Devin Booker on His “Kentucky” Air Jordan 1s From 1985, His Cars and Becoming Legendary
Perfect morning in Los Angeles. A calm and balanced sun-soaked Tuesday. Traffic is actually skipping along nicely. Smiles blanket faces that pass by. Conversations run their course without any rush. “Voice of the Heroes” blasts out of a car window on Cahuenga Boulevard. Clearly all is right.
Let’s have some thunderous notes surge in the blue sky.
There’s a problem.
What is it?
The absolutely insanely rare “Kentucky” Air Jordan 1s from 1985 that Devin Booker is supposed to bless us with aren’t in L.A.
OK, that’s fine. Let’s adjust. We can let some time go by. It’s a nice enough day in CA.
Jump to Phoenix. The kicks got sent to the desert from Tokyo, Japan. The sneakers, a physical time machine that lead with footprints to the moments well before SLAM was around or Booker was born or the public’s general love for footwear, are getting on a plane. Their journey is a mirror to Booker’s.
Book was in Tokyo for the 2020 (’21?) Olympics. He and the squad captured the Gold medal after a two-week odyssey filled with highs and lows. The lows included a panic that struck American fans and media following a first game loss to France. But the men wearing the red, white and blue were never worried. Gold was always theirs. The highs obviously include the numero uno world ranking. But that still leaves room for the details. It still leaves room for Book strapping up on defense, sliding his feet, laced in his blue and red Kobe 5 PEs, on-ball and in his weakside rotation requirements. It leaves room for the snapping ball movement that he would sometimes get to cap off or sometimes get to contribute to. Those were the highs that not many will clock; basketball being played correctly at a supreme level on a global stage.
Just as rare as the ’85 “Kentuckys” is the man who will be wearing them when they get off the plane at Hollywood Burbank Airport. He’s one of the few who appreciates good hoops like that, one of the even fewer who yearns for real and true competition, in all of its pain, ugliness and ultimate glory. He’s been co-signed by the best. LeBron James and Kevin Durant, two HoFers, have long been saying how nice he is. He’s been recognized by the realest. Jrue Holiday and Draymond Green, two basketball geniuses, have praised him. And then there’s Chris Paul, one of the best point guards and basketball historians the game has ever known.
“Devin Booker had everything to do with why I came to Phoenix,” Paul told ESPN months before the Suns made the ’21 Finals.
CP knew that Book is Book. He’s a blend of the years gone by, even the years that he wasn’t alive to see. He’s not a Kobe clone, but rather a disciple of Kobe and his footwork, of Rip Hamilton and his midrange shot, of Michael Jordan and his drive, of his father Melvin and his refusal to take it easy, and of countless others who have made the 24-year-old an unparalleled player and person.
Middie’s auto, a product of fluttering feet out of the triple threat that instantly create space to get clean looks. Then off the bounce, with the rock in his right hand, he can fade to his strong-side shoulder and easily command a shot that sweetly scrapes the sky. Teammates have noted how much time he’s spent in the weight room adding muscle to get more power on his head-down drives to the rim. But that’s just a new layer of a skill he’s always had. (Please type “Devin Booker and Kyle Wiltjer” into YouTube. Thank you. And you’re welcome.) With deadeye three-point accuracy and the capability to run pick and roll as the ballhandler or the screener, it’s just refinement for Book now. Just more work.
Just more moments of him jumping out of his vintage cars, trading out his Jordans and his Chuck Taylors for his Kobes, and dominating the NBA with a style that’s closer to Alex English and Mark Aguirre than to the kids coming up today. He’s a modern throwback, a young man who respects the past and lets it inform his own future. That’s why the best players in the League mess with him so heavy. They know an all-time great when they see one.
But we’re still not seeing 1s. So when Book peacefully rolls up to the studio with his dog Haven, he parks it on a couch, digs in to some lunch and starts talking about the 1s he wanted as a kid at Moss Point HS in Moss Point, MS.
“I always wanted a ‘Banned’ 1,” he says. That would’ve been around the time he was playing in some Huarache 2K4s, flying under the national radar. Haven, a 150-pound Cane Corso, is hilariously running around the studio with the kind of joy only a very good boy can bring.
“I have ‘Banned’ 1s currently, after I made it to the League,” Book continues. “I think it might’ve been Draymond the first time I’d seen him, we just had a conversation about it over the Olympics. I knew the story behind the ‘Banned’ 1s and from then I had to get them right when I got to the League.”
That’s the big thing with Book. He studies. Hoops, kicks, cars, clothing, art, dogs. He wants to learn. He wants the pieces that laid the foundation.
“I chased another 1,” he says. “I was just trying to build my 1 collection. The ‘Royals,’ I had to chase the ‘Royals’ down for a minute. I could find a lot of things in a [size] 13, but it was always hard for me to get the 14. I was just trying to get the OG 1s for the most part.”
OG 1s are one thing. His now-booming collection of classic whips has proven to be his next chase.
“I’m out there on the black market, man,” he jokes with Haven now chilling by his side. “Just finding them, man. Especially the vehicles, you’re all over the place. We’re out in Pittsburgh, just trying to find the right ones. My ’71 Impala, I’m going and looking for a Donk. So that’s South Florida, that’s Miami, that’s how they’re riding over there. With my ’59 Impala, I have it sitting west coast with the 20 inch Dayton’s on ’em. You gotta find somebody from Cali to do that.
“I’m doing my research,” he goes on. “It runs in my family. My grandpa’s a collector, he has a couple. My dad has a couple classics. It’s kind of like a conversation starter between us, even me learning more. Something’s going to go wrong, you’re going to learn something new about a car that day. And I missed all that. I was always traveling at AAU events, so I was never in the garage as much as I was in the gym. That’s the beauty of it, the process of learning more every day. But all my cars, I know every story on them.”
