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The Story of the Sneaker: A Walk Through American History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
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March 22, 2024 3:00 am

The Story of the Sneaker: A Walk Through American History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 22, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Nicholas Smith, author of Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers, takes us for a journey through American history... through the lens of the sneaker!

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And to search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts. Up next, we'll take a journey through American history through the sneaker. Nicholas Smith, author of Kix, The Great American Story of Sneakers, joins us with a story. This isn't necessarily a story about... I mean, it is a history about sneakers, of course. But it's also a history about business, fashion, the 20th century, all of these historical events, sports, of course, business, marketing, all of that. You know, there's a way into it if you look at it through the lens of the sneaker. Sneakers, as we know and recognize them today, they can be traced back almost to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

So all throughout the 1800s, you kind of have these types of shoes that are very reminiscent of what the sneaker will become. You know, during the Industrial Revolution, this is when a lot of people in England, especially, you know, went to work in factories. And, you know, as anyone who probably worked in a factory knows, at some point you have to rest the machines and repair them and, you know, do these types of things. So this was kind of a very unique time in labor where the workers had, you know, some time off.

Usually you would just, you know, keep on working. If you worked on a farm, there were no days off. You know, you had to tend to things. But in factories, different ones had to shut down for a couple of weeks at a time every year or so.

People had a little bit of disposable time. And a lot of times, if you were able to make your way to the coast, thanks to another Industrial Revolution invention, the steam engine, you know, you had a nice little beach holiday. Now, if you wore your shoes that you worked in a factory with to the beach, you were probably going to ruin them with all the sand. So this is where you started to see a different type of shoe called a sand shoe beginning to be developed. And a lot of these had kind of a sole made of rope and kind of a canvas upper to them.

Just to kind of be cheap shoes you can slip on and slip off and walk over the sand with no problem. So a lot of people, when they hear croquet, they think, you know, maybe the lawn game that you can buy at Walmart and then, you know, play a few rounds in your backyard before, you know, getting frustrated at everyone. Or they might think of that part in Alice in Wonderland where Alice plays croquet with the Queen. Now, at the time that Alice in Wonderland was written, there was a massive croquet boom in Britain. It was the sport to be playing. Tennis was really a couple years off, but, you know, everyone was playing this new game of croquet that you can play on any sort of grass lawn. Now, the people playing croquet, you know, weren't really everyday people. They had this unique thing called leisure time.

They had free time to spend. And part of this was on when you were going to a garden party, here's a game we can play on this, you know, flat, nice lawn. Now, you wouldn't want to necessarily use, you know, your nice shoes on, you know, somebody's nice grass lawn.

But both four, you know, it might hurt the shoe, but it also might hurt the lawn itself. So it wasn't long before there was a particular style of shoe, a croquet shoe, that was marketed with a flat bottom with a rubber sole to it. Not much in the way of cushion the way we think of sneakers today, but something that was there to kind of protect the lawn a bit. Were these the first sneakers? Maybe, maybe not, but this is kind of where you start to see that transition from a shoe that you would wear walking around to something that's worn specifically for playing a sport. Now, where did sneakers kind of transition into what we can recognize then? This is when people started working out in gymnasiums more and more.

And these were kind of beginning to be populated all over the Northeast in America through things like the YMCA. So you had these nice hardwood floors that you would not want to ruin, you know, by wearing leather-soled shoes, which, you know, don't really grip that well if you're running back and forth. So you would wear shoes that had a rubber sole to have kind of that grip.

So this is where we start to see the recognizable sneaker appear. Rubber has been around for centuries and centuries, but it has a very particular problem. If it gets too hot, it starts to melt, and if it gets too cold, it turns brittle. So really this isn't a very good material at all because the beach shoes that I mentioned earlier, when it got too hot, those started to melt.

So obviously you weren't going to keep these any longer than they would last, which was not long. So there was a race in the 1800s, the middle of the 1800s, to kind of find a way to stabilize that rubber. So to make it resilient enough where it would not melt in the heat and where it would not turn brittle in the cold. Many, many inventors were trying to come up with a way to do this. The one that's credited as kind of the father of so-called vulcanized rubber is Charles Goodyear, an inventor in America who was a much better inventor than he was a businessman. When Charles Goodyear was trying to stabilize rubber, he definitely wasn't making sneakers out of it. He was trying to come up with a way where a range of different products could be made. Everything from rubber life vests, rubber tents, to rubber coverings on your carriages so they wouldn't get ruined in the rain.

