When I was 10 years old, I asked my beloved mother for Adidas snakeskin sneakers. Instead, she came home with a pair of NBAs, and noted how perfect they were because I wanted to play in the NBA. I said, “You’re right, Mom. I’m going to be the next Dr. J.”
For the uninitiated, NBAs were Adidas knockoffs. They had four stripes, not three, and instead of being displayed in the store, they were stuffed in a giant overflowing bin with the shoelaces tied together. The NBAs weren’t even good enough for a shoebox. But they were so cheap, and I was growing so fast, and we were so poor. So Canal Street “Adidas” it was for little Jalen.
I remember walking tall into school, wearing my new kicks and getting absolutely roasted. My merciless classmates said NBA stood for “Never Bought Adidas.”
When I started interviewing shoe guru Joe La Puma for this week’s “Renaissance Man,” that memory came flooding back. As the host of Complex’s online show “Sneaker Shopping,” La Puma uses sneakers as a window to the lives and values of celebrities, artists and athletes who share their philosophies on kicks, their collections and sometimes heartfelt tales about soles.
“What I like is that everybody has a specific sneaker story,” La Puma told me.
“But also about how the first pair made you feel, how the worst pair you had made you feel. Maybe you got made fun of. Maybe you accidentally bought fakes.”
He said rapper Lil Yachty, who has been a guest, was sold fakes back in middle school, and like yours truly, was laughed out of the halls. But he is the one laughing now — from his massive Georgia home with two sneaker closets. “And now if you see he has every sneaker and he goes back, it tells the story full circle. So what I love about the show is … it does get personality through footwear.”
La Puma had a much less traumatic memory of his first pair, which his parents said had to last him the entire year. “So the one that I remember, I remember the Jordan 6 Infrared, the white and pink, which is interesting now because I do not wear white sneakers.”
The UConn grad, who started at Complex as an intern and is now also the site’s VP of Content Strategy, has been hosting the massively popular show for about eight years now. He has interviewed celebrities such as Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Alicia Keys, Vice President Kamala Harris and Pete Davidson. But his most memorable guest was my man, comedian, actor and all around dandy, J.B. Smoove, a k a Leon from “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
“That episode wasn’t the biggest episode … and we’ve had other people that the kids may know more. But to me that is like pound for pound, my favorite episode. I can’t believe he was this quick. I just left thinking comedians’ minds are so sharp. He was talking about, like, basketball fundamentals. He’s a big Knicks guy. He talks about Michael and Pippen and stuff like that.”
But you can’t have a sneaker conversation without Michael. After all, the Jordan brand is the root of this culture craze and continues to reach a generation that didn’t even know MJ as a player. Joe noted that “The Last Dance” documentary was like a visual timeline of the brand because it showed the Bulls star in all of the classic styles.
“Three weeks ago, I’m in Atlanta, and Yachty has one of the best 1985 Jordan 1 collections. I think he’s 23 and nowhere near when these came out, but he went back and these kids on Instagram are sourcing these vintage sneakers … I’m looking at these for like six hours. You can get them for $4,000 and up. I got them for like $1,500, which is a lot but it’s relative in price.”
Kicks have obviously been a massive part of my journey. As a member of the Fab Five, we wore the Nike Huaraches and then the black Barkleys. And as a much-appreciated nod to the University of Michigan, La Puma had a pair of classic Michigan Dunks behind him on the episode.
He traffics in hype, but his foundation of a good collection is mostly standards. “Classics never die …” he said.
“I always say, like the top five sneakers to build around is a Nike Cortez, Adidas Stan Smith, an Air Force 1, a Jordan and then a running shoe of your choice.” If he could bring any shoe back, he is eyeing the Nike Air Zoom Citizen.
“It’s an obscure sneaker that I ran cross-country in that Nike hasn’t brought back in a decade and a half … Yeah, I posted Nike needs to bring these back.”
The response online was similar to the one I got back in grade school. “Yeah, no they don’t,” Joe said with a laugh.
And not everything that is popular actually looks cool. For example, In January, Kim Kardashian posted a picture of her in Kanye’s controversial white Yeezy Foam Runners and a bikini. I wanted to get into it, but I thought they were ugly. Complex put them in the top 10 shoes of the year for 2020, and that is something Joe said was hotly debated, noting it was more like a Croc than a sneaker.
We talked UConn hoops, and he is the biggest fan of Caron Butler. He said Travis Scott has excellent taste in kicks and is influencing the younger generation. And Victor Cruz has an impressive and notable collection. But my final question was in honor of Black History Month. I asked him which black figure he thinks should have their own signature shoe. He mentioned MLK or Malcolm X and then we both agreed on Muhammad Ali. “It would be amazing if, like, boxing but also UFC gets it too. Make it both,” he said.
There you go, sneaker companies. Here’s your golden idea.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.