Jonathan Grondin remembers exactly where he was on May 12 this year.

Up in Canada, the Toronto Raptors took on the Philadelphia 76ers in a win-or-go home Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semi-finals of the NBA playoffs. The game would become an instant classic.

With less than five seconds left and the score tied at 90 points apiece, the Raptors put the ball in the hands of their star, Kawhi Leonard.

That's when Leonard put up this shot.

The crowd went crazy. NBA Twitter burst into flames.

Grondin, who is the creative design manager at Boston-based New Balance, was watching from Vietnam as Leonard played a game on the other side of the world in a pair of blue and black New Balance sneakers.

"I was actually in the factory, working on newer stuff, watching that game. It was like 6 or 7 in the morning," he said. "That's when he hit that famous shot. ... It was totally, totally, surreal."

It was a scene that just a few years ago seemed unthinkable: Arguably the best player in the NBA making the biggest play of the year — wearing a pair of New Balances.

It was a massive moment for the company, especially since it had just gotten back into the world of basketball. And in the months since, New Balance has indicated that just as Leonard has proven he isn't afraid of taking the big shot, neither are they, when it comes to breaking back into the industry.

Back in the 1980s, New Balance was on the feet of NBA stars. Then, it decided to re-focus on running. But a few years ago, the company wanted to get back into team sports like soccer and baseball — and basketball. It was a play for big money, but it's also one of the most saturated markets in sports. And newcomers aren't necessarily always welcome.

"The history that's there is not super positive for someone who's trying to break into this category. ... So, that was a signal right from the beginning, 'Man, for us to do this, we have to be super unique in who we are,'" said Patrick Cassidy, the global marketing director for consumer and athlete activation at New Balance.

It helped that just as New Balance was getting ready to launch their basketball line, Kawhi Leonard was trying to leave Nike's Jordan Brand. Jonathan Grondin and his team had already been at work on the OMN1S, New Balance's signature basketball sneaker, when Leonard signed with the company in November 2018.

Cassidy said New Balance had always prioritized finding athletes who wanted to go against the grain, like Leonard. He came into their view late into the process of figuring out who New Balance wanted to align with.

"That was a unique opportunity that was presented to us. And we did a lot of work, as did [his side] with kind of figuring each side out to see if we were saying the same thing, if we had the same shared vision, if we wanted to operate in the same way," he said. "After a while of circling back and forth and really personal sit-downs and conversations and poking around, figuring out, it was like, 'Yeah, we really are actually saying that we want the same things. And this can be done in a different way. Let's take the next step.'"

Everything since then has been like a blur: Leonard's shot against Philly. The Raptors' victory over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals in June. Leonard leaving Toronto to head to the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency and turning the NBA on its head in the process. All while wearing New Balance shoes.

A pair of the OMN1S New Balance basketball shoes sits alongside prototypes at the New Balance headquarters in Boston.
Esteban Bustillos WGBH News

Leonard's success has given the company the type of publicity you can't pay for. But it's also dramatically pushed up the timeline for Grondin and everyone involved with basketball at the company's Boston headquarters.

"The world wasn't supposed to know that New Balance was doing basketball until October of this year," he said. "Once we had a Kawhi-level athlete, we had to then shift a bunch of focus on him and get the shoe ready and get him in the shoe."

Although Leonard has been in the shoes for months now, the general release of the OMN1S was just last month. Even then, you have to know someone who knows someone to get them: The colorway that dropped on Halloween has already sold out.

New Balance has also taken advantage of Leonard's trademark matter-of-fact public persona, turning his unintentionally quirky sayings into trendy T-shirts.

All of the excitement and hype is reminiscent of when Under Armour, another basketball outsider, signed Stephen Curry in 2013 and suddenly had one of the hottest shoes on the market when Curry became one of the biggest stars in the league.

Riley Jones, the news editor of Sole Collector, a website focused on the sneaker industry, said Leonard has given New Balance a big initial boost. But he cautioned that the company needs to do a lot more to stay relevant.

"Under Armour had a lot of momentum with Steph Curry, but to be honest with you, I feel like they've kind of squandered it," Jones said. "They haven't really done as much as they could have. They haven't really picked up any of the other hot players. They don't have really any other desirable shoes aside from the Curry line."

When Leonard signed with New Balance, it was met with a not insignificant amount of shock and a little bit of snickering. And Cassidy gets it. He's heard the jokes about New Balances being "dad shoes." But having someone as big as Kawhi Leonard may help soften the blows from those punch lines. New Balance's latest ad with Leonard even takes subtle nods at those wisecracks.

New Balance isn't planning on losing the steam it has now. They've already signed Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Darius Bazley, who famously interned with New Balance and was the first NBA player to sign with them, as well as Dejounte Murray, one of the most promising young players on the San Antonio Spurs.

"Continuously evolving and surprising people to sustain that momentum is something that is paramount, that we talk about everyday," Cassidy said. "We are not the brand that there are some stereotypes about out in the world right now as old and slow, right? We are going to surprise you every single time you see something from New Balance basketball."