Houston Rockets forward PJ Tucker has earned his reputation as the NBA's sneakerhead champion, breaking out hard-to-find exclusive pairs of Nikes and Jordans in recent years, surprising and delighting fans and fellow players alike.
However, one thing Tucker hasn't been able to do is wear anything other than shoes made by Nike and its subsidiaries. That changed on Oct. 1, when his previous endorsement deal with Nike expired. And while he remains one of the most sought-after free agents among sneaker brands, Tucker is taking a different approach, planning to enjoy his sneaker free agency over the coming months before finalizing his next deal.
"I just really like being free," Tucker said. "I have to catch myself sometimes, like, 'Oh, I could wear these now if I want to.'"
His sneaker collection runs into the thousands, partly stashed in his offseason house in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, with another four-digit assortment lining the shelves of a closet behind a hidden door in his Houston home. His Toyota Center locker regularly overflows with whichever size 14 pairs he has on hand. While that quantity isn't expected to change, the variety certainly could.
"I've been with Nike my entire life," he said. "Nike is the one that I've always been with and been around. But when it came down to [which brands I'm interested in] -- everybody. Literally, crossing off every single brand from top to bottom and seeing who was interested in me."
As expected, the 6-foot-6 wing has heard from every brand since he began taking pitches in August during the 60-day advance negotiation window before his Nike deal officially expired.
Tucker's profile wouldn't normally lend itself to a sneaker bidding war. Despite having carved out an important role for himself as a 3-and-D contributor to one of the Western Conference's top contenders, he doesn't have the high profile of a player like LeBron James or Stephen Curry. But inside the sneaker community, he's every bit their equal, and in some ways has surpassed them.
"I've created a lane that nobody has really seen before," he said.
"I think the sneaker industry overall has noticed that he's carved out his own niche with his crazy rare sneakers and his fashion, and people are paying attention to it," added Josh Abba of Sports Media World, Tucker's media lead. "There's real value for a sneaker brand."
Tucker has met with Nike about continuing their relationship during USA Basketball training camp in Las Vegas this past August, and in ongoing phone conversations ever since. He's also had discussions with multiple other brands, ranging from traditional sneaker powerhouses such as Adidas and Reebok to reemerging brands such as Puma, Converse and New Balance, who've reentered the basketball market in recent years.
While some players simply opt for the highest offer, Tucker is looking for a brand that will allow him to flex his creative muscles on and off the court. He's had an up-close look for the past two years at what Adidas has done with teammate and brand headliner James Harden, who has lobbied the Three Stripes behind the scenes to sign his close friend.
Still, for the time being, Tucker isn't going to lock in a deal just for the sake of security, nor is he looking for a headlining signature sneaker like those on the feet of Harden, James, Curry and more than a dozen other players around the league.
"I want to be with someone that wants me," he said. "It can't be one-sided.
"I've never wanted a signature shoe. I still don't. That's not something that I've ever been interested in -- wearing the same pair of shoes all the time. That's not my thing. I need variety."
In an effort to expand that variety, Tucker has spent the past few months tracking down rare sneakers from multiple brands, looking all around the world for new options. He's found a batch of limited-edition Ronnie Fieg collaborations with both Asics and New Balance to kick around off the court. He's also been searching for a variety of mid-1990s Nike Air Max Uptempo sneakers, which sharpshooter Trajan Langdon wore during his Duke days.
"When I'm getting dressed, instead of just wearing Nikes, I can pull out everything," he said. "I wore the [Adidas] Pharrell 'N.E.R.D.' NMD the other day, and I've been wanting to wear those for so long. They're fire! It's one of my favorite shoes."
This summer, Tucker returned to his Raleigh home to see what he could unearth from outside his Nike lane. He managed to dig up an original pair of the Puma Vinsanity, made for Vince Carter during his short-lived run with the brand in the late 1990s. There was just one problem.
"I can't wear them, but they're so, so dope," he said. "It's always fun to try and find some of that stuff. He's a [size] 16 -- so I'm like, 'Vince, you're killing me!'"
The storage dive also luckily turned up another dunk contest winner's decade-old sneakers.
"I wore the Gerald Green PE [Reebok] Pumps the other day, and Gerald couldn't believe I even had them," Tucker said, with a laugh. "He said, 'Yo! I don't even have those anymore.'"
As he continues to mull over offers, talk to brands about future plans and potential ways to partner, more than anything Tucker is taking advantage of the ability to break out any sneaker, at any time.
Could Tucker play out the entire season as a sneaker free agent?
"There's definitely a chance," he said, with a laugh. "That's definitely a possibility, and I wouldn't be mad at that. I don't think I'll run out of shoes."