #WeTheNorth campaign.

Because the NBA has such a massive effect on pop culture, stars’ off-court behaviour often gets as much attention as their in-game performance, said Rideout. “If this is the start of New Balance’s position of sponsoring athletes who only let their play do the talking, perhaps we are witnessing an interesting white space for them to own,” he said.

However, Leonard’s previous team, the San Antonio Spurs, has embraced that understated “Let our game do the talking” approach for years, winning multiple championships without the widespread affection afforded other franchises. The upshot is that you don’t see that many kids wearing Spurs jerseys, said Rideout, but with one caveat: “I also reserve the right to take back all of this if Kawhi brings us a championship and stays in Toronto next season.”

Here’s what some of other basketball-loving ad experts had to say about the ad:

“Game speaks for itself, and so does this spot. This is what happens when you take an interesting character, represent his personality in an authentic way, and mix in modern aesthetics and sound. They understand the culture and showcase a rebel character in a really captivating way. They have my attention.” —Corey Way, creative director, Abacus

“This ad is pretty much perfect—for real basketball fans. It represents Kawhi and the relationships he has with his fans perfectly. The quietness of the film from an executional standpoint cuts through the clutter, but it also presents him in the only way that would feel authentic. The fact that New Balance recognized this and have embraced it shows the viewer their authenticity, too. It’s the confidence and tone of the writing and his (one and only) action that literally silence his haters. Nice work, New Balance.” —JP Gravina, creative director, Send & Receive

“I love how they tried to match the concept to his personality. I wish they would have built more intrigue in the spot. [But] his persona is super refreshing in today’s Instagram happy culture.” —Carlos Moreno, chief creative officer, Cossette

“Kawhi Leonard isn’t your typical NBA Superstar. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year is the very definition of someone who lets their play do the talking—a sentiment that’s echoed in the voiceless spot. His closing “shhh” gesture is a bold reminder that he doesn’t need the distractions that come with being one of the NBA’s best. It’s likely the loudest we’ve seen him, and in typical Kawhi fashion, it’s without saying a single word.” —Stephen Yu, copywriter, Open

“This is a biased review. As a fan of New Balance (eight-plus pairs and counting) and an even bigger fan of Leonard, “We Got Now” does an incredible job of getting to the heart of what New Balance and Leonard stand for. And it does it without a big anthemic score. The ad is raw, humble, and hard-working. Just like both of them.” —Nabil Rachid, associate creative director, The & Partnership

David Brown