And speaking of stories, Book shares a real good one.
“I have a ’96 Impala,” he begins. “It’s the same car my uncle was driving before he got locked up. He got locked up, he tried to sell it to my dad and I didn’t even know this. And then I get a ’96. My dad was like, You know that’s the same car your uncle tried to give to me when he went to jail? I knew I should have bought it then, I knew it,” he laughs. “Same color, black cherry, everything.”
“It was really my closest cousin (who was like an uncle to him) that had the same ’96 Impala,” Melvin says. “When he got locked up he was trying to sell everything. I told Dev he had that exact car. Me and my pops always said we should have bought it from him. He sold it to one of his friends and I think they trashed the car.”
It all matters to Book. Every story, every color, every detail. All those yesterdays are his tomorrows. For as much of a throwback as he is, he’s also the present and the future. The two words that everyone associates with him don’t represent the past. “Be Legendary” is something to live up to.
It was Bean that wrote those words on a pair of Kobe 11s that he then gifted to Booker. That tale is mythical now. Just as KD and Bron pinpointed Book’s potential, it was crystal clear for No. 24, too. In the moments after a game in his last season, Bryant took about 15 minutes to chop it up with Booker, who was in his rookie campaign and had led the Suns to a win over the Lakers with 28 points and 7 assists. Besides the everlasting “Be Legendary” written out on the 11s, more guidance was shared. It doesn’t matter what exactly the Hall of Famer told young Book in that locker room meetup. It’s evident in his play. The Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers and Bucks got to see that advice come to life just a few months ago. “Suns in four” is a lifestyle because of Book. The midrange game is safe because of Book. The Kobe 4, 5 and 6 got to return to the NBA’s brightest lights because of Book.
The purple stardust 4s, with the ultra buttery leather, got to shine the brightest. He wore them throughout the Finals.
“I always said the Kobe 6 was my favorite to play in until this year,” Book begins. “I fell in love with the Kobe 4 again. I fell in love with it. Like high school, I always said if I could build a shoe or model the shoe after any comfort-wise, it’d be the Kobe 6. I don’t know why I kind of went away from that this year. I think my Kobe 4, especially the one I was wearing during the playoffs, the purple one, like, it was made out of the right material.”
He’s written “Be Legendary” on his sneakers for a minute now. An active reminder.
“You have to live up unto it,” he says about the pair of words. “Breaking a fresh pair every time, that’s the first thing I remember when I’m going to it. I’m often reminded of it, not looking at my tattoo. Writing it out re-puts me in that moment, re-puts me in that story every time. It’s definitely the greatest motivation that I can get. It’s a constant reminder of the pursuit of everything.”
Save for early in his career, like when he scored 70 in the Nike Hyperdunk Low X, Book has been Team Bean thoroughly. His sneakers and his thinking are Kobe-influenced. He says that every fable about No. 8 is all facts, that everything we think might be fiction about No. 24 is actually accurate. Bryant’s career has served as a how-to manual for Booker and the conversations that he was able to share with the legend have left such a deep impact that there are brief moments where he talks about him in the present tense.
He says that Kobe would just list things out that he wanted to accomplish. Then he would go do them.
Book brings up going from the Finals to the Olympics as his own version of that mindset. Nobody would have predicted that but Book made it happen.
There’s more on his list. An NBA championship is at the top. A signature sneaker isn’t far behind. He’s got a reserve of Kobe PEs that doesn’t seem to end, an Air Force 1 created for him and a Bean 1 colorway done up in Suns colors.
“I’ve only been in Kobes,” he says. “Even Nike wanted to push me into a different model. I stick with what I know. I wish I could be more hands on and tell stories through it, that comes with a signature and my own type of stories. And it started, it was me, [Isaiah Thomas] and DeMar [DeRozan]. To be one of the first ones that got the protro or the 1s, it’s cool to be loyal to the Kobe brand.”
Even still, the taste he got with his AF1 colorway has left him wanting more.
“I think that kind of opened my mind to, like, anything signature, honestly, and even just the short conversation of making those shoes came alive,” Book says. “Like, obviously I wasn’t hands-on as much as I wanted to be. But I’m glad I at least got to get the story across and represent my high school and be able to tell a story. A lot of people don’t understand with the ‘yes, sir, no, ma’am.’ Doing stuff in the future, I’d like to tell those stories more from myself. Yeah, but I think it’s sick to be able to do that through footwear and even just people that don’t know me telling them what it means when I give them the shoes…you know the conversation.”
See, Book stays in his imagination. When he and his pops work out, he does the same “three…two…one!” scenarios that kids all around the country do. He carries notebooks to jot down his ideas. His mind trails from signature kicks to impactful real life changes that he now has the power to make. There’s three generations of Bookers who have played ball at Moss Point. In a joint effort with Mr. Cartoon, Devin will refurbish two courts, in honor of his father, his grandfather and his city’s youth who will follow in his footsteps. He’s got stories to tell and he hopes that one day, 35 years from now, someone will be talking about his kicks in the same way he’s talking about the “Kentucky” 1s.
They’ve finally arrived.
No more thunderous notes surging in the blue sky. Just shine.
Lunch is about to be over. Haven’s about to roam again. Book’s about to lace up a priceless work of art.
“Wearing the ’85 Jordans, like, I wasn’t born in 1985,” Book says. “But I know there’s history behind it. And I know the meaning behind it, and how meaningful it was in that moment.”
They’re still meaningful in this moment, on this perfectly calm and sun-soaked Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles.
KICKS 24 featuring Devin Booker is available now in gold and black metal editions, as well as these exclusive Cover Tees. Shop here.
Portraits by Zamar Velez. Follow Zamar on Instagram, @zamarvelez.
Action photos via Getty Images.