As Saturday’s NBA’s slam dunk contest nears, a Hall of Fame player who starred in the original side show 47 years ago is taking Ralph Lauren Corporation to court over sneakers that he says wrongly use his NIL.
George Gervin, a 12-time ABA and NBA All-Star who was known as “the Iceman” long before Val Kilmer’s character in Top Gun came to be, filed a complaint in the Southern District of New York on Wednesday. He accuses the publicly traded fashion company of infringing his right of privacy, creating a false endorsement and infringing his trademarks.
The claims stem from Ralph Lauren’s line of retro-style high top sneakers called the “Gervin Mid.” Gervin, who says he never consented to the use of his identity and celebrity, seeks at least $2 million in damages and an injunction to stop continued sales.
Authored by attorneys Robert Garson and Kevin Kehrli, Gervin’s complaint refers to several sneakers. When he played in the NBA, Gervin wore a “player exclusive” Nike Blazer sneaker featuring the word ICEMAN. Nowadays, Nike sells a Blazer Mid ’77 Vintage, which the complaint says is “inspired by those worn by Gervin.” Last year, Ralph Lauren sold the Gervin Mid, which bears resemblance—to what extent can be debated—to the Blazer Mid ’77 Vintage.
Although Ralph Lauren no longer uses the Gervin Mid moniker for adult sneakers, it still sells the “Gervin Mid Faux-Leather PS Sneaker” for babies. Secondary sellers, meanwhile, continue to sell the adult line.
Nike has not sued Ralph Lauren over these sneakers. Nike is no stranger to using litigation to enforce intellectual property rights. Last month, it sued Japanese fashion brand A Bathing Ape over alleged copying of sneaker designs. It also sued Canadian athletic apparel company Lululemon for patent infringement.
Sportico reached out to Ralph Lauren for comment on Gervin’s complaint but as of publication had not heard back.
As told by Gervin’s complaint (an advocacy document and not a neutral retelling of facts), Gervin attorney Michael Clohisy contacted Ralph Lauren last summer with a cease-and-desist demand. Clohisy and an in-house Ralph Lauren attorney then engaged in series of phone conversations during which—again, as narrated by the complaint—the attorney said Ralph Lauren’s French-based designers had come up with the word “Gervin” on their own and were not familiar with Gervin the retired basketball star or that he wore a similar sneaker. This retelling suggests that the French designers thought “Gervin” sounded appealing for marketing purposes, and the fact that it is the same word as Gervin’s surname was a mere coincidence.
In other words, Ralph Lauren’s response might have added insult to injury: Not only did company officials deny naming the sneaker after Gervin, but they claimed they don’t even know there was a former basketball star with that name.
“Gervin” does not appear in the French language. As a surname, it is of Northern Irish origin. There have been several other (somewhat) famous Gervins. Danish cyclist Willy Gervin, who won a bronze medal in the 1932 Summer Olympics, and Norwegian magazine editor Ernst Gervin are among them. None, though, seems quite as renowned as the Iceman.
To advance in his false endorsement and trademark infringement claims, Gervin will need to establish that consumers are likely to be confused as to whether he’s endorsed Ralph Lauren’s sneakers. The complaint charges the New York-based fashion giant is trying to “deceive” consumers into believing “that Mr. Gervin is associated with Defendant’s sneakers, or that he sponsors or endorses Defendant’s products.” To that point, Gervin became aware of the sneaker when a friend texted Gervin’s wife with a congratulatory but erroneous assertion: Ralph Lauren had “named a shoe” after her husband.
Gervin, 70, is familiar to basketball fans of a certain age but might not be as well known among younger fans. Generation X and older generations might recognize Gervin as a prolific scorer for the San Antonio Spurs who could single-handedly dominate games. Gervin averaged 33.1 and 32.3 points per game during the 1979-80 and 1981-82 NBA seasons and won four scoring titles in his career—a feat topped only by Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. Basketball Reference compares Gervin’s production to that of Steve Nash, Clyde Drexler, Vince Carter and several other well-known stars.
Mindful that Gervin’s contemporary relevance is important to the case, the complaint stresses that Jordan’s one-time teammate remains a prominent figure. Gervin is involved with the George Gervin Youth Center and George Gervin Preparatory Academy, and last summer, he coached a BIG3 team. A documentary about his life will be released later this year.
Attorneys for Ralph Lauren will answer the complaint and deny the allegations. If the case advances past a motion to dismiss, the parties might agree to settle out of court.