When Dwyane Wade announced that he'd signed with Li-Ning in 2012, the world fired up their Google machines to figure out what hell he was talking about. Although Shaq had signed to the brand back in 2006, many footwear fans had never heard of Li-Ning. Wade previously skipped from Converse to Jordan Brand before finally landing at Li-Ning after nine years under the Nike umbrella.

"Jordan set the blueprint for all of us. There's no reason to try to change it, you know?"

Wade reflects on his time with Jordan Brand by admitting that for many, that’s the pinnacle of footwear endorsement. Most players don’t get shoe deals, fewer still get signature shoes, and almost no one gets that through Jordan Brand. But for Wade, working with Jordan Brand wasn't the best way to emulate Jordan.

“Jordan set the blueprint for all of us. There's no reason to try to change it,” Wade tells Sole Collector. After all, part of Jordan’s journey was to create Jordan Brand with Nike. If a player is going to follow Jordan’s example, the way to do it is create their own brand. “You could tweak it, but you should follow,” Wade says.

Li-Ning has had a tough couple of years trying to find firmer footing around the world, but the West would be remiss to forget that it’s still a Chinese company with a huge customer base at home. Those are the fans that Li-Ning and Dwyane Wade look to first. Even if Americans are lining up to roast whatever the latest Way of Wade is on whatever message boards they’re trolling that week, they may not be the target market for the shoes. Wade is already engaging his base and he sees them as happy. “I'm on my fifth shoe now but I think early on in the process, [we were] really listening to the D-Wade and the Li-Ning supporters and fans, and trying to hear what they had to say, what they wanted.”

Li-Ning Way of Wade 5
Image via Li-Ning

That input, along with his own vision, is what's driving him now. “I was at the point of my life where I wanted more control,” says Wade. Incidentally, that's the same reason Kanye West says he left the Swoosh. “I wanted to be able to have a little more say. I wanted to be able to use my voice and my experience, and try to put all of this into my line—not just of sneakers but into a whole collection, a whole line. And I think I've been able to do that in Li-Ning.”

Wade's Li-Ning line is on its fifth model, and there are no plans to slow down. “My brand is growing in China every year. My fan support is amazing and I'm happy, I'm happy with it,” he says. “So hopefully we just continue to do what we're doing and continue to keep doing things our way.”