Saturday, August 26, 2006

Stayin' laced

Athletes share an unabashed love for their kicks

Arash Markazi
Sports Illustrated

I guess you could call it an addiction. One without meetings, 12-step programs or support groups (at least none that I know of). It's why I instantaneously look down at a stranger's shoes rather than their eyes when I first meet them. Why I cramp my feet into size nine Fire Red Jordan IV's because the 10s were all sold out. Why it's perfectly normal to go shopping with my girl and roll home with more bags than her. Why I still feel secure in my masculinity while arguing about a shoe's colorway and trying on my boy's new pair of Air Force 1s before going out on a Friday night.

Those who know, know, and those who don't have at least been exposed to sneaker heads, also known as "heads" -- a rare breed of individuals who live and breathe the materials that surround their feet. You may have spotted them rumbling in the streets of New York for a pair of Nike Pigeon Dunks, camping out in the San Francisco rain for days to get their hands on the new Jordans and throwing down more than $1,500 for a pair of kicks they'll never wear but brag about owning.

You may also have spotted them on the field or on the court, as some of the biggest athletes today are also some of the biggest sneaker heads. From Terrell Owens and Michael Vick to Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson, today's superstars are not only endorsing sneakers, they are collecting them. Dedicating entire closets to their hundreds of pairs of shoes, many of which are organized by brand and color, like Reggie Bush's, so he can perfectly match them with the right shirt and hat combo in the morning. While it is impossible for me relate to multimillion-dollar athletes in terms of their outlandish collections of cars, homes and jewelry, the one area in which I can communicate with them is their sneakers.

It was the only thing that brought a smile to Warren Sapp's face when I ran into him earlier this year in Houston. He gushed about how big a head he was after I complimented him on his white-on-white Air Force 1s. "I want to open up a sneaker head shop in Florida," he said as he enlarged a picture of a room full of shoes he had taken on his Sidekick. "This is what you'll see when I'm online."

It elicited an unusually deep response from Kobe Bryant when I asked about the three-pronged logo on the tongue of his new Zoom Kobe 1s. He compared it to a samurai warrior's shield that protected him and made him stronger. "I wanted a shoe that was mine," he said. "I wanted to see myself in the shoes. When I look at my shoes, I want them to reflect who I am as a player. I want to be inspired by my shoes."

It caused Gary Payton to sound like a fashion designer when I asked him what shoes I should wear to the ESPYs. "You have to go with the Air Force 1s, that's my shoe," he said. "Everybody wears them because you can wear them with anything. I got a dozen different colorways at home, white-on-white, red-on-white, blue-on-white, brown-on-white. I got a collection, but the white-on-white is the best. You can never go wrong with that."

While heads might be everywhere today, from suits to rappers rocking their custom Air Force 1s, that hasn't always been the case. What was once a small subculture has now evolved into a billion-dollar industry that everyone wants a piece of. There are dozens of books and magazines out there dedicated to the sneaker culture, as well as television shows and documentaries chronicling its impact and origins.

While some might complain about the commercialization and proliferation of the once underground game, it's hard to argue with all the advancements that have been made. You might not earn the same badge of honor for scoring a hard-to-find pair online today as you would 20 years ago, when it took you a month and a gas bill twice as expensive as the sneakers you were looking for, but the love of the shoe remains the same. Whether it takes you a few seconds or a few months to find that precious pair, the feeling you get when you lace them up doesn't change.

Although the game is global now, New York City has always been the mecca for heads. In a city dependent on public transportation and where cars are more a luxury than a necessity, most NYC heads use their kicks to express themselves the same way someone elsewhere might by rolling in Gallardo or Giovanna wheels. It's also why other metropolitan cities such as London, Hong Kong and Tokyo quickly became trendsetters in the sneaker game early on.

It used to be a little harder being a sneaker head in Los Angeles, where most people only walk to and from their valeted cars and pay health club dues if they want to walk more than a mile. There's no hour-long train rides where you keep your head down and scope out what your competition is rocking. That, however, is changing as heads here are beginning to open shops and boutiques and throw sneaker parties in L.A.

"Back when I was coming up, everybody could care less about what you were wearing on your feet; it was more about getting into a car," says rapper Ice Cube. "Now the shoe is the new car. It seems like everybody realizes they can't afford the super-fly cars that they see but they can afford the shoes. Now, shoes are just as big as cars. It's really about style."

Style is certainly the biggest influence in the game. Most heads aren't looking to buy the newest pair of Jordans to play in them, but to put them on ice (save them without wearing them) or rock them at a club or a special occasion. The days of buying sneakers strictly to play in them are as long gone as the days of NBA All-Star wearing Pro-Keds. "It's taken these shoe companies a long time to realize they need to really identify with style-makers and not just athletes," said Cube. "Most of the people that buy shoes don't play in them. You now see these companies getting behind hip-hop community and not just athletes to sell their shoes."

As the sneaker culture continues to evolve, with rappers such as 50-Cent and Jay-Z getting into the mix, graffiti artists such as Futura and Stash using kicks as their canvases, and boutiques like Undefeated and Blends opening up stores left and right, my addiction will no doubt continue to grow. It probably doesn't help that Los Angeles, which had no sneaker boutiques less than five years ago, has about a dozen now. That's fine by me -- maybe the chances of finding a size 10 Fire Red Jordan IV instead of squeezing my feet into the only nine left in the city will now increase.

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