Anyone visiting the halls of Centerville Junior High between 1988 and 1991 would have thought all the boys were training to be Benedictine Monks. Hundreds of us filed around the halls between class, hunched over, our eyes pinned to the floor as we observed and critiqued the leather-clad feet of our classmates.
"Ah, Brother Jones. I see you picked up a new pair of Flight Lites."
"Yes, Brother. I have already noticed a difference in my vertical."
It was the Golden Era of Basketball Shoes, a magical period of footwear creativity that began in the rooted rivalry of Magic vs. Bird and found its anchor in Michael Jordan. Back then, it really was "all about the shoes".
As 90-pound puberty-strapped seventh graders, we barely had the capacity to stand up straight let alone soar from the free-throw line to an effortless jam. Yet we routinely lined up at Foot Lockers and Fleet Foot stores up and down the Wasatch Front in search of the guaranteed key to hardwood greatness. Even if we couldn't really jump higher in these shoes, the intimidation value alone was worth the price tag (especially since our parents were buying).
The power of the shoe extended beyond the court itself. If a young man were able to add a fifty-dollar Quicksilver shirt and a seventy-five dollar pair of Girbaud X-Brand jeans to his daily repertoire, he had secure social status for six months.
Yet in spite of the amplified skill advancements our shoes advertised, few of us ever bothered to actually tie them. Sure, we laced up on the court, but out in public, we loosened our laces from the first set of holes near our toes to the last set above our ankles, leaving just enough lace sticking out to tie in a quick securing knot. This technique created a casual pull-on effect that worked well across all major brands. It was a clear indicator of whether you were on the job or on the town. It also looked really, really stupid.
While the majority of shoes held an equal street value, a few models truly distinguished the players from the pretenders. Actually they distinguished the rich kids from the kids that had to work for their money. Our feet were a veritable Marxist class struggle on finished hardwood.
The Nike swoosh ruled the universe then just as it does now, with its Flight and Force series making the most frequent appearances at school and in the gym. The enigmatic visible air bubble in the sole was critical--a sign to the masses that you took your ball-playing seriously.
The Nike flagship came courtesy of Mr. Jordan himself: The Air Jordan was the Ferrari of shoes. It was untouchable, especially your pair was black. My favorite was the mid-top Air Jordan IV model, which arrived well before I had the means or the nerve to spend more than $100 for a pair of shoes.
The biggest threat to Nike came via the Reebok Pump, a legendary shoe equipped with an inflatable air bladder that could be custom adjusted to the shape of your foot. The first version was a true rarity priced at $175, which even the rich kids couldn't get a hold of. Later Reebok brought out some moderated versions (kind of like H2's) that were more accessible to the junior high market.*
The last real contender to the Nike throne was Converse, proud distributor of the Cons series. Spawned from the Chuck Taylor's of yesteryear (and a brief retro surge in 1987), this was the brand of Magic and Larry, and for the first year or two of junior high, they were a stylish force to be reckoned with. Instead of the trademark swoosh or Reebok's weird wandering bands, Cons featured a cool star and a "greater-than" sign integrated into a rugged designed high-top. My seventh grade pair were white with purple trim.
My real shot at junior high glory came during the ninth grade, when Karl Malone abandoned Converse to make LA Gear's custom-made Catapult shoe his footwear of choice. The Catapult was this odd white-looking thing with some sort of spring-like thing in the heel. By a stroke of fortunate timing, I wound up with a pair in February of 1991.
It was a first for me: I had never been the first kid at school to have anything. The closest I had come was when the cartoon action show "M.A.S.K." came on WGN, and I was the only kid on the block with cable. Then Channel 30 picked it up, and my glory faded. Yet no one was walking the halls of CJH with a pair of Catapults but me. I had the scoop.
It turns out I would have been the only kid in most schools with them; they were crap shoes. As I expected, the spring-thing didn't help at all, but as I didn't expect, the shoes themselves fell apart six weeks later. I traded them in for a mid-top Force shoe and cash, and as the sun set on my days at CJH, I wondered if I would ever again be such a trend-setter. Maybe shoes weren't the best forum for me to make my adolescent mark.
So the next year, I grew sideburns.
*(Interesting Historical Note: Nike did actually have the first version of the pump, though it was rather crude, awkward, and thus an unsuccessful venture. Seeing a pair was kind of like seeing a DeLorean; in fact, both were stainless-steel gray.)
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