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Sole Searching: Ballin' on a budget and Lonzo Ball's $500 shoes

City Paper

LaVar Ball, the father of prospective NBA lottery draft pick Lonzo Ball and patriarch of Big Baller Brand, recently released Lonzo's first signature shoe the Big Baller Brand ZO2: Prime.

The shoe is priced at $495, a hefty cost for a brand that is still in its infancy. "Big Baller's loose! If you can't afford the ZO2'S, you're NOT a BIG BALLER," the elder Ball tweeted earlier this month, stamping his statement with a money bag emoji. The shoes aren't as ugly as other "DIY" shoes in recent memory like Stephon Marbury's "Starbury" and Ben Wallace's "Big Ben"' shoes that lined the shelves of Steve & Barry's in Eastpoint Mall in the 2000's, or Al Harrington's "Protege's"; they all looked like they were better suited for boxers than hoopers with a touch of the different "generic" shoes from the NBA 2K video game series when you don't get that sneaker deal yet.

Lonzo's shoe does look just like the Nike Kobe X and features, according to the breathless commercials promoting the shoe, a python microfiber upper, patent leather branding on the heel, and a gel outsole with with a "hand-painted Delorean finish." It isn't Nike, Under Armour, Adidas, or even Le Coq Sportif, but it's a pleasant enough shoe to look at. That price is ridiculous though. The latest LaVar Ball-ism got me thinking about my personal, 23-year history of buying and selling tennis shoes, ownership, trying to find the perfect shoes, and deciding what is or isn't a reasonably priced pair of sneakers.

Every once in a while when I was a child, my father would take me to get "play shoes," for me, dark-colored basketball shoes. Life revolved around playing basketball and running around back then. It was appropriate to have that pair of shoes to throw on when it was time to go outside or hoop, knowing a few hours later that they'd be scuffed, clad in dirt, and that there were going to be cedar chips stuck between the side of the shoe stabbing my ankles. Some days, there was a high chance that some snowball juice might fall onto the tongue, satisfying the sneaker's sweet tooth with a summer delicacy.

It wasn't until about high school that I wore anything else other than a hooping shoe.

In 2003, LeBron James, the high school phenom touted as a can't-miss, once-in-a-lifetime prospect, was entering the league. He had sneaker deals waiting for him and he could have chosen to represent any brand, even his own if he wanted to launch one. He lived up to expectations in his very first game playing for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, recording 25 points, nine assists, and six rebounds, setting up fourteen years of consistency with career averages of 27-7-7, as he's now in the discussion of being arguably the greatest of all-time. He even recently signed a lifetime deal with Nike reported to be worth over a billion dollars. According to Forbes, LeBron's shoes alone (not including apparel) pulled in $340 million in 2014, so a billion dollar lifetime deal is chump change to Nike.

LaVar Ball, with the creation of Big Baller Brand, sees LeBron James potential in his son. With the money these big behemoth brands make on the regular, it's not crazy to push for proprietorship. Aside from the outlandish statements, LaVar Ball is no different than Kevin Plank, Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, and Adolf Dassler, founders of Under Armour, Nike, and Adidas.

LaVar was thinking long game when he figured his three sons were going to be good ball players. He developed his own brand and was in the process of designing and manufacturing his own signature shoe while most dream of signing a shoe deal. The earliest signature shoe I can remember wearing was the Nike Zoom Generation (LeBron's first sneaker) in all white with the red accents. They were ill, but kind of stiff. I remember wearing them on picture day with his jersey and a pair of RocaWear jeans, sporting the meanest bald fade west of the Chesapeake Bay. After that day, a classmate used to call me LeBron, but not because I was a good basketball player. It was a comparison made in jest because the bridge of my nose was big. Instead of resenting the classmate, instead of not caring, I started to dislike LeBron. I justified it by pinpointing his inconsistent shot and and his propensity to defer to his teammates in clutch moments over the years. I'm just now getting back to liking him now for his greatness on the court but more so for his philanthropy in serving underprivileged kids. I always found his sneakers to be nice, although they're sometimes cut too small or are heavy. Over the years I've had a few pair though (LeBron IV, LeBron IX low, LeBron XI, and the LeBron XIII low).

