Sneakers for a Dream

by Ray Bala

I walked in to a store the other day, shoe store of course, and I began counting the number of Jordan Brand shoes on the display wall. There were 10. Ten different Jordans! Now there may have been actually only six models but the different colorways add to the variety.

When I was a kid, we had only one Jordan option — the new one. If it was the fire red V or the Olympic VII, the new Jordan was all you got.

Now, I’m just really harping on this fact because in as a kid, despite the fact that I had only one Jordan option but I did have other shoe options. And not just from Reebok and adidas. I had Converse, Fila, New Balance, Avia, LA Gear and even brands like British Knights and Troop. It may have not have been the golden age of the innovation in sneakers but it was definitely a golden age for sneaker brand variety.

Now I’m a long-winded, nostalgic kind of guy and I’m at an age where my memory is so easily stirred. So here is what my mind got me to thinking about not too long ago.

At my current place of day employment, I don’t have much in the way of people of my age and interests. I work in an environment where the job titles and descriptions largely keep those who do Job A from really consorting with those of Job B. It’s just the nature of the work environment. But on occasion, I get to interact with a person close to my age from Job B. I’m by no means old but I’m slightly out of the young category also. This person from Job B likes to ask me questions about things from “our” youth like music, TV and other things like that and then harp about how those things are not the same anymore. (Living in the past, right?) One day this person, when we talking about shoes they had seen on the subway, asked me, “Do you remember LA Gears?”

Do I remember LA Gears? Do I remember LA Gears? Of course I do!

Immediately my mind went a player whom will always be near and dear to my heart — Akeem Olajuwon. Now I’m talkiAkeem Olajuwonng the pre- “H,” odd tight wearing, manning the middle for the Houston Rockets before they won back-to-back titles Akeem. Buy an ‘89-90 basketball card and it’ll prove it. He was wearing the LA Gear Unstoppable ish, which me and my friends all dubbed simply the Akeems.

Now for all you youngins out there, that move Rajon Rondo popularized during this past Playoffs, you know the move where he pivots one way showing the ball and then makes his counter pivot the other for a basket, Akeem began that. That was the Dream Shake and watching Rondo do it is nice, but watching 6-10 Akeem do it was nicer. He had the body of a center but the footwork of a soccer player, and he had bigs in the League jumpin’ and dancin’ and bitin’ on that move on the nightly.

Akeem was one of the big name NBA guys to sign with LA Gear (Karl Malone being the other), which was trying to make a move in to the athletic shoe market at the time away from the aerobic side that it had become popular with. I still remember the ads with Akeem on a court wearing what looked like a shorts and a jersey made of shiny garbage bags sporting the LA Gear logo in the middle of his chest. No doubt, me and my friends wanted those shoes!

For me, there was another reason though. Being a little guy (I was 5-5 then) I loved the centers and forwards of course and I wished I played in the post. I couldn’t really get with a Kareem Sky Hook or the seemingly awkward post moves of Kevin McHale but I could get with the graceful up and unders or feathery fadeaways of Akeem. And the shoes he was wearing to make fools of guys on the low block seemed to accentuate his game perfectly.

In an area of seemingly clunky hi tops the LA Gear Unstoppable was a light shoe. The only colors we had available to us in my part of the world were the white with red and black accents or the red with black and white accents. Both were equally nice but the white were what we coveted most. LA Gear used an Air System for cushioning in the shoe and had a crazy fish gill like pattern along the inside and outside of the shoes by the arches. These gills were a pretty cool accent and gave the impression of an aerodynamic color change. We actually drew straws for a few days to see who would get the draft rights to buy them first. My buddy Jake won so no one else could get them until he did.

About that time, my friends and I were all on our elementary school basketball team so we all had eyes on picking up a pair of new shoes for the season and the impending spring so this was a big deal. I would watch the NBA game of the week and if Houston came on I’d be glued to the TV with my Akeem t-shirt on and watch him go to work.

And he put in some work alright.

That ‘89-90 season, when the Rockets stumbled in to the Playoffs with a 41-41 record only to get bounced by the Lakers in the first round, Olajuwon had an amazing season. He averaged 24.3 points to go with 14 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.12 steals and 4.59 blocks. His board and block totals were career highs as well as lead the NBA in both categories. Only five years removed from his days rockin’ rims with Clyde Drexler at Phi Slama Jama in college and he was already a four-time All-NBA selection, three-time All-Defensive selection and a six-time All-Star. He had arguably his best season in the NBA that year and I was in awe.

Now I never did get those shoes and up until recently, no one has been able to, either. LA Gear relaunched the brand a couple of years ago after easing in to the market before that (does anyone remember that Luke Walton was the poster boy for them not long ago?), and they have been releasing their past lines as lifestyle shoes, including the Unstoppable in both hi and low editions. I’ve been thinking about grabbing a pair but have always been distracted by other shoes that come out to take my attention away.

Sadly, I have never come close to purchasing them yet.

Maybe I’ve outgrown the Unstoppables now that I’m no longer 13. Better yet, maybe I like to keep the memory of Akeem Olajuwon before the back-to-back titles and the wonderment I had when I watched this giant of man move like a cat around the basket. But really I think it’s because my buddy Jake never got those Unstoppables and settled on the newer shoe that came out — some Jordan I think — and I’m still waiting on him to get them first.

Never draw straws for shoes, people.

Ray Bala is a freelance sports writer from Toronto. Catch Ray covering all things Canadian basketball at Raptors HQ in The Can Ball Report.