Get our free newsletter
On a warm Sunday in March, I set out to buy a new pair of basketball shoes. Simple proposition. My old Nikes are in tatters, and I’m itching to get out on the court.
I stroll into the Foot Locker on Columbia Road NW. On the left-hand wall, a sign says, “House of Hoops.” There are maybe 50 pairs of shoes on display under the sign, each resting on a little shoe shelf: Nike, Reebok, And 1, Converse, Adidas.
It is an exhibition of sheer freakishness. There are shoes with spring-loaded soles. Shoes with zippers. Shoes that look like Stealth Bombers. Shoes that look like moccasins. Shoes that evoke pretty much everything but basketball.
The shoes are gaudier than Dennis Rodman and louder than Dick Vitale. Like Rodman, they’re pierced and tinted strange colors; like Vitale, they’re completely caught up in their own schtick—oblivious to the game.
Where are the normal basketball shoes? The ones with shoelaces and sturdy leather uppers that protect your ankles? Why are these new models all so damn ugly?
I call Reebok and get a fashion-and-marketing executive named Todd Krinsky on the phone. “Recently, the trend has been to make things that really stand out on the court,” Krinsky explains. “So you see all these high-priced shoes, with lots of technology built in—lots of bells and whistles. They look futuristic, with zippers, different lacing systems, metallic colors, and patent-leather materials. They almost look like spaceships.”
Krinsky is being too kind to his footwear. The shoes don’t look like spacecraft; they look like the aliens on board. The Nike Flightposite IIIs, for instance, are lumpy and organic-looking enough to scare Sigourney Weaver. Their uppers are constructed of hard black plastic adorned in four spots by irregular splotches with pseudo-biological contours that look like holographic images of bees’ nests. When I touch them, the splotches sort of collapse, without really collapsing. The effect defies description. You’ll have to go to the shoe store to check it out.
The And 1s should be called the Ugly 1s. One pair is typical: There are no laces and no tongue; the outer surface is made entirely of black mesh. On either side of the ankle, the collar of the shoe dips down so low that the sneakers could challenge flip-flops in a limbo contest. They look like slippers. And on each shoe’s top, where the laces should be, is the white silhouette of a guy dribbling a ball. It’s the only clue that the shoes—the slippers—are even theoretically meant for basketball.
The decline of the basketball shoe—from elegant to hideous, from simple to baroque, from practical to chimerical—is complete. The simple, functional basketball shoe is finished.
But it’s not the designers’ fault, Krinsky assures me. No, it’s the invisible hand of the market that binds ugly shoes to our feet. Because basketball is so popular, basketball shoes have been transformed from a niche athletic product into a lucrative fashion category.
Now, basketball shoes are like SUVs that never go off-road or diving watches that never go deeper than the bottom of the bathtub. The purpose of each new season’s batch is to eclipse its predecessors, transforming previous offerings from must-have to passe.
And fashion competition is the real game the sneakerati are playing. Krinsky is not selling basketball shoes to basketball players. “There’s been a lot of research that suggests about 75 to 85 percent of young consumers who buy basketball shoes never play in them,” Krinsky says. “There’s obviously a base of consumers who buy these shoes for basketball, but most kids are more concerned with what the shoes look like with jeans. What color they are. How they look. What athletes are wearing them. What brand they are.”
To that nonplaying majority, a basketball shoe is whatever a famous basketball player wears or endorses. Earlier this year, the fashion peddlers at Nike released the Air Jordan XVII, which retails for about $200 and comes not in a shoe box but in a faux-steel case. Like many of the other XVI models of Air Jordans, the shoes look gaudy and stupid. But Michael Jordan could go out on the court wearing a chrome-plated replica of the Parthenon on each foot, and he could carry it off.
Playground ballers aren’t so lucky. When they slip on the newest, hottest shoes, they don’t look like Jordan. They look like suckers—dribbling dolts who’ll buy whatever monstrosity happens to be in vogue.
