You won't believe how Nike lost Steph to Under Armour

June 1, 2016, 4:36 PM

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IT'S OCT. 7, 2015, and the Cavs are hosting the Hawks in Cincinnati. It's the NBA preseason, a nothing game, really -- save for one detail: LeBron James is debuting his new, flashy signature sneaker, the LeBron 13. On this nothing night, the bright yellow shoe is a beacon beaming out to younger hoops fans around the world. It is also something of a dog whistle, visual noise that grandpa Cavs fan won't notice as his grandson locks in on the sneaker's flashy side panel, a quirk that looks vaguely like a funhouse mirror view of a propeller blade.

Hawks wing Kent Bazemore starts off playing up on James far from the hoop, in a very un-preseason manner. In the first quarter, the two get tangled on a lob intended for LeBron, and James tumbles into the baseline. The matchup remains physical into the third quarter. "LeBron pushed off, he decked Bazemore," Hawks announcer Bob Rathbun intones as Bazemore draws a foul on a James drive with 9:41 left in the period. Near the 5:45 mark, LeBron rushes out to guard Bazemore, lightly shoving him as the shot clock expires. On the next Hawks possession, it escalates. Bazemore and James fight for position in the paint, and their arms get tangled. Simultaneously, they push off and whip their arms away. Now Bazemore is standing a few feet from James, a gap LeBron suddenly closes with aggression. In front of the baseline referee, LeBron launches a right forearm shiver into Bazemore's chest. As Bazemore stumbles back, a foul is called. Cavs announcer Austin Carr chuckles at the replay of the hit, saying, "That's to send a message."

But what kind of message? And why?

IT'S NOV. 17, 2015, and it's throwback-jersey night in Oakland. Steph Curry flaunts a retro look as he readies himself to play the Raptors. The reigning MVP strolls into the locker room, sporting bright yellow shorts at what can only be described as 1970s length. After he ties his Under Armour Curry 2 sneakers, he dresses for the most public of preparations. By this point, it has become clear that fans are showing up earlier, in increasing numbers, just to see Curry warm up. His is now a cult of personality so powerful, thousands flock to see a man play basketball against the air.

Before Curry trots out to the screaming throngs, the man who can move a nation's worth of money explains his short shorts. He smiles and proclaims, "I'm going Bazemore style." Bazemore style, as in Bazemore's bold penchant for wearing shorts that are briefer than briefs. Bazemore was a Warrior once, an undrafted rookie in 2012 who seized scraps of attention with yoga-pose celebrations from the bench. Back then, while collecting DNPs, he got on the ground floor of something that rose because he asked Curry to lift it.

Since he entered the league, "Bazemore style," has also meant being swaddled in Under Armour apparel. "He's like the biggest spokesperson for the brand," says Curry, the actual biggest UA spokesperson. "Always wears new stuff, wears my stuff." You can often see Bazemore wearing Curry's signature shoes. Increasingly, America's youth are joining in that predilection.

On March 3, 2016, Business Insider relayed a note from Morgan Stanley analyst Jay Sole on Under Armour's business prospects. In it, Curry's potential worth to the company is placed at more than a staggering $14 billion. Sole's call on UA's stock is bearish relative to other prognosticators, but for one man's power to change everything.

His note reads, "UA's U.S. basketball shoe sales have increased over 350 percent YTD. Its Stephen Curry signature shoe business is already bigger than those of LeBron, Kobe and every other player except Michael Jordan. If Curry is the next Jordan, our call will likely be wrong."

What few fans know is the backstory of all this -- how the most electric player in a generation slipped through the grasp of the most powerful sports apparel company in the world, and how Under Armour pulled off the marketing heist of the century.

IN THE 2013 offseason -- coming off a year in which Curry had started 78 games and the Warriors had made the Western Conference semis -- Nike owned the first opportunity to keep Curry. It was its privilege as the incumbent with an advantage that extended beyond vast resources. "I was with them for years," Curry says. "It's kind of a weird process being pitched by the company you're already with. There was some familiar faces in there."

Curry was a Nike athlete long before 2013, though. His godfather, Greg Brink, works for Nike. He wore the shoes growing up, sported the swoosh at Davidson. In his breakout 54-point game at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28, 2013, he was wearing Nike Zoom Hyperfuse, a pair of sneakers he still owns, tucked away in his East Bay Area home, shielded from the light of day. "They're not up front and center," Curry says of the pair. "I definitely kept all my favorite [shoes] just as a memory of where my career has gone."

