On Sneakers

In his column Notes on Hoops, Hanif Abdurraqib revisits the golden age of basketball movies, shot by shot.

Coach Tracy Reynolds (Morris Chestnut) and Calvin (Lil Bow Wow) in Like Mike, directed by John Schultz, 2002. Photo: United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo.

1.
It is best to not get this confused: there are many ways to grow up poor. There are differences between those who have little and those who have barely anything at all, even in the same neighborhood, even on the same street, even if those differences could not be gleaned from the way a house looks on the outside or the way a yard is kept. You’d have to grow up some kinda poor to know these differences, I’d say. You’d have to grow up some kinda poor and know some people who grew up some kinda poorer than you were. Just ask the kids who admired the hustlers and the kids who had to hustle. Just ask the people who got tired of eating the same stale and boring meals and then ask the people who went to bed hungry.

When I talk about how my parents didn’t have the money to buy me cool sneakers when I was a kid, there are multiple things for the initiated and uninitiated to peep: what I’m saying is that my parents didn’t have the money to spend on anything foolish, certainly not anything costing more than a hundred dollars that served the purpose of decorating feet in the unpredictable weather of the Midwest. When I talk about how I pushed lawnmowers in the summer for sneaker cash or breathlessly lifted dense snow out of driveways in the winter, what I am also saying is that I lived in a place where enough people had spare cash to kick me a few bucks for work their kids could have done, work they absolutely could have done themselves.

As many ways as there are to grow up poor, there are just as many ways—if not more—to cloak whatever foolish and misguided shame you might have in your material circumstances. There was always a sacrifice to make in the name of cloaking oneself in some vibrant distraction or deception.

2. 
To cut to the end, it turns out all Calvin Cambridge really wanted was a family, and I know—of course this is the case. Like Mike was never really all that much about basketball, I suppose. Movies with kids playing sports are only sometimes about the sport, particularly if the film involves something mystical or magical. The sport is the scaffolding, but the kid, or at least one of the kids on a team, is seeking fulfillment elsewhere. And yes, for Cambridge, this is a bit more urgent. He was in an orphanage, selling candy for an abusive overseer. The shoes were not magic when he found them, but he climbed a pole to retrieve them from a power line, there was a lightning strike, and then Michael Jordan’s old sneakers had the power of Michael Jordan himself. And while all of that is good, it does nothing to move me away from the fact that the movie is, at least in part, about loneliness, about placelessness, about wanting to pull the curtain back on a world where a kid feels worthy of being desired. 

But before we go too far, it is also just a silly basketball movie about a silly pair of shoes, and let me be clear that the silly movies I love most are the basketball ones. Especially the ones that take place in the NBA and especially the ones where the league’s universe is warped—where there are made-up teams and players alongside real teams and players. Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki getting in a defensive stance to stop Morris Chestnut’s drive to the rim. These are my favorite part of sports movies, but especially basketball movies. There’s something about the mechanics of basketball that makes it clear who can play and who can’t, even if they’re acting as though they can. That level of cross-universe absurdity is almost needed in a movie such as Like Mike, which relies on the trope of “kid finds an item and the item allows them to live a sports dream.” It cements the impossibility of the journey, in case you were to get any ideas.

3. 
The thing is that by the time I was of an independent basketball-loving age, with fully formed memories, no one I hung around wanted to be all that much like Michael Jordan anymore. This was the end of era-one Michael Jordan and then era-two MJ—still singularly great, but a little less cool. The older siblings of my pals had posters of the cooler MJ on their walls. The MJ suspended in midair, two gold chains ascending along with him, making their way up to his open mouth, flirting with his dangling tongue, his arm cradling a basketball, his body twisted in some impossible collection of limbs. The immortal MJ in the dunk contest, adorned in shine the NBA banned years earlier. Get fly to get fly.

To be “like Mike,” in the sense of the early-nineties Gatorade ads, was to want to emulate his movements. In one commercial, a young Black child attempts a dunk, the rim miles away from where he’s going to land. The idea, at the time, was all about making Michael Jordan appear likable, relatable. I remember the commercials vaguely. I remember the song more than anything, its terribly infectious melody that I hummed in my elementary school hallways, wearing black, nondescript sneakers purchased on clearance from some place or the other.

By the time I was in middle school, by the time Michael had left and returned and remained great, though a different kind of great, everyone I knew wanted to be like Penny Hardaway, or Allen Iverson, or, occasionally, Grant Hill, but no one really wanted to be Grant Hill all that much no matter how smooth he was with the ball because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the older kids on the block declared Grant Hill corny, and lord knows no one wants to be corny.

I have spent a lot of time in the past year meditating on how and when Michael Jordan’s relationship with coolness changed for me. He was a myth for me during the first half of his career, when my memories of him were fuzzy, until about 1993 or so. And then, when he came back, in 1995, the NBA was growing younger, even more exciting than it already was. He foiled and frustrated those younger players routinely. The Bulls were consistent roadblocks to teams like the Knicks, a beloved team in my household. I didn’t relate to this Michael Jordan as I’d related to the one airborne and festooned in gold, frozen on a Nike poster.

June 16, 1996, was Father’s Day. It was also game six of the NBA Finals. The Bulls had a chance to close out the Seattle Supersonics and win another title. I loved Gary Payton, and I loved Shawn Kemp, and so I went into the finals rooting for Seattle, even though I knew my rooting was a futile effort. They played hard, but it soon became evident that, like most teams matched up with the Bulls, they just weren’t good enough. The Bulls won that game, and I don’t remember much of it. I don’t remember how anyone played, and without looking it up, I couldn’t even tell you who the home team was.

