Old man basketball has finally started again. Got my short-shorts. College practice jersey. Health-insurance card lodged in my wallet between six-month-old grocery store receipts. And Tuesday I finally bought a new pair of basketball shoes.
I’m obsessed with every aspect of basketball. The games, the players, the coaches and everything surrounding it. I’ve written thousands of words on basketball nets and rims, on court surfaces and the lighting in small gyms and giant arenas. I’d read a 2,000-word account — probably from Chuck Klosterman — about the meaning of the T-shirt Patrick Ewing wore under his Georgetown jersey. But basketball shoes — the billion dollar business that’s the obsession of NBA and YMCA players, coaches, stock analysts, teens, old men and fans — have never fascinated me outside of their basic function.
The only Jordan shoe I could identify is the original. I don’t follow the news when a new version comes out and I don’t keep track of which players represent Nike, Adidas, Converse or Reebok, and I actually don’t even know if those last two companies still exist. It was like that even when I was younger, though I’m as susceptible to great marketing as anyone else — Dee Brown’s performance in the 1991 dunk contest inspired me to buy a pair of Reebok Pumps, which increased my vertical leap by four sheets of tablet paper.
Black shoes were the big thing back in high school, but someone — my dad, an uncle — told me back then that black shoes make you look slower, which really wasn’t a concern to me because I was slow. At least now I wouldn’t be fooling the paying customers in the stands; they’d see what I felt. When I’d shop for shoes I’d go with whatever the store had in size 13, provided it wasn’t crushing my toes or too loose in the heel. Six years ago, before I started playing regularly again, I went with a friend to his Saturday afternoon league and ran up and down the court for a few hours, decked out in shoes that would have been better for church than hoops. I didn’t have any basketball shoes at the time and didn’t have time to buy some.
Three years ago a guy in my Wednesday night league saw my ratty basketball shoes — which I had bought at Payless a few weeks earlier — and insisted he could give me an upgrade for a good price. He knew a guy who knew a guy who always hooked him up with new gear and why wouldn’t I want to take advantage of this situation? It was a generous offer with only one flaw: The guy making it also seemed like a guy who knew a guy who would visit me if I fell behind on my payments for the new shoes.
With our new season starting this week, I went hoops shoe shopping, having finally tossed the ones that brought pity from my fellow competitor. Trips to my local Payless and Target proved frustrating — between the two places I found one pair of basketball shoes: size 11’s. At Modell’s I was confronted by names I didn’t recognize, though any 16-year-old basketball player could probably deliver 500 words on the pros and cons of each model. Retro, Super.Fly, Melo M8. I tried on a few pairs, under the watchful eye of an employee who stood over me, wordlessly, stoic, apparently waiting for me to make a break for the exit with the pilfered, fashionable gear.
I finally settled on the Air Flight Jab Step, which will have me jab-stepping like Jordan in no time, a nice complement to the Jordan baseline turnaround that’s already in my arsenal. Went with these black and red ones. I’ll again look slow. They were comfortable and $59.
Most of my shoe apathy — a phrase that should perhaps be one word — has to do with the luck I’ve had throughout my basketball career. From the time I participated in a Pass, Dribble & Shoot competition in 2nd grade to my days playing against has-beens and never-weres in my current league, I’ve never sprained an ankle or even turned one. I haven’t had to worry about the quality of my shoes because fortune and genetics have been on my side. In my 20s I sprained my foot playing at the Y and was supposed to wear a protective boot for a few weeks but a few days later it felt fine. Blisters do haunt me, grotesque blisters that extend from my big toe to halfway down my foot but I’ve gotten those from the time I started running up and down a court, no matter if I was in shoes that cost $120 or $20 or wearing one pair of socks or two. It has to do with how I run, since I also always prematurely wreck the inner portion of the shoes.
But maybe I’m kidding myself. According to my subconscious, I’m obsessed with high-tops and low-cuts. At least once a week I have a dream that involves basketball shoes. They’re always unsettling. I’m in the locker room before a high school game and I discover my shoes are back home; I pull my shoes out of my locker and there are two left ones; I run out onto the court and my shoes keep falling off and my coach won’t put me into the game until I figure out how to keep them on (a reasonable request).
Real-life trauma plays a role in these night-time hauntings. During a college game my sophomore year, our team van broke down on the way to a game. We hitched a ride with a women’s basketball team that happened to pull into the same Hardee’s as our team. I didn’t realize until I arrived at the gym that I had left my shoes in the bag in our van. Fortunately an assistant coach had a pair of sort-of basketball shoes and I wore those, even though he was two sizes smaller. Still, that one incident shouldn’t lead to weekly dreams.
What do the dreams mean? Fear of losing friends? Fear of commitment? Secret love of Jordan apparel? Maybe the dreams mean that, despite my attitude toward shoes, I know they’re vital — you can’t play without them. Losing the shoes in the dream actually plays into my fears of one day having to give up the game for good. Maybe that’s it. And that would be a nightmare.