The Sneaker Grouch

Back in the 1980s and 90s, Philly kids like me would scour the mom-and-pop sneakers shops on Germantown Avenue looking for shoes that would, in one stroke, make a statement. People could look at your feet and get a sense of who you were and what you were about. If you wore Adidas Ewings, you were in control. If you wore Air Jordan Ones, you were flashy.

I spent the fall before starting seventh grade obsessing over a pair of orange-and-white high-top Dunks, Nike’s collegiate line. “Be True to Your School” was the ad campaign. An article on the Syracuse Orangemen in Sports Illustrated spoke to me. Seeing a photo of guard Sherman Douglas running upcourt wearing his orange uniform and matching Dunks felt otherworldly in a time when most teams wore plain white athletic shoes.

Besides, orange kicks would certainly earn some wows from my kickball teammates in gym class. I was eccentric and bold, the kid with the orange sneakers.

Back then, basketball sneakers as streetwear still held some connection to the game, with signature models created for a player or team. Kids chose their footwear based on the athletes they emulated, nicknaming models Barkleys, Pennys or Jordans. Nowadays there are Dunks inspired by the TV show “Twin Peaks.” No joke. There’s that Air Force 2 colorway inspired by the red and green of Gucci.

It’s not that there aren’t player-inspired sneakers being made anymore. It’s just that these days the sneaker collecting game is more about a soulless contest of who has the most purchasing power. A lot of new “sneakerheads” don’t know the history behind the shoes.

The original Air Force One was the first basketball sneaker to use Nike Air technology. After its 1982 run, Nike killed the line. Fans in Baltimore asked their local sneaker stores to bring it back. In 1986, Nike finally complied. Coupled with the emergence of the Air Jordan in 1985, basketball-related street style was born.

Things changed, though, when a new generation of kids now wanted a purple-and-black pair to match their purple-and-black hoodie and corresponding baseball cap—New Era, of course. Sneaker companies catered to the fashion crowd, forming a contrived notion of urban fashion.

These days the sneaker craze is running ridiculously strong. Nike continues to cash in making trend-tracking, Footlocker-jockin’ teens buy two pairs of reissued Air Jordans bundled in a set for over $300. There are also cross-trainers with a Transformers toy tie-in. Read that last sentence again to get a sense of how ugly things have gotten out there. You know it’s bad when New Balance’s jogging shoes, the made-in-Maine stalwarts of function, gets the patent leather treatment.

Go to any mall-style sneaker store (even the so-called boutiques) and most of the contemporary streetwear shoes are overdesigned, overpriced, and made to sell to the fashion set. Like Air Force One expert DJ Clark Kent once said, a lot of sneaker collectors collect the “Sheed” Air Force One line without even knowing the shoes are named after Rasheed Wallace, the Detroit Pistons forward who has worn AF1s exclusively since his days at Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia. Cooler still, Wallace wears his ankle straps hanging off the back, “Philly style.” No one else in NBA has such devotion to street culture.

Not too long ago I walked into Urban Outfitters and saw a pair of my beloved Syracuse Orange Dunks—scuff marks pre-applied. I imagined a legion of kids buying them and tucking their skinny Swedish jeans behind the tongue. I felt nauseous.

What about the new versions of the classic Blazers?

— SpikeLee    Dec 2, 09:19 AM    #

Blazers came out in 72, so they pre-date me and Air technology. My issue is that most people who are wearing them today don’t even know who George Gervin is. The Iceman, who wore Blazers, was of course on the league’s best scorers. And what was up with that war movie you did? I love your stuff, even “Girl 6,” but I had no desire to check out your latest one.

SneakerGrouch    Dec 2, 01:42 PM    #

Sherlyn    Jan 12, 12:31 AM    #

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