A Mile in His Shoes

These days, sneakers are expensive, poorly made and full of hot air.

As a man at the age when things keep coming and going (the inches around the waist keep coming while the hair keeps going), I recently faced one of those annual rituals that I have absolutely come to dread.

No, it was not a prostate exam; What do I care if I have a gland that lies face down in adoration or humility? Nor was it a dental visit. My dentist is Mel Dixon, the younger, who plays basketball, writes songs for top-selling artists and volunteers his time in the township of Soweto. I feel honored to go see Mel.

No, that which I have come to dread is the purchasing of new athletic shoes. I need basketball shoes. I coach in them, referee in them and I still occasionally play in them. I wear them around the house, to the store, and in fact to just about every place except church. They're my No. 1 most important item of apparel, and, if you've seen the way I dress, they're obviously far and away the most expensive, as well.

Like all Baby Boomers, I started out wearing high-top Converse Chuck Taylors. They had rubber soles and canvas uppers and they came in a variety of colors ranging from white to dirty white, depending on how long you had worn them. They cost $10 a pair and they lasted for months and months and months. The Chuck Taylor was a spectacularly durable shoe; the sole absorbed the pounding of running and jumping, the bottom surface provided amazing traction and the canvas upper protected the ankle.

It was close to being a perfect product, which, in America, means that it would eventually be supplanted by something that cost more and didn't work as well. That would be Adidas, and then Puma, Pro Keds, Reebok and Nike. Pretty soon, shoes were coming in different colors, in low-tops and mid-level styles, and they were made out of leather and synthetics. People were paying three times what a pair of Taylors would cost for a pair of shoes that were inferior in quality, function and longevity. All through the 1970s, the basketball shoes that flooded the market were crap. Over-priced crap. Slickly advertised, over-priced crap.

The newcomers started getting it right, and by the late 1980s, shoe quality was actually pretty good. Unfortunately, every time a shoe company would make an advancement in quality, they would use it as a justification to jack up the price by 50 percent. Then came the Air Jordan era in which shoes became the ultimate status symbol, and inner-city youths felt the need to severely injure or even kill others for their shoes. These days, we've just settled into a period where every knucklehead who has had one great season of basketball in the pros or college (or, now, in high school) gets a wildly overpriced pair of shoes named for them, and all the little idiots rush out and plunk down $200 for a pair of shoes that cost less than $10 to manufacture and get to the marketplace and, under the normal rules of economics, should retail for less than $50. But since all the lemmings are willing to pay outrageous money, I'm stuck in a marketplace gone mad, forced to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a necessity of life.

Another part of my problem is that I have small feet. Depending on the shoe, I wear either size 8 or 8.5. (Back in high school and college, I actually wore 7.5 or 8.) This severely limits my options.

When people ask--often in shocked tones--why my feet are so small, I just tell them that when I was a child, my mother would bind my feet so that I would be an attractive adult, and boy, did it ever work! The actual truth is that I never went barefoot as a child. I always wore shoes; none of that Huck Finn stuff for me. I have sisters who are several inches shorter than I am whose feet that are longer than mine.

People have long been fascinated with the size of my feet. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might wonder if that fascination has anything to do with the amount of spam e-mail I receive concerning penis enlargement techniques.

The big thing in shoes these days are springs in the heels. These springs are out in the open for everyone to see. If I were to buy a pair of these, I would look stupider than a 40-something guy driving a convertible Corvette.

The final part of the nightmare involves the fact that since today's kids have an attention span measured in the nanosecond, new shoes hit the market every three months or so. If you happen to find a shoe that's perfect for you, by the time it's broken in and you want to buy another pair of the same shoes, they're long gone from the stores, having been replaced by Air Crud, retailing for $229.95.

I generally don't like to buy shoes that are named for players. I have, in the past, worn John Stocktons, named for an under-sized, over-achieving point guard who is the all-time NBA leader in steals and assists, and Charles Barkleys, named for an under-sized, over-achieving power forward who is one of my favorite players of all time.

But whose shoe would I wear these days? The Kobe Bryant? I don't want a shoe that cries when it loses. How about the Allen Iverson? Yeah, that way, I could shoot myself and steal my own shoes.

Having been short, slow, white and earthbound at the absolute apex of my athletic career, I am ultimately mocked by the fact that virtually all of the shoes that I buy have the word "Air" on them somewhere. The only air involved here is that which is left in my pocket after all of the money has been withdrawn to pay for the shoes.

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