U.S. Markets closed

NBA's 'sneaker kings' using new rules to express passion and creativity

The Atlanta Hawks were in Cleveland to face the Cavaliers on the second night of a back-to-back on Oct. 30. Before the game that evening, Hawks forward Taurean Prince decided to drop in The Restock Cleveland, a sneaker boutique located walking distance from Quicken Loans Arena.

This past summer, the NBA announced it was relaxing restrictions on the sneakers players could wear during games. For the first time in league history, players would be allowed to wear any colour at any point during the season. For Prince, it was an opportunity to showcase his love of sneakers.

“It gave guys an opportunity to show what they like and not be confined in a box,” Prince said. “It’s fun. I get to show the world what my taste in shoes are.”

Inside The Restock Cleveland, Prince meets a familiar face. The store, owned by Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, is managed by Joe Wisniewski, an Ohio native who grew up watching LeBron James and has his own personal collection of rare LeBron sneakers, among others.

Wisniewski also happens to be the same shoe size as Prince, which makes hunting down size 13 sneakers a lot easier whenever the Hawks forward has a request. On the court, the 24-year-old Prince has shown off a long list of forgotten sneakers, including the Adidas Crazy 2 KB8 II, the Nike Zoom Kobe 3 Prelude and the Reebok Answer IV.

Before the Hawks’ season opener against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Prince ordered a pair of Lonzo Ball’s signature Big Baller Brand sneakers on his phone in the visitors locker room at Madison Square Garden. The variety in his sneaker choices has made Prince one of the favourites for the unofficial crown of NBA sneaker king. 

“It’s an ‘if you know, you know’ thing,” Wisniewski said. “A lot of people in the social media era don’t know about older Kobe’s, LeBron’s, or just older Nike basketball shoes. It’s not always the most crazy expensive shoe either. That’s the biggest thing for me. Taurean wears what he genuinely likes. It’s not about a dollar figure.”

On this day inside The Restock Cleveland, Prince picks up a few pairs of Jordans and is on his way out of the store when he pauses and notices a pair of sneakers kept inside a locked display case by the cash register. It’s a pair of “EQUALITY” LeBron 15s, which received a limited release of 400 pairs last season, 200 in black and 200 in white. Here on display was a mismatched pair of black and white. With the word “EQUALITY” embroidered across the heel in gold, and it’s exclusivity, this was a pair of shoes that would draw some attention, especially in Cleveland.

They also happened to be in Prince’s size, and after some back-and-forth, Wisniewski sold the pair to Prince for what he calls a reasonable price. That evening, Prince took the floor against the Cavs in the mismatched LeBron 15s. Photos of his sneakers were shared all over social media.

A week into the season, Prince was unofficially entering his name into the race to be the NBA’s sneaker king.

***

Sneakers have always played a prominent role in NBA history. The best players in the league, from Michael Jordan, to Shaquille O’Neal, to James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, have paired their most memorable on-court moments with their signature sneakers to tell their own story.

Due to the relaxing of the league’s sneaker restrictions and a surge in dedicated sneaker accounts on social media, what players are wearing on their feet are now storylines unto themselves.

Los Angeles Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell has been using his sneakers to tell stories from his childhood this season. Growing up in Tarboro, North Carolina, Harrell spent hours glued to the television watching cartoons with his older brothers. On weekdays, Harrell would make sure he finished his homework on time just so he could get a few episodes of cartoons in, whether it was Rugrats, Animaniacs or CatDog.

Harrell now watches Paw Patrol with his kids and admits cartoons have gotten a little weird for him, but his own childhood memories have served as an inspiration for a series of customized sneakers he’s worn on the court this season. “I get to play in something that stuck out to me as a kid,” Harrell said.

The sneakers act as a creative outlet for Harrell.

“It’s not just with shoes,” Harrell said. “If you come to my house, the first thing you’ll see are pictures on the wall. The whole living room, my bedroom, there’s about 18 paintings in there. It’s not Mona Lisa or things you’ll see in the gallery. My art is tied into cartoons but in real life situations. Like I’ve got one where Lola Bunny is shooting a last second shot with a WNBA ball. It’s not going to be the normal stuff you see with art.”

Harrell has also used this season to bring back older classics, including the AND1 Tai Chi and the Reebok Shaq Attaq. Brands have been paying attention. In January, after Harrell wore a pair of FILA Bubble Zip sneakers, a package arrived at his house shortly after. It was a delivery from FILA, who sent Harrell eight pairs of shoes in the mail.

For players like Prince and Harrell, who are not as recognizable globally and without a signature sneaker deal with a sponsor, this new environment has allowed them to cultivate their own brand identity through the shoes they’re choosing to wear on the court every night.

“It lets people be more original,” Harrell said. “I’m diverse and open about my collection because I’m not signed with nobody. The majority of guys are tied to a shoe deal. I’m not. It lets people go more outside the box.”

***

NBA players have the means to procure pretty much any shoe they want, and they have access to anything if they look hard enough. These two things can be a combination for some reckless spending, especially when it comes to hard-to-find sneakers, which can cost in the four-to-five figure range per pair. Despite all of the access and the ability to spend more than the average person, some players draw the line.

“I’m not about to spend $5,000 on a pair of shoes if I’m just going to hoop in them,” Harrell said. “I collect shoes, so if I get [something exclusive], I want to be able to have it for awhile and pass it to my kids.”

The cost for exclusivity is what distinguishes one sneaker king from everyone else. Everyone seems to have anointed Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker, a player known for bringing out player exclusives and sample pairs that astound teammates and opposing players alike.

