Back when Damian Lillard was in high school, he wanted to buy a hooded sweatshirt from popular -- and pricey -- Japanese streetwear company A Bathing Ape.
"I looked it up, and I was like, 'Yeah, I can't afford that,'" he said, laughing.
Now, the three-time All-Star can afford anything the company offers, but he's thinking bigger, working with the brand on a trio of limited edition versions of his Adidas signature sneaker.
"I love the fact that as soon as people see it, they're going to recognize what the collab is," Lillard said.
The brand, launched in 1993 by a Japanese streetwear pioneer known simply as Nigo, rose to popularity through the early 2000s while still only available at stores in Japan. Seen on the likes of musicians Pharrell Williams, Lil Wayne and Kanye West, the brand's signature camouflage pattern was soon spotted in music videos and at awards shows on the industry's most influential artists and celebrities.
"I've always been a huge fan of Bape, going back to when I was in high school and Lil Wayne was rocking Bape heavy," Lillard said. "I was a huge Wayne fan, and Juelz Santana. I just remember all their videos and artwork for their music, they always had Bape on."
The company name itself, long truncated to just "Bape," has always been a bit of a lost-in-translation phrase. Incorporating Nigo's love for 20th century pop culture, the name partly references the 1968 movie "Planet of the Apes." The tagline was also originally meant to serve as a commentary on a generation that overindulges, referencing the Japanese idiom "A bathing ape in lukewarm water," poking fun at someone who complacently overextends themselves.
Nigo created an iconic camouflage pattern and a hooded sweatshirt design that fully zipped up that a generation of fashion-forward thinkers immediately took to. By the time the "Shark Hoody" was released in 2004, with a playful graphic that featured a literal cartoon shark face on the hood, the brand was off and running. The beloved hooded sweatshirts also happened to retail for $300 and were nearly impossible to track down, creating a niche market that took off stateside.
It wasn't until Lillard entered the league in 2012 that he was able to pick up his first few Bape pieces. As his pro career in Portland quickly took off, his long-term Adidas endorsement deal extension in 2014 not only gave him his own signature shoe series but also helped him build a global profile and extend his brand around the world.
"In 2015, I was in Japan doing my tour for Adidas, and I got to see the store and see a lot of stuff that I hadn't seen in the States," Lillard said. "I came back with a bunch of Bape. Ever since then, I'd been wanting to do some type of collab with them."
With brands often working on creating sneaker designs as much as two years in advance, it wasn't until Lillard's fourth sneaker that the partnership could be aligned. Lillard's Dame 4 sneaker will be a first for the brand, marking Bape's first touchpoint on a performance model and its first time seeing the floor of an NBA game.
He's expected to wear the Bape Dame 4 at this year's All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, with limited pairs of all three editions going on sale at the brand's 747 Warehouse event space.
Styled in the brand's trademark camouflage pattern, the shoes also take on the design detailing of A Bathing Ape's iconic Shark hoodies. Inspired by the nose art seen on fighter planes used by the Flying Tigers during World War II, the teeth graphic from the hood can be seen along the shoe's midsole, with one shark eye seen on each toe. "WGM" lettering along the collar references the notion of a "World Gone Mad," and the frenzy of the war era.
In addition to the Bape-centric details on this trio of limited edition versions, nuances along the strips of the tongue and heel of Lillard's fourth signature shoe help tell his story. The "YKWTII" lettering down the heel is an abbreviation for "You know what time it is." It's a nod to his history of knocking down late-game clutch shots during what has boastfully become known as "Lillard Time."
"It was my rookie year, and I was just killing in the fourth quarter. I was leading the league in fourth-quarter points. It got to the point where when the highlights would come on locally, and nationally sometimes, they would say, 'You know what time it is -- it's Dame Time.' Or, 'It's Lillard Time,'" he said. "In my third season, I was hitting all of these big shots. I remember in Oklahoma City, I hit a shot and I was walking to the bench, and I just started tapping my wrist [thinking] -- 'They know what time it is.' From that point on, it became my celebration whenever there was a big moment."
The tongue strip features its own special details: a collection of stats from Lillard's last AAU game and his final college season, his No. 6 draft selection, the 2014 playoff series-clinching game winner he drilled with just 0.9 seconds left and, of course, his jersey number 0, which serves to represent his hometown Oakland, his beloved Ogden, Utah, college town and his current home state of Oregon.
"It tells a real story, and all of them are significant stories," he said. "On all my shoes, I like to have some subtle details about myself, as a person and as an athlete. Things that people will be able to connect to, and things that if they see it, they'll recognize what it means or represents."