The Birth of a Sneakerhead

words & photos by @sneakergrandpa

The year was 1985.

The location was Brownsville, Texas. St. Mary’s Catholic School’s sixth grade boys’ team was preparing for their Boy’s Club basketball season. Dressed in hideous brown shirts with yellow lettering and matching yellow shorts, most of the team were decked out in the hottest new basketball shoes around.

Most everyone except me.

That shoe was the white, red and black Air Jordan 1 (or Sky Jordans for some – smaller sizes or what would today be GS sizes – without the Air). This new player in the NBA was garnering attention and his signature shoe was the hottest thing around.

Air Jordans

Retailing for $65, the first Air Jordan took most of its cues from the colorful Nike Dunk series that had been popular with schools like Iowa, Michigan, Syracuse and Kentucky.

My parents were adamant that they were not going to spend the ridiculous (at the time) amount of $65 on a pair of shoes that I would outgrow in a few months, so instead I wore a pair of knock-offs from Payless or Kmart. To be honest, the quality of those copies was not horrible, and the idea of “fakes” was non-existent.

Today, with a collection topping 400 pairs, I get asked often how long I’ve been been into sneakers.

My answer always traces back to 1985 and that elusive Air Jordan 1.

It also reminds me how much things have changed since then with how we learn about and buy our shoes. With the explosion of the internet, social media and expedited shipping, almost any pair we want is at our fingertips and can be at our front door the next day. Add to that the resale market, and even if the shoe is years old or sold out, there’s a price for everything.

It wasn’t like that back in the ’80s and ’90s for me. Growing up in Brownsville, the selection of sneaker stores was extremely limited. Foot Locker and a couple of local sporting goods stores – that’s about it. I’d make regular trips to the mall with our neighbor and friend, Kevin, and make a beeline for the shoes. My family joked that we went to “pet” the shoes because 99 times out of 100 we wouldn’t ever buy anything but simply wanted to see what they had, pick the shoe up and maybe try it on.

In addition to retail stores, the only other way for me to learn about new sneakers was through pictures in weekly issues of Sports Illustrated or by watching games on TV.

And by watching games on TV, I refer to the 2-3 games a week that were televised (sorry, no season pass or streaming options). If you were lucky enough to have cable then, TBS showed the Hawks and WGN showed the Bulls – the same Bulls who had just drafted Jordan.

By the time I was in middle school in the late ’80s, I started hearing about this catalog that had all these sneakers for sale. They had practically every brand for all different sports.

Of course that catalog was Eastbay, and it was a game changer.

There was no online option. Instead we either filled out the form and mailed it in, or else called the 800 number (from a landline) and waited weeks for the shoes to arrive.

Now, we get leaked pictures of shoes before a shoe is revealed in its final form. Media blitzes and elaborate interactive events create buildup for the final release, and maybe some of us get a chance to actually purchase the shoe to wear. In many cases we sit at our computer or with our mobile device in hand and with a few clicks the shoe is ordered and arrives within days. It isn’t better or worse – just very different.

Somewhere back in 1985 a spark was lit. At the time I didn’t know what a sneakerhead was. What I did know was that I liked sneakers a lot, and the search for information about them and the anticipation of getting them stoked the fire with each new release.

In 2015 I was able to buy that pair of Jordan 1s, and that shoe is what is currently in my collection. Finally having that elusive pair for the first time not only helps keep me feeling young, but reminds me of what it was like back in the day.

More importantly I’m reminded that it is less about the sneaker itself and more about what it represents to me.

We all probably have that ONE sneaker. What was yours?