DAN GELSTON, AP Sports Writer
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Nike is pulling back on plans for a shoe that sneakily honors Allen Iverson after the former NBA superstar questioned whether the company could use his old number and team colors while he’s endorsed by rival Reebok.
Iverson says Nike used his identity, likeness and persona without permission for a sneaker out of the company’s Zoom Flight ’96 collection.
The ambiguously titled sneaker has the No. 3 — Iverson’s number — on each back heel and the red, white and blue colors of the Philadelphia 76ers. Neither Iverson nor the Sixers are named on the sneaker or on the branding for the shoe, which were expected to be released later this year or in early 2015.
Iverson’s lawyer sent a letter to Nike this week objecting to the shoe.
Nike spokesman KeJuan Wilkins said in a statement Thursday that the version of the shoe Iverson protested won’t hit stores.
“Nike has made a business decision to not move forward with the shoe in the red/blue and white/purple colorways,” Wilkins said in an email. “However, two colorways inspired by the original 1996 colorways will still be available for purchase.”
Iverson, who retired last season, has had a shoe contract with Reebok since Philadelphia made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft. Iverson’s signature shoe, “The Answer,” was Reebok’s flagship sneaker and runaway top seller during his prime seasons in the late 1990s, early 2000s. And Reebok is getting ready to release a new Iverson version of its iconic “Pump” sneaker.
A letter faxed this week by Iverson’s attorney, Derek Challenger, to Nike demands the company remove the sneaker from any retail inventories or website advertisements and cease any future sales of the product.
“Nike is clearly trying to use Allen Iverson’s celebrity status and persona to promote Nike’s shoes,” Challenger said. “There’s no other No. 3 that played for the 76ers that came out of the 1996 draft. For Nike to use his status to sell shoes, and not get his permission, to not compensate him, is bad business.”
Challenger said Thursday after learning Nike was pulling the shoe that Iverson should be compensated for shoes that have already been sold and would still object if the No. 3 is on the heel of the sneaker.
“They should get back to me with a number for all this,” he said. “I hope before the week is over I hear from them directly.”
Athletes have had mixed results fighting use of their likeness that didn’t directly involve their name. Former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon and others including NBA legend Bill Russell settled a class-action lawsuit against EA Sports for $40 million for its use of their likenesses in their college basketball video games. But former Cleveland running back Jim Brown lost a similar lawsuit against the same company in a decision that was upheld in a federal appeals court.
Warren Zola, who teaches sports law at Boston College, said he thought Iverson could have a strong legal claim.
“It’s difficult to contend that Nike wasn’t intentionally attempting to profit off Iverson’s name and image,” he said. “There’s little doubt in my mind that if Reebok sold a red and black shoe, as part of a class of 1984 with a No. 23 on it, Nike would take similar, if not more aggressive, legal steps.”
Michael Jordan, who wore No. 23, was drafted by the Bulls in 1984.
Lucas Ehrbar, editor of the website Nikeblog.com, said the Iverson-like sneaker released under the Nike Sportswear banner was already released in Asia. Ehrbar said Reebok’s brand has fallen among basketball sneaker junkies, leaving a gap for the dominant brand to model sneakers for the 2001 NBA MVP.
“A lot of people would rather wear Nike anyway,” Ehrbar said. “The only reason they’re wearing Reebok is because someone like Iverson has a shoe with them.”
Iverson spent his first 10 seasons in Philadelphia, mashing hip-hop culture and hoops like no player before him.
Even in retirement, Iverson still has worldwide appeal to sneakerheads. The Nike tribute sneaks can be found on eBay — under a search for Iverson — for $109 to $129 a pair.
“They’re not meant to play basketball in. It’s about fashion and lifestyle,” Ehrbar said.
Iverson and rapper Jadakiss are scheduled to help launch the Villa x Reebok Pump on Thursday at a restaurant near the 76ers’ practice facility in Philadelphia.
Associated Press writer Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed to this report.
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