If you achieved your wildest childhood dreams and came into a fortune because of it, what would you spend the bread on? You might pick up a shiny new whip and a crib, send your parents to the Bahamas, maybe you’d even give a fat cheque to a tax-deductible charity organization. You’re reading this magazine though, so there’s a good chance your first priority wouldn’t be doing any of that – you’d probably just head straight to eBay to cop your holy grails.
People want what they’re told they can’t have. For many sneakerheads, their fascination with footwear started as kids, and in most families that usually meant one pair of shoes for sports and one pair for school. If you had more than that, you either held down a side hustle at KFC and exercised piggy bank self control; or you were just born with fat bank and folks who slipped you some shoe money to keep you off their backs.
Celebrity jeweller Ben Baller, NFL players Duane Brown and Glover Quin and pro hooper Josh Childress developed their affection for sneakers early, but they didn’t have everything they wanted handed to them. They hustled hard and used what their parents couldn’t provide as motivation to get it on their own. They started from the bottom, and now they’re here, easily filling whole rooms and garages with their collections. You’ve got to wonder if it’s lonely at the top, though. Is it a game if you always win? I set out to discover if a little bit of shine rubs off the passion for sneaker hunting when it becomes painless to get what you want.
Before the ballin’
A DJ, celebrity jeweller, full-time hustler and entrepreneur, Ben Baller’s reputation in the shoe game precedes him. He’s one of the OG NikeTalk forum heads, a member of the almighty ‘AMC’ collective, and a once-proud owner of nearly 2000 sneakers. Ben wasn’t stashing anywhere near that amount of leather as a youngen’ though.
‘These days there's nothing I can't get that I want in life, but back then it was different,’ Baller says. ‘When I was a kid, Jordan 1s used to always be at the store. It's not like it was difficult to get them, it was just tough getting the money.’
After studying hard in school, Baller’s brother slipped him the cash for some Js on his birthday as a reward. Ben remembers the magical day clearly.
‘I skated downtown,’ he says. ‘I got two pairs. I got one pair from JC Penney and then I got a pair from the Nike store in Westwood. They had the Billie Jean floor, so if you stepped on it, it lit up. I was 12 years old, it wasn't like you were keeping one. I just wanted two to wear because I'd wear them a lot.’
The struggle was even tougher for Houston Texans star Duane Brown. ‘Act your age, not your shoe size’ isn’t an insult to a teenager with size 17 feet, but that’s small consolation for all the releases he would miss out on.
‘My mother didn’t really care too much to go and find exclusive sneakers in my size,’ Brown says. ‘If I found a 17, they were probably shoes that came out a year or two before – but I got them. Still, I only had three or four pairs of shoes.’
Like Baller, former NBA player Josh Childress had a thoughtful older brother baptise him into the sneaker church. Childress was gifted the OG Nike Air Max 97s and was instantly hooked. He took up pittance-paying summer camp jobs and ran the clock at little league games to save up for his next pair. He says he developed a ‘nice little collection’ by the ninth grade but still saw many drops he desperately wanted come and go from stores that he didn’t have the paper for.
‘There were a ton of those, lots and lots of those,’ Childress says. ‘But that really helped fuel me to get the shoes I wanted. I knew I would have to work hard.
More money, less problems
Sneakers proved an effective motivator for Detroit Lions safety Glover Quin too, and when he signed his first pro contract, he made a beeline for the mall to celebrate.
‘I loved Jordans as a kid but I couldn’t really afford them,’ he says. ‘I didn’t get my first pair until I was in college. It was a pair of the Fire Red 5s. When I made it to the NFL, I just took advantage of it. I got all the ones that I always wanted but never could have. Now when Js come out and I like them a lot, I get two or three pairs of them and just keep some for a long time unworn. ’
It wasn’t just the money that helped these guys step up their sneaker stockpile though, their newfound status had brands throwing shoes at them for free. When you’re in such a public profession as sport or music, your body becomes real estate, an advertising board, and brands are more than happy to supply you with some clothes or sneaks that you’ll proudly wear. They see it as cheap and influential marketing.
Although celebrities stunting in pre-release pairs is standard practice today, Ben Baller was coming up as a DJ and unofficial Nike brand ambassador when social media was still in its infancy. Baller was a popular (and notorious) member of the NikeTalk web forum over the turn of the new millennium. He used the site to discuss his passion for Swoosh boots and organise purchases, sales and trades to grow his collection. The suits in Beaverton must have been monitoring the scene, because before long, Nike packages were arriving on Baller’s door step.
‘I was definitely getting a lot from Nike direct,’ he says. ‘It was the early seeding, marketing, social media plan sort of shit.’
