Despite his wild success over the last year, Kawhi Leonard took a tough “L” recently when he ran into a pick set by Nike last month. Oregon District Court Judge Michael W. Mosman granted Nike’s motion to dismiss the NBA star’s claim that he rightfully owned the “The Klaw” logo. In fact, in the complaint, Leonard’s legal team referred to the popularly-known logo as the “Leonard Logo” instead, in an attempt to establish even more of a link between the design and player. Yet, despite the undeniable connection the “KL” outstretched hand has with Leonard’s likeness, the judge’s ruling indicates that the logo and all adjoining rights to its use indeed belong to Nike.
The concept of “The Klaw” was allegedly birthed when Leonard was still a second or third year player on the San Antonio Spurs. Coming out of college, Leonard boasted hands measuring 9.8 inches long and 11.3 inches wide. While those figures alone may not mean much, it should be noted that Leonard not only had the longest hands in the 2011 NBA draft, but slides in at no. 9 all-time in biggest “NBA hands” (sandwiched between Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain — if you’ve ever heard of them). Thus, from his remarkably large hands, “The Klaw” stuck to Leonard as a nickname and a potentially lucrative branding opportunity.
Interestingly, the nickname’s origin story has been called “a myth amongst the Spurs  roster” as to who first conceived it or when the trend even caught fire. Leonard insists that he invented the logo while still at San Diego State University, though it could not have been created in connection to “The Klaw” moniker. In any event, Leonard’s credit for the initial sketch has not been disputed, but his protection over the foundational design was, for which he is now paying the price.
“Board Man Gets Played”
What makes this case so important is that this issue of intellectual property protection is only becoming more crucial for young athletes, as collegiate stars will be able to brand and profit off their likeness through endorsement agreements starting as soon as next year.
To Leonard’s credit, he had the foresight to begin building his brand in college, and conceptualized the following illustration. However, as a rookie with the San Antonio Spurs, the two-time champion recalls sharing a preliminary sketch of his logo idea with Nike, with whom he signed an endorsement deal. Below is a picture of Leonard’s version against Nike’s official design.
It is here where a few disagreements arise. The first is a matter of uniqueness and though the designs are generally similar in concept, the judge stated that he found Nike’s rendition of the logo to be “new and significantly different from [Leonard’s] design.”
Second, Leonard himself did not deny that the logo was created in connection with the endorsement contract, however argued that Nike’s design was a derivative of his work, disqualifying it from copyright protection. Again, the judge supported Nike’s claim that its version was “obviously distinct.”
However, what may be most telling is Leonard’s admission in a 2014 interview in which he speaks on the logo and his excitement in partnering with Nike. He states, “I came up with the idea of incorporating my initials in this logo. I drew up the rough draft, sent it over and they [Jordan Brand] made it perfect. I give the Jordan Brand team all the credit because I’m no artist at all. They refined it and made it look better than I thought it would ever be, and I’m extremely happy with the final version.”
Love & Basketball…and Intellectual Property
Much like the ugly breakup with the San Antonio Spurs and eventual marriage with the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA star’s relationship with Nike unfolded similarly, with New Balance serving as Leonard’s “rebound,” if you will. Though given an opportunity to resign with Nike, once the contract between the sports apparel giant and the literal giant in Leonard expired in 2018, Leonard opted to take his talents to New Balance, signing an endorsement deal.
Though Nike, as mentioned, retains all rights to “The Klaw” logo, it is theoretically possible that New Balance could buy or license its utility in the future. Given the unlikelihood that Nike would agree to this (barring an absurdly Nike-friendly deal), there are few other options—if any—available to Leonard and New Balance to use the design other than appealing the judgment and receiving a remand.
Of course, because neither New Balance nor Leonard are able to utilize the logo, the pair has had to pivot in their endorsement efforts. While New Balance’s site is still bare bones as far as Kawhi-specific apparel, the Boston-based company unveiled a design earlier this year for Leonard’s first signature shoe. If you check out the logo on the shoe’s tongue, you’ll notice that it’s remarkably different, and more…ordinary than the disputed design owned by Nike, which honestly may align better with Leonard’s well-known, even-keeled personality.
However, if Leonard truly seeks to reclaim his logo through an appeal for his branding, the shot clock is ticking. The shoe will not officially be made available for purchase until the fall, but the odds that the case against Nike is appealed, remanded, and reversed—all before the shoe is released? Well, let’s just say Leonard would have a better chance of hitting “The Shot” again.