It was Michael Jordan’s fourth title, his first since the 1993 championship, which had taken place about a month before his father, James, was murdered.

For all of the visual and aesthetic iconography around Jordan, so much of it—looking back—feels forced and sometimes overly dramatic: the flu game, when he collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms, for example. I have no qualms about theatrics, to be clear, especially sports theatrics. So I love every moment of it. But there is a difference between typical sports theatrics and real expressions of emotion. On Father’s Day in the locker room after winning his fourth title, Michael Jordan clutched a basketball on the floor and sobbed. Loud, heaving sobs. He looked spent, not physically, but emotionally. Running fully, publicly, into the arms of his grief. A grief that had lingered. A grief that endured, as so many different modes of grief do.

My mother wouldn’t die until almost exactly one year later. I hadn’t yet been to a funeral, though I’d heard about them. I’d seen my pals and neighbors dressed for them. I’d heard stories of people crying like this, loud and seemingly without control. But this was the first time I’d seen it up close, the first time I’d seen it on someone who, until that point, had been an immortal.

I don’t like making much about the so-called humanization of people. It’s a tired trope that has become too abstract for my liking. The Michael Jordan crying moment didn’t embed within me an understanding that he was human. Rather, it laid a framework for me to fit my large emotional self into. I was a sensitive kid. I’d cried a lot, and I would cry a lot more, and there was a time when I was ridiculed for that outside of my home, and then there was a time when the ridicule stopped. I felt, in my adolescent mind, that I owed Michael Jordan. A foolish feeling, but one I adhered to for years to come. No one could tell me shit about my big, overwhelming emotional pursuits because look at this: a man at the top of his game, his career, wept on national television and it was loud, and messy, and I am remembering now that the Chicago Bulls were the home team because when I close my eyes I can still see the large red “23” against the white fabric, trembling on Jordan’s back with every trembling cry. And that moment wasn’t about basketball for me and it certainly wasn’t about shoes (though I’m sure it didn’t help sales of the latter). And to be clear, I didn’t understand it at the time. I didn’t understand how Michael Jordan could still be sad about something that had happened three years ago. I was not even a teenager yet. I had no idea about the immense nature of grief.

I don’t remember if my mother was even watching the game. She would weave in and out of basketball with varying levels of interest. I have probably imagined her in the room with an arm around me while I watched, but I don’t think that’s real. It won’t stop me from clinging to the fantasy, but I don’t think that’s real.

4.
I am not as lucky as Calvin Cambridge, finding magical shoes by way of a dumpster. But I have found myself undertaking a new task in the past year. My sneaker collection now would be the envy of my teenage self. And I buy sneakers with the understanding that my relationship with them is complicated. I think they are beautiful and emotionally fascinating, but also foolish and a vehicle of multiple exploitations. But I own them. Too many of them, to be exact. And late last spring, I found a pair of original black and red Jordan 11s from 1996. The kind of pair MJ wore in that ’96 finals series. I got them for a great deal, from a person who had never worn them and was never going to. I watched Like Mike again, for a laugh. But through my watching, I got newly obsessed: How many real, original pairs that I could afford at the time of their release can I get now? I dove deep into finding Jordans from 2001, from 2003, from 1998, from 1995. The ones I had once circled in Eastbay catalogs left open on the table in hopes that my parents might glance at them and soften. I found pairs all over the world, never worn. I haggled and hassled and hustled and counted coins and consulted sneaker friends to make sure I wasn’t overspending. I never got as lucky as I’d hoped. A couple of pairs from ’01, a couple from ’96. The thing with sneakers this old, especially if they’ve never been worn, is that the white parts of them begin to yellow organically. The soles begin to soften over time. They require a real tenderness, from a very tactile standpoint: one must touch them gently, hold them gently, lace them up gently. I don’t gaze much at shoes as though they are art. I don’t make a whole thing out of it. But I found myself looking at these as though they were artifacts. Projecting my own past onto them, thinking about where they were when I was coveting them as a thirteen-year-old, as a sixteen-year-old.

But because I firmly believe in wearing the sneakers I purchase, I chose to wear the black and red Jordan 11s from 1996 out of the house during one of my weekly batches of errands. The soles, softened from years of inactivity, crumbled while I walked through Trader Joe’s. All before I got whatever special powers or before I unlocked whatever special magic was inside. As I walked gingerly back to my car, I figured maybe the magic was in the crumbling. The message that whispers a reminder: nothing from the past is as glorious as I remember it. If I get close enough, the memories fall apart.

5.
I remember the morning my mother died because I heard my father crying, loud sobs from his upstairs bedroom. I heard it all through the house. I remember the morning my mother died because I didn’t cry, even though I felt like I should have been crying. It made sense for me to cry and I wanted to, but I didn’t. It was months later, as I was walking home from one of the first days of school with headphones on but nothing playing in my Walkman, that I sat down on a bench and cried, uncontrollably, for what was minutes but felt like hours. I had on my first-ever pair of Jordans, which I’d purchased with money earned from doing chores and saving up my newly boosted allowance. They were caked in a light layer of dirt already. I arose, weighed down and soaked in my own sadness, with a clarity. Grief is something we carry, not something that exits.

But this is just a silly thing. About basketball. About shoes.

 

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio.

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