by Chris O’Leary

It’s hard out here for a SLAM writer.

At many points over the last few years, whenever I’ve sat down to write an article for the magazine I grew up devouring, I’ve felt…unworthy. Is that the right word? Maybe not. Inadequate? No, it’s something else. It’s something I’d call, and realize that as I write this it’s the first time I’ve ever dropped it in my life—un-SLAM.

You could argue that the knocks against my SLAM cred run deep. I grew up and still live in Canada (strike one), reading about the most heralded and the most talented, and sometimes the most unknown basketball players in the world. I aspired to be like them—like Mike, like Magic, like KG, AI, Kobe, Vince, LeBron, CP3—and fell short (strike two). Real short. When I hardly got off the bench of my high school team—a high school team in one of the most remote locations of the country—my hoop dreams suffered a faceplant.

It’s not that all the essentials aren’t there. If you frequent this site, you love the words and the witticisms of its writers, and how hip-hop drips from the site’s very being, like little drops of colored Gatorade sweat.

My love of the game and this magazine are so intertwined at this point in my life that I can’t be a part of basketball and not think of SLAM. To see my name in the mag, to see it on this site and to have you reading this now, is without hyperbole, the coolest thing I’ve experienced in my life.

Still, though, things happen in my life from time to time that serve as a shout in the face, as loud as KG with Michelle Tafoya, “You are not SLLLLAAAAMMMMMMM!

Case in point: last week, I was robbed for my sandwich (strike three).

No word of a lie. For the first time in my life, I was robbed. As a freelancer for a daily paper in my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, I’ve been covering the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League (for those of you that don’t know, we gave you guys Warren Moon, and Doug Flutie—the second time around, when he was effective).

Anyway, the other day, media time had wrapped up and before I got to writing, I decided to step out of the football stadium to get some lunch. With a pizza sub and chocolate milk from Subway in tow, I was almost back to the home base when this young guy (20-ish, I’m guessing) ran up on me, flashing that I’m-about-to-whomp-your-ass look.

He asked me what I had in the bag. Cornered and completely alone, I told him it was just a sandwich. He mumbled something at me, and one of his fists unclenched long enough to take the bag out of my hand.

Then he asked me if I had five dollars. Mind you, he asked for the five bucks, but it wasn’t really a question. Some change came out of my pocket, the guy started to back off, and I started to wonder why my teachers never included the “stand still and look scared sh*tless” part to their “fight or flight response” lessons.

When I got back to the press box, I sat down to process what had happened, and how disappointed I was with myself, this city and the world that we live in, in general. It was at that point that I looked at my shoes: Mychal Thompson Air Force 1’s.

“It could have been worse,” I told myself. “What if he had taken my shoes?”

Obviously, I’m not the type for heroics in the face of danger. When this guy got in my face, I caved harder than Will Smith fighting Mike Tyson. But when it comes to my sneakers, I like to think I would have put up a fight some kind of resistance.

Whether or not I would have resisted (if you’ve read this far, you know I wouldn’t have), I feel like my love of sneakers is one thing that qualifies my being here. It might even cancel out any present or future strikes against me.

I can’t give you the specifics of how things got the way they are with sneakers and me. If you play the game, even if just watch the game, what the players have on their feet inevitably makes its way into your consciousness.

When I was 15, basketball was still new to me. Still learning the rules and the faces of the game, I watched Michigan’s Fab Five put it on the NCAA (later, the NCAA would put it on them too, I suppose). I wasn’t sure why, but when it came time to buy my sneaks in September, and for years after that, they had to be black. Far from a collector at that point—I only had the pair on my still-growing feet—the bug had bit me.

Some of the greatest moments of my life have involved me holding a pair of long sought after sneakers in my hands. My most memorable came on January 28, 2001.

My Fab-Five-induced love of black kicks caused me to miss out on the original run of the Jordan XI in 1995/96. Over the next five years, I lost countless hours of my life online, in a failed pursuit of a reasonably priced, if not gently used pair.

On January 28, 2001, the search finally came to an end for me. Hustling up an escalator at the West Edmonton Mall, I rounded a corner and ran into my favorite sneaker spot. I stopped on a dime, my eyes scanning over the dozens of shoes on display. Then I saw it: white-on-white uppers, transparent icy blue soles looking like frosting at the bottom of a rubber and patent leather cake. Some type of profanity fell from my mouth, I’m sure.

I watched my hand reach out to grab the shoe. I prayed/begged to the gods that this wasn’t another dream. Holding the shoe, I knew my search had ended. My heart rate started to pick back up. Then it went up some more. Then some more. Suddenly, my right leg was shaking, my heel tapping on the floor. This was more excitement than I’d ever felt on a Christmas morning, than watching Charles Smith get blocked repeatedly by the Bulls in Game 5 of the ’93 ECF’s; than watching Reggie Miller lose in the Finals in 2000. It wasn’t until that night, when I was going to bed (no, I didn’t sleep with the shoes—they were in view though) that the bug fully sunk its teeth into me.

“I’ve got the white-on-whites,” I told myself. “Now I need the white-on-black. And the black and red’s.)”

Up until that point, I thought I had an end goal in sight with this thing. Now, seven years and several stacks of boxes later, I know there’s no end to this thing. Someone’s going to do something huge at the Olympics this summer; someone will jump out of the gym next season; Kobe, LeBron, KG, Chris Paul…somebody is going to have a career-defining game in the playoffs; somehow, there will be an never-before-conceived-of colorway of an AF1 that’ll drop. And I know that as it happens, another chapter to this story will be written, and that I’ll want a piece of it on my feet.

Take my lunch, my lunch money, whatever. As long as my sneakers stay on my feet, I’m happy.