After LeBron signed with the Miami Heat and Cleveland natives burned his Cavaliers jersey, his sneakers started to exceed the $200 (and sometimes $300) mark. The price increase made some sense. He was already considered an all-time great. He won a second Olympic gold medal. He won his NBA championship and NBA Finals MVP award, cementing his legacy. His visibility and demand increased tenfold and his sneaker prices reflected that. LeBron was, and arguably still is, the face of the NBA. Right now, Lonzo Ball lacks the credibility to charge people $500 for his shoes. Sure, he has a couple of nice highlight films on YouTube, but he didn't even win Naismith Player of the Year. He didn't win Pac-12 player of the year. Some might argue that he was the third best player on his UCLA Bruins squad and no one is breaking the bank for a pair of Chris Bosh's, especially without the backing of a billion-dollar brand complete with a round-the-clock, in-your-face coercive marketing campaign that feels more like brainwashing. That big-time brand name is exactly what LaVar & Son's are trying to accomplish.

Just as unique as the Ball's initiative is LaVar's approach to gaining brand visibility. Press runs where he makes odd, brazen statements serve as free promo as Lonzo's presence and talent is in high demand. The sneaker I had growing up that challenged conventions in terms of practicality was a pair of Julius Erving Converse Pro Leather with the baby blue star and chevron on the side. I didn't pair them with my favorite bell-bottom jeans. I hooped in them—in the mid-2000's. With all the advancements in sneaker technology, I was hooping in a pair of high-top leather Converse with no support whatsoever. You would think I was vying for a contract with the Baltimore Claws in '75. In retrospect, that sneaker set the precedent for wearing more understated sneakers as a young adult. The shoes I missed out on as a kid like the Flightposites were cool because they came out at a time where brands were trying to be innovative with the designs, which made for eye-catching pods, straps, pumps, bells, whistles, and different color finishes. Should they be released again, the price will be hefty, with a nice nostalgia tax added on. 

It was 2005, I was 11 when I did a double crossover into adult sizes which meant a significant price jump. My muva took me to Finishline to get a pair of sneakers for the basketball season. I decided on the Kobe Bryant PE (player exclusive) of the Nike Huarache 2k5. They were all black with the white swoosh, had "Kobe" embossed on the tongue. I knew I was going to be getting buckets that year. The shoe made me feel like I could score on anybody. I was in the mirror showing off my shooting form just to envision feeling like Kobe on the court. We get to the register, and the cashier said, "Your total today is $137.80." My muva looked at me like I had four heads. We stepped into the mall corridor after the cashier explained that a 7.5 is a men's size and after a fair share of persuasion, I got the sneakers. I didn't get much else the rest of the year. I got buckets, too. You just can't wear a pair of sneakers like that and not get buckets. These days though "vibes" have supplanted substance so everybody has the nicest sneakers and it's more socially acceptable to have the panache but no pull-up jumper from mid-range. I played well in the Kobe's, my first men's size shoe. But what seemed to be overnight, I went from wearing a seven-and-a-half to a nine.

A year later, I found a more secure and stylish way to pay respects to basketball pioneers. In 1991, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, and Jimmy King were recruited to play at the University of Michigan, and were regarded as the greatest recruiting class ever assembled. They became the bad boys of college basketball for being young, black, good, and confident. How dare black people acknowledge their talent. How dare black people express themselves unapologetically, sporting black socks and sneakers, long shorts, bald heads, and tattoos, deviating from the norm of tight shorts and geriatric shoes. How dare a group of guys usher in a new era of self-expression that carried over to the NBA. At the time they were lambasted for being themselves. Now, the style they started is the standard. They were the antithesis to the cookie-cutter, "respectable" black guys at Duke, and Jalen Rose made no qualms about being outspoken.

My middle school team transitioned from simple Boston Celtic-like jerseys with small shorts to a more modern design. I went from number three to 13, put in for a larger pair of shorts, and wore black socks and a pair of Nike Air Force Max, just like Jalen Rose. We played teams comprised of white kids and the token black standout. Their jerseys were always better. They had team shoes before team shoes became a thing. They had jackets and warm-up shirts and everything. I had a chip on my shoulder, much like Jalen Rose. The Air Force Max was a pretty nice sneaker. They had way more padding than the Converses I wore years before, and the strap over the laces added a little more stability to an already comfortable shoe. I'd wear them now actually if I still had them but my feet grew out of those fast That next school year, my sister's boyfriend at the time gave me his all black LeBron IV. Those sneakers made it look like I had on a pair of Nike Boots. There's just no way around barely eclipsing a five foot threshold and wearing a size nine shoe. 