Nike had every advantage when it came to keeping Curry. Incumbency is a massive recruiting edge for a shoe company, as players often express a loyalty to these brands their NBA franchises might envy. And Nike wasn't just any shoe company. It's the shoe company that claims cultural and monetary dominance over the sneaker market. According to Nick DePaula of The Vertical, Nike has signed 68 percent of NBA players, more than 74 percent if you include Nike's Jordan Brand subsidiary. In the 2012 Olympics, Mike Krzyzewski, a Nike endorser, coached an entire roster of 11 Nike-signed athletes and Kevin Love, who merely wore the shoes.

Its hold on consumers is even tighter. According to Forbes, Nike accounted for 95.5 percent of the basketball sneaker market in 2014. In short, its grip on the NBA universe is reflective of a corporation claiming Michael Jordan heritage and a $100 billion market cap -- all advantages that might explain why Nike's pitch to Curry evoked something hastily thrown together by a hungover college student.

The August meeting took place on the second floor of the Oakland Marriott, three levels below Golden State's practice facility. Famed Nike power broker and LeBron James adviser Lynn Merritt was not present, a possible indication of the priority -- or lack thereof -- that Nike was placing on the meeting. Instead, Nico Harrison, a sports marketing director at the time, ran the meeting (Harrison, who has since been named Nike's vice president of North America basketball operations, did not respond to multiple interview requests).

In truth, there had been other indications that Nike lacked interest before this meeting. There was the matter of whether Curry would get to lead a Nike-sponsored camp for up-and-coming players. These camps aren't high on the list of fan concerns, but they matter deeply to the game's elite. They're a chance to teach a younger generation, to have interactions more meaningful than strangers clamoring for autographs on the street.

Getting to run such a camp meant something to Curry, in part because participating in one meant something to him. When he was younger, Curry had gone to Chris Paul's camp and the experience made a lasting impression. Says Curry's friend and former roommate Chris Strachan, "He was always at Chris Paul's camps as a young guy, and he always looked up to Chris Paul. He took a lot of the stuff that CP does with film sessions and he implemented it."

Strachan recalls of 2013, "That summer, when it was really decision time, [Nike] were looking at Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis coming up. They gave Kyrie a camp and they gave Anthony Davis a camp. They didn't give Steph a camp."

The pitch meeting, according to Steph's father Dell, who was present, kicked off with one Nike official accidentally addressing Stephen as "Steph-on," the moniker, of course, of Steve Urkel's alter ego in Family Matters. "I heard some people pronounce his name wrong before," says Dell Curry. "I wasn't surprised. I was surprised that I didn't get a correction."

It got worse from there. A PowerPoint slide featured Kevin Durant's name, presumably left on by accident, presumably residue from repurposed materials. "I stopped paying attention after that," Dell says. Though Dell resolved to "keep a poker face," throughout the entirety of the pitch, the decision to leave Nike was in the works.

In the meeting, according to Dell, there was never a strong indication that Steph would become a signature athlete with Nike. "They have certain tiers of athletes," Dell says. "They have Kobe, LeBron and Durant, who were their three main guys. If he signed back with them, we're on that second tier."

Dell makes an analogy back to the past, when Dell's alma mater, Virginia Tech, offered his son the mere opportunity try out as a walk-on. This was familiar territory for a player who'd long prevailed over projections. "Wasn't highly recruited, wasn't highly respected, wasn't highly thought of," Dell says. "It was kind of like that, you know?"

Dell's message for his son was succinct: "Don't be afraid to try something new." Steph Curry had thrived on proving people wrong for the entirety of his career. He had delighted in it, even. And Nike was giving him fuel.

THE SNEAKER BUSINESS exists parallel to the basketball business, except not completely. Estimates peg total sneaker sales somewhere north of $20 billion annually, and rising. The total worth of NBA basketball is harder to gauge, but the $2.15 billion sale of the traditionally ignoble Los Angeles Clippers speaks to its riches. Both basketball and basketball shoes are massive operations, deriving their dollars from the consumer's obsession with winners. More specifically, with cool winners. Football can be ugly and popular. Baseball can be slow and profitable. The NBA needs physical charisma, individuals with moves so graceful viewers ache to imitate them.

