Cavs’ Larry Nance Jr. Puts Fresh Foot Forward for Close Friendship, Crohn’s Disease
Larry Nance Jr. considers himself “a bit of a sneaker buff” from a lifetime spent in and around basketball, but you wouldn’t know it from his social media accounts. You won’t find any photos of his Derrick Rose signatures shoes on the Cleveland Cavaliers forward’s Instagram feed, or read any mention of his Yeezys on Twitter. When pressed to name his favorite kicks—adidas only, of course, to avoid censure from the brand he endorses—he picks the Shell Toe, a classic but hardly the hottest item from the Three Stripes.
“I'm not a hypebeast at all,” Larry tells CloseUp360.
By and large, he keeps things simple on the court, too. He doesn’t draw or write notes on his own shoes, let alone allow other artists do the decorating for him. He’s far more concerned with function than form, passing on the eye-popping designs and custom colorways that have become commonplace as a result of the NBA’s newly relaxed sneaker rules.
That is, until this season, when Larry will be wearing a special pair of adidas Pro Bounce shoes. Instead of sporting a typically clean look, his feet will be wrapped in kicks that speak directly to his past, present and future—courtesy of a friendship that's wound through his time as a pro.
Larry Nance Jr. speaks at an event for his Athletes vs. Crohn's & Colitis foundation. (Pinsky Studio)
Like any promising college prospect not named Karl-Anthony Towns, Larry spent the spring of 2015 criss-crossing the country to audition for teams ahead of the NBA draft. Along the way, he dropped into Indianapolis to work out for the Pacers, who owned the Nos. 11 and 43 picks in that year’s draft.
“I was just trying to show the Pacers that I could play,” Larry says.
So was Marcus Thomas. A former standout shooter at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis, Marcus had gone undrafted out of Loyola Chicago in 2010. With encouragement from then-Pacers point guard and fellow Indy native George Hill, Marcus had returned stateside from successful stints in Mexico and Luxembourg to take one last shot at his NBA dream. He was hoping—and competing—for an invite to the annual free-agent camp with his hometown team.
After their respective workouts, Larry and Marcus wound up back in the Pacers locker room, trading training camp stories with then-Indy sharpshooter C.J. Miles.
“I can even take myself back to where we were sitting and everything,” Larry says.
Neither one wound up with the Pacers. Indy spent its lottery pick on Texas big man Myles Turner, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers to lap up Larry with the No. 27 pick.
Marcus, meanwhile, made it to training camp with the Pacers, but was among the final roster cuts prior to the 2015-16 season. Once it became clear that Indiana wouldn’t sign him to its D-League team in Fort Wayne, he put his career in professional basketball on hold—just as Larry’s was getting off the ground.
On December 14, 2016, Larry damn near broke NBA Twitter—if not the entire internet. In the closing moments of the third quarter of the Lakers’ 107-97 loss to the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center, he took two dribbles past his defender and rose up for a death-defying dunk on Brook Lopez.
But for Larry, the real highlight of the night came after the game, when he met 12-year-old Noah Weber, several months after they first connected online.
Like the high-flying forward, Noah, now 15, suffered from Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects the lining of the digestive tract. While watching the 2016 Summer Olympics, he learned that Kathleen Baker, a two-time medalist on the U.S. swim team, had overcome Crohn’s to succeed in Rio de Janeiro.
So Noah hopped on Google to search for other prominent athletes who shared his affliction.
“I came across many names,” Noah says, “but didn't really recognize any names except for Larry's from playing NBA 2K.”
That was enough to compel Noah to reach out to Larry on Instagram. After some back-and-forth in their DMs, Larry surprised Noah with a phone call and invited him and his family to meet after the Lakers’ game in Brooklyn.
“When I got diagnosed, I went and looked to Google to find any professional athlete who had Crohn's,” Larry says. “I was that kid at one point. So now that I am a professional athlete that has it, I think it's important for these kids to have a positive role model who's somebody to look up to and that is accessible, that they can see, like, ‘He's in the NBA. That's one of the most physically exhausting sports and highest leagues there is in the world. And the fact that he can do that, stay healthy, that means I can try out for my basketball team.’”
Despite a decade difference in age, Larry and Noah hit it off—so much so that in January 2017, the month after they met, the duo launched Athletes vs. Crohn’s & Colitis, with plenty of help and hustle from Noah’s parents, Pam and Kaare Weber.
Larry and Noah meet at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2016. (Courtesy of Pam Weber)
“We got to talking after the game, and I just happened to mention to him, like, ‘Something that I’d love to do while I have this platform is to create a charity foundation for kids with Crohn's,’” Larry recalls. “He kind of took that and ran with it. It was my idea, but it was his leg work and his parents' legwork that really got everything started.”
Since then, the organization has raised more than $100,000 for Crohn’s research and scholarships. What began with support from family, friends and volunteers who’ve been affected by Crohn’s and colitis has spawned 3-on-3 basketball tournaments, charitable meet-and-greets, a matching grant from the National Basketball Players’ Association and checks donated to the respective hospitals where Larry and Noah’s doctors work.
On December 3, Athletes vs. Crohn’s & Colitis will be the “Non-Profit of the Night” when the Nets host the Cavaliers at the Barclays Center, where AVC will present a $25,000 donation to Mount Sinai Hospital for IBD research and improving the patient experience. Four nights later, the foundation will cut a similar check to the Cleveland Clinic at Quicken Loans Arena, when the Cavs host the Sacramento Kings.
