by Ben Osborne / cover photo by Tom Medvedich

The sneaker collecting game of today has blown up beyond anything I ever imagined, and trust me when I say that even the most optimistic Jordan Brand employees never expected all this either.

There are basically three paths for someone like me, a dude in his late-30s who cared about basketball shoes before he cared about girls (and I was hardly late to the latter): I could be a grumpy old man and bemoan the occasional inauthenticity of today’s “sneakerheads”; I could go whole hog, spending any disposable income on kicks, posting every last freebie on Instagram and travel the tri-state area for sneakercons; or I could play the middle, taking advantage of how my job puts me in the center of this world without letting it run my life. I choose C.

SLAM is now in its twenty-first year of covering the game with a hip-hop edge and a sense for fashion that has never been replicated. KICKS—our sneaker annual magazine that covers basketball shoes in all their proper glory—has now been published 16 times. The fact is: if people didn’t care about shoes so much, SLAM wouldn’t be as healthy as it is, and KICKS simply wouldn’t exist. But they do, and so we do; and the time felt right to mash it all up into a book that, quality-wise, far outstrips anything we’ve ever done.

We knew we wanted this project to tell the story of basketball shoes, but from a visual perspective. We talked about making it a list, like the top 20, 25, or even 50 basketball shoes of all time. After all, this is not a science. One man’s favorite sneaker might not make another’s top 100. So we threw out the concept of a number and homed in on ones that we felt had to be in a book that adopts the phrase “changed the game.” The result was a few antiques, a bunch from the ’70s–’90s that featured something original and/or are still popular today, and a couple more recent releases that we just know will be remembered a generation from now. As a basketball numerologist of sorts, I think it’s pretty sweet our final list matches the uniforms of Kareem, Bird, Ewing and Pippen, but that’s just a happy coincidence. Any fan of sneakers would have their own list, but we’re confident that the reader will enjoy ours plenty.

What makes leading this project special to me is that I was in love with all this stuff before SLAM or KICKS was even a concept. While in grammar school in suburban Westchester County, I rocked fat laces in the fourth grade. Fifth grade saw me fall in love with the Air Jordan I, as I wore, and wore out, three straight pairs over fifteen months. 

Sixth grade coincided with getting the Converse Weapon, which made me feel tough on the court, because for a brief moment it seemed like every star in the NBA besides Michael Jordan was wearing them.

Middle school brought the chance to start working a little (caddying in basketball shoes? Why not?) and making my own money. The local baseball-card store got some of it; basketball-shoe retailers got the rest. While still enamored with MJ and his growing line of shoes (I had all those Is, never got the $100 IIs, then had multiples of the IIIs, IVs and Vs), I also noticed how popular all of them were getting. And I wanted to be different. 

With a little scratch of my own, I would go to Fordham Road in the Bronx or Union Square in Manhattan, digging through the crates at VIM or Paragon for fresh colorways of Brooks (Dominique Wilkins’ shoe), Etonics (Hakeem the Dream’s) and Spot-Bilts (Xavier McDaniel’s). These unique joints were also usually pretty cheap, and allowed me to save up for the more expensive Nikes that came out at Foot Locker, particularly ones that my favorite player, Mark Jackson, was wearing.

Speaking of MarkJax, this basketball x sneaker obsession of mine was pretty encompassing. I played all the time (even if I might have been more concerned with making sure my teardop was just like Mark’s instead of properly improving my game). I watched the game whenever I could. My bedroom was a shrine to sports and sneakers, with my favorites were the beautiful posters Nike produced of Jackson and Jordan back then.

As I got into the latter stages of high school and college, girls, music, schoolwork and playing varsity sports all carved into the above interests, but it was a part of me forever. Then I graduated college, moved back home, and got a job as an intern at a three-year-old SLAM magazine? Where one of the best things I had to offer was an innate knowledge of hoops and shoes? Some things are just meant to be.

During the past decade and a half, the shoe game has become more of a shoe job. SLAM and I work directly with all the top brands, traveling to cover the big releases, collaborating on campaigns and trying to share all that with as many readers/potential consumers as we can.

In a way, this whole industry has never been easier. The smart brands get you release dates and high-res imagery with the click of a mouse. E-retailers and sneaker-centric websites give you historical data and pricing info. Flickr and Instagram burst with pictures of folks wearing or storing one sick pair after another.

I quickly learned how unofficial a lot of the sneaker art is while working on this project. Pictures might be blurry, but the average websurfer doesn’t care. Information about the shoe could be inaccurate one minute, and removed or corrected the next. Given how massive the basketball sneaker culture is, covering it still feels like exploring a new frontier. It’s a still-maturing business with no hierarchy that determines whose leaked photos and details are real, and whose aren’t.

Facts regarding release dates and the like were double- and triple-checked. Some may still be fuzzy since some brands can’t even declare with certainty when a particular shoe was released, but trust that we did our best. And since we can’t just repost with a new URL, obviously the words you’re reading are here to stay. 

Moreso than the words in this book, though, I’m most proud of the images we tracked down. George Gervin’s Iceman poster. Run-DMC in Superstars. MJ in the Dunk Contest. Classic shots you know and some gems you don’t, all in the same place for the first time ever. The winner in all this? You, the sneakerhead whose bookshelf will never be the same.

SLAM KICKS: Basketball Sneakers that Changed the Game, features sneaker write ups by myself, Abe Schwadron and Lee Gabay, and essays by Russ Bengtson, John Brilliant, Scoop Jackson and Lang Whitaker. It was published by Universe Publishing, a division of Rizzoli International Publications. Jessica Fuller and Charles Miers at Rizzoli ran the show, while Creative Director Melissa Brennan, Managing Editor Susan Price and myself took care of everything on the SLAM end of things. It is out today at bookstores everywhere, and can also be purchased online via links from Rizzoliusa.com.

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