You can't be Michael Jordan, but you can rent a part of his life when you wear Jordans. For millions of people, that slice of happiness is worth the cost.

Think of the sneaker world as composed of shadows -- shadows that might or might not reflect the size of players' on-court reputations. Consider Kyrie Irving. He's an All-Star, yes, but he has yet to be a serious MVP candidate or even conclude an NBA season healthy. In the sneaker world, though, the lights shine brightly on him, casting a larger shadow over the industry than his game would suggest. Irving's artfully serrated Kyrie 1s have done excellent business for Nike. Morgan Stanley projects his 2016 sales at $51 million and his newest Kyrie 2s received a wide release. Though he has played in only one postseason, Irving's handles, shot-making and viral Uncle Drew advertisements with Pepsi comprises an alchemy of "cool" necessary for moving product on a huge scale.

It's highly possible that back in 2013 Curry wasn't considered cool enough, relative to the building Kyrie Irving phenomenon. Both happened to play the same position and redundancy is a real issue in marketing. For these companies, it's imperative that whomever they're selling is defined and distinct. Basketball-shoe impresario Sonny Vaccaro, who has had his own complicated past with Nike -- he was instrumental in building their brand around Jordan but was fired in 1991 -- has a strict motto for marketing players: "You can only market the individual."

In this way, Nike's strength is indivisible from its weakness. As the top brand, it claims the most stars, by far. That's a massive advantage, but basketball marketing is an act of minimalism. Promote too many athletes and the message becomes garbled.

IRVING, FOR ALL his success, is still a relatively short point guard, and relatively short point guards traditionally haven't taken precedence at Nike. Irving's shoes have the lowest price point among their signature stars, at around $110, a pricetag that suggests volume matters more than prestige. Nike's highest-priced shoes are hawked by athletic wings. Michael Jordan was the prototype, Kobe was the heir, and LeBron carries on the tradition. To be the face of Nike means looking something beyond a regular person.

As someone familiar with Nike's marketing operation says, in regard to Curry: "Everything that makes him human and cuddly and an unlikely monster is anathema to Nike. They like studs with tight haircuts and muscles." This, then, is the paradox of Steph Curry: The reason he was ignored is the reason he's so popular. Nike looked past him for the very reason so many fans now can't look anywhere else.

"He went to Davidson," Vaccaro says. "He was always overlooked. He was skinny, he was frail, he was all the things you weren't supposed to be. He never got his due. All of a sudden, like a bolt of lightning, Steph Curry is on the scene. And this is the hardest thing for Nike to swallow right now."

Vaccaro says, "What you're witnessing is a phenomenon. This is like Michael signing with Nike in '84. He's going to morph into the most recognizable athlete. And why is he going to be that? Because he's like everybody else."

Nike, to be fair, can't be faulted for failing to foresee the current Steph Curry reality. That reality is just too surreal. Few predicted anything like last year's MVP and championship season. And so far this season, he's making those numbers look quaint. Even Curry's confidants confide they never saw this coming. Those who most deeply believed in Steph Curry, those who, for years, argued on his behalf, couldn't have imagined thousands of fans on the road, showing up 75 minutes before the tipoff, just to catch a glimpse of his warm-up.

Still, there were indications of a building trend, signs Nike ignored. In the 2012-13 season, Curry set the record for made 3-pointers, a testament to his unique skill, but also to how the NBA was shifting. The game was drifting farther out to the perimeter, with 3-pointers taking greater precedent in an increasingly analytically inclined league. Star centers were in short supply; Dwight Howard's reign as the best 5-man drew more opprobrium than praise. Point guards were on the rise. The next big thing on the horizon was relatively small.

While nobody in 2013 could have foreseen the magnitude of Curry-as-cultural-phenomenon, there were forecasts that something like it was imminent. Over that 2012-13 season, ESPN's Amin Elhassan repeatedly, and incredulously, stated that Curry should be a superstar. On May 6, 2013, he summarized his case on Twitter:

It was hard for Curry to get there sans major national ads. It was hard for Curry to get there as one of many subsidiaries to James, Bryant, Durant and Irving.

