DETROIT – Since its debut in 1985, the Nike Air Jordan sneakers have been more than a basketball shoe in the black community. They have become everything from a fashion accessory to a status symbol.
“Jordans came out as a rebel sneaker,” said Jason Johnson, a shoe expert and owner of Bob’s Classic Kicks in downtown Detroit. “They were banned from the NBA because of the color. It came in as a rebel. Over the years, (Jordan) changed the whole game.”
When Nike debuted the red and black Air Jordan shoes during Michael Jordan’s rookie year in 1985, the league fined him $5,000. Nike paid the fines because of all of the exposure Jordan gave the shoes.
“Jordan had that presence with the youth,” Johnson said. “He became a pop icon. Nike saw that in him. He commanded that presence when he came in the room.”
Jordan’s iconic status made the shoes a must-have item, even amongst a group of kids who never saw him play in his glory days in Chicago: “These kids have seen the Washington Jordan, not the Chicago Jordan,” Johnson said.
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In the early 1990s, at the height of hip-hop’s Renaissance period, the shoes became synonymous with rap music and hip-hop culture. In many cities — including Detroit, Chicago, and New York — the shoes became popular targets for thieves as people were often mugged, and in some cases killed, over Jordans.
“You saw it on all the Spike Lee movies and the hip-hop culture picked up on it,” said Antonio Jones, a DJ and “sneaker head” from Detroit. “Once they embraced Jordan like that, it was like if you got his sneaker, you were the man.
“Because all the dope boys had them. You couldn’t afford that shoe as a regular individual in 1984 and 1985.”
When Nike debuted the Air Jordan 11 Concords — a retro version of the most popular Jordans — on Dec. 23, reports of fights, vandalism and other disturbances spread across the nation. The pre-Christmas shopping rush had a Black Friday feel to it as huge crowds of shoppers overwhelmed stores and nearly spawned riots from Seattle to Atlanta.
“Nowadays, only certain Jordans are gonna create the kind of (disturbance) that you saw the other day,” Johnson said. “The ‘Space Jams’ didn’t even do that. It’s only certain kinds of Jordans that are gonna create that kind of pandemonium.”
For the third straight year, Nike released the newest retro Jordans right before Christmas. In 2009, the Air Jordan 11 Retro ‘Space Jams’ were released, while the highly popular ‘Cool Grey’ Jordans came out last year, though neither came with the mayhem that followed the Concords.
“We’re adults, it’s nothing for us (to get shoes),” Johnson said. “We’re not standing in line and waiting for them. We’ll get online and do our thing. But these kids that are just standing in line, that’s authentic.”“Back in the day, we stood in the Jordan line and skipped school. We skipped first hour, second hour just so we could show up at school with the Js on. Now, they’ve seen us do it and they want to mimic it.”
In suburban Seattle, police used pepper spray on about 20 customers who started fighting at the Westfield Southcenter Mall, and an 18-year-old boy was arrested. The crowd started gathering at four stores in the mall around midnight and had grown to more than 1,000 people by 4 a.m., when the stores opened. Over the next hour, fighting and pushing among people in line broke out.
A 20-year-old man in Jersey City, N.J. was stabbed when a brawl broke out between several people waiting in line buy the new shoes. In Taylor, Michigan — about 20 miles southwest of Detroit — nearly 100 people forced their way into Southland Mall around 5:30 a.m., damaging Christmas decorations and overturning benches. Police arrested a 21-year-old Detroit man for attempting to incite a riot.
Carlisa Williams said she joined the crowd in Seattle for the experience and bought two pairs of Concords, one for her and one for her brother. She said she would never do anything like it again.
“I don’t understand why they’re so important to people,” Williams told NBC affiliate KING-TV. “They’re just shoes at the end of the day. It’s not worth risking your life over.”
Williams is not the only one who doesn’t get the shoe obsession. In Detroit, shoes are not the only possession that has caused a few violent outbursts; as Cartier sunglasses are often prime targets for thieves.
“I really don’t care about their sneaker passion,” said Marcelle Bryant, a marketing director in West Lafayette, Ind. and Detroit native. “I have my own passions & things I ‘have to have’, but sneakers just don’t do it for me. It amazes me that people rush out to get something they know people will kill for in the streets.
“I feel the same way about Cartier glasses. I also don’t understand the logic of waiting in line all day when you know they will be sold online and that each store has a limited supply of each side. Then people riot, fight, and get all kinds of ignorant over a shoe?”
The fact that certain segments of African-American young people engage in mass hysteria over a mass-marketed product might be illustrative of deeper social wounds.
“The same reasons that induce so many poor black youth to post up in hallways and on street corners to sell contraband and scramble for self-respect also provoke feeding frenzies for other trappings of success and status like retro Air Jordans,” said Jody Armour, Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina.
“When grinding poverty, crumbling schools, a materialistic cultural belief system that defines self-worth and self-respect in terms of possessions, and nearly hopeless prospects of securing the material conditions of self-respect,” Armour told theGrio, “when all these factors converge in the experience of black youth, youth grab on to anything that can provide even fleeting self-esteem and momentary recognition.”
To some black kids, expensive sneakers provide that glimpse of self-worth. To sneaker heads, Jordans are more than simply sneakers. The shoes, which sell for $180, are worn as apart of outfits, and even as dress shoes.
“The reason there are the patent leather Jordans are because Mike said he wanted some shoes he could wear with his suit,” Johnson said. “I wore them with a tuxedo. I didn’t wear them into prom, but when I walked around downtown, I was in my Jordans.”
“For me it’s the fit and the look,” said J.B. Batchel, an avid “sneaker head” from Jackson, Mich. “They fit like a shoe should. They look stellar and go with anything in my closet.
“Shoes make the outfit, and a sweet shoe makes me feel good. It’s like a sweet tie with a bada** suit. The tie makes or breaks the look. Shoes are the same way.”
More often than not, the shoes are not just being bought specifically to be worn, but to be flipped. On eBay, the must-have shoes are selling for $200 to $1,000.
This is often done with the various brands of Jordans as well as other shoes such as the popular Nike Dunks and Air Force Ones. This has helped develop the sneaker head culture in the inner cities, where the shoes are seen as collector’s items.
“You’ve got the stick-up kids, you’ve got the sneaker heads, you’ve got these subcultures and the members of the groups got smaller and smaller,” said Matthew Morris of Detroit, who works at Bob’s. “Everybody wanted to be apart of that subculture because it was so exclusive.
Morris once lined up in front of a local shoe boutique five days ahead of time to buy exclusive pairs of $315 Air Jordans. He flipped the shoes on eBay for a total profit of $5,000.
“Everybody wanted to be a sneaker head because everybody didn’t have 300 pairs of sneakers,” Morris said. He noted that the sneaker heads are a smaller group that understands the ins and outs of the shoe game.
“They’re flooding the market,” Johnson added. “If you can get the (shoes) from Foot Locker, it ain’t no exclusivity to it. I can go in there and get some of them.
“But when you have boutiques such as this and you have all these types of places, it causes that demand. It’s no different from people lining up at 8:00 at night for Black Friday for a $200 Acer computer.”
The sneaker culture has taken on a distinct life of its own over the past 25 years, with different cities around the country, and internationally, having their own language rules and customs. While it is not fully clear how it started — they are quick to note the popularity of Adidas shoes in the early 80s — they want it known that it did not come from skateboarders.
“It pisses me off when I’m in meetings and I hear that (sneaker culture) comes from the skateboard culture,” Johnson said. “Hip-hop created sneakers. Basketball is what created this lane for these sneakers.”