KICKS

Like the ghost of Jacob Marley, the mid-90's have returned from the dormant fog of yesteryear to inquire what's become of the present. I've been spending my afternoons obsessively researching basketball shoes from the era - it's no secret this was a golden age for b-ball kicks. It started with some idle eBay window shopping - the Jason Kidds, the Penny 1's and 2's, the Grant Hills... of course the Jordan 11's (probably the first basketball shoe to ever attend a prom).

But it didn't stop there. I became enthralled with shoes I hadn't thought about in 15 years; the Shawn Kemps, the hideous Reebok Shaqnosis, the Air Uptempos with the giant AIR written on the side, the counter-intuitively awesome looking Dikembe Mutumbos, the Converse Larry Johnsons... Looking at these shoes transported me to a forgotten time. A time of Beavis and Butthead and microwaved cheese sandwiches. A time of physical and psychological awkwardness so full of uncertainty that I almost never consult its memories. A relatively shapeless time between Ninja Turtles and drivers licenses.

Revisiting those days through the lens of basketball shoes gives those memories structure and stability in the same way hoops helped me go from childhood to full blown adolescence with minimal insanity. In 1994, after a lifetime of public education, I started 7th grade in Catholic school. We had to wear uniforms so what you wore on your feet became disproportionately critical to how you wanted to present yourself. In other words: shoes were all we had.

It was during this time that I had my all-time favorite kicks. They were blue, black, and white: the colors of the Orlando Magic, my favorite basketball team. I didn't know what the shoes were called but I remember how good they felt. They were super lightweight, with a mesh top and support that made them comfortable as slippers. In fact, during summer these were the first shoes I ever habitually wore without socks. A classmate of mine was wearing the Jordan 11 low tops in Bulls colors and they were structurally similar; our shoes shared the same fundamental appeal.

The Bulls and Magic were the two best teams in the NBA. The Magic had a young Shaquille O'Neal and a pre-injury-plagued Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway who was only getting better. Penny was my favorite player; a lanky point guard with inventive passing skills and a penchant for dunking on fools. I wrote him a letter that year enclosing his rookie card, (in case he didn't already have it) and he sent back a signed 8x10 which I still have. My shoes were representative of my authority as an Orlando Magic fan, likewise my friend with the Jordans was the Bulls expert. In a way only 13 year old boys can, we based our identities on professional athletes.



Now, in 2011, Shaq is a gelatinous looking mound of week old leftover steak and on Facebook my middle school classmates are organizing our 15 year reunion. They are posting pictures of us in the playground, at sporting events, pizza parties... photographs of people I remember from the same era as the shoes, indeed these were their shoes. I had forgotten what most of these kids looked like, in my mind they were older - they aged within my memories. In these photographs I can see them exactly as they were back then; like a pair of Pippen Max Uptempo's never taken out of the box.


Through these photographs I am returning to the past with an objectivity that softens everything. What had once been a whirlwind blur is now a patchwork of moments interwoven by distance and tempered by perspective. The smell of a stairwell. The ridges on an aluminum bench. A tongue burnt from hot chocolate. Laying in bed at night and listening to The Five Stairsteps on 94.9's "Turn Off the Lights" with Xavier the X Man. Having a crush and catching a whiff of her hair. The girls, by the way, avoided basketball shoes altogether and wore all-white sneakers, usually K-Swiss or Keds. I quickly learned to worship those little white shoes, too.

In my research I've discovered those old blue and black shoes I loved so much. They were called the Nike Air Lambaste and it turns out Penny Hardaway actually wore them in his first All-Star game before he ever had a shoe contract of his own.




The shoes are virtually forgotten now; not a single pair on eBay. They just sort of disappeared in the midst of so many legendary basketball shoes. Nobody preserved them the way 'collectible' shoes were preserved - these shoes got worn and worn out. One guy wrote about how terrible the Air Lambastes were for actually playing basketball - this endears me to the shoe even more because I was no Jerry Stackhouse myself.

The Air Lambaste and I had a lot in common. We were witnesses to greatness and if our own potential was not immediately visible we still knew it was there. I saw the 95-96 Bulls become the greatest team in NBA history and the Nike Air Lambaste sat on store shelves among some of the best basketball shoes ever produced. The shoe is also a precursor to the Penny Hardaway signature series, (which is comparable to being, say, Salvador Dali's dad).

My interest in sneakers was a byproduct of my interest in basketball. Shoes were part of basketball - they probably still are. One of the beautiful things about basketball is that it has a clearly defined set of rules. You can have a conversation about basketball and not be at a loss for words. You can tell the truth. It is statistical and for the tough calls there's a referee. That trumps the entropy of real life.

In 1995 my dream job was to become a sportscaster. When I think back on that dream I believe it was based on the fear that sports were the only thing that made sense, (and that making sense mattered). Generally speaking, things have continued to not make much sense but I'm more comfortable with that these days.

That kid I used to be - obsessing over his basketball card collection, memorizing numbers from the official NBA Encyclopedia, playing endless hours of NBA Jam - that kid and I have missed each other. I can remember when he used to work the nacho stand at the school's home games just to bask in the glow of the game.