The shoes that shocked the basketball world - Photo by Christian De Massis/FIBA

The shoes that shocked the basketball world – Photo by Christian De Massis/FIBA

Heraklion, Greece (heinnews) – Dragan Bender was supposed to be wowing spectators at the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championship with his dizzying arsenal of weapons. Instead, the 17-year-old Croatian super talent has left everyone floored and bewildered with an amazing decision not to play in Heraklion because of a dispute over shoe contracts.

Bender – considered by some as a generational talent – has an exclusive deal with Adidas barring him from wearing sneakers from other companies at competitions. The Croatian national team meanwhile has an exclusive long-term contract with Nike and Jordan Brand.

With the world’s two largest shoemakers looming over their shoulders, the dispute came to a head on the Greek island of Crete, where Croatia were considered legitimate contenders to capture their first-ever U19 World Championship title.

Those chances took a significant hit just days before the tournament when the 2.04m playmaker Lovro Mazalin injured the middle finger on his dominant left hand and he was ruled out. And then came rumblings that Bender would not play.

Even at the final practice on the morning of the opening day of the tournament, a Croatian coaching staff official admitted to heinnews upon being asked if Bender would play: “We really don’t know.”

In the end, Bender did not dress for the game against Egypt and watched the game from the stands at University Hall – also not being included in the team photo, though Bender was listed on the scoresheet and box score.

On the opening day of the tournament, FIBA.com published a confirmation that Bender would in fact not be playing in Heraklion with quotes from Vladimr Vanjak, Croatia’s head of delegation in Greece.

“The fact is that Bender denied [refused] to play in the Jordan Brand shoes but our Federation has a contract with Jordan and everybody has to play in Jordan Brand. He denied to do that but he didn’t say anything before coming here. That’s the problem. I talked with my Secretary General and other people who made the decision because we have a very serious contract with Jordan. If he cannot play in Jordan Brand, he cannot play. That’s it,” said Vanjak.

One of many questions outsiders had regarding the situation was why it was not resolved ahead of time, especially since Bender had participated in Croatia’s entire preparations for the tournament – apparently playing in Adidas shoes the entire time according to a report on the Croatian website 24sata.hr.

In that same report, Bender’s manager Maurizio Balducci talks about both Adidas and he warning the Croatian Basketball Federation (HKS) about the impending problem.

“On June 15 Adidas sent an email to HKS, and I also did the same on June 18. We warned them of the problem, but no one reacted. They waited until the last day, and Dragan played in his Adidas shoes during the entire national team preparations. It’s frustrating and disappointing that Dragan is missing the (U19) World Championship for this. It’s the biggest festival of his generation. I could understand if he was told that he was not good enough, or that he was not wanted. But their response was ‘We can do nothing’, and it stunned me.”

Various reports in Croatian media mention that Bender would face financial penalties from Adidas if he played in anything other than their shoes – though no media outlet disclosed how heavy the financial hit would be. There was also suggestions that the Croatian federation would be penalized if Bender didn’t play in Jordans – or at least in Nike shoes.

The Croatian website Jutarnji.hr pondered why a compromise could not have been reached, as has been the case in the past.

“There is no discussion or compromise. Bender did not follow the rules and for us the case is closed. If he does not want to play in our equipment, then he will not play. An Italian agent (Balducci) will not dictate what we in Croatia are going to do. We have to protect the interest of our national team, the interest of our contract with Nike which we cannot risk for one player. That would be improper,” Vanjak told Jutarnji.hr.

The Croatia federation has butted heads with another of its young superstars in the past – albeit with the shoe sides switched.

Dario Saric was coming off guiding KK Zagreb to the title at the 2011 Nike International Junior Tournament (NIJT – now re-branded as Adidas Next Generation Tournament)

in spectacular form, but he was  forced to sit out of the 2011 Adidas EuroCup because of his contract with Nike. Ironically while Saric was with Nike, the Croatian federation in 2011 had a sponsorship agreement with Adidas. And the HKS did not let Saric play with the Croatian U19 national team at the 2011 Adidas Eurocamp.

The Croatians once again remained steadfast in living up to their contract – this time with Nike and Jordan Brand since signing a 7+4 year deal in 2014.

It was actually to be the second go-around for Bender with the national team since he had locked up a deal with Adidas in 2013 – apparently a 4+4 year contract, according to the 24sata article.

Last summer, Bender and Adidas did not mount a challenge – at least not publicly – at the 2014 U18 European Championship, where instead of Adidas Bender wore LeBron shoes – which are affiliated with Nike.

So what changed from last summer in Konya to this summer in Heraklion?

Bender went from being 16 years old to 17, which he will be until November 17. But his name grew in leaps and bounds since the U18 Euros in Turkey, where he averaged 14.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.1 steals. Bender torched Lithuania for 34 points and 19 rebounds and he was an assist short of a triple-double against Latvia and a rebound short of a triple-double versus Greece in the game for third place.

