How I Got Hooked

A memoir of sneakers I loved and lusted for.

Never Again

Nike Versatile Low (1997) - White/Black

These were the sneakers I had my first really bad sprain in. I was playing JV basketball as a sophomore for our high school team, the Knights—which were black & white. In ‘97, barely anyone wore low top sneakers. It probably didn’t help that I bought them a half size too big. The pain seared into my brain, and I vowed to never play in low tops again, which holds true to this day.

Ever since 8th grade, I wanted to wear a pair of half white and half black sneakers with black socks. The black part of the shoe had to connect to the black socks. That was the look. This look had been popularized by The Fab Five four years prior, but I remember thinking Nike socks were too expensive. John Shaw, the quarterback of my REC league football team in 7th grade, wore his shoes like this when we were in 8th grade, and it looked especially cool. He quit playing school sports in 8th grade even though he was good at all of them, and later that year his father committed suicide. I remember seeing his dad yell at John and his younger brother at our practices, even though they were two of the best players on the team and our team was undefeated. Even though my dad wasn’t around, I was glad he wasn’t like theirs. When I heard the gossip at school of what had happened, I felt sorry for John but had no idea what that felt like or what could be said to him. I never saw him again after 8th grade.

These were obscure, and to tell you how obscure—I couldn’t find a photo online. The Versatile Lows were a take down of the Uptempo line.

I remember the tongue was over padded like a skate shoe. Back then shoes used too much foam bloating them on the foot. They weren’t shaped like feet but instead had a triangular silhouette to them. I liked the string pull tab on the heel and tongue because it made them easier to slip on. Other than that, they were quite plain.

I’ll have to sketch what I can remember but at another time.

Stepping Outside the Comfort Zone

adidas Elevation EQT (1997) &
adidas Crazy 8 (1997)

When Kobe Bryant entered the NBA out of high school in ‘96 everyone wanted to see what he could do. This was the Eddie Jones/Young Shaq Lakers, so minutes for Bryant early in the season were rare. Kevin Garnett, drafted out of high school the previous year, showed star potential at times and massive charisma. The internet hit mainstream via America Online (AOL), and I thought we had hit a new era in professional basketball where every kid would go straight from high school to the NBA.

By signing the right athlete, adidas broke the spell the Nike swoosh had over me. I had never seen anything in footwear like the Feet You Wear technology adidas was pushing. Later in the season Kobe wore the Crazy 8’s, which I think is one of adidas’s coolest basketball shoes. I loved the large radiuses and pods of the outsole, and the concept of mimicking the foot made anatomical sense to me. The first pair of adidas I wore were the Elevation EQT’s in white with reflective stripes.

I remember thinking the stripes looked cheap because they were wrinkled all the time due to the plastic covering over the 3M reflective beading. I also remember thinking the FYW logo—a face made out of a foot imprint, looked really corny, but it was small enough to ignore. I thought the slightly asymmetrical throat was cool, and I liked the overall silhouette of the shoe. Best of all: I got them for $30 on clearance. So far, everything was going great for adidas. I liked their athlete. I liked the look of their key technology. I strayed from Nike and bought their shoe.

Everything went wrong when I finally played in them. Within the first 15 minutes, I had to take them off. I remember checking the insole to see if there was a rock inside; my feet were killing me. I flipped the shoe upside down hypothesizing why my feet hurt so much. Eventually I had to run home from the court to switch sneakers. Equating adidas with pain, I regretfully left my Elevations on the shelf and stayed away from adidas performance shoes for years.

SIDE NOTE: Kobe Bryant defeated Chris Carr in the dunk contest. What’s really sad is if you look up Chris Carr, he’s not even the first hit on Google since there’s another Chris Carr in the NFL.

1995 & 1996 All-Star Game Uniforms
Phoenix (Purple) & San Antonio (Teal)

This isn’t about shoes, but I had to make an entry for these uniforms—my favorites of all time. I wish I could get any of the shorts from these uniforms.

Missed Connections
Nike Zoom Flight 95 (1995-96)

The black, carbon fiber, white version of the Zoom Flight 95 was by far my favorite. Compared to the rest of Nike’s 1996 basketball lineup (especially the likes of the Air More Uptempo), the ZF95 looked like it was from the future. I immediately began sketching oval-shaped Air bags.

At this point Jason Kidd was one of the most exciting point guards in the League. He had the no-look behind the back passes to Jamal Mashburn & Jim Jackson (who were averaging 24 & 25 PPG respectively in ‘94-‘95) for the Dallas Mavericks—perennial basement dwellers of the 90’s. It was almost cool to be a Mavs fan when those three were put together.

This is one of those pairs I regret not getting as a kid; 1996 was the right time to be wearing these. I think in 2008 they decided to retro this model, but seeing it in person I was underwhelmed. The proportions looked old, and the quality didn’t seem to be there. It was one of those released in 2008 where I thought I’d be jumping at a chance to buy them, but the magic was gone when I held the shoes in my hands.

Too Much
Nike Air More Uptempo (1996)

Scottie Pippen, my second favorite player at the time, wore the More Uptempos at the Barcelona Olympics in Atlanta, GA. The polarizing graphic of ‘AIR’ written in bubbly letters read as a total gimmick to me, and I hated them.

My best friend Michael got them, and I remember thinking he wasted his money. I think I didn’t like them because it felt like Nike was playing around with me, and I took sneakers too seriously. I felt like it was a waste on the shelf for a more serious design.