In an Under Armour ad for the Curry 2, as Curry shoots in a darkened arena, Jamie Foxx tosses flashbangs around the court, like the world's most casually psychotic anarchist, while riffing on the notion that a Curry shot takes only 0.4 seconds, presenting it as a symbol of how quickly the game is changing. "Just like that, all of a sudden big ain't so big no more," Foxx booms. "Small, ain't so small. And with the flick of the wrist, the step-back 3 is the new dunk. Follow-through is the new poster. Range is the new hangtime."

The implication is clear: This is how the everyman overshadows the jumpman.

FOLLOWING A DECEMBER victory over the Celtics, LeBron James took the typical postgame questions, until a query deviated from the norm. A reporter asks him about Under Armour -- or at least tries to. LeBron interrupts, saying, "Who? Who? Who is that?" (Later, in an interview with Sole Collector, Curry is asked about the exchange. He says of LeBron, "Oh, he knows. That's why he said that.")

James ends the conversation by revealing that only one (sneaker) team is fit for his lips, saying, "I only know Nike. That's it. Lifetime."

James indeed has a lifetime contract with Nike worth more than $500 million, according to USA Today. He has a one-year deal with the Cavs, probably as a means of maximizing his profit and leverage. If that reporter had been allowed another subversive follow up, perhaps this question would have yielded interesting results: "Who is your primary employer?"

"Your primary employer is who pays you the most money," ESPN's Bomani Jones says. "LeBron was Team Nike before he was a Cleveland Cavalier or a member of the Miami Heat or any of those things. We contextualize guys around the teams they play for because that's the relevant variable for the kind of work that we do."

It's perhaps more comforting to believe the team commands primary allegiance. Of course, when it comes to success on the court, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Nike wins if LeBron's Cavs win. It just so happens that James still wears Nikes for his next team, should he ever decide to ditch Cleveland. And James will still draw checks from Nike, long after he's done with the Cavs. He's "lifetime," after all.

Curry, whose latest UA contract runs until 2024, has a similarly strong fidelity to his company. Jones, who tweeted "your call" in response to a follower's hypothesis that Nike's pitch to Durant was composed of putting Curry's Under Armour shoes on the table, has seen the wages of this loyalty.

Curry almost never responds to media criticism, and is usually achingly polite in his media interactions. On this occasion, he shot back, saying, "Dang man why you have to come at me like that? Don't hate on what you don't know about." When Jones asked Curry if it was about the shoes, Curry tweeted at him, "yeah the KD mention about my shoes. saw u just RT'd a line but didn't like the slander of my kicks like we're non factors."

The standoff ended amicably enough, but it was another reminder of how invested superstars can be in their sneaker brands. "He took that really, really seriously," Jones says. "There doesn't seem to be much space in his mind between himself and Under Armour. He has a real personal sort of attachment to that brand."

Consider: We associate Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls, but today, he rarely associates with the Chicago Bulls. In contrast, his "Jordan Brand" association with Nike continues to be fruitful. In 2014, according to Forbes, Jordan earned $100 million from Nike. He made just under $94 million from NBA contracts over his career.

To this day, kids are still wearing Jordans. People across America sport the enduringly cool Jordan 11s, recently "retroed" to commemorate Chicago's 72-win season. In the fickle world of fashion, Michael's original Jordan 1, released in 1985, is still popular. Look down as you walk the streets of any city, and it's as if Jordan never retired.

It's not immortality, but it might be as close as an athlete gets in the ephemeral world in which we live.

So Curry and James aren't just salvos in a battle between brands; it's a personal war to see whose cultural impact resonates years after they've retired. It's a fight for something even bigger than a basketball career. And right now, despite four MVPs and two championships, LeBron James is losing.

AT THE GRASSROOTS level, the sneaker business is a turf war. And so it was that in the 2012 offseason, with Brandon Jennings as its top basketball spokesman, Under Armour needed any territory it could get. This is how it came into the orbit of one Kent Bazemore. As an undrafted rookie on the Warriors, sneaker companies had little reason to throw money Bazemore's way. Hell, there was no guarantee Bazemore would even make the team. His agent, Austin Walton, had an idea, though. He contacted Under Armour. "I sold them on having a guy on the West Coast, having a presence there," Walton says. "I sold the fact that they had a couple other guys with shoe deals up, Klay and Steph, that maybe, you know, he can get some other guys on board if he makes the team."