Nor do the shoes help them play basketball. What set basketball shoes apart from running shoes, football cleats, and soccer shoes for most of their 85-year history was their height. The uppers rose past the foot to cover and cradle the ankle—supporting the joint through a game that starts and stops abruptly, where the ability to securely plant and pivot is essential.
Sometime in the mid-’90s, hoop sneakers started shrinking, until they eventually arrived at the sad, stunted level of the And 1 slipper. By the end of the decade, high-tops had become an anachronism. Footage of Magic Johnson’s high-rise Converses looked as ancient as film of Bill Russell running around in canvas kicks. “Today, high-cut basketball shoes are pretty much nonexistent,” concedes Krinsky. “Every year since ’95, the shoes have gotten lower and lower.”
Current basketball shoes are too low to play basketball in without serious augmentation. Real basketball players have altered their pregame ritual to accommodate the new look. “Now we’re at a point where almost every player in high school and college tapes their ankles anyway,” says Krinsky. “So they don’t look to basketball shoes to give them ankle support.”
Forget shopping for basketball shoes. I should be shopping for athletic tape.
But what I really want are high-tops. I want a pair of shoes that are like the ones I sported in high school, circa 1993. Is that too much to ask?
Krinsky seems to offer some hope. Recently, he says, shoe designers have stopped bowing down to the feet of the future and started genuflecting to the soles of the past. “Over the past month, we’ve seen a tremendous shift that’s going back to retro,” he says. “It’s dominating the market right now. Go into a shoe store in the next couple months and you’ll see a big change. The whole trend is back to the ’80s.”
Though Krinsky confidently discusses the return of Afros and Alex English jerseys, he hesitates to predict the return of the high-top. With good reason: Historically, retro basketball shoes have been like retro cars; they share the names of their progenitors but not much else. In the mid-’90s, Converse released a new version of its classic All Stars. Only it wasn’t unstructured or made of canvas. The shoes were, in fact, just as puffy and sculpted as all the other contemporary shoes—but they had star-shaped Chuck Taylor logos on the ankles.
Resigning myself to what’s on the market, I try a pair of Nike Air Pippens. The shoes are in my size, but getting into them takes several arduous minutes, thanks to a satanic feature known as a “glove.” Essentially, it’s a spandex sock built into the sneaker. Once I’ve squeezed into the Pippens, I get a claustrophobic feeling, as if I’d just stepped into a lobster pot or a padded bear trap.
Why would I want a permanent elastic sock in my sneakers? I’m one of those fortunate Americans who already owns socks—socks I can put on, socks I can take off, socks I can wash at my own discretion. Admittedly, after months of heavy usage, the glove might help my offensive game: Any defender with a nose would avoid me.
Eventually, I walk away from Foot Locker with a pair of Nike Air Force Ones—what Krinsky would call a retro shoe. Their color scheme is monochromatic, and their soles don’t have air pockets or springs. Still, they’re not high-tops. Toward the heel of the shoe, the collar slouches down to the level of the mid-top. Why? Apparently to torture me.
Later in the day, I test out my new kicks at the Bancroft Elementary School playground, at 18th and Newton Streets NW. As I start moving around the blacktop, I realize that my new shoes are too old-school for my tastes. The bulky outsoles are starkly flat, with none of the arch or contour that my last shoes had. I feel as if I were running around with surfboards strapped to my feet..
I’m not the only player lamenting his new shoes. A scrappy, 20-something guy with a wild jump shot is sporting a fresh pair of Nike mid-tops, much to his friends’ amusement. One half of each shoe is white; the other half is light blue. They look like the painted face of a North Carolina Tarheel fan.
For every air ball and brick tossed up by the players at Bancroft, a verbal shot is taken at the state-of-the-art blue-and-white sneakers. As the taunting goes on, the fashion victim tries to deflect the abuse. “They were on sale,” he says. He doesn’t have the nerve to claim he likes them. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Jonathan Carlson.