Nike Air Penny IIby Chris O’Leary

The picture says it all, doesn’t it?

Sometimes it helps to have friends in high places. Other times, it just helps to have a friend in the right place. For me, that right place was a Foot Locker in Tampa a few weeks back. After some quick but still expensive cross-border phone calls, a Canadian-based friend of mine out of town for work grabbed me my much sought after Air Penny II’s. They made it to me in the mail a few days later and were on the court of my favorite gym a couple days after that.

Sure, they’re a half-size big on me, but desperate measures came into play here. I’ve also learned that in the future, I’ll go a half-size down if given the choice again. The arch pain created by the extra room in the shoe and the intricate lacing that goes into alleviating the problem wouldn’t be worth the hassle on something that wasn’t an obsession.

As much as I love the shoes, I’m convinced now more than ever that they’re in my life to hammer my age home on me. My first wearing of the shoe actually drew a small crowd around me from people in the gym. While they were curious about what I was wearing, none of them knew what the sneakers were.

“Penny Hardaway! Seriously guys, he was the most exciting player in the League! Lil’ Penny? No? Nothing?”

I’ve given up on schooling the youth with sneaker wisdom. Their blank faces are my Kryptonite. That is, if random sneaker knowledge qualified as a Superman-like quality…which it doesn’t. I just had an image of a crime-fighting superhero who’s a total sneaker junkie pop into my head. How crazy would that be? But I digress.

Jordan Ol Skool III’ve hit a good streak of sneaker fortune lately and I’ve been meaning to put something together to talk about some shoes that have impressed me in the last couple of months.

First, Jordan Brand’s Ol Skool II. I’ve been wearing these since the end of September and was pleasantly surprised by them. Billed by JB as something that looks good on the court and with a pair of jeans, I was a little worried that they’d have put performance second on their to-do list. As an admitted Air Jordan snob, I’ve also been a little leery about Jordans that aren’t really Jordans basically since the brand was created back in 1997.

While it’s not a full-on Air Jordan, the Ol Skool II is a good shoe. First, in terms of its concept, it’s a great mish-mash of the old and the new. At first glance, it looked like a LeBron shoe to me—about as new-school an aesthetic you can have right now. Upon closer inspection, though, there are a lot of old-school feeling elements to the shoe as well. The toe portion of the sole is covered in stars, not unlike the Air Force 1. Also from the AF1 page is the half-inch stitching around the outer portion of the sole of the shoe. The pre-1987 version of the Air Jordan logo on the heel is another nice touch for that throwback feel.

Inside the shoe is a simple corduroy-looking makeup, fully taking you back to the ’80s. The lacing method is simple as well, with plain-Jane black laces. No steel lace tips with a Swoosh or a Jumpman engraved on them, no speed-lacing system, no frills in that department whatsoever. That’s not to say the lacing system isn’t good though. I was actually surprised at how well a tightening of the laces really sunk the shoe onto my foot.

On the court, the shoe held its own. It’s light, comfortable and there were no break-in issues, which for a shoe at a midrange price (it’s retailing for $115) is a pretty good thing.

While the Ol Skool II has been out for a little longer than a minute, a slew of new colorways that all hint at the Air Jordan I were released at the first of the month. I like my all-black model (which in itself is old school, if JB was aiming at the mid-’90s Fab Five all-black sneak craze), but these recent releases have stirred up a little new release envy on my end. But that’s something I can deal with. Usually.

Before I get into the next sneaker I’ve been wearing as of late, I’ve got to shout out the generosity of my longtime friend Kirk, who stopped into E-town for a visit shortly after I got my Penny II’s in the mail.

Kirk and I have played ball together since junior high and in that time have shared epic, weather-changing one-on-one battles on my driveway that continue on courts between here and our hometown to this day. I’ll admit that he holds a wide margin in the all-time count in the win/loss column. I can man up when I have to.

What Kirk can’t admit to, though, is that I once crossed him up so bad that he actually blew his knee out and crumpled to the ground. I made my layup, claimed the win by default and then got him the medical attention he needed. I think that needs to become public knowledge before I go any further here.

Like I was saying, Kirk and his fully healed knee stopped by a few weeks back. He made his way up to my apartment with a box tucked under his arm. He said that he’d picked up a new pair of shoes and I assumed he was bringing them up to show me. When I saw the size on the box though, I knew something was up.

Jordan Brand XX2 5/8“I got a pair of Jordan XX2’s,” he told me as he handed me the box. “These ones are yours.”

He gave me the Jordan XX2 and 5/8, a shoe that went under my radar when it dropped last year. While the Ol Skool II is a good shoe, there’s a huge (HUGE!) difference between a JB release and a full-on Air Jordan release, and the XX2 and 5/8 reminded me of that.

From the second you lace up the shoe, to the moments you take your first steps in them, you know that you’re rocking something special. Where the Ol Skool II feels normal on those initial steps, the XX2 and 5/8 is like making the leap from driving a minivan to a sports car. Both might get you to the same place, but that sports car is much more likely to give you a ride that you’ll talk to your friends about for weeks and months to come.

Whereas the XX2 has interchangeable features for the heel (Zoom Air or regular classic Air), the XX2 and 5/8 has only the classic Air. Although Zoom Air is always nice to have, you won’t feel shortchanged with what you get in this shoe.

Having worn the XX2 and 5/8 about a half-dozen times, I can say that it’s been a nice and reliable shoe from the get go. The only complaint I can make on it is that it isn’t very breathable. I haven’t had to make this kind of a comment on a sneaker before, but I actually stunk these joints out after one wear. It wasn’t a permanent, sneaker-scarring stank or anything, but I could smell them after one hour-long wearing. That’s an off-court thing, though. On the court, the XX2 and 5/8 is nice.

Finally, I wanted to wrap up here by talking about the webcast that Nike put on for the Kobe IV last week. While the whole production seemed a little forced (could those kids have been any more subdued?), Kobe IVand the push on the low-top angle was a little over the top in my opinion, Mamba’s latest sneaker has me intrigued.

I’ve got a pair of Zoom Kobe I and II’s in my closet. The I was decent, but could have been better. The II’s technology was impressive, but the shoe dug into my Achilles to the point where I couldn’t wear them anymore. The III slipped by me, but the IV, with its abundant use of Lunarlite foam and Flywire technology (both have made the Hyperdunk what it is) in that low-cut package has me feening for the Feb. 6 release date. The aesthetic isn’t through the roof on this one (again, my opinion), but this could be a defining sneaker in Kobe’s career—of course, winning a championship in the shoe helps give a sneaker that defining status. Somehow, I actually like the colorway that Kobe will wear at the All-Star game in Phoenix.