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.”