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On Saturday, the MCI Center hosted the latest installment of DeMatha vs. Spingarn, a hoops rivalry that goes back more than 40 years between quite arguably the most storied private and public high school programs in the country. You could say the game slipped away from Spingarn.
Spingarn star guard Mikail Malik, for example, slipped completely out of his sneaker in the first half while trying to work a full-court press on the Stags. The flat tire clearly surprised Malik, who, for a few moments, couldn’t decide whether to continue playing defense or to go pick up his wayward shoe. Eventually, he went for the shoe. Malik’s man, meanwhile, went for the hoop and drew a foul.
Shoes don’t just fall off on the court much anymore, and they haven’t since high-top sneakers replaced canvas low-toppers a few decades ago. But on this night, Spingarn players never seemed to be able to keep a grip on their skips, a high-dollar, late-model Nike product now being marketed as the Air Flightposite III. The Green Wave had never worn the shoes before the title game.
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Yet only 90 seconds after Malik’s mishap, another Spingarn starter, forward Delano Hunter, had a blowout of his own. Hunter left his shoe on the floor and spun his wheel until the next whistle. That would be just the first of at least three times during the contest that Hunter and his Nikes parted company.
Amid the slip-sliding, the Green Wave was able to score just 18 points in the entire first half and trailed by 13 at the break. A late fourth-quarter run cut DeMatha’s lead to single digits, but the Green Wave’s momentum was slowed when guard Kris Parker fell out of his footwear on a fast break.
At the final buzzer, it was DeMatha, 59-52. The 52 points was the lowest offensive output of the season for Spingarn.
Like DeMatha, Spingarn has long been a feeder school to the upper levels of hoop. The list of Green Wave luminaries includes Sherman Douglas, a record-breaking point guard for Syracuse who also played for several NBA teams; Earl Jones, the Lakers’ top pick in the 1984 draft; former Georgetown muscleman Michael Graham; and Ollie Johnson, a first-round pick for San Francisco in the 1965 NBA draft. Most impressive, Spingarn produced two members of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team: Dave Bing and the peerless Elgin Baylor. Neither DeMatha nor any other school in the country, public or private, can match that.
Spingarn’s powerhouse past probably played a role in the players’ wearing Nikes in the championship game. According to Spingarn athletic director M. Bruce Williams, the players acquired their Flightposite IIIs in school colors (green and gold) just prior to the contest by way of a deal between second-year Green Wave coach Keith Jackson and Nike. The Flightposite IIIs, which resemble bedroom slippers more than they do Chuck Taylors, have a manufacturer’s suggested list price of $160. But because of high demand, the shoes have retailed for hundreds of dollars over list since their introduction last year.
In promotional materials, a Nike researcher boasts that when sporting Flightposites, “You actually feel the floor.” During the big game, Spingarn’s Malik, Hunter, and Parker, who combined for just 23 points in the championship, probably felt a lot more of the floor than they expected to.
Contacted in his office at Spingarn, Jackson said he can’t explain why his players couldn’t keep their new shoes on their feet. “I don’t know if the floor was real clean and there was too much [traction], or they didn’t lace them up properly. I really don’t know what happened,” he said.
Questions about his relationship with Nike, and whether his team’s lack of familiarity with the high-tech footwear contributed in any way to the seven-point defeat, went unanswered. “I don’t want to talk any more about tennis shoes,” Jackson said, then ended the interview.
Jackson’s teams have been public school champs in both his seasons at Spingarn. If he makes it this far next year, the coach may want to borrow a page from the teaching manual of famed UCLA coach John Wooden, who made sure his players’ shoes fit before each game. “I thought it was very important that I’d check their shoe size and how they put their socks on,” said Wooden in an interview with ESPN.com.
Other than DeMatha, the big winner from Saturday’s event would appear to be AllDaz, an urban-apparel shop on Benning Road just down the street from Spingarn. For the title game, AllDaz provided the Green Wave with knee-high black socks with the company’s name written in big block letters down the sides. Nobody at the store could have anticipated just how much exposure those socks were going to get. —Dave McKenna