One of the other early products was something called an overshoe. And what this was, this was kind of like a big rubber booty that would fit over your nicer shoes. Now keep in mind, if you're walking around on the streets in the 1800s, you are walking around in the streets. And this is before, you know, we have nice sidewalks and nice pavement.

You're touching all of that muck that's there that's really not being cleaned up at all. So if you walk out in nice shoes, those nice shoes are going to be ruined quite quickly. So this is where the need for a rubber overshoe to put over everything comes in. Now from this rubber overshoe, we kind of get to the evolution of shoes with rubber soles, including the sneaker, later on. But this is kind of, you know, when you think of that diagram of evolution where the ape is slowly standing up, this is, you know, the ape version of that rubber overshoe. And where the man is finally standing directly up, that is the Nike Air Jordan shoe.

So, you know, there's a lot of things in between that have to happen before we can see the thing that we can recognize today. And you've been listening to Nicholas Smith. His book is Kix. The great American story of sneakers.

Get it at Amazon or all the usual suspects. The story of America through the lens of the sneaker continues here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses. Go to to learn more. The Toolkit Podcast is where your favorite filmmakers come to talk about their craft and process.

I don't want a sloppy angle in my movie ever. It's like being a dancer. You find the freedom in the structure. It's where Tarantino, Gerwig, Scorsese and Jordan Peele discuss their latest films and showrunners take us behind the scenes of the best of TV. Hosted by IndieWire's Craft Team, Toolkit is an award-winning podcast that gets at the heart of what really matters for filmmakers, like Spike Lee. It comes back to this Dory talent.

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He scores. Go to for up to 40% off and a 100% satisfaction guarantee. Go right now for up to 40% off at, rules and restrictions may apply. The best conversations I have with my colleagues are the ones that happen when no one is looking. When we're not 100% sure yet what to write.

Hopefully having conversations like this can help you figure out your own point of view. That's kind of our job as Washington Post opinions columnist. I'm Charles Lane, deputy opinion editor. And I'm Amanda Ripley, a contributing columnist. We're going to bring you into these conversations on a new podcast called Impromptu.

Follow Impromptu now, wherever you listen. And we continue with our American stories and author, Nick Smith. And we learned earlier about the role that Charles Goodyear played in all of this, obviously trying to solve problems for tires. But in the end, solving the problem of what do we do with rubber? It melts in the summer.

It gets brittle in the winter. And solving that problem, well, it changed footwear as we know it. Let's return to Nicholas Smith with more of the story of sneakers. One of the things that kind of fueled sports in America was the presence of YMCA's all over the place. You know, gymnasiums where you can go to work out where young people had a place to go. And these kind of predated, you know, gymnasiums in schools. A lot of schools did not have an associated sports program. That was what these sports clubs had. And, you know, inside these gymnasiums, they kind of, you know, resemble what you would see today with, you know, hardwood floors, lots of exercise equipment, that sort of thing. So, late 1800s, very, very late 1890s.

It's snowing out, Massachusetts. Kids are stuck inside. What do you do with them? One of the people teaching at the YMCA was a man named James Naismith. And he had the bright idea, okay, I have all these kids in here. I have a couple of peach baskets. I'm going to go up to the track above the court and nail these peach baskets on.

And the kids will have to throw these big balls into the peach baskets. And that worked as well as you can expect it to with people snowed in. They were punching and kicking and all sorts of things. And eventually Naismith came up with, you know, some rules of basketball, 12 or 13 rules of this new game that he had just invented to amuse some kids.

And he had published this in a couple journals that made their way around the Northeast, kind of the internet of its day. So, other YMCAs learned how to play basketball. A lot of the colleges learned the game and started adapting it into their programs.

And the thing took off like wildfire. Here was a game that can be played any time of year, you know, with almost any number of players. And it was, you know, simple enough that anyone can understand. Much the same way that soccer is simple. You have a ball, you have to get it into a goal. You have a ball, you have to get it into a basket. It didn't take long for Naismith to come up with another big invention of the game.

It is taking those peach baskets and cutting a hole in the bottom so he wouldn't have to fish the ball out every time it went in the basket. So, the game of basketball is a relatively new invention. It's much younger than baseball. It's much younger than soccer.

It's much younger than American football, even. But it probably, out of all of those sports, grew the fastest because it was a game that anyone can play anywhere. It wasn't just inside gymnasiums, of course. People started putting up basketball hoops, you know, outside. American soldiers in World War I brought the game with them to Europe.