Walton made that pitch to "Stoney," Kris Stone, a former high school teammate of Jason Kidd's and current senior director of sports marketing for pro basketball at Under Armour. Stone had coveted Curry's business long before, leading up to the 2009 draft. "The year [Curry] was drafted, we were actually making shoes for him, getting ready to pitch. But he had already signed with the other guys."

A tentative plan was put into motion: Demonstrate what UA could do for a star by proxy, lavish Bazemore with the kind of attention that would earn notice from Curry and other higher-profile players. Or, as Walton puts it, "They sent him a s--- ton of gear."

In the summer of 2012, a shipment arrived at Bazemore's tiny bachelor pad in downtown Oakland. "Under Armour sent me, like, 19 boxes in the first shipment to my apartment," he says. "I didn't even have furniture at the time; I just had a ton of UA boxes and an air mattress at my place. I was under a non-guaranteed contract my rookie year, so I didn't even have a deal. If I wouldn't have made the team, I didn't know what I was going to do with all the stuff."

But sure enough, an ascendent teammate took notice of the Bazemore shoe deluge. "He was a rookie for us, and he got more gear and boxes in front of his locker every day than anybody else on the team," Curry says. The gear was ubiquitous around the Warriors' practice facility; even Golden State staff members were wearing free clothes from the Bazemore largesse.

"I think Bazemore had more player-exclusive footwear than any other guy on that team," Stone says. "And he probably was playing, at that time, two, three minutes a night." Bazemore put a number on it, saying, "I had a merchandise deal where they would send me 60 pairs of shoes for the season."

THIS WAS A longshot approach for Under Armour, but Bazemore -- a natural salesman with a ready smile -- had the personality to give it a chance. He boasts the kind of energy that takes him on 40-mile cycling jaunts. If Bazemore is selling you something, it won't be a subtle pitch. And he just so happened to befriend Curry.

They're both North Carolina guys, both Carolina Panthers fans. It didn't matter that one grew up wealthy in Charlotte and the other grew up poor in tiny Kelford, struggling through winters without heat. "We're people," Bazemore says. "Sometimes you meet someone for the first time, you're like, 'OK, this guy's a great dude.' "

The friendship was facilitated by Bazemore working late after practice in an effort to remain in the league. Curry, though playing big minutes, kept these kinds of hours, as well. "I wasn't playing at all, and this guy's playing like 35 minutes a night," Bazemore says. "He's in there getting up shots, just as many shots as I am."

Friendship begat business. "I'll shout anything out," Bazemore boasts. "Yeah, I have no shame when it comes to branding. I'll throw Under Armour's name, anything I'm a part of. I'll speak so highly of it. And Steph's like, 'My deal is up.' " Bazemore seized the opening. "I'm like, 'Man, come over here, get your own shoe.' I hadn't talked to anybody at Under Armour about this. I was making all these promises, like 'Get your own shoe, you're the face of the game,' sending out all these hypotheticals. I haven't talked to anyone over there."

It was time to contact Stone. "I reached out to Kris Stone, and I was like, 'Dude, I'm working on something,' " Bazemore says. The proxy pitch was paying off. Curry was interested and Bazemore didn't let up, with a keenly curious Stone keeping tabs on the emerging situation. "I probably called Kent three or four times a day," Stone says. "Have you talked to Steph? Have you talked to Steph? Where we at?"

A meeting was set up for Stone to pitch Curry, scheduled before the Nike pitch in Oakland. "I remember Steph saying in our presentation when we met with the family down in Charlotte, 'You guys are doing this stuff for Bazemore. What are you going to be doing for me?' " Stone says. After the meeting adjourned, Curry texted Bazemore to indicate he might sign with UA. The culmination had arrived.

It wasn't a thankless effort for Bazemore, either. Now, three years later, he makes six figures annually with Under Armour, according to Walton, an unusually high figure for a player of his profile. "That was signed before last summer when he signed with the Hawks," Walton says. For context, Bazemore averaged 6.0 points the season before inking that lucrative shoe deal. Since then, he has grown into the Hawks' rotation, playing 28 minutes per game, helping to further justify a sneaker deal that needed no justification. UA owes him now. Big time.

