Sneakers just might be the real game in town. As thrilling as it is, as much as it's obsessed over, basketball just might be a means to an end that covers your toes.
In a given year, Michael Jordan makes more in sneaker sales than what he garnered in NBA checks over the totality of his career. His is a unique case, as MJ is the pinnacle, but he's also the model, the industry prototype. To be a "signature" guy is to walk in Jordan's shoes, to play at selling your fashion to the masses at a level that makes your celebrity endure.
Jordan's greatest moments might be indelible to those who lived through the 1980s and '90s, but it's his shoes that walk a legacy beyond the normal bounds of time. Kids who never saw him play -- or even watched a YouTube highlight -- will wear Jordan 1s, a sneaker that came out in 1985. The staying power of the original Jordan 1 is especially impressive considering how the 1980s were considered something of an aesthetic wasteland. Today's NBA stars are shooting for that future. They won't get there, as there was a certain serendipity to Jordan's invention of signature sports branding, but they'll try. The biggest sports stars are competitive enough to shoot for a legacy that's bigger than sports.
LeBron James agreed to a lifetime contract with Nike, while his Cleveland Cavaliers had to hope he would continue to re-up on single-year deals. Stephen Curry's Under Armour contract runs through 2024; the Golden State Warriors hope he takes the path of least resistance and re-signs with them in July. Curry is the face of UA, regardless of whether he maintains that status on the star-studded Warriors. James Harden's Adidas contract reportedly totals $200 million over 13 years. These commitments comprise basketball playing careers. These bonds are stronger than basketball team loyalties. The primary employer might be the symbol on the sneaker, not the name across the front of the jersey.
Some people don't get it. Shoes are silly, trivial. Fashion might be something athletes do in their spare time to impress each other, but why should a fan care what his favorite player wears?
The simplest answer might be that sneakers are cool, and they're all the cooler for being inanimate Zeligs to the biggest basketball moments. It's fashion with a cameo in scenes like MJ's Game 6 shot in Utah, LeBron's Game 7 block on Andre Iguodala, Stephon Marbury in China's -- OK, that one is a stretch. Eventually, these shoes become little time machines, nostalgia you can sink your feet into. If you're familiar with the Jordan XIIs, it's hard not to look at them and think of anything other than "Flu Game."
Moreover, some of these sneakers are as close as you can get to objectively great style. Sure, there's a brainwashing aspect, the crazy lie that a super athlete's imprimatur actually makes a shoe better. Sure, there's something arbitrary about how many people would yearn after a shoe with a swoosh symbol and scoff at that same exact model were it burnished with a dot, squiggle or myriad of other shapes. But it's not all bull. Some of these sneakers are beautiful, and even if we'll never get everyone to agree on which ones are, everyone can find their own version of greatness.