And this is how it spread there. And of course, you know, because there was a sport that you played in the gymnasium, meant that a gymnasium-style shoe, a gym shoe, started to become more and more popular as something to wear. So, this is also when you start to see brands that we can recognize today.

Converse, KEDS, start in the early 20th century to kind of sell these products. So, in the early days of basketball, there were, of course, teams set up to go around and play. And some teams are still with us today in names.

The Boston Celtics saw their history traced all the way back to the beginning of the century. The Harlem Globetrotters used to be a legitimate basketball team before they became kind of a show team. So, you know, one of the best ways to attach yourself to this kind of trend, as a young basketball player named Chuck Taylor did, is to kind of claim that you've played for these teams.

Now, Chuck Taylor was an actual person. He wasn't a, you know, something invented by the brand. He was a salesman at Converse who also had a very short career playing basketball at the time. You know, there's very little historical evidence that he actually played for the Celtics as he claimed to.

But, you know, this was enough to kind of get him recognized to play for other teams. And, you know, in those days, it wasn't, of course, the professional basketball that we know today, but, you know, a lot of colleges and other places were setting up their own basketball teams. Companies even would set up their own basketball teams. And there was something called the Industrial League. Big rubber companies, Firestone, Goodyear, all of these other ones in Ohio, used to have their own company basketball team that they would play against other, you know, basketball teams in the area.

It's kind of like if there was a basketball team for Google and Facebook, and this was, you know, big enough where people would actually pay to see the games. So a lot of times these rubber companies would hire people that had some basketball background, like Chuck Taylor, to not only work in their factories, but play for them. And after a while, you know, Chuck Taylor decided, okay, I want to, you know, want to sell something. I don't want to, you know, make rubber my entire life. So he started working for Converse, and his big innovation at Converse wasn't just, okay, here's a shoe.

I'm going to, you know, this is why you should buy it, blah, blah, blah. He would go around having these clinics where he would teach people some tricks and how to play basketball better. And, you know, really from the ground up, he was able to, kind of like Johnny Appleseed, go from place to place preaching the gospel of basketball. And of course, the only way you can play basketball is with the proper Converse shoes.

And he would have people, you know, come down to the floor and he would show them some, you know, tricks that you can do. And obviously there would be that sales element at the end where, you know, you play basketball best when you play it in a Converse All-Star shoe. And because of this, he got to know the world of basketball, the game of basketball very, very well.

And a lot of college coaches would call him for advice on players to recruit if this person is any good. And Converse started to get into the practice of having a yearbook, the Converse Chuck Taylor Basketball Yearbook, where if your team, you know, your school or club or whatever would pay a bit of money, you can have your team photo and names featured in this yearbook alongside some basketball tips from Chuck Taylor every year. So he was building up not just his sales contacts, his, you know, basketball knowledge.

And he's one of the few non-coaches, non-executive, non-player people to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame because of his contributions to the game. Not just because of being a, you know, exceptional shoe salesman, but really kind of, you know, fostering that early development. And this is why the Converse All-Star shoe has his name on it and is known by its nickname, the Chucks. This marketing approach didn't really catch on until much, much later where you would want to buy a shoe because of its direct association with somebody. Everyone is familiar with Nike shoes. I mean, they're clearly the biggest brand on the planet.

They weren't always that way. And in order to understand their growth, we have to keep stepping back through several brands. So another brand that is very, very common that I'm sure everyone has heard of is Adidas or if you're in Europe, it's Adidas. Named after the founder, Adi Dasler. A lot of people may not realize at first that the man that founded Adidas and the man that founded Puma were brothers and they hated each other.

And they lived in the very small town in Bavaria in southern Germany and neither refused to leave. So how did that get started? Well, if you go back to the 1920s, one of the brothers, Adi Dasler, he loved making shoes. He was a shoemaker and he loved sports. So, of course, he, you know, wanted to make the highest quality soccer cleats and running spikes as well. So he got together with his brother, Rudy, and they formed the Gebruder Dasler shoe Fabrique or the Brothers Dasler Shoe Factory. And for a couple of years, they, you know, had some success selling these shoes over southern Germany.

