A couple of years back, when Puma Basketball first began plotting its comeback, the brand’s then-unannounced creative director Jay-Z provided some helpful direction. “It’s all about Clyde,” Hov told Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing. Wise words: the Clyde in question, of course, is Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the Knicks legend—and arguably the biggest fit god the NBA has ever seen—who Puma blessed with the first-ever signature basketball sneaker in 1973, over a decade before Nike signed Jordan. Even during Puma’s 20-year hiatus from the hardwood, the OG Clyde remained one of the German giant’s biggest sellers, and two of its four performance hoops models now bear its name: the Clyde Hardwood and Clyde Court.
But it’s tough to establish any real credibility in the fickle, Swoosh-dominated world of basketball shoes on the strength of a single sneaker alone—even one as iconic as the Clyde. Which is why, back in March, Puma splashily relaunched a near-forgotten gem from its archives: the Puma Majesty. Back in the ‘80s, the Majesty was the signature model for Rockets phenom Ralph Sampson, who came roaring into the league as the most dynamic rookie of his era: a 7’4” center with the handles and playmaking of a point guard, Sampson was a precursor to the Giannis-type unicorns running rampant in today’s NBA. Much like the player it was designed for, the mid-top Majesty was ahead of its time, less clunky and more agile than its heavy-soled competitors.
“I felt so light on my feet in those,” Sampson, now 59, recalls. “My first game in the league, I was guarded by Artis Gilmore, one of the strongest human beings to ever play in the NBA. He could pick you up and put you anywhere he wanted to put you. But I felt so aerodynamic in those shoes, I kept beating him up and down the court. At one point, he tells me, ‘Big Fella, you gotta slow down a little bit. You’re running too fast, it’s a long season.’ Getting that first taste of the NBA, stepping out in my very own sneakers, that was amazing.”
Despite the fond memories, Sampson and Puma fell out of touch for decades after his career ended in 1991. When the brand first reached out last year about potentially bringing back his shoes, Sampson jokes that he only had one real question: How’d you get this number? Since hammering out the details, though, it’s been a pretty wild ride for the Hall of Famer: the Majesty is now officially the Puma Ralph Sampson, putting his name back in the headlines in a meaningful way for the first time in a long while. Sampson says he now gets upwards of 20 pieces of mail a day at his house from people who remember wearing his sneakers from the first go-round, thanking him for bringing them back and asking for signatures. And Puma has been sending over new styles for Sampson’s mom to test out and review—like the freshly-dropped Ralph Sampson Lo Wild, an extremely-on-trend zebra-print joint that got the octogenarian’s coveted stamp of approval.
With another NBA season already underway, and rising stars such as RJ Barrett turning out in cutting-edge Pumas, Sampson and his resurgent signature line will be holding things down from the other end, adding some much-needed weight to the company’s Clyde-centric basketball heritage. “These young guys need to understand that Puma has a history that no other brand has, starting with the Olympics all the way through to today,” Sampson says. “It means something.”
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Originally Appeared on GQ