SAN ANTONIO: After Dion Waiters departed the arena after a typical home game in late January, left behind in his locker were a towel, a mesh laundry bag, some workout clothes … and 11 pairs of Nike sneakers.
C.J. Miles estimated he has owned more than 800 pairs of shoes in his life. Daniel Gibson owns a pair of pink Converse, shoes with spikes on them and Louis Vuitton gold shoes he refers to as “shoe jewelry.” Gibson owns so many shoes, he built a closet in his bedroom just to store them all. Of course his wife, R&B singer Keyshia Cole, has quite a few pairs in there, as well.
The combination of shoe deals and unlimited millions for playing in the NBA has created a sort of shoe fetish within the league. Players pay attention to what is on their feet both on and off the court, and for various reasons — some of which are fairly practical.
When it was time to sign his shoe deal, Kyrie Irving chose Nike over Under Armour and Adidas in part because of how the shoe giant molded special footwear to protect his toe when he was returning from surgery for the NCAA Tournament at Duke.
Irving still has special implants in his sneakers to protect the toe. Members of the Cavs’ training staff even sawed open one of the shoes once just to make sure it was created properly.
But those cases of an acute medical need are rare. Most players simply collect the shoes because they have the means to do it and they get so many pairs for free.
“I’m not saying all of us were poor, but a lot of guys growing up couldn’t afford to pay $125 for a pair of sneakers,” Miles said. “So now you get a little older and all these people give them to you for free, or you can afford to buy a couple pair. It becomes a big thing, especially in the beginning when you’re young, just because you can.”
That certainly applies to the rookie Waiters, who even loved the designer sneakers while growing up in Philadelphia.
“I’ve got so many sneaks I don’t wear, you could probably go to a random person’s trunk in Philly and I probably got some sneaks in there,” Waiters said. “Yeah, I got it bad. I love sneaks.”
Waiters estimates he has already gone through between 20 and 30 pairs of shoes this season — then concedes that figure is pretty conservative. Before a game at Detroit in early February, Waiters pulled a pair of Kevin Durant shoes out of the box for the morning shoot-around. They had never been worn and in fact still had the paper inside. He wore them a couple of times and moved on to the next pair, but as the season progressed has occasionally returned to shoes he wore previously.
One member of the Cavs’ support staff called Waiters the biggest shoe freak in the Cavs’ locker room and thought his estimation of 20 to 30 pairs of shoes this season was fairly low.
Like bowlers changing balls based on lane conditions, players have even changed shoes during games. Not all courts in the league feel the same. Some are harder and some are colder. T.D. Garden in Boston, for example, is notoriously the coldest arena in the league because of the ice below the surface. A number of arenas in the league have ice underneath for hockey, including Quicken Loans Arena, but Boston for some reason remains colder than the rest.
Whether it’s the elements or a mental block, plenty of players change during games. Miles saw J.R. Smith do it a few years ago and Gibson conceded that he has changed shoes at halftime if a certain pair doesn’t feel right during the first half.
Mo Speights said Elton Brand, his old teammate with the Philadelphia 76ers and a former No. 1 overall pick, wore a new pair of shoes for every game.
This shoe craze among NBA players can be traced back to Michael Jordan, shoe industry expert Matt Powell said.
“MJ always played in a fresh pair. He never played in the same pair twice,” said Powell, who covers the shoe industry for SportsOneSource.com. “That became a bit of a superstition maybe, or this shtick of, ‘I’m special so I can always have a new pair of shoes.’ But when you’re getting paid to wear somebody’s shoes and they have your name on them, there is a fascination on the part of the player.”
Only the elite ever get their own sneaker, but a vast majority of NBA players sign shoe contracts at some point in their career. Very few — like Irving — get money out of the deal these days, but they all get thousands of dollars in merchandise credit.
Tyler Zeller gets $10,000 in merchandise credit from Adidas, and his is one of the lower stipends on the Cavs.
Speights’ shoe deal with Nike provides $25,000 in Nike merchandise every year. Shaun Livingston doesn’t have a shoe deal anymore, but he signed with Reebok when he entered the league and received $50,000 a year in credit that he used to take friends and family Christmas shopping.
“Get whatever you want,” he’d tell them.
Livingston, however, is the rare throwback. He wears one shoe as long as he can and prefers them stretched out rather than tight and stiff. He has only worn a handful of shoes this season.
“Even when I had a shoe deal, I wasn’t crazy with a new pair every day,” he said. “Old school, baby. I’m old school.”
A number of players give the shoes away to friends and family, which is how Miles says he collected more than 800 pairs throughout his career. He figures he has about 100 pairs at his apartment in Cleveland.
Miles doesn’t even know how much his merchandise deal is with Nike because he doesn’t use it. He gives it to the AAU team he sponsors in Dallas for the kids to use on uniforms and apparel.
Shoe deals were unheard of before Jordan. Thirty years ago, players wore one pair of shoes everywhere until they wore out — which typically only took about seven to 10 games for the Los Angeles Lakers of the Showtime era.
“After the way we practiced and the way our shoot-arounds were, after seven games they were pretty much done,” said Cavs coach Byron Scott, who wore Nike, Reebok and Adidas at various points in his career. “That leather was so loose, it was either get taped or get another pair.”
Scott shakes his head at the culture of sneakers today and counts it as another sign of a different era.
“I might have went through 10 pairs, if that, during a whole season,” he said. “I think these guys go through 10 pairs in about two weeks.”
The shoe craze doesn’t stop with the players. Powell said fans and collectors scour after new shoes that hit the market.
When the Jordan 11 BRED shoes were released, fans stood in lines for hours to buy them retail for $185. Powell said those shoes sold on eBay for more than $1,000.
“There is a whole cult of collectors out there, guys who are buying sneakers and never wearing them, ever,” Powell said. “They keep them in the box or flip them on eBay for 10 times what they paid for them. That’s a pretty good profit for a few hours of work. It becomes a profitable business for some.”
Particularly for the players and manufacturers, who smile and count the booming profits while the sneakers pile high in the locker rooms across the NBA.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.