But, of course, you know, in the 1920s, there's not, you know, millions and millions of dollars poured into sports to kind of provide that market there. So a lot of people that were wearing these shoes were only the athletes competing in them. They were in business a couple of years. And, of course, in the early 1930s, the Nazi Party came to power. Now, not long after that, both brothers joined the Nazi Party hoping for those connections that the business would open up into them.

And the German government at the time, the Nazis, were very adamant about having a strong populace, you know, a very, you know, fit people that would be prepared to go to war at any time. So this obviously fueled a lot of the interest in sport and fitness and, of course, athletic shoes. So when the Nazis hosted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, this provided a golden opportunity for the Dasler Brothers to kind of get their shoes worn by a lot of the people competing in the Olympics. And you're listening to Nicholas Smith, author of Kix, which tells the story of sneakers. And we learned that Goodyear played a part, technology did, but so did opportunity.

And that's the YMCA and, of course, an invention called basketball, which spread like wildfire because it was cheap and you could play it anywhere, anytime. When we come back, more of the remarkable story, the history of sneakers here on Our American Stories. Hello there, I'm Ann Thompson, editor at large for IndieWire. And I'm IndieWire's deputy film editor, Ryan LaTanzio. And we're the co-hosts of IndieWire's weekly Screen Talk podcast. Join us each week for an in-depth discussion of the latest in film and TV industry news with special guests along the way, including filmmakers and executives. Hear from us every Friday morning on iHeart platforms or wherever you get your podcasts as IndieWire shares what we've learned from the movie week that was. Finding the right news podcast can feel like dating.

It seems promising until you start listening. When you hit play on Post Reports, you'll get fascinating conversations and sometimes a little fun, too. I'm Martine Powers.

And I'm Elahe Azadi. Martine and I are the hosts of Post Reports. The show comes out every weekday from The Washington Post.

You can follow and listen to Post Reports wherever you get your podcasts. There'll be a match, I promise. And we're back with Our American Stories and Nicholas Smith, author of Kix, the great American story of sneakers and you can get it wherever you buy your books, whether it be on Amazon or your local bookstore. When we last left off, Nick had just told us about the Dassler brothers, Adi and Rudy, and how they were rivals. Adi was the founder of Adidas and Rudy, well, he founded Puma. Here's Nick picking up with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Obviously, one of the biggest people that everyone was excited to see was the American sprinter Jesse Owens. And as the story goes, Adi Dassler found his way into the Olympic village and gave Owens a pair of Dassler shoes to try on.

Now, you know, whether he, you know, actually won one of his four gold medals in a Dassler shoe that, you know, is best left up to history, a story that we would say it's too good to fact check. But, you know, this kind of association with gold medal winners helped the Dasslers accelerate their business even more. But, you know, as many times brothers fight and quarrel and they had a falling out and after the war, each one of them decided, okay, I'm going to take a portion of the company and set up my company here on one side of the river in our little town.

And you, you're going to, you know, take the rest of the people and set up your company on the other side of the river. And, you know, for many years and decades, Adidas and Puma, both based in the small, tiny town, would compete against each other. And this competition came to a head during the 1954 World Cup when the West German team was wearing Puma shoes and Rudy Dassler, the head of Puma at the time, said something that upset the coach. The coach went right over to his brother and said, okay, Adidas, now you are shoeing our soccer players. And, of course, the West German side won in spectacular fashion against a much more favored Hungarian team. And part of the secret was they were wearing an Adidas shoe where the studs would screw out.

The game was raining and the field was especially muddy, so during halftime they unscrewed their shoe studs for something that would grip the mud a bit better. And this proved to be the deciding factor in that West German win. And because of this, Adidas became even more successful and Puma a little bit less so. This did not stop the rivalry and it continued even to the next generation, so the children of both Dassler brothers continued that grand rivalry after the parents.

If you go to this small town today, to the cemetery, both brothers are buried on either side, the exact opposite, as far away as they can get from each other in death as they were in life. So Adidas was very much the brand to beat. Now, obviously, since it was the brand to beat, it was also the brand that was the most expensive. So if you were a track coach or a basketball coach in a high school or college and you had to buy your athlete's shoes, you wanted Adidas but probably weren't able to afford them. Now, somebody saw this and his name was Phil Knight.

For those who recognize the name, they know him as the chief guy at Nike. Now, he saw an opportunity in this and that opportunity was in Japan. In Japan at the time, they were making a lot of different things after the war. Their industry started to come back in a very positive way. And when Phil Knight was traveling there just after he graduated business school, he saw that there were a lot of sneaker companies that were making these shoes that were nearly as good as those Adidas shoes.

