BEAVERTON, Ore. - The Knicks went shopping here Tuesday morning, as they took advantage of something every visiting team in the NBA looks forward to when they come in to play the Portland Trail Blazers. It's the visit to the Nike employee store, where credit vouchers await with exclusive access to racks of athletic apparel - clothes, sneakers and accessories - to bag up and ship home.
Players who are under contract with Nike get as much as $1,000 in credit to spend. The coaching staff also gets complimentary credit and the good guys spread the wealth among the support staff. It's Christmas in March and Nike's way of taking care of NBA teams that wear official gear exclusively licensed to rival adidas (which also has a headquarters in suburban Portland and caters similarly to visiting teams).
Nike does this for every team, but this particular trip was noteworthy because this visit, which culminated last night with a 118-90 loss to the Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden, could be the last time the Knicks come here without a signature Nike athlete on the roster. This summer, Nike boasts all six of the top pending unrestricted free agents as their own, starting with their most popular, Kobe Bryant, along with fellow megastars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson and Ama're Stoudemire.
Among the group, Bryant and James have their own signature line, while Wade and Johnson are part of the Jordan Brand, which is a separate entity. Bosh and Stoudemire are part of Nike Basketball. The common theme among Nike's biggest names in the NBA is that none plays in New York. But while there has been a prevailing theory that Nike somehow will be involved in convincing James to leave Cleveland for New York, one industry insider from a major brand says that is a misconception.
"That whole New York thing is not true," said the representative, who is closely involved with his brand's relationship with the NBA. "It's a myth."
A spokesman for Nike Basketball declined to comment for this story and would not grant interview access to their primary leadership.
But while it's clear Nike founder Phil Knight and the Nike Basketball senior director Lynn Merritt - the man who brought LeBron to Nike - put great value in their relationship with James (whenever the Cavs are in town, both are front-and-center at the Rose Garden), there are no puppet strings attached.
"If you asked the Nike people if they'd rather have Le_Bron in New York or Cleveland, I think the answer is obvious," one Nike-sponsored NBA player said. "But I don't know how much influence Nike will have."
The fact that LeBron's contract opt-out with the Cavaliers coincides with the final year of his Nike deal (he signed for seven years, $90 million in 2003) certainly sets up for a big payday. He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he plans to stay with Nike and suggested he already might have a contract extension in place. And though multiple sources have insisted that Nike won't play a part in New York's recruiting process this summer, there is no doubt that Knight and Merritt would be willing to invest more in James if he were in a bigger market. Most NBA players have salary adjustments in their deals based on the market in which they play. Their income is significantly higher if they play in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami.
Notes & quotes: David Lee had 20 points and 10 rebounds last night . . . Wilson Chandler, who has missed the previous seven games, was evaluated by team doctors and advised to sit out the rest of the season to avoid any potential setbacks.