It’s the most hotly-contested finger drawing in the world: a hand, stylized to show Toronto Raptor Kawhi Leonard’s jersey number and initials. The logo used to be Leonard’s; now it belongs to Nike. And Kawhi wants it back. Leonard, who was under contract with Nike before jumping to the dadlier confines of New Balance last fall, is suing the Swoosh over ownership of the hand-shaped logo he claims he designed and the brand trademarked without his knowledge in early 2017.
It would seem that Leonard, currently playing in the NBA Finals, has bigger things to worry about. But the logo won’t just play a big role in the marketing of Kawhi Leonard as a brand and personality down the road—it might even come into play when he becomes a free agent this summer. What sounds frivolous might have serious repercussions: the Association’s players are known as the most stylish athletes in the world, sneakers have never been hotter, and signature designs—and the logos that appear on them—are a way for players to grab a piece of the pie.
The lawsuit alleges Kawhi wasn’t aware Nike had even filed a trademark for the logo until, while he was developing clothing using the icon, a representative for the brand sent him a cease and desist.
According to the filing, “since at least his college years, Leonard contemplated and conceived of ideas for a personal logo which would be unique to him and reflect something meaningful relating to his own image.” He allegedly noodled on the logo for several years before realizing the answer was right in front of him the whole time: his legendarily massive mitts. In late 2011 or early 2012, he created the logo based on his hands that incorporated his initials and jersey number (2). And in the spirit of teamwork expected from an all-world basketball player like Leonard, he asked family, friends, and even a designer for advice on how to improve it.
This is where things start to get muddy. Leonard signed his deal with Nike in October 2011, just before he says he finalized his own design. And Nike, like it does with any of its top-line athletes, started discussing a unique logo it could use for Leonard-branded apparel. According to the lawsuit, Kawhi “Graphic Design Is My Passion” Leonard rejected all of Nike’s original concepts and forwarded along his own, giving the Swoosh permission to use it for the length of their deal. Nike and Leonard went back and forth on slight modifications before the final “Klaw” logo started going on shoes, hoodies, and hats. It’s important to note that the logo appeared not just on Nike goods but apparel made for events like Leonard’s basketball camp, which seems to suggest the Swoosh was initially cool with the idea this was his logo and not the other way around.
But Leonard became a sneaker free agent in September of last year and left Nike for New Balance. Unbeknownst to Leonard, Nike copyrighted the logo a full year and a half before its contract with him expired. So by leaving Nike, Leonard was also unintentionally leaving behind his logo.
Recently, a third party jumped into the fray. The Los Angeles Clippers, a desperate suitor for free-agent-to-be Leonard, reportedly looked into buying the logo from Nike, according to The New York Times’s Marc Stein. The Clippers thought it would make an enticing gift for Leonard—did the organization realize at the time just what a coup that would have been?
But Nike “is intent on rebuffing all approaches and retaining its rights to that logo for as long as it can,” according to the Times. The brand wants to guarantee that the Klaw will stay out of New Balance’s hands—and thus Kawhi’s—as long as possible.