But for much, much less to the consumer. So a lot of people may have recognized a type of sneaker with two swooshing lines and another line coming through. This would be the Asics sneaker, where at the time it was known as a tiger shoe. So Phil Knight approaches the heads of the tiger shoe company and says, hey, I can import your shoes to America for you and sell them there.

And together we can make a lot of money because there is a gap in the market where people want a very high quality shoe that you make but can't pay the very high prices that Adidas is selling. So they agreed and Phil Knight got together with his former track coach at the University of Oregon, a man named Bill Bowerman. And together they formed a company called Blue Ribbon Sports. Now at the time Blue Ribbon Sports was strictly an importing company. They would import the shoes and they would use Bill Bowerman, the track coach's good contacts within the world of running to kind of get the shoes out to different schools and different runners. And Phil Knight, the master businessman that he is, knew to surround himself with salesmen that knew the market as well.

So pretty soon they had advanced to the point where, you know, now they were kind of rationing, okay, do we keep being an import company or do we start making our own shoes and selling them under our own brands? Now it just so happens that Bowerman, Knight's business partner, in addition to being a track coach, was a master tinkerer. He would try to get any sort of advantage to his athletes that he could. So if he thought that making a pair of running shorts out of parachute material because it's extra light would work, he would try that. If he thought mixing a synthetic rubber concoction in his backyard made a better runway for his runners to do the long jump, he would try that too. And of course he would also try building his own shoes for his own athletes, reasoning that if you build a shoe that's exactly fitted to that person, of course they're going to perform well in them.

And if you can make that shoe as minimal as possible, as light as possible, that's going to save a lot of weight running, of course. So after a while, Bowerman started sending his design ideas back and forth to Onitsuka Tiger in Japan. They were, you know, a little hesitant about implementing all of these ideas and, you know, eventually he starts building his own shoe. Now, as the famous story goes, he's trying to think of a mold or a pattern or a tread to, you know, make it kind of an all-purpose training shoe. Now, if you've ever been to Oregon, you know it rains in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest a lot. And when it rains, it creates a lot of mud.

So if you're running in shoes that are very, you know, flat with a novel of trade, you're going to slip in the mud. So as the story goes, one morning he's sitting there and he spies his wife's waffle iron. And he thinks, OK, well, that would be a great pattern.

So presumably his wife is away. He pours a mixture of, you know, molten rubber urethane into the waffle iron, completely ruins it. But he has that idea, OK, no, this is the pattern, the tread that I'm working for. And Nike eventually adapts this into the Nike Waffle Trainer, one of the very early jogging shoes. And you can buy this shoe today as just kind of a retro type shoe.

And if you look on the bottom, you can kind of see that impression of what that waffle iron inspired Bowerman to do. And you've been listening to author Nicholas Smith and his book, His Kicks, The Great American Story of Sneakers. By the way, we also told the story of Chuck Taylor, Here Are Now American Stories.

I did that one myself. I had written an essay about him for Newsweek and own Chuck Taylors now and use them in my childhood. A great American brand, a great American story about sneakers. Go to to listen to that story. And Nicholas, well, he was the reason I ended up writing it and researching the story of Chuck Taylor. And boy, did we learn a lot about warring brothers. And I mean, talk about brothers who to the end didn't talk, fought.

My goodness, if you've got problems in your family, you're feeling a little less alone. And what a story about Nike and the ascension of sport in the country, always in the end boiling down to innovation and opportunity. And in the end, the business of sports and the business of leisure. When we come back, more of the remarkable story of sneakers, a lens into American history itself, here on Our American Stories. The Toolkit podcast is where your favorite filmmakers come to talk about their craft and process.

I don't want a sloppy angle in my movie ever. It's like being a dancer. You find the freedom in the structure. It's where Tarantino, Gerwig, Scorsese and Jordan Peele discuss their latest films and showrunners take us behind the scenes of the best of TV. Hosted by IndieWire's craft team, Toolkit is an award winning podcast that gets at the heart of what really matters for filmmakers like Spike Lee. It comes back to this story telling.

What can I use in my toolbox? There's a lot happening these days, but I have just the thing to get you up to speed on what matters without taking too much of your time. The Seven from The Washington Post is a podcast that gives you the seven most important and interesting stories.

