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. Our high school team, the Knights, 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.

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.

Hand-Me-Down Retros

Air Jordan VII - Black/Red/Purple “Raptors”

One good thing that came of my Air Unlimiteds getting water-logged and smoked was being able to wear my older brother’s pair of Jordan VII’s. My mom got them for him after I had gotten my VII’s, but my brother never wanted them. He was the type of kid who didn’t care about signature sneakers or shoes in general. Mid and high top shoes annoyed him because he thought they were hard to put on and take off. ‘95 wasn’t one of Nike’s best years in terms of basketball shoes so I was glad to have these. His 7’s were in great condition and were the best hand-me-downs I ever received.

The second picture was one of my favorite cards in my collection. It was eventually stolen during a basketball game.

Air Jordan WTF Moment

Air Jordan IX (1994)

When the IX came out, I had no clue what to think. I didn’t know what to feel, but I couldn’t help notice them. Shoes weren’t blocked like this back then. It was a drastic contrast to the busy and over-detailed Jordan VIII (which I really disliked). In ‘94 I had already decided to go with the Air Unlimiteds, but looking back I really wish I had gotten these.

This shoe had all sorts of innovations from the round laces to the Jumpman on the side of the outsole to the sprung tongue. I really love that it used a sparkling black nubuck for the upper, and to this day I think it’s one of the best Jordans ever.

Water-logged & Smoked

Nike Air Unlimited (1994) - Black/Obsidian

I could barely find a good picture of these so I’m resorting to photos of Chris Webber wearing them before he was traded to the Washington Bullets.

These were worn by David Robinson and Chris Webber, but I got them before I knew any of that. When I put them on, I tried all the straps and was impressed with how they improved the fit of the booty. I wasn’t a huge fan of the crossing straps, but something about the black and obsidian nubuck and neoprene was irresistible.

I didn’t plan on begging my mom very long for these because the price was outrageous at the time—$139.99. I have no idea why my mom agreed, but she told me to try on my size and got them for me. I almost felt guilty about getting them since they were so expensive. I guess my mom thought they were fresh too.

These were also my most mistreated pair of sneakers ever. I wore them every day and felt cool because no one else I knew had them. I wore them when I shouldn’t have worn them. The first occasion was when I was on a small row boat with a couple of friends and fell into the lake trying to walk off of the boat by the dock. I can still remember climbing out as fast as I could fuming from my ears and walking directly home, both feet glishing and gloshing with each step. The nubuck was never the same after that.

The second mishap was when I wore them during a makeshift camping night out in the woods across from my friend Andy’s house. We lit a small fire and cooked hotdogs, but other than that we had no light. The next morning all my obsidian nubuck looked grey, and the original color never came back. It was at that moment I knew they were done.

Looking back, I like the white/black/turquoise Robinson version better. They probably would have held up much better in lake water and smoke.

Things I liked about these:

  1. Crazy high-cut silhouette 
  2. Booty system with heel fit strap
  3. Nubuck in obsidian (which didn’t match the Warriors uni)
  4. Worn by Chris Webber NBA Rookie of the Year

Details

Nike Air Trainer Max 2 (1994)

I couldn’t find a picture of the pair I owned, which were white, navy, and turquoise. It was almost like a mixture of these two retros above. I had these in seventh grade, and I loved them. I didn’t know what “training” even meant, and I thought they looked like basketball sneakers.

It’s strange how small details make a big difference on the impression the shoe makes. For example, the saddle piece was also molded slightly which gave it some body and definition around the stitching. I think without this, the entire shoe would have felt too cheap to be priced over $120 since the piece would have felt flimsy.

The side panels were perforated, and the bootie fit really well. I loved the feel of the molded ‘Air Max 2’ logo on the tongue. The shoe felt well-balanced to me, and I was a big fan of visible Air. I liked how you could see the air bladder from the bottom view. The ‘Nike Air’ logo on the back was molded into the achilles piece giving it a premium look I subconsciously was drawn to as a kid.

What I loved:

  1. air bag
  2. visible air from heel
  3. slits in saddle piece
  4. booty construction
  5. molded tongue logo
  6. balanced color
  7. textured round lace