Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sneaker wars take game off court

Today's basketball shoe market is taking the game off the court and into the collectors' market

The Press-Enterprise

INLAND EMPIRE, Ca. - They're called "kicks," "Jays" or "hoop" shoes in the slang of urban youth.

To most adults older than 35 they look like, well, basketball sneakers.

But to fans of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and other NBA stars, limited-edition athletic kicks are prized things of beauty.

The shoes have a frenzied following not just in the inner city but middle-class suburbia, including Inland Southern California. And they have touched off a still-exploding cultural and merchandising phenomenon.

"Jordan shoes have a life of their own," said Michael Kepler, a customer-service representative at Nike world headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.

Word of Nike's Jan. 28 release of its new Defining Moments Package prompted hordes of shoe freaks to camp for days outside specialty stores at the Tyler Galleria, Ontario Mills and other malls across Southern California. The prized $300 collectible consists of the Jordan Retro 11 and Retro 6 paired in a special box.

"One person had a seizure over not being able to get in to buy the shoes," said Sal Munoz, district manager at Shiekh Shoes at the Tyler Galleria. "These are among the most popular Jordans of all time."

These days eBay operates a brisk online market for trading and selling kicks. When "DMP" came out, owners were peddling them on the site for $1,000 or more.

Shoe heads' need to possess and show off the latest retro release of Jordans and, more recently, shoes endorsed by other basketball -- and even rap music -- stars have spawned a $16-billion-a-year collectibles industry.

"For me, it's the hunt," said Riverside resident Cory McClanahan, a sales assistant at Shiekh Shoes. "Once I get a shoe, it's a good feeling that's hard to explain. It's like waiting all day for a hamburger, then having one."

In McClanahan's world, strutting around in a rare pair of Jordans gives him bragging rights. "People go, 'Oh, you have it,' " he said.

At 6 feet 5 inches, McClanahan loves playing, talking and breathing basketball. He has about 120 limited-edition shoes in his collection, which he plans someday to give to a son.

"When I was a kid, Michael Jordan came out with his first $100 shoe but my parents wouldn't pay for it," he said. "My goal when I grew up was to afford them. Now I can."

Jordan was the first to market kicks via Nike and is now in his 21st year, with Air Jordans still the predominant brand. Nike also handles the likes of Kobe Byrant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash and other NBA stars.

"Not all our shoes are tied to a person per se," said Brian Facchini, a spokesman for Nike in New York. "Anything can be hot if it's released in limited quantities."

For example, since its debut in 1982, the Nike Air Force One has been a perennial favorite. One variation of the $200 shoe sports a map of LA on the toes and sides.

But other shoe companies, including Adidas and Reebok, have jumped into the market with shoes in a riot of colors and retro styles numbered according to the year a player wore the originals (which also can be had at even higher prices).

The Adidas NBA lineup includes Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady, whose shoe line gives Air Jordan a run for its money. Reebok's NBA stable features Yao Ming, Shaun Livington, Steve Francis and Allen Iverson as pitchmen. Reebok also has struck endorsement deals with rap/hip-hop stars -- first Jay-Z, then performers like 50 Cent, Nelly and Pharrell Williams. What's more, rappers such as Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg and Xzibit also have shoe promotion deals.

But the sneaker subculture has a dark side, especially in low-income neighborhoods where kids are crazy about basketball. Some wearing an especially coveted or high-ticket pair have been mugged and even killed, left lying barefoot in pools of blood by hard-core fans craving their kicks at any cost.

Of course, the vast majority of sneaker collectors are peaceful, explained Jeremy Morillo, a buyer for Blends, at The Lab Mall in Costa Mesa.

"We socialize and talk about sneakers and the NBA," said Morillo, a collector who wears his kicks only occasionally at the mall lest he wear them out. "The whole object is like a game. People want it and can't have it. But you do."

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