And we always try to save room for something fun. You get it all in about seven minutes or less. I'm Hannah Jewell. I'll get you caught up with the seven every weekday. So follow the seven right now. And we're back with our American stories and the story of sneakers.

Here's Nicholas Smith to continue with the final portion of the story. The 1970s. Basketball is becoming bigger. College game is still a little bit more popular, but the professional game is starting to grow its own stars and the shoe companies are starting to take notice. Now, of course, the biggest shoe company on the planet at this time is Adidas. Converse is also very, very big at the time.

So other brands are trying to find their way into the market. Puma, of course, is making basketball shoes. Now, some people at Puma had the idea, OK, well, you know, one of the players that wears our shoe on the court is Walt Frazier. Now, Frazier had a very particular style. His clothes were very flamboyant.

He cared very much about how he looked. And this is kind of, you know, telegraphing how stars of today would be perceived. They're approaching the arena, the locker room. They're dressed up.

They want to show off what their outfits were. Frazier was kind of one of the pioneers of this. So he seemed like a natural fit for Puma to approach someone to wear the shoe as much of a style shoe as it was a functional shoe on the court. So he was offered some money to make the Clyde signature shoe. Clyde was his nickname because at the time, Bonnie and Clyde was a very famous hit movie in the late 60s, early 70s. And one of his teammates in the locker room kind of gave him that nickname because he wore, you know, one of the big gangster hats like in the movie.

And the name stuck. So now this is why his association with the shoe, Walt Clyde Frazier, is almost as strong as his association on the court as an incredible player who won two NBA championships. With basketball becoming more and more popular, more brands were trying to find their way to, you know, have a star of their own. And Converse, which is still a big, big factor in the early 1980s, had the two biggest basketball stars at the time, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, wear their shoes and appear in their commercials. Now Nike at the time had some success in the running shoe market and was trying to move into other sports. Of course, they were competing with the Converses and with the Adidas and with the Pumas in the world that kind of controlled that market. Now Nike had made some inroads in getting college basketball players to wear their shoes. But by the time those players turned to the pros, they went to one of the bigger brands. So they thought, OK, well, we need to change up our strategy. It's the early 80s.

It's 1984. Let's look at the draft and kind of pick the best players that we think. And then we can kind of approach them for their own shoes. And then that will be our big success story. Some of the Nike executives said, OK, well, you know, let's not look at just four.

Let's look at one. And that one basketball player that they saw was Michael Jordan. Now, we all know the success that Michael Jordan had, but at the time he was, you know, a rookie. He was an unknown quantity, very, very good.

But, you know, it wasn't clear if it would pan out or not. So they decided to take a gamble and make not only a shoe, the Air Jordan shoe after him, but also a line of different products, clothing. And, you know, after a couple of years, the Air Jordan shoe became, you know, very, very big and very, very famous because Jordan started to become a better, better player. Now, of course, you know, other brands started to become interested in Jordan. Jordan wasn't sure if he was going to, you know, stay with Nike or move to Adidas or Converse, which he also liked. And Nike said, OK, we're going to have to, you know, change up our strategy here. We're going to have to get a new shoe designer to design the third version of this Air Jordan shoe.

We're going to have to have a brand new marketing campaign to go with this. And two of the Nike executives just happened upon a first time director named Spike Lee, who made it a very inventive first movie. And they thought, OK, well, let's let's try to get this guy in to write and direct some commercials with Jordan. And these commercials ended up being a very pivotal moment for Nike because they kind of solidified not just the myth of Jordan, the player, but the myth of the shoe itself. And if you can't recall the commercials, they were in black and white. They had, you know, a very young Michael Jordan there, and they also had Spike Lee in his character that he played in his first movie, Mars Blockman, this kind of geeky, nerdy, you know, basketball obsessed guy who, you know, was just enamored and in love with Jordan.

Even though he loved the New York Knicks, he saw that Jordan was still the best player around in those days. So one of the first commercials, you know, Spike Lee and his characters, he's trying to get Jordan to say, you know, what is it that makes you so great? Is it your shorts? Is it your hair? You know, is it the way you jump? Like, no, no, it's none of those things.

I got it. It's got to be the shoes. It's the shoes, Michael. The shoes make you great. And like, no, no, it's not the shoes. But of course, the point of the commercial is, is the shoes. They want you to buy the shoes that Jordan wears, the same shoes that this professional player that's so electric that everyone's talking about.