I ditched the clip-on tie and dress shoe private school life, abandoning theology classes and having mass a few times a year during middle school in favor of attending a public school for high school. High school meant less time being inundated with the Bible and also sporting any sneaker I wanted to. While I still wore a uniform, the ability wear any sneaker any day granted the freedom to express my unique style and personality. I was big into Vans and Converse my first couple years of high school. They were much cheaper and simplistic than the performance shoes I was accustomed to, but made my feet look long. I'm flat footed too and I just couldn't support the casual sneaker movement. Luckily, New Balance 992's and 498's quickly became a staple of Baldamore sneaker culture, and the 498's were coming out in new flavors every other day it seemed like. I had a maroon pair and a purple pair. The New Balance 498 won't come back in style, as the decision to come out with a new color every week diminished the sneaker's value. The New Balance 992, 993, and 990 are still must-have's in a Baldamorean's sneaker rack as they are versatile, stylish, and comfortable.

I got my first real job at the beginning of my senior year at Poly making gluten free Lean Cuisines for Towson students and middle-aged white women who live for a good sale at Home Goods. With my first big check, I splurged on a pair of white and red Jordan 13's and a pair of "Barkley's" (Charles Barkley), black Nike Air Max CB34's. The Barkley's to this day are the most comfortable basketball shoes I've ever worn. While Charles Barkley was an anomaly in the NBA in the '90s as an undersized power forward, The Round Mound of Rebound has made a few statements regarding race, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement that makes it hard for me to support him off the court as an on-air personality. However, I can respect the contributions he made not only to my sneaker collection, and to the game of basketball, which includes his role in the classic movie "Space Jam."

In college I hit a rough patch. I was buying expensive sneakers I really didn't like. I was going with the crowd, just for the fleeting validation of someone admiring my shoes for a few seconds in passing. The time spent in college introduced me to "resale: culture. Some people bought multiple pairs of shoes at premium sizes to sell them for higher prices. Some people made trades. People were on social media looking for sneaker plugs to get shoes a day or so before they came out, or claimed to be sneaker plugs. The only people who seemed to be more important on campus other than sneaker plugs were party promoters who posted the same flyer on Instagram for a month straight. Someone was always posting a dirty shoe they wanted to trade, or sell for double the retail price. I bought a couple pair of Jordans that I didn't really like, only to sell them to friends later after wearing them only one or two times.

When I was going to Morgan State, I bought my first and last pair of shoes that cost over $200, a pair of Tim Duncan's (known in Baldamore as "Duncans or "dopes) in all black. Those were heavy and I ultimately sold them, too. I never sold shoes as a side hustle. I just had shoes I didn't like or wear that much, and I wanted to make a little bit of the money back. I was broke and I needed something in my pocket as I started to cultivate other interests.

After transferring to Norfolk State, my roommate at the time, Phil Amofah, introduced me to photography. The art form soon became all I was interested in. Once I started to take it seriously, photography gave my life a sense of purpose, and sneakers became an afterthought. The sneaker that I've been wearing the longest is the Nike Air Max Tailwind 2010. I got them in 11th grade and I initially thought they didn't look right on my feet. The shoe had an mystical quality about them that made me keep them in my rotation. They became the shoes I wore when photographing anything on campus. I ran to every sporting event after class with every piece of camera gear in tow. The Nike Tailwind 2010 went on to become my go-to shoe; the sneaker I threw on no matter the circumstance. I still wear them, bald soles, insoles and all. I've gotten my money's worth out of those shoes seven times over. 

Since college I've chilled on the popular shoes and I've settled into a batch of shoes that complements the aesthetics of both my bank account and my feet. The sneakers I wear most right now are white leather Reebok Classics with the gum bottom and black leather Nike Cortez. Both sneakers are under eighty dollars, look good on my feet, and to me seem pretty fashionable. I supplement those with a pair of New Balance 993's. They're about $130 which isn't bad and they're comfortable. I wear them as an homage to Baldamore and to my teenage self as they don't cost as much as the sneakers I salivated over when I was a little younger. I don't think I'll ever wear luxury shoes like Maison Margiela's, Louboutin's, or Big Baller Brand ZO2: Prime's in my life, though. 

Two C-notes is just where I draw the line.

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