“It's pretty amazing just to see what like a simple text message or Instagram direct message I sent to Larry a couple years ago has been able to do for expanding the idea of Crohn's disease,” Noah says. “To be able to know that I'm helping all of these different kids all over the country is like a pretty cool thing for me.”
Larry and Noah reconnected this past August. (Courtesy of Pam Weber)
Larry’s poster jam over Brook opened the world’s eyes to his own aerial abilities, beyond being the son of Larry Nance, the winner of the NBA’s first-ever Slam Dunk Contest in 1984. And Larry Jr. has used that platform to attract attention to AVC.
“I've got a wristband, those little rubber wristbands for Athletes vs Crohn's that I wear every single game,” he says, “so whenever I've got a top-10 dunk or something like that, you can always look at my wrist and see. It's always right there.”
Larry’s leaping earned him a spot in the Slam Dunk Contest over All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles this past February, after the Lakers traded him to Cleveland. The year prior, in July 2017, he had served as a judge in the Venice Basketball League’s annual dunk contest.
And who chaperoned Larry, his dad and his brother to Venice Beach? Marcus Thomas.
After pausing his own basketball career, Marcus started training kids and coaching at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. In March 2017, on his 30th birthday, he decided it was time to chart a new course for his life.
“I got a one-way ticket and I just moved to LA, and I was just, like, ‘Fuck it, you know, why not?’” Marcus says.
He served as an image consultant for Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon, his close friend from Indianapolis, and interned at adidas Entertainment, where he learned about fashion while working around the likes of Grammy-award winning musician Pharrell Williams—in addition to driving the Nance family.
Eventually, Marcus became a familiar face around the Lakers. Over the years, he had established a rapport with Rob Pelinka, who had served as Eric’s agent at Landmark Sports. Once Rob joined Magic Johnson in the Lakers’ front office as the team’s general manager, Marcus emerged as a regular around the practice facility, chopping it up with Larry, Ivica Zubac and Tyler Ennis.
“We just started grabbing dinner together, grabbing lunch together and just kind of hanging out,” Larry says. “I just appreciated him as a person. Cool dude. When you find people you have similar interests with, you stay up with them.”
That was the case even after the Lakers traded Larry and Jordan Clarkson to Cleveland in a deadline deal that saw Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and a first-round pick come to LA. With some 2,300 miles between them, those meals turned into weekly texts, occasional catch-up calls and, eventually, a long-distance collaboration.
As Larry was settling into the Cavs’ rotation around LeBron James, near his hometown of Akron, on the team for which his dad once starred—and a title contender at that—Marcus was finding his way far from his own roots. His attention had turned toward fashion. When his grandmother, Wanda Smith, passed from lung cancer in 2017, he became consumed with sadness and anger. From those emotions came inspiration, and from that inspiration came New Project.
“I told my grandmother that I had been drawing, because I've drawn my whole life and she kept all my drawings,” Marcus says. “I told her that I would dedicate this second part of my life, other than playing basketball, to just being more selfless, creating and giving back.”
With a brand name in mind, an eye for design and a hand for stenciling and spraypainting, Marcus started putting New Project wherever he could—shirts, pants and tote bags, all marked with an homage to his grandmother.
So, too, were the shoes. With his ties to adidas, Marcus had long lived the Three Stripe Life. Aside from wearing adidas kicks, he had helped donate hundreds of pairs to the homeless, and facilitated the delivery of 100 boxes of shoes and clothes to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
But all he needed to bring his passion and his past together was one pair of shoes. With his athletic attention shifted from basketball to running, Marcus copped a pair of adidas Ultraboosts, put his New Project inscription on them using stencils and spray paint, and started running in his grandmother’s honor. It was only when he posted a picture of those sleek sneakers on social media in October that Marcus caught the attention of an old friend.
“I saw on his Instagram he had designed a pair of some Ultraboost running shoes that I thought were pretty dope,” Larry says. “So I reached out to him. It was, like, 'Yo, those are nice. Did you do that?' And, of course, he was, like, ‘Yeah, you know, it's kind of the new thing I'm working on.’
“It was his idea to say, ‘Hey, send me a pair of shoes so I can do something up for you.’ And I thought it'd be a pretty cool idea.”
So Larry packed up the blankest canvas he could find—a white pair of adidas Pro Bounce shoes—and sent it off to LA, without any instructions for Marcus to follow.
“It was the only real white pair that I had to really design on,” Larry says.
About a month later, Larry got a package back in the mail. His plain white shoes had been transformed by a simple application of black and grey spray paint over stencils.
There was New Project on one upper and Nance on the other. Each tongue displayed a “2” to make Larry’s jersey number (22). Marcus added birds—a personal symbol of freedom—along with a nod to Larry’s four-year career at the University of Wyoming. And on the back of one of the shoes, Marcus stenciled in AVC, a nod to Larry’s foundation.
The adidas Pro Bounce shoes that Marcus customized for Larry. (Courtesy of Marcus Thomas)
“I wanted to make sure the shoe had a meaning,” Marcus says. “I didn't want to design a shoe just to design a shoe.”
“I love them,” Larry says.
Enough so to break his career streak of hooping in non-customized kicks.
“To see that shoe out there is gonna be crazy, man,” Marcus says. “And the dope thing is it's not even about the shoe.”
For Marcus, it’s about his grandmother’s memory and a second chance at basketball—as both an artist and, potentially, a player overseas. For Larry, it’s about bringing those eyeballs from his wrists to his feet, to raise awareness of Crohn’s and colitis.
For both, it’s about a friendship, bound in basketball, that’s traveled from the Midwest and back on a wing and a pair.
“I'm glad we've been staying friends to get to this point,” Larry says, “and I'm excited to wear these.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.