Wearing a gray sweater, beige shirt and blue jeans, Leo Chang blended into the group chatting and laughing courtside at The Peake.
Except for his shoes.
His teal and pink Nikes.
And we mean his Nikes.
Chang is the basketball footwear design director at Nike and the lead designer for Kevin Durant's signature line. The Thunder superstar's latest shoe made its debut last month, and with the KD V set for full release in the next couple weeks — just in time for holiday shoppers — you might be seeing more of Chang's shoes around Oklahoma.
Seeing his design on someone else's feet always gives Chang a charge.
“It makes me proud that someone appreciates it,” he said. “Hopefully, they love it. Hopefully, it inspires them to play better or design or something.”
Even though the massive marketing machine at Nike would have us believe that its shoes can do anything, thinking that a shoe can be inspirational seems a bit far-fetched. But hearing the story of the man behind KD's shoes, you may think differently.
Chang was born into a family not unlike many in America.
“We weren't poor. We weren't rich,” he said. “We were getting by.”
That meant living on a budget, and when it came time to buy shoes, the number was set in stone. No more than $30.
For many years, that was no big deal.
Then, Chang got into middle school. Everyone else, it seemed, had Nikes, so, of course, he wanted them, too. Trouble was, he still had to stick to that budget.
“You couldn't really get Nikes for $30,” he said, “not even back then.”
Nike became a gold standard in Chang's mind. Something that was special. Something to which you aspired.
As a kid who was always drawing — “Anything and everything,” he said — he often found himself doodling Nikes. Different looks. Different designs. Different colors.
His favorite: a pair of purple and green ones.
(Sort of explains the teal and pink pair, huh?)
When a teacher had the class do a what-I-want-to-be project, Chang picked shoe designer. But not just any shoe designer. He wanted to be at Nike.
Not that he had any idea how to get there.
“I didn't even know where Nike was,” he said, laughing. “I thought it was in some big city. I didn't even know it was in Beaverton, Ore.”
Chang found that out during his sophomore year of design school when he applied for an internship at the apparel giant. He didn't get it. But the next year, he applied again, and this time around, he landed one of the coveted spots.
After so many years of wanting to be at Nike, he'd finally made it.
“It was everything I dreamed of,” he said, “if not more.”
He knew it was where he wanted to be, but he had one more year of school after his internship. During that time, the economy slumped, and Nike issued a hiring freeze in 2000. Weeks turned into months.
It took more than six months for the freeze to thaw.
Chang has been at Nike ever since.
These days, he is considered one of the company's superstar designers. There's global creative director Tracy Teague, there's Kobe Bryant shoe designer Eric Avar, and there's Chang.
Not bad for a guy who grew up only getting close to Nikes when one of his friends had a pair.
He designs and develops some of the most sought-after shoes in the world, and in order to do that, he regularly meets with one of his most high-profile clients and one of basketball's hottest commodities.
That's the reason Chang was courtside in Oklahoma City a couple weeks back. Development of the KD VI is being finalized, and even though the shoe won't hit store shelves until a year from now, Chang had a few final details to discuss with Durant.
“I feel like as a designer, you have to have that balance of art and engineering,” Chang said. “What artists do is kind of work for themselves and hopefully someone else will appreciate the art. With design, it's really about creating for the masses.”
Chang's challenge — bring his art to the masses.
“For me, I love the technical aspect of shoes,” he said. “Making sure that they function and work, but they also have to look beautiful.”
Even the teal and pink ones.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.