Bender also began his long-term contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv, playing with the second team of the Euroleague powers while practicing with the first team. He also played in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament for Maccabi’s youth team and averaged 23 points, 10.8 rebounds 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks including a monster game against Bologna with 43 points, 21 rebounds, six assists, five steals and two blocks.

Even the situation with Maccabi raises question marks as the Israeli club have a sponsoring deal with Nike. Albeit, the contract does not cover all apparel head to foot, meaning Bender was allowed to wear his Adidas shoes while playing for Maccabi.

While Saric was unable to work out in front of the NBA scouts and executives at the Adidas Eurocamp in Treviso back in 2011, Bender showcased his all-around game earlier in June this year and seems to have played himself into consideration for the NBA Draft lottery – possibly as early as next year.

Pulling back a bit, there are various other parts of this story that don’t add up and need resolving.

For example, after saying he would not play in Heraklion because of the shoe contract dispute and unwillingness to wear Nike/Jordan Brand shoes, Bender was photographed by FIBA sitting in the stands with Balducci wearing shoes from Converse, which is owned by Nike.

Another twist is that Ante Zizic and Ivica Zubac – two of Bender’s now former teammates with the U19 national team – are under contract with Adidas but are playing in Nike shoes in Crete.

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Why throw up the blockade with Bender but not with Zizic and Zubac? And why do it now after allowing Bender to play last summer?

That’s one of the more puzzling questions to this saga.

But there are other issues out there that leave a nasty and bitter taste with this whole ordeal.

There was a shade of possible ugliness unveiled in the 24sata article, which made the suggestion that the Croatian basketball federation tried to hard ball Bender by threatening a FIBA ban.

“Unofficially, we find out that the day before the championship they threatened to Bender with FIBA two-year suspension, still trying to force him to play,” is what was printed.

That is a massively serious claim and this article by no means is confirming it actually happened. But something like that is hard to make up and publish by a reporter – again, this article is not even hinting that it might be true, nearly reporting on coverage of the incident.

All told, there really doesn’t appear to be any winners in this situation.

The Croatian federation is painted as a money hungry, non-negotiable power only looking out for greed and personal interest.

But the deal with Jordan Brand is an amazing contract for the federation and one which ultimately allows them to maintain the work they are doing since Jordan Brand is fully outfitting the youth teams – something which frees up massive amounts of money for the Croatians to use in development.

Adidas lose out because they don’t get to see one of their top young Europeans shine on the global scale after dominating the European scene last summer. They missed a chance to raise the world-wide awareness of Bender – at least for positive reasons.

Is this a possible ploy by Adidas to try to break down a bit of the Croatian-Jordan Brand contract? Especially considering they sponsor three guys who have legit chance to land on the senior national team, which could help them get more young Croatians into their stall in the future. Again, this is solely speculation trying to understand such a rare power display, which has also not been fully clarified by all sides.

The whole situation does raise the profile of Ivan Šuker, who was elected as the new Croatian Basketball Federation president on Saturday. Šuker – the cousin of Croatian football legend Davor Šuker – committed after election to do everything he can as the first thing in office to resolve the Bender situation.

If there is an agreement reached, then Šuker looks like a super hero, swooping in after serving office as financial minister in the Croatian parliament and giving Croatian basketball back one of its biggest stars.

Sure, that picture might be a bit over-exaggerated, but it would be fantastic for his reputation and standing if Šuker could help find a solution to the problem.

Probably the biggest loser in all of this is Bender, who sat stone-faced in the stands on Sunday when journalists eventually spotted him and were asking FIBA officials if they could talk to him. His agent instead spoke with FIBA and local officials and refused to give any comments.

Bender eventually cracked a relieved smile when spotting the journalist with whom he did the sit-down video interview for FIBA Europe last summer at the U18 European Championship.

Of course, there was no efforts by the journalist to address the Adidas-Croatian national team dispute but just to say hello and see how he was doing. But the disappointment was clearly written all over his face.

So where does all this go from here?

Now we have shoe companies influencing whether or not players can play for their national team. Players have long been a play thing for shoe companies – with shoe alliances deciding if players were allowed to attend this camp or that showcase. But this has taken the whole situation to another level.

Back at the 1992 Olympics, Michael Jordan along with Dream Team teammates Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley were with Nike and the United States national team had an official outfitter deal with Reebok. Jordan, Magic and Barkley ended up draping a USA flag around their shoulders to cover up the Reebok logo on their jackets on the medal stands in Barcelona.

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That incident took place more than five years before Bender was even born. And now the tides have turned with Jordan being more in the collective against the individual trying to find his way – also on a business and a marketing level.

Could this incident lead other shoe companies to do the same with their players? Could it advance to the senior national level?

What happens if another shoe company starts aggressively building up a presence on the shoe landscape – Peak, for example. And then they start signing exclusivity deals as well?

The Bender ordeal raises many, many questions and very few of them are answered – or even being thoroughly addressed or discussed.

The basketball world – and business world – is anxiously waiting to see where this saga heads next.

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