How Hakeem Olajuwon tried and failed to stop the 90 s sneaker killings

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Twenty years ago, the Houston Rockets star hoped that cheaper basketball shoes could stop troubling incidents of violence

The nation doesn’t remember Jawaad Jabbar of Columbus, Ohio, but it may recollect how he was killed. Jabbar left as one of the empty-handed customers at a Dayton, Ohio shopping mall on 20 December 2014 after lining up for the release of limited edition Air Jordan sneakers. After considering two men who had secured one of the coveted pairs, Jabbar depicted a firearm and demanded