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The Story of Chuck Taylor, the Billy Graham of Basketball

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 7, 2023 3:00 am

The Story of Chuck Taylor, the Billy Graham of Basketball

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 7, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, he wasn't an NBA star: He was a sneaker salesman that helped popularize the sport of basketball, and the sneakers that now bear his name. This is his story.

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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, a story that's close to my heart. My favorite sport in the world and one I played relentlessly as a kid going to some of the greatest basketball camps in the world with names like Krzyzewski and Karnasekha and Knight. And I became a captain of my basketball team not one year but two and also the all-time leading scorer of my high school.

It was indeed a deep passion. I slept with my basketball. So up next, a story about the Billy Graham of basketball. The man who helped in the end create the sport if not invented.

You know his name. You probably owned a pair of sneakers that bear his signature. I bought my first pair back in grade school. There's a fairly new pair in my closet today. My 17 year old daughter, well she just bought a pair and not for sport. She just thinks they look great.

So to her friends. What's remarkable about the man whose name we all know and whose sneaker is still worn today a century after it was created is that he was never a famous athlete like Michael Jordan. Chuck Taylor was a basketball player, that's true, but he didn't get his name on the Converse sneaker because he was a great NBA player. The league wouldn't come into existence until 1949. Baseball at the time had the most famous athletes in the 1920s and 30s.

That's when Taylor was entering adulthood. Stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but baseball players don't wear sneakers. Boxing stars of the day, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Well everybody knew them, but try selling that sports footwear to a mass public. And then there were the horse racing stars.

Stars like Man of War and Seabiscuit. Those four-legged athletes wear a very different kind of shoe. Chuck Taylor got his name on a sneaker because he may have been one of the greatest salesmen in American history. He was born in 1901 in Indiana, a mere 10 years after Dr. James Naismith invented the game. He grew up in Columbus, Indiana where he was a high school superstar. After graduating in 1919, he played for a number of semi-pro basketball teams starting with the Columbus commercials.

Their debut barely got a mention in the local paper. But it didn't take long for basketball's popularity to spread like wildfire from its Midwest roots to high schools and colleges across the country. Basketball hoops became a fixture in cities and rural landscapes because it was cheap and it was easy to play.

It was fast and it was fun. Making a living playing basketball, well it wasn't in the cards for Taylor. So he joined the Chicago office of the Converse Company in 1922 in the sales department. Basketball shoes didn't exactly sell themselves, something that Taylor discovered when he started working there. Taylor recalled a conversation Taylor recalled a conversation with his mother that changed his life.

It went something like this. Who needs the shoes, his mother asked him. Basketball players, the son replied. Who buys them for the players, she asked. The coach and the high school officials, he replied.

I think you've been going to the wrong people. Why don't you go to the coaches and show them your shoes, said his mom. Taylor acted on his mom's insight and for the next 40 years he barnstormed across America holding clinics for players and coaches, teaching them the ins and outs of the game. His clinics were so entertaining that local newspapers covered them when they rolled into town. Taylor dazzled audiences with his hoop skills. Taylor's other contribution to the game was the Converse basketball yearbook. It featured articles on strategy from leading coaches along with rosters, season reports, and team photos.

But there was a sales catch. If you wanted your photo in the yearbook, the team needed to wear Converse sneakers. And then there was the Taylor All-Americans. It was the yearbook centerpiece as Taylor's time on the road gave him great credibility and an eye for spotting talent.

Taylor made certain to pick players from across the country and not just big cities. If you were a player from a high school in rural Nebraska or rural Ohio, the yearbook might be your one shot at nationwide recognition appearing in tens of thousands of copies that Converse mailed out each year. The yearbook put Converse at the epicenter of the basketball world. Taylor would do more than just promote the sport and brand he loved.

He also offered critical suggestions on sneaker designs and engineering. By 1934, it was clear Taylor was a star in his own right and his signature was added to the ankle patch of the sneaker that still bears his name. One would be hard pressed to name another iconic sports brand in America named after a salesman. But calling Taylor a salesman would be like calling Vladimir Horowitz a piano player or Arnold Schwarzenegger a weightlifter. Taylor was a lifelong evangelist for the sport. He was the Billy Graham of basketball.

The sneaker cells, well, they just follow. After decades on the road preaching the gospel of basketball and Converse, Taylor retired in the mid 1960s. He never asked Converse for a royalty.

He asked only for an expense account for his travels. Taylor married, he divorced, he married again and never had children. And that's because his true love was basketball itself. In 1968, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

One year later, he passed away. Converse lost its dominance on the basketball floor in the 1970s. But in the decades to come, an assortment of misfit cultural pioneers, skateboarders, rappers, punk rockers, and grunge artists adopted his sneaker and turned the brand into a part of America's cultural fabric. The story of Chuck Taylor is the American dream personified and proof of America's love affair with his sneakers.

Well, it's in my closet and my daughter's and the closets of so many millions of other customers and fans new and old around the world. The story of the Billy Graham of basketball, Chuck Taylor, here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

But we can't do it without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love our stories and America like we do, please go to our American and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-07 04:19:39 / 2023-02-07 04:24:09 / 5

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