Q. When did sneakers shift from performance to fashion?
A. Definitely not for a while—at first it was court fashion—elite high school players started caring about [how they looked on the court] in the 1980s. Rappers and artists like Jay-Z were also a big influence. I interviewed Michael Jordan for KICKS Magazine and he said he realized that sneakers were fashionable when Boyz-II-Men wore tuxedos and Jordan 11s to the Grammys.
First it was just a basketball shoe, then it was a basketball shoe for players who wanted to look good on the court—even if the shoe wasn’t comfortable, people just wanted to play in Jordans. But let’s put things into perspective—the first round of retro Air Jordans released could be found in the discount store Marshall’s—it was some time before sneakers were considered super cool footwear for people from all walks of life.
Why were Chuck Taylor sneakers so important?
They were the most popular, best-selling shoes of all time. But it was certainly not the most revolutionary technology. It was a nice rubber sole shoe and became a very basketball-centric shoe for many decades.
From the 1920s through the 1950s basketball wasn’t really popular just yet, but a lot famous old time players played in it. And then they also seemed to appeal to everyone having nothing to do with basketball—rock stars, rappers, gangbangers, hippies, suburbanites—they just became this go-to shoe that came in many colors and you could wear it at the beach, run errands, whatever.
What influence does Michael Jordan have on other basketball players—do they still think that his shoes make them better players?
That’s a good question. I think the impact today is more off the court, but it’s really two different things. The older, retro Air Jordans make you look cool, but no one is arguing today that they make you a better player—wearing them speaks to a certain confidence. DeMarcus Cousins has worn them during a game, but it’s more of a statement of confidence to play in lower performance shoes.
As far as performance, the Jordan 29 is a great shoe that Russell Westbrook wears, Blake Griffin wears something called the SuperFly, Chris Paul has his own line under Jordan. They are all really well made great performance shoes. But it’s all a matter of personal taste.
How did Jordan’s shoes become more popular than the Adidas Jabars or the Puma Clydes?
I mean, why did Mike become so popular as a player? He’s the best of all time in what is now perhaps the globe’s favorite sport. He was very visible, you saw his face and emotion on the biggest stages with people watching all around the world. And he won. He was 6-and-0 in the NBA finals.
Remember, it was also the first real era of mass celebrity through very wide TV reach, but without social media which, especially for many celebrities recently, can result in a lot of missteps and negative press. He was kind of in the perfect era for celebrity.
And then on top of that the shoes are pretty fresh-looking. He did a lot of work with Tinker Hatfield, who is considered the best basketball shoe designer of all time. Nike always invested in the best technology of the time.
So you were getting a good shoe, designed by the best designers in the business and attached to the generation’s most successful and recognized athlete in the world—it was a perfect storm of success.
Tell me about the economics of Jordans—what’s the most you’ve seen them go for?
Well actually they’re not that rare, which is kind of the marketing genius of it. No one really knows the numbers. Sometimes they’ll do extra-special releases of 20 or 30 shoes that might go for $5,000 or $10,000. But the Saturday releases of Jordan 11s and 4s that are considered limited editions? Those will be the best selling shoes of the week nationally—they’re kind of limited in name only.
They’re limited in the sense that not everyone who wants one is going to get them, but they’re not truly limited in the sense of a one-of-a-kind painting. It’s really been marketing genius so far that I can tell because they want there to be lines, lots of people showing up that first day—they want most of those dedicated people to get them, but some people to be told no to keep up demand.
You have to imagine that some of the violence over shoes must come from this marketing strategy.
There’s a lot of ways people can get sneakers now, whether it’s waiting on line in a foot locker, a sneaker boutique, a sneaker conference, contacting people through Instagram or eBay. So if you chose to get them by pulling out a gun and robbing them from someone, they have much bigger problems.
This is not to say that our society is perfect, but I don’t personally hold Nike accountable for violence around shoes. The shoes aren’t really that limited in quantity, so I think that if someone wants a shoe so badly that they’re willing to hurt someone for it, their values are out of whack.
When did your obsession with shoes start?
It was really just a matter of playing basketball and all sports really, but my favorite athletes tended to be basketball players because you could emulate them. Walter Payton was my favorite football player, but you couldn’t wear his shoes to school. However, you could wear what Michael Jordan, Mark Jackson, and Scottie Pippen wore.
Something about being a basketball fan translates [to every day life] in ways that other sports don’t. But it was just kind of pure—the shoes looked good and if I needed to wear ones anyway, why not wear the ones that my favorite players wore when they did amazing things on the court?
What are your most favorite pair of shoes and why?
I have a lot of favorites, but over time the one’s I’ve cared most about are Jordan 4s. A lot of people like the Jordan 3s, but I was in 8th grade when the 4s came out: I bought them with my own money, they were very clean, super comfortable, the all-black ones had the little netting on the side and Mike was scoring 37 points per game. I was at just the age where I knew I was rooting for the best player but I wasn’t yet at the age where I had to be too cool to admit I was sweating someone. And the shoes hold up to this day.
Do you remember the Kobe 2s that looked like astronaut shoes?
Yeah, I mean those had their fans too. It was a very unique look and Kobe endorsed it and those were definitely very successful at the time. If you look around online today, that shoe has a pretty nice group of fans.
My favorite to play in is the Adidas Pro Model.
Someone from Adidas told me that there was a season or two where that original shoe was on the feet of 60%-70% of the guys in the NBA. The pro-model one was a super popular basketball shoe.
Ben Osborne is the Editor-in-Chief of SLAM Magazine, where he oversees editorial content, production of the magazine and website, advertising and relationships with athletes, brands and writers. Honored as one of Folio Magazine's 2014 Content Conissieurs, Osborne has an extensive career in journalism. His coverage of baseball, basketball, football, soccer, hip-hop, politics, urban neighborhoods and more has been in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Daily News, Village Voice, Complex, and XXL among others. He is the author and editor of several books, the most recent of which is titled "SLAM KICKS: Basketball Sneakers that Changed the Game." He graduated from George Washington University with a B.A. in Journalism.