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Where Sports & Culture Intersect: A Sneaker Head Story

Where Sports & Culture Intersect: A Sneaker Head Story

Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes

June 14, 1998. The Last Shot.

That’s all you really need to say to any NBA fan and their brain will fill in the rest. They’ll immediately see Michael Jordan bringing the ball up the court, drive to the right towards the key, cross over to his left driving Byron Russell to the ground with a “slight” push off that wasn’t seen/called, and pull up to drain a jumper with virtually no time remaining, giving Chicago the Game 6 victory and their 3rd title in 3 years for the second time in the decade.

It’s an image, and a highlight, ingrained into everyone who watched basketball in the 90s. It’s the true definition of iconic. If you ask me, MJ stripping the ball with 20.1 seconds left is arguably the most important part of the entire sequence, but no one ran outside to try and practice the defensive play. No, everyone went outside and started pretending they were executing that beautiful (push-off assisted) crossover.

The Culture

It’s also an iconic moment for another group of people: sneakerheads. You see, on that fateful day, Jordan happened to be debuting the prototype for his next signature Air Jordan sneaker, the Air Jordan XIV.

More so than any other sport, basketball (specifically the NBA) is interwoven with sneaker culture. Michael Jordan plays a large part in that. But he was far from the first. In fact, the most popular sneaker in the world, the Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star was originally a basketball shoe. created in 1917. Why is this? Well, simply because Sport is universal and everyone who is a fan of some sport has heroes and idols they look up to/want to emulate.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to wear what they wear. Football/soccer is the most popular sport in the world, however its very difficult to wear boots/cleats anywhere other than the pitch. The same issue applies to baseball, US football, hockey, and many other sports. But basketball is played in flat-soled sneakers that transition seamlessly to the spaces outside the hardwood. This means the average consumer can wear the same exact* shoes that their heroes wear. And for many people, that hero has been Michael Jeffery Jordan.

If there is one category the MJ will never be passed by LeBron, it is signature sneakers. Even if you only include the sneakers Jordan actually wore on his feet (and many, many sneakerheads do in fact only count those models), the historical significance of the Air Jordan line of sneakers effectively saved Nike and made it into the powerhouse company it is today. LeBron may be a Billion Dollar Nike endorsee, but his line of shoes isn’t exactly iconic (both his first and latest models are straight fire though).

It’s All About The Name

The thing that needs to be realized about sneaker heads is that it’s not just about the model of shoe that we are drawn to, but also the specific color ways. And we like to nickname them. Some of them are named because of their color ways:

Some get their nicknames from associations with schools, players, movies, etc.

And some get their nicknames from the story that gets associated with the story of the shoe.

It’s this last category that the Air Jordan XIV ‘Last Shots’ come in. It’s pretty self-explanatory as far as nicknames go. Jordan hit his Last Shot as a Bull in a shoe he wasn’t even supposed to be wearing yet. It was the last Air Jordan he would wear as a Bull. It an image ingrained in so many peoples head and the nostalgia is so high that most MJ fans (or even just NBA fans like myself) want a pair. It’s why Nike/Jordan Brand keep retro’ing the shoe. In fact, it’s coming out again on the 14th, on the 20th Anniversary of the Last Shot. It’s marketing that sells itself. It helps that it’s a really dope shoe, inspired by a Ferrari 550 that Jordan owned, complete with a Ferrari inspired Jumpman logo and an air vent on the medial side of the shoe. There are so many little details throughout the leather and suede show that show how much thought goes into player signature shoes. For example, each shoe has 7 Jordan logos on it, to make 14 (the same number as the model iteration number.)

A Personal “Grail”

Everyone can get behind a good story. And stories can help make certain models of things special to the individual. Along with the Last Shots, Nike has been releasing a pack of 16 shoes that are all related in some way to an NBA Finals performance. There are models celebrating Dr. J and his Converse, KD’s first run with the Thunder, and Maya Moore.

The first LeBron Soliders when he dropped 25 Straight on the Detroit Pistons in route to his first NBA Finals appearance (this shoe is super dope but has very painful memories for this writer) are part of the pack. And so are Rasheed Wallace’s Air Force 1’s.

The Air Force 1 is an iconic shoe in its own right. The white on white AF1 is a bona fide classic. And it started life as a basketball shoe, but just like the Chuck Taylor All-Star, it’s not the best choice to play in anymore and hasn’t been for a while. That didn’t stop Rasheed Wallace, who always did things in his own way anyway. And when he came to the Detroit Pistons in 2004, he brought his PE (Player Exclusive) colorways of the Air Force 1 with him. He was partial to AF1 High’s though he was never consistent on whether or not he would do up the straps. His PE’s also had his personal logo (an image of his post-move fadeaway) stitched into them, and were typically constructed of patent leather instead of the standard full-grain variety. I can’t really remember the first time I noticed the details on his shoes during that first season. But I do know the lasting image of them that is forever burned into my brain.

The 2004 NBA Finals were thought by many to be an easy sweep for the LA Lakers. In fact, the only people who gave the Detroit Pistons a chance at the time were people in Detroit. But somehow, the Pistons managed to find a way to stun the Lakers in Game 1 and steal homeport advantage. Chauncey Billups famously said to his teammates after losing in OT in Game 2 “We ain’t coming back to LA.” Sheed’s Game 4 performance was a big reason why that ended up being true. After getting entangled with LA’s Slava Medvedenko in the third period, Wallace got mad. Be he did something different then what fans expected. He let his game do the talking for once.

That series and that team are my favorite of all time. That game is a huge reason why. Just like my favorite Michael Jordan memories are that Last Shot (which I tend to refer to as the Push Off), and Space Jam. (Remember, I’m a Piston’s fan)

It’s moments and stories like these that drive fans to want to have a tangible item they can see and touch to remember the feelings felt in those moments. The reason why the culture loves Jordan’s and it’s why I have a pair of Air Force 1’s I may never wear. Why sneakers and sports will be forever linked. And it’s a glorious thing.


Andrew Mark Wilhelm is a professional Sound Engineer/Designer, and amateur photographer, writer, musician who recently relocated from California to Rochester, NY. Born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit has made Andrew an avid fan of all things Detroit but nothing more so than his beloved Detroit Tigers. Every year he tells himself he won't drink the Lions Kool-Aid, and every year winds up heartbroken come January. A Spartan by heart, and a Golden Grizzly by degree, you can catch his (almost) weekly Hot Takes every Hump Day here at The Turf.

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