You can have the very same thing that he's wearing on the court. And this is kind of a very unique way to approach that marketing in a way that other brands had kind of touched on, but hadn't really nailed it in the same way that Nike and that marketing was nailing it. They were tapping into a very old idea, the idea of a magic shoe. Now, if you think what makes, you know, Cinderella special at the ball, it's that glass slipper.

What makes Dorothy return back from Oz to Kansas? It's the red ruby slippers. What makes Michael Jordan fly through the air?

It's that Nike Air Jordan. So they were selling an idea that had been with our culture for a very long time, that shoes can transform you into something else. You would start to find them on TV or in the movies or other sorts of things. So, of course, in the 1970s, Charlie's Angels is a big, big show. And Farrah Fawcett is probably the biggest star on that show. Well, in one episode, she's, I think, escaping from a bad guy on a skateboard and she's wearing a pair of white Nike sneakers. Well, of course, you know, people watching this episode or people seeing the posters or anything of Farrah Fawcett in those sneakers immediately wanted a pair because of that connection to a very famous celebrity.

Now, in the mid 1980s, you started to see something new. Now, obviously, you know, musicians were wearing, you know, sneakers for a long, long time. But it wasn't until the mid 1980s when the hip hop group Brundy MC started to make the Adidas sneaker and the Adidas track warm ups, you know, part of their look, their outfit.

And some executives at Adidas, you know, saw this and said, hey, we can we can capitalize on this. So they offered Brundy MC the first ever non athlete sneaker contract. So now, you know, we're going to pay you the same way we pay athletes to wear our product, except you'll be wearing them on the concert stage instead of the basketball court. One of the things that also made Brundy MC kind of a fashion icon wasn't just that they were wearing the Adidas sneakers, it was that they were wearing them without laces. So, you know, if your idol is wearing your shoes in a certain way, you're going to emulate that as well. And now they make laceless sneakers that look like they're worn without laces, but, you know, have a bit of elastic in them so you can, you know, slip them on. So really, it's not just the product that we're wearing, because somebody else is wearing it, we're wearing it in a certain way because of this. And, you know, when you think of the Adidas Superstar sneakers, you know, plain white leather, black three stripes, you think of it because its association with Brundy MC. They helped that old sneaker that was a 1960s basketball sneaker retain its cool for decades and decades. And after a while, more and more brands started to sponsor more and more non-athletes. And, you know, this is what leads us to the world of today where if Rihanna has a sneaker deal, you're not looking at it weird like, oh, well, she's not an athlete.

You're like, oh, yeah, of course, she's Rihanna. Of course, she would have her own sneaker line. Fashion tends to jump when things are excessively comfortable or they look great. So a lot of the early sneakers that went from the court to the sidewalk didn't look like they were, you know, something that you'd necessarily play basketball in. They were made of suede or they had lots of different colors to them or, you know, in some cases were attached to such a dynamic persona that you wanted to wear them to emulate that person. And when players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan became really big, you wanted to emulate them as much as possible.

And it wasn't just on the basketball court. It was, you know, in the schoolyard, walking down the street, you know, in your spare time. You wanted to have that association there with somebody famous. I mean, it's kind of the oldest idea now is, you know, what we like is because we saw it on somebody else that we want to emulate. So you can kind of trace that aspirational quality to that product.

I want to have something that somebody else has because that would make me cool like them. And a terrific job on the production, editing and storytelling by our own Madison Derricott and a special thanks to Nick Smith. His book Kicks The Great American Story of Sneakers. Pick it up.

You won't put it down. And by the way, what a story it is. The 1970s are when basketball takes off. Then the NCAA tournaments really monetize and that 64 teams and the whole country getting in on the betting action and everything else. And then comes Nike and they take a bet on a rookie.

And in the marketing, they take a bet on a rookie director. And my goodness, the combination of these two propel Nike to the stratosphere. And then we learn about the cultural aspect of sneakers. And that starts with the resuscitation of the Adidas brand thanks to Run DMC and what happens with Converse with the grunge acts. Now you can't go anywhere without grown men and women wearing sneakers just for fashion. The story of sneakers, a look into the American life and lifestyle and how sneakers changed both here on Our American Stories.

Hello there. I'm Ann Thompson, editor at large for IndieWire. And I'm IndieWire's deputy film editor, Ryan LaTanzio. And we're the co-hosts of IndieWire's weekly ScreenTalk podcast. Join us each week for an in-depth discussion of the latest in film and TV industry news with special guests along the way, including filmmakers and executives.

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