Duane Brown and Josh Childress also revelled in their new connect straight to the source of their vice when they signed endorsement deals with Nike. Brown’s batch of size 17s ballooned, finally, while Childress recalls getting many hyped releases before they went on sale, as well as his own personal shoe when he moved to Greek club, Olympiacos Piraeus.
‘I also remember getting 15 to 20 pairs of Jordan 3s just to play in,’ he says. ‘I wish I’d kept them instead of playing in them!’
Who’s the freshest of them all?
When most people look in the mirror in the morning, they view themselves through a lens forged by the opinions of others as well as their own. They see themselves as others might see them in the context of where they’ll be going that day. Although there are a million self-help books telling you to avoid it, we all have a tendency to judge our own achievements by comparing them to others’. Entering a higher tax bracket may free you up from some daily stresses, but it’s often encumbered with a fresh dilemma – you have a gang of new peers to make you feel inadequate again. In pro sports and entertainment, strong cashflow, status and a love of sneakers is common, so getting on top demands a hustle of a different kind.
It turns out not all of those rare pairs you see on IG are certified and sent direct from the brands. Although none of them confessed to using it, all of our interviewees tspoke about a black market for hyped releases where contacts travel to the manufacturing plants in China and secure pairs straight off the factory floor.
‘I know lot of people I deal with have people getting them shoes like that,’ Baller says. ‘Some of my big clients don't want the shoes unless they can get them six months early.’
Glover Quin also sees pre-release pairs on his teammates that he hasn’t even peeped decent photos of before.
‘We had a guy in our locker room and he had the Legend Blue Jordan 11s that are coming out for Christmas,’ Quin says. ‘It was August! The shoes didn’t release for another four months and he had them already? He said some shoe connect he knows actually went to China for him, that’s this guy’s whole job!’
Both Childress and Quin are suspicious of the legitimacy of some of the shoes showing up, though.
‘You just never know if they’ll be legit for sure,’ Quin says. ‘I love sneakers but I’m not a guy that needs to be super exclusive and have it two months before it comes out. Let me get it when it releases so I can get it from a credible place.’
Suffering from success
While our interviewees haven’t always relied on letting their dollars help them jump the queue, Ben Baller showed us what can happen when you get too close to the flame. When he started working with Nike on marketing, Baller realised he didn’t enjoy the machinations of the sneaker industry from the inside, and it soured his personal love for the brand.
‘The game was getting real saturated,’ he says. ‘I just didn't have the love for it anymore. I got so passionate, I was way too passionate. I just got over it, it was fucking lame. At that moment, Nike meant everything to me, and they're irrelevant to me now.’
Baller sold up around 2,000 pairs of shoes in auctions which he says earned him over $1 million all up. He now has a much leaner sneaker stash, with about 60 pairs, 40 of which are the same shoe, Black/Cement Air Jordan 3s. It seems a shame; Baller once DJ’d by night and spent his daylight hours linking up with other collectors and digging through sneaker stores across New York City for precious treasure, but for him, collecting has now thoroughly lost its lustre.
‘It's not a hunt anymore, it's just not that serious to me anymore,’ he says. ‘I got to a certain level and I'm just old now. I just don't care. If there's something dope and I want it, I'm just gonna find a way to get it, in a gangsta way. I'll be able to get anything. I have good relationships with sneaker headhunters, they hit me up.’
The search continues
Although Baller found a new leisure pursuit in collecting luxury cars, Josh Childress’ garage remains a shrine to his favourite footwear. Stacks of plastic boxes line the walls of the concrete bunker, with more than 800 pairs of sneakers accrued from over 20 years of devotion. His passion is showing no signs of fading, either. When he flew to Australia to begin playing with his new team the Sydney Kings, he brought with him a bag of clothes and a bag of shoes, with about thirty pairs inside. Just the essentials. He’s still finding ways of keeping his hobby fun and is looking to improve his Southern Hemisphere collection too.
‘For me now, it's still fun, because I just go on the hunt,’ he says. I know some guys hire people to go out and get them or just take the free stuff. I'm still scouring the Internet, though, talking to people, going on forums, all kinds of sites. I'm still looking for the right shoe and the right price, without a doubt.’
Glover Quin has taken a different tactic to sustain his interest in shoes – he’s actively passing the curse of sneaker obsession to his sons.
‘I like to get them whatever I get for myself,’ he says. ‘That started before they were even born. Every time I got myself a pair I would get my first son the same pair. There are some pairs I don’t get for myself but I’ll get them for my kids, they look great.’
Sharing your interests can be gratifying, but perhaps the real secret to longevity in the sneaker game is making your Holy Grail so ridiculous that you’re unlikely to ever obtain it. If that’s the case, Duane Brown is in this thing for the long haul.
‘I want the Yeezy IIs,’ Brown says. ‘The regular ones and the Red Octobers. I love those, but I don’t think I’ll ever find a size 17. I really doubt it. I’m not giving up, though!’