That has something to do with why Bazemore's alma mater, Old Dominion, is now an Under Armour school. "We just signed Old Dominion, so that was kind of a giveback to Kent, so he's happy about that," Stone says. Under Armour paid nearly seven times what Nike was paying the school annually before. In turn, Bazemore has poured his resources into ODU, building a new practice facility and submitting the largest donation by an athlete in school history. Bazemore gets his name on a building and the "UA" symbol is emblazoned on jerseys in Norfolk, Virginia, because an athlete in Oakland, with no visible connection to the university, signed with Under Armour.

STEPH CURRY WANTS to be both a superpower and Switzerland. He wishes to keep peace with Nike even if he is, perhaps, the greatest personal threat the world's largest sports apparel corporation has ever seen. When Nike reps come to Oracle, Curry smiles and greets them. When the rapper Drake, a Nike signee, comes to town, Steph and his wife, Ayesha, take him to the local In-N-Out.

Perhaps for these reasons, when you ask Curry about how these negotiations went down, he opts for "cute" over "cutthroat."

"My favorite story is Riley," Steph says. It's a few weeks before a final decision on the shoe contract must be made. At his agent Jeff Austin's house in Hermosa Beach, California, Curry surveys the array of shoes before him. He asks his baby daughter, "Riley, which one do you like?"

At this point, Riley is little over 1 year old. She is presented with a Nike sneaker, an Adidas sneaker and an Under Armour sneaker. She picks up "shoe one," a Nike. "Threw it over her shoulder," Curry says. "She picked up shoe two, threw it over her shoulder. She picked up the third shoe, walked over and handed it to me." It was the Under Armour Anatomix Spawn. "So I knew right then," Curry says, smiling.

Maybe it was that moment, maybe it was over a year of recruiting by Bazemore and Stone, maybe it was Nike's complacency. Whatever the cause, the result probably changes the flow of billions of dollars, creating a jet stream that takes fortunes out of Oregon, and flies the monies to Maryland.

Nike remains mighty, tops of the top. Despite this particular pratfall, multiple interview subjects for this article warned against crossing the sporting Goliath, fearing the corporation's retributive powers. One Warriors player affiliated with the swoosh declined to be interviewed. He added, as a caution, "Be careful. I'm serious. Be careful."

Some would say the Curry disaster invigorates Nike, motivating the company right as it seizes another key advantage. As athletic companies move into wearable technology, Nike boasts Apple CEO Tim Cook as a member of its board. Sonny Vaccaro is less sanguine on what losing Curry means for one of the world's biggest companies. "This is Nike's biggest fear," he says. "They can't overcome this in the shoe business. This is going to be detrimental to them. Psychologically."

If that's so, that psychological damage was self inflicted. For all Under Armour did and for all Nike didn't do, Nike still had an opportunity to salvage the situation when Curry indicated he wanted to sign elsewhere.

In 2013, Nike retained Curry's matching rights, analogous to how NBA restricted free agency works. They still could have signed Curry, regardless of his preferences. According to a Sept. 16, 2015, report from ESPN's Darren Rovell, "Nike failed to match a deal worth less than $4 million a year."

Stone says of his rival, "They made a decision not to match. That was just their decision. It wasn't because the deal was so out of their ballpark." Stone characterizes the decision as, "If you don't want to be here, then don't be here." Athletes are expected to want Nike, to have always wanted Nike from the time they were kids. This, after all, is the company with the richest tradition. Michael Jordan defines that past, and still outsells their modern athletes. Though Jordan Brand's most popular shoes are, of course, the sneakers MJ actually played in, they release new models, brandished by Russell Westbrook. Their newest, the Jordan 30, comes with a Westbrook-focused ad, narrated by a child-aged hype man. The kid yells, "What y'all expect? Another choir boy running point?!" It's a jab that did not go unnoticed in Curry's camp. The ad's closing tag is, "The Next Frontier of Flight."

Perhaps this is how Nike missed. Years of promoting Michael Jordan descendents made them oblivious to a player who shot the ball over that whole paradigm. It left them vulnerable to Kent Bazemore, and a company with less than 1 percent of the sneaker market. The next frontier of flight didn't happen to be the next frontier of basketball. The next frontier happened to be Steph Curry, whose launches aren't leaps, yet whose range commands a zeitgeist.