Underdog nets the future star

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The welcome mat was laid out. Every employee at Fila USA Inc. wore a "Climb the Hill" T-shirt honoring their guest; there were banners in the lobby, signs outside the elevator and another banner in the conference room.

The Hunt Valley-based athletic shoe company had decided to make Grant Hill a very rich young man. Now the job was to convince the Duke University basketball star and Detroit Piston-to-be to take their millions.

The May 27 meeting was the turning point in a four-month campaign that began when Fila executives sat down to decide which top college players to pursue, that took a sharp turn when University of California guard Jason Kidd blew his job interview at Fila, and led to the Aug. 17 announcement that Mr. Hill had signed a five-year deal to endorse Fila.

"Grant had an open mind, but he was certainly more familiar with Nike than Fila," said Lon Babby, Mr. Hill's agent. To Fila executives, the full-court charm press was the little guy's way to compete. They had heard stories about the way Nike Inc. had been wooing the same players. Banners at the airport, limos to Nike's spectacular Beaverton, Ore., headquarters, dinner at billionaire founder Phil Knight's house, the implied promise of being the next Michael Jordan.

"We said, we're not going to be able to out-Nike Nike," said Howe Burch, Fila's director of advertising. "We took off our coats and sat on the corner of the table. We wanted the chemistry to work. We had decided among ourselves that Grant was the guy we wanted."

The road to that decision started in late April, when Mr. Burch, Jack Steinweis, Fila's top U.S. footwear executive; top U.S. clothing executive Alden Sheets, and western U.S. sales director Pete Davis sat down to figure out what to do about the NBA draft.

A decision like this is different for Fila than industry giants like Nike.

When Fila picks an endorser, it picks one. Fila's only major basketball star was Dallas Mavericks forward Jamal Mashburn, signed last year.

Everyone knew who the top four players in this year's National Basketball Association draft would be, and the Fila men knew they wanted one of the four. Fila wanted a top player, but the executives wanted star quality too. And they wanted someone who was well-known already, so Fila's advertising wouldn't have to make his image from scratch.

The last criterion eliminated University of Connecticut star Donyell Marshall, who would be chosen by the Minnesota Timberwolves. The university's games are televised mostly in the northeast, and the program has been a cut below the top of college hoops. Fila would have to invent Mr. Marshall, which would cost a lot of money.

Purdue University star Glenn Robinson would go first in the draft but scored low on star quality.

Mr. Kidd was the romantic choice in the James Dean style, the scrappy player from Oakland who drove the lane with abandon to offset his bricklayer's jump shot. Mr. Hill was the more All-American choice. He was better-looking than Kidd, a political science major, and the only child of Janet Hill -- Hillary Clinton's college suitemate -- and Calvin Hill, an ex-NFL running back, Yale graduate, and former Orioles' vice president. Grant Hill had also helped Duke to its first two NCAA titles.

But could Fila wrest either one from Nike?

The decision between them eventually turned on personality and bad luck. The bad luck, for Mr. Kidd, began when he came to Baltimore May 13.

Fila's staff was decked out in "We Want The Kidd" T-shirts. Fila had a poster by the elevators saying "Don't Let The Kidd Get Lost in the Crowd," featuring the names of nearly 20 Nike endorsers on one list and just "Jason" on Fila's side of the chart.

"The whole idea was, you can be one of a stable of athletes with Nike or you can be, along with Mashburn, the foundation of our basketball effort," Mr. Burch said.

But Mr. Kidd's flight was delayed, and by the time he arrived at Fila's offices around 6 p.m., most people had gone. Fila told Mr. Kidd that they would name his line of shoes and clothes "Kidd Stuff."

Mr. Kidd appeared to be charmed. But Fila says the meeting began to go flat for them even before the group repaired to Harborplace for a late dinner.

"I was a little underwhelmed by his presence," Mr. Burch said. "I had trouble seeing this guy, who was very laid back, very quiet, as a spokesman."

Mr. Kidd's bad luck with Fila was to continue. On May 22, he was involved in a car accident and left the scene. Worse, when the draft order was set by the NBA lottery the same day as the crash, Dallas got the second pick, where Fila expected Mr. Kidd to be chosen.

Mr. Burch and Mr. Davis were in Dallas when they learned about the accident.

"We said, that's not the kind of publicity we want," Mr. Burch said. But the pitiful Mavericks were a bigger problem. Teams that win 24 games in two years don't see much national TV or get much free publicity for Fila.

In the meantime, Fila was telling its big retail chain customers they were hoping to choose between Mr. Kidd and Mr. Hill, who hadn't been to Hunt Valley yet. The customers told Fila to get Grant.

Mr. Hill's team had begun to come together in early May when Janet Hill contacted Mr. Babby. Grant Hill followed up, and Calvin Hill was in touch before Mr. Babby was retained. Most of Grant Hill's endorsements are being handled by Advantage International, but negotiating a shoe deal was left to the lawyer.

"Pretty much the only two were Nike and Fila," Grant Hill said.

The first trip was to Nike. Nike wanted Mr. Hill badly.

But Mr. Hill did not get promises that Nike would highlight him right away.

"We don't want to push anyone too far too fast," said Steve Miller, Nike's director of sports marketing. Hill wouldn't have reached "brand influencer" status until after becoming as big an NBA star as Nike thinks he will be, said Miller. Grant Hill, according to nearly everyone involved in the talks, didn't want to be just another person in the crowd.

"What attracted him to Fila was the opportunity to hook up with a company that he could be identified with," Mr. Babby said. The Hill group headed to Hunt Valley on the last Friday in May. The meeting began with a video of man-in-the-street testimonials laced with Fila's numbers, stressing how Fila has grown fourfold (sneaker sales have quintupled) since 1991, even though the athletic shoe market has only grown about 5 percent a year. The Fila group had a better pitch for Mr. Hill than they had for Mr. Mashburn a year earlier. Mr. Mashburn got his own basketball shoe, some athletic apparel named for him, $7.5 million and a Ferrari. Fila won't disclose Mr. Hill's pay, but he is getting a basketball shoe and apparel, plus a cross-training shoe and a line of casual non-athletic clothing. "Candidly, the offer they made got our attention," Mr. Babby said.

Grant Hill said the money was actually "about the same" as Nike's offer. Something else got his attention.

"They're very hungry, and they're young," he said. As it grows, I grow."

By June 12, Mr. Burch was in Boston for a trade show when Mr. Babby called. He wanted more money. "We knew we would have to ante up to play in that league," Mr. Burch said later. Mr. Burch told Mr. Babby he had to check with his bosses at Fila SpA outside of Milan. He reached Fila's chief executive by phone, then faxed the new offer to Wisconsin, where Mr. Hill and Mr. Babby were visiting the Milwaukee Bucks. They liked it.

By June 27, two days before the draft, Fila knew the basics of the deal were in place. The money was settled. Company officials began telling people they had all but landed Mr. Hill.

The remaining drama was where Mr. Hill would play; it looked like he would go to Detroit, Fila's second-best U.S. market behind New York. Both factors looked good for sales. Mr Burch spent the last pre-draft days fretting over trade rumors. One had Mr. Hill going to Chicago in a trade involving Scottie Pippen. That was fine with Fila.

The trades fell through and the draft went as expected -- Mr. Hill went to Detroit on the third pick of the draft. Fila signed the final deal Aug. 4.

Fila traces it all to May 27.

"It was a classic case of the underdog winning," Mr. Sheets said. "It was a magic meeting. I'll never forget it."

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