Rashad Williams attended Game 5 of the first-round NBA playoffs series between the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder. And like everyone in the building that night at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon, the senior director of footwear for Adidas Basketball witnessed Damian Lillard put the NBA and entire basketball universe on absolute notice.
The four-time All-Star point guard, and signature Adidas athlete, dropped 50 points Wednesday night, including an out-of-this-world 37-foot game-winner at the buzzer over Thunder small forward Paul George to win the series and end Oklahoma City’s season. “The excitement in the arena was epic,” Williams said. “Dame lives for those moments to show his superpowers and what makes him special on the basketball court.”
Lillard’s heroics couldn’t have been timed more perfectly. Three days after Portland’s 118-115 win in Game 5, Avengers: Endgame hit theaters. And in celebration of the most anticipated superhero movie in cinematic history, Adidas dropped the limited-edition “Heroes Among Us” collection. The brand teamed up with Marvel to transform five athletes into superheroes with character-themed basketball sneakers: James Harden as Tony Stark for an Iron Man Harden Vol. 3, Candace Parker as Carol Danvers for a Captain Marvel Pro Vision, John Wall as Steve Rogers for a Captain America N3XT L3V3L, Tracy McGrady as the most beloved agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a Nick Fury TMAC 1, and Lillard as T’Challa for a Black Panther Dame 5.
Of the athletes featured in the “Heroes Among Us” collection, none is more connected to their character than Lillard. “A natural fit,” Williams said. “Coming off the release of Black Panther last year, there was a lot of excitement around the movie and a lot of people doing customs. Dame naturally said, ‘Hey, I would love to do something that connects to Black Panther.’ ”
Shortly after Black Panther‘s February 2018 release, Stephen Perona, a 31-year-old software engineer from the Portland area, who works as a sneaker artist on the side, delivered an incredible pair of custom “Wakanda Forever” Adidas Dame 4s.
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Wakanda Forever Dame 4s. Vibranium upper paired with bounce sole for unprecedented energy return on those hard cuts to the basket. #wakandaforever #blackpanther #damianlillard #dame4 #lillard #angeluspaint #angelusdirect #marvel #adidas #customkicks #kicksonfire #custom
“Through the whole movie, the costume design was just kind of jumping out at me. Ruth Carter’s work in that is impressive, honestly,” said Perona, who goes by @mammothnamedjim on Twitter and Instagram. It’s also worth noting that at the 2019 Academy Awards, Ruth E. Carter became the first African American woman to receive an Oscar in best costume design category for her contributions to Black Panther, the first superhero movie nominated for best picture.
“The suit itself kind of takes on it’s own character,” Perona continued, “just the way it reacts and the visual design of impact on the vibranium and purple scattering … I left the movie wanting to do a shoe based off the suit.”
Perona ideated for a few days, and then the texture on some Dame 4s he had lying around the house caught his attention. He tracked down a black pair that became his canvas, to which he applied a glittery purple paint on the upper of each shoe to represent the kinetic energy absorbed on the suit by vibranium, the fictional metal that’s only mined in Wakanda. The most unique detail on Perona’s customs are the 3-D-printed lace caps, designed after the necklace T’Challa, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, wears in the film that allows the Black Panther suit to manifest on his body.
It took Perona a week and a half to finish the shoes, after which he shared his work on social media and tagged Lillard in the images. Within an hour of his posts going up — about a week before Bleacher Report and ESPN picked up Perona’s photos, and the shoes went viral — the Blazers point guard reached to the local sneaker artist. His direct message on Twitter was simple.
“Dame hit me up,” Perona remembered, “and was like, ‘I need a pair of these.’ ”
Lillard wasn’t BSing, either. He had Adidas send four pairs of Dame 4s to Perona, who went straight to work. He made Lillard a “Wakanda Forever” pair, as well as an alternate “Oakland Forever” pair, drawing a link between the NBA star and Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan’s character in Black Panther, who in the film is a native of Oakland, California, just like Lillard.
Perona’s custom “Oakland Forever” Dame 4s are 1-of-1 — for Lillard, and Lillard only. Perona has received too many requests to count for more pairs of the Black Panther-themed shoes, including a couple of $2,000 offers. But he’s maintained exclusivity for Lillard, who’s actually never broke them out in a game. “My suspicion is that the NBA probably won’t allow them on the court, ” Perona said, “because the claws on them are plastic and they’re kinda sharp on the ends.”
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Hey Auntie! Killmonger Dame 4 PEs to compliment the Black Panther Dame 4s. #killmonger #blackpanther #dame4 #angeluspaint #angelusdirect #marvel #customkicks #kicksonfire #custom #adidas #damianlillard #lillard
While Perona completed the shoes last year, Lillard shared what he and the brand he endorses had cooking. “Dame told me Adidas was actually interested in possibly doing it as a real shoe,” Perona said.
The official Black Panther x Adidas Dame shoe didn’t arrive until more than a year later, first announced on April 12 as part of the “Heroes Among Us” collection. “I’m totally taking credit for this happening,” Perona joked.
Adidas Basketball capitalized off a previously held partnership between the brand and Disney/Marvel. Williams and his design teams traveled to Marvel Comics’ New York City offices, and were granted access to a digital archive containing decades worth of inspiration. This is how visual elements for every sneaker in the collection first came to life.
“On Dame’s shoe, there’s an embossed pattern on the entire upper, which is the exact pattern that’s on the Black Panther suit,” Williams said. “It’s superauthentic to the character, and we gave additional detail shout-outs to Black Panther, and to Dame, with high-end finish logoing.”
Long before he emerged as the hero of this year’s playoffs, Lillard became one in the minds of designers at Adidas.
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With the theme of the @adidashoops x @marvel collab being “Heroes Among Us,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to honor one of the students in my Respect program that exemplified that theme. We picked Parkrose student JayJay Hudson as the Respect student to receive a pair of my @marvel x @adidashoops Black Panther #Dame5. JayJay represents what the RESPECT program is all about. No matter what obstacles are put in front of him he is consistently Showing Up, Working Hard and Being Kind. As an involved Junior at Parkrose High School, he is a member of the student leadership body, volunteers for the Parkrose Provides Program which supports students and families in need and is a part of the Parkrose AVID program. JayJay excels in the classroom, is a leader in the community and is constantly a positive voice in the lives of others. There have been many obstacles put in front of JayJay. In the past three months he has moved five different times and earlier in his education he attended three different elementary schools. Many decisions that a lot of students make with their parents, JayJay has navigated on his own (like getting a job or getting his birth certificate). The parental figures in his life have been his grandmother (who he describes as giving him the knowledge of how to treat older people) and his brother (who was with him throughout the foster system and who taught him how to be street smart). One of the most impressive qualities JayJay possesses is his positive outlook on life. He never sees things as tough, but just as the way of life, knowing he will get through it and be in a better place in the end. Because JayJay is an exceptional individual who demonstrates what it means to persevere, Parkrose teachers and staff are confident about the opportunities in his future. Enjoy the shoes, JayJay!
“Damian and T’Challa … they’re both community leaders with strong morals,” Williams said. “There’s parallels to the ways they operate in their fields … They have superhuman speed and agility with a combination of intelligence and strength.”
Out of the five pairs of shoes in the “Heroes Among Us” collection, Williams is “most proud of the Dame 5,” he said, “because of how meaningful the Black Panther character is to Dame.”