Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets Star Who Valiantly Fought to End Sneaker Violence

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Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon (34) dunks during the first quarter as Seattle SuperSonics' Detlef Schrempf (11) looks on Monday, April 19, 1999 in Houston. (AP Photo/Tim Johnson)

Alas, the season is over for the Houston Rockets. After spotting the Golden State Warriors a three-game lead to start off the conference championship series, the team and its hopes for a Rocky narrative–like sweep of the final four failed to materialize, and Houston sports fans have to choose between caring about the Astros and waiting for the Texans. 

However, if you need a chance to celebrate the days when Clutch City meant championships, there’s an opportunity to revisit one of the more fascinating moments of that the all-time greatest Rocket (sorry, Moses Malone)

: The time when Hakeem Olajuwon attempted to end sneaker-related violence by introducing his own low-cost pair of high-profile kicks.

Writing at the Guardian, Gabriel Baumgartner traces the history of sneaker-related shootings and violent crime, and the role that the big man played in attempting to end the scourge. 

Twenty years ago, Houston Rockets superstar Hakeem Olajuwon tried to combat not just the violence, but the affordability of sneakers worn by NBA stars. Olajuwon was the first to make a concentrated attempt to subvert the trend of overpriced basketball shoes marketed to urban youth.

He failed.

While Stephon Marbury’s discount shoe “The Starbury” (priced at $14.95) would find more (but limited) commercial success a decade later, Olajuwon sought to dissuade youngsters from buying expensive Jordans in favor of his line “The Dream” by Spalding. Priced at an affordable $34.99, the shoes were sold in discount stores like Payless, Wal-Mart and K-Mart nationwide.

Olajuwon’s shoes debuted in 1995, following two back-to-back championship seasons. Olajuwon had been the NBA Finals MVP in both years, and was among the biggest stars in the league. And while the press loved the star’s decision to partner with Spalding instead of Nike or Reebok, the gambit failed to take hold with young people. Baumgartner cites a few reasons—the fact that Olajuwon was a clean cut Nigerian rather than an American with more edge to him; that Foot Locker opted against stocking the shoes; the lack of stars not named Hakeem Olajuwon who wore them on the court—but ultimately, it probably comes down to a misunderstanding of sneaker (and youth) culture. The exclusivity is part of the point. 

“Cool” is an ephemeral but very important concept, especially for young people, and the fact that it’s hard to achieve is what makes it a status worth attaining. Air Jordans weren’t just the top sneaker in the world because Michael Jordan wore them and because “It’s gotta be the shoes” ads duped kids into believing that if they wore the right shoes, they could play like Mike; they were cool because not everybody could have them. 

Of course, that also meant that they spurred violence. If the only thing that’s standing between you and the shoes that’ll make you cool is some kid who you don’t think deserves them, that desperation can turn violent. 

Sports Illustrated reported on sneaker violence in 1990, running a cover story with the jarring words “Your Sneakers or Your Life” and recounting the tragedy of people killing each other for their shoes. 

The stories recounted in Sports Illustrated are harrowing, and they certainly speak to why Olajuwon would want to find a way to avoid creating an additional incentive for violence. (Olajuwon, who has a number of fashion ventures, did, as the Guardian notes, rerelease a limited edition pair of his sneakers this year for nostalgia-fueled collectors for $120 retail.) The article opens with Michael Jordan—famously apolitical and emotionally distant off the court—learning of an incident involving the sneakers that bear his name

Michael Jordan sits in the locked press room before a workout at the Chicago Bulls’ practice facility in suburban Deerfield, Ill. He is wearing his practice uniform and a pair of black Air Jordans similar to the ones young [Michael Eugene] Thomas wore, except that these have Jordan’s number, 23, stitched on the sides. On the shoelaces Jordan wears plastic toggles to prevent the shoes from loosening if the laces should come untied. Two toggles come in each box of Air Jordans, and if kids knew that Jordan actually wears them, they would never step out the door without their own toggles securely in place. The door is locked to keep out the horde of fans, journalists and favor seekers who dog Jordan wherever he goes. Jordan needs a quiet moment. He is reading an account of Thomas’s death that a reporter has shown him.

For just an instant it looks as though Jordan might cry. He has so carefully nurtured his image as the all-American role model that he refuses to go anywhere, get into any situation, that might detract from that image. He moves swiftly and smoothly from the court to home to charity events to the golf course, all in an aura of untarnished integrity. “I can’t believe it,” Jordan says in a low voice. “Choked to death. By his friend.” He sighs deeply. Sweat trickles down one temple.

He asks if there have been other such crimes. Yes, he is told. Plenty, unfortunately. Not only for Air Jordans, but also for other brands of athletic shoes, as well as for jackets and caps bearing sports insignia—apparel that Jordan and other athlete endorsers have encouraged American youth to buy.

That moment is obviously a harrowing one to be present for, but it didn’t take Jordan out of the sneaker game. Indeed, a dozen years after his third retirement, “Jordans” is still a synonym for “exclusive, high-end, cool sneakers” even among kids who never saw him lace up for a game in real-time. 

“Jordans” aren’t the only nineties holdovers in a sneaker culture that fetishizes exclusive, hard-to-afford shoes either. Twenty-five years after Sports Illustrated questioned the culture of high-priced status symbols targeted largely to poor children, the problem of sneaker-related violence persists. In December, a sixteen-year-old boy was killed in an attempted sneaker robbery in Ohio, which is just one of a number of similar incidents that stretch way beyond the nineties and continue to this day. 

Olajuwon’s sneakers might not have taken off, but Rockets fans who want something to cheer for today can remember the compassion and integrity of his efforts as they keep an eye on next year. 

(Top: AP Photo/Tim Johnson; shoes: Reddit.)

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