People still love them today, but my feelings haven’t changed.

Adjust & Modify

Nike Air Modify Force Mid (1996)

I couldn’t find an image of the original colorway I got, but it was a white based one with either a navy or pine green removable strap. The entire varsity team had the Air Adjusts, which were basically the Chris Webber Air Max Sensations with the same strap system on top.

I thought these shoes were genius for schools since you could buy different colored straps, even a USA team one. The Modify Forces were a take down of the Adjusts, aimed at JV players like myself. Overall, I thought the shoes were ugly, but I guess I just wanted to be part of a team.

It’s funny to me looking back—a skinny JV kid buying the takedown version of what the Varsity players had. At this point I was getting a little better at the basic skills of basketball. I think my coach mainly put me on the team because 1) he had coached me as a 7th grader in football and 2) because I wasn’t afraid to dive against anyone for a loose ball. Aside from being a decent athlete, I was an awful basketball player.

For me, these are one of those shoes you think back on but have no desire to see them released again.

Turf to Asphalt

Nike Air Max Speed Turf (1996) - White/Black/Turquoise/Orange

Entering my freshman year of high school, I was torn between football and my growing passion for basketball. This was reflected in my choice of sneakers as I passed up all of the basketball selection to buy these funky Speed Turf trainers.

I think I was attracted to them in the wake of Deion Sander’s line of Turf Trainers, and I really wanted a shoe with a strap with a dominate black blocking. The air bag was also a huge plus.

Within the neighborhood, my friends and I would look to challenge the older kids to a football game. Whenever the ball was kicked off, our team would toss the ball back to me, and I would run the entire field to score. Any chance I got, I would high step like Deion Sanders—especially after interceptions. This wasn’t extremely impressive given how sloppy most backyard football games are, but out there my brother and I were legends.

As I realized the demands of playing football in high school, I became disenchanted with it altogether. I saw football as a sport that lacked real skill outside of the quarterback position. The coaching staff didn’t have the same vision I had in becoming a running back. I always felt the most gifted with the ball in my hands dodging or plowing through defenders. Instead, I was positioned on the defense as a strong safety or linebacker.

It was in this year I started playing more basketball than ever and marked the beginning of the end of my football aspirations. I really loved these sneakers at the time, and even seeing them now makes me feel nostalgic. The turquoise and orange worked well together. I ended up playing more playground basketball than football in these, eventually wearing the bottom rubber down to the midsole.

Jordan Returns

Air Jordan XI (1995-96) - White/Black/Concord

Michael Jordan returned to the NBA on March 20th, 1995 against Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers. The joy fans felt hearing about his comeback will never be duplicated. I recorded the game on VHS. He was wearing a new number, #45, since his previous number had been retired. In his Jordan X’s (which I found underwhelming as a kid), this was the first time I had ever seen him rusty or affected by defenders in any way.

While facing the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals, Jordan unveiled the patent leather XI’s on his feet as well as #23 on his chest (both of which lead to NBA League fines). The shaved head, the ‘Bulls’ and ‘23’ jersey, the leg sleeve and his XI’s—all of it formed an iconic look.

Joe Sanders had the XI’s on the first day of school. Some people said they were ugly and looked like duck boots, but others soon followed his lead. I was still on the fence about them. I still had a sour taste in my mouth over the Jordan X’s. Studying both now, I see a lot of the same elements of the X in the XI. Instead of starting from scratch, Tinker Hatfield refined the X by adding clear rubber, mesh, and an unforgettable material.

Strangely, I have never owned a pair of Jordan XI’s. They are widely considered as the best Jordan ever, but the timing was never right for me to buy them.

Avante Guards

Nike Air Penny 1 (1995) - Black/White/Royal Blue &
Fila Grant Hill 1 (1995) - White/Navy

I remember liking Penny Hardaway over Grant Hill as far as players (and their uniforms) came, but I initially preferred Hill’s shoe over Penny’s. Now, I feel completely opposite about them. The Hill’s reminded me of the Jordan IX’s, which felt familiar by then. The Penny’s provided a completely new look with new materials in the piping trim and tongue. Even the way the heel webbing was horizontal was funky. The midsole wrapped wing of the Penny’s stunned me, but I understood the functional idea behind it.

As a kid I was still wearing my brother’s VII’s, but these both affected my taste in sneakers and gave me an idea of what was to come. These players were going to be the new generation leading the league without Michael Jordan (since he first retired in ‘93). Penny looked like someone who could really be compared to Magic Johnson, and Grant Hill did more for his team than anyone since Michael Jordan. These guys were also two of the hottest cards to collect in ‘94-95. Unfortunately, both players had injuries change their legacies forever.

Rookie of the Year

Air Max Sensation (1995) - White/Navy

Furthering my fascination with Chris Webber was the trade that sent him to DC’s Bullets playing alongside former Michigan teammate Juwon Howard.

The Air Max Sensations blended elements from the Jordan X (deco stitching on the saddle) and Air Max CB (stretch gore straps). I never owned these, but I remember wishing I could get them the first time I saw them. I especially liked the toe Swoosh placement, which was later brought back this past year by entire Nike company.

Though having a promising young core built around Calbert Chaney, Howard, and Webber, things didn’t really work out for the Bullets as they proved only to be an average team. I would never like anything Chris Webber was wearing again.