This season, Tucker has turned his arena entrance into a must-see event for sneakerheads. He has popularized the move of walking into the arena with a pair of to-be-worn sneakers in his hand (which has become known as carrying your #HeatInHand). It has set social media feeds ablaze every game night — websites have even started to track every pair of shoes Tucker has worn so far this season.

Recently, Tucker admitted he once spent $30,000 for a pair of shoes. By January, the sneaker site Nice Kicks estimated he had already played in over $100,000 worth of sneakers during the 2018-19 season. If there’s anything that distinguishes Tucker, it’s his willingness to play in absolutely anything. On Christmas, Tucker played in a pair of “Stewie Griffin” LeBron 6s, a sample shoe inspired by the Family Guy character that’s so exclusive it’s believed only a handful of pairs exist.

Despite being very aware of the attention he’s getting because of his sneakers, Tucker is aware of the attention he gets from his exclusive pairs, but enjoys the spontaneity more.

“Everybody just likes to talk about the rare, crazy stuff I wear,” Tucker said. “But sometimes I like to wear regular stuff. I always pack eight to ten pairs of shoes for road trips because I don’t know how I’m going to feel or what I want to play in.”

It’s a lot easier to be spontaneous when you have access to any sneaker in the world, and that’s why Tucker also believes there’s a responsibility for him to give back. After all, they’re just shoes. Tucker hosts an annual charity event called Kicks for Kids which helps to donate sneakers to kids in need. He will often give away his sneakers to AAU teams or to a lucky fan in the stands.

“I have a trunk full of shoes,” Tucker said. “Sometimes if I see people, I’ll just pull over and give my shoes away.”

When he’s done playing, Tucker thinks his sneaker rotation will shorten by a bit, as he would not be opposed to donating a majority of his collection.

“For sure,” Tucker said. “I’ll keep some for my son but I’d definitely donate the rest of them.”

***

For all of the flash and social media buzz over these sneakers, at the end of the day, the sneakers are about comfort and performance as well, something that’s not forgotten among the NBA’s sneaker kings.

Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie plays in his self-endorsed K8IROS sneaker. Each pair is customized with art illustrations, and Dinwiddie auctions off his game-worn sneakers in order to provide college scholarships for kids. The art pays tribute to some of Dinwiddie’s personal heroes, including Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman and Muhammad Ali. They also feature some of his favourite animes,  including Dragon Ball Z and Yu Yu Hakusho. 

Dinwiddie’s shoe also uses a new foam called KronoFoam, which is believed to be effective for performance. Dinwiddie’s on-court performance in his new shoes support that theory. He’s averaged a career-high in points this season and earned himself a new three-year, $34 million contract extension in December.

“The sneaker king title is subjective,” Dinwiddie said. “If you’re talking about an elite roster, then it’s P.J. He’s playing in things people can’t figure out a way to get their hands on. If you’re going with variety, it’s Montrezl. If you’re talking about innovation, I would put myself up there.”

Another sneaker king contender is Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox, who doesn’t even consider himself a sneakerhead.

“I’m just in a position where I can get a lot of shoes,” Fox said. Still, he can’t help but see that his sneaker collection has been getting a lot of attention this season.

“I see it,” Fox said. “I get tagged in it [on social media] a lot.”

Fox has a preference for the Kobe 9 model, a shoe he has played in since high school, through college at Kentucky when he set a school freshman scoring record, and now in the NBA, as one of the most improved players in the league this season. Fox respects Tucker’s collection, but is astounded at how many different kinds of shoes he’s willing to play in.

“I’m like how do you play in that shoe,” Fox said. “It just looks like it hurts his feet.”

It’s part of the criticism that players receive — that they spend too much time on their sneakers, that no one cares about what they’re wearing on their feet if they’re not playing well, that changing sneakers at halftime of every game seems like a tedious, pointless task. The players push back against some of those criticisms.

“The shoe is the main piece of equipment for a basketball player,” Dinwiddie said. “So if there’s anything I could focus on, this would be the very first thing I could do to help myself. If anything it shows the level of dedication I have to the game of basketball instead of taking away from it.”

Harrell wants to remind everyone that his on-court sneaker display is for himself.

“If you see the shoe and want to bag on the artist, don’t do that,” Harrell said. “It wasn’t put out there for you to judge me. It’s for me to be out there playing with something that I love.”

***

Mostly, the NBA’s sneaker kings do it out of love, because they still remember a time when they couldn’t afford a pair of shoes. Harrell grew up envying his older cousin, who held a part-time job and could afford a pair of the original Air Jordan 11 “Concords,” one of the most iconic Jordan-brand sneakers.

“I always loved shoes,” Prince added. “I was just never able to get them when I was young.”

Everyone admits the sneaker king title would be nice, and perhaps it would make sense for the league to add an official award with specific rules and voting to their year-end awards show, but, at least publicly, the players will tell you they don’t care.

“I don’t do it for the glory or some sneaker king crown,” Prince said. “I just do it to show people what I like.”

Performance and comfort aside, players do get a kick out of being a part of the conversation, whether it’s seeing themselves or what their competition is bringing to the court on any particular evening. The continued mainstream interest in sneakers and the creativity of the NBA’s sneaker kings means this is probably just the beginning. Expect more exclusive sneakers in the playoffs, and more competition for the crown next season.

“There’s only a select few that they put on a pedestal,” Fox said. “People are always waiting to see what we’re going to wear next.”

More NBA coverage on Yahoo Sports