The Sole of the Game: Inside NBA Sneaker Culture
A recent Instagram beef between two of the most respected sneaker kings in the NBA – DeMar DeRozan and P.J. Tucker – had fans and players everywhere re-posting and sharing DeRozan’s social media challenge. DeMar came after P.J. Tucker’s sneaker king throne on the ‘gram only to have Tucker shut him down with some competitive trash talk about sneaker ownership. And in the end, Tucker remained the NBA’s top kicks king. (Remember when he brought 100 pairs of shoes with him to the Bubble last summer? He also bought a house recently just to store his entire shoe assemblage).
P.J. Tucker’s Sneaker Obsession
Tucker’s obsession has been written about many times and his collection is unparalleled. He is known to have once worn six pairs in a single game, dropped $50,000 on a pair of Air Jordan Retro 2 “Eminem” Edition sneakers, and even earned respect from Michael Jordan himself for his insane collection of Air Jordans. In a 2018 interview with Complex, he admitted to dropping close to $200k on shoes in one season. He is also famous for declaring that when it comes to shoes, “nothing is unattainable.”
But DeRozan isn’t too far behind him, with his collection that includes over 3000 pairs. Neither are Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, or even LeBron himself. (LeBron has been in the league for so long that Nike is actually re-issuing his first models)… Tucker remains on top because his collection hovers around the 5000 level and includes many rarities and hard-to-find colorways. And when P.J. Tucker plays in Madison Square Garden, he always brings something special out for the Mecca.
Welcome to the ever-evolving world of NBA sneaker culture.
The Biggest Grails in the Shoe Game
In the shoe game, the rarest shoes are known as “grails.” New releases are “drops.” Getting your hands on a new pair is a “cop” for short. A “custom” is a one-of-a-kind shoe designed for a specific player, and a “collab” is, well, a collaboration. And even some shoes remain elusive for guys like Tucker, whose grail was famously the Eminem x Carhartt x Air Jordan 4 Retros until he actually showed up to practice in them this past July. His most recent grail has been the Parra Amsterdam “Friends & Family” Air Max 1 – of which only 24 signature pairs were manufactured. By the time of this story’s release, he may have his hands on them already. He is the Indiana Jones of basketball shoe collecting.
Historically, players list the SoleFly Air Jordan 3, the LeBron Stewie Griffins, and the legendary Nike Air Mags (more popularly known as the “Marty McFly” sneakers) as some of the rarest and most desired shoes on the planet. Do yourself a quick internet search and gaze upon the rarest of the rare. Chances are you can’t afford them. Or, if you’re like me, you’re cursing out your mother for selling your Air Jordan 1s from 1985 to a consignment store after you outgrew them for $7.00. (My original pair from that year now sells at upwards of $2,000.00.)
In the NBA, sneakers have become an art form – especially since 2018, when the league loosened up their laws prohibiting non-team colors and allowed players to go HAM. Guys like Nick Young had often challenged this rule in the past (like when Young famously wore Yeezys on the court to celebrate his Adidas endorsement in 2015). But suddenly, anything was possible. If Swaggy P was still in the league, he'd undoubtedly be listed at the top of the NBA Sneaker Gods.
The Sneaker Game in Today’s NBA
Before 2020, taking a stroll down Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles would often guarantee an NBA player sighting. Ducking in and out of stores like Flight Club and Sole Stage, stars like Kyle Kuzma and Devin Booker often walked out after dropping thousands of dollars on shoes. But whereas Booker’s collection is often resigned to the shelves of his home, (he prefers playing in the Kobe 4 Protros, the most popular game-worn shoe in the NBA last season – the Nike Zoom Freak 1 was second), players like P.J. Tucker open up their collections and actually hoop in them.
Fans used to have to wait for the All-Star game to see all the insane colorways dripping off NBA players. It was like a footwear fashion show. And to this day, players still save their most-prized shoes for the event. After the rule change, checking a player's game-worn shoes in a regular-season game has become almost as much fun as the actual games. No word on when we'll add gambling on what shoe a player will turn up in every single night to The Odds Factory website books. But I got $100 that Devin Booker will be wearing those Kobe 4 Protros at his next game. If he shows up in the Marty McFlys, I deserve to lose my money.
And then there is the customized shoe game. Langston Galloway’s custom sneaker rotation remains unmatched. Certain designers go out of their way to add characters from anime or pop culture to make their sneakers the rarest of them all. Tobias Harris is a well-known Kobe collector and rotates through most of the collection all season. So are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Bam Adebayo, who often throw in the Nike Kyrie “Spongebob” models for good measure.
In the NBA bubble last year, P.J. Tucker actually offered up his game-worn playoff shoes to the public, selling many of them on the Houston Rockets’ mobile app. The money went to Houston organizations impacted by the Coronavirus. It was a reversal of his usual protocol, as Tucker sent out shoes rather than collected them. However, he proclaimed that he still spent the majority of his Bubble time buying rare sneakers off of eBay.
Finally, Tucker has one rule about how he chooses which model to wear on any given night. As he told Sole Collector back in 2016, “I can’t wear another guy’s shoe if I’m playing against them.” Seems like a smart move. I guess he won’t be rocking the Air Jordan 1 Luka Doncic Mid SE ‘Pregame Pack - Mindfulness’ when the Rockets play the Mavericks on January 4th.
As for me? I’m still searching for those Air Jordan 1's my mom sold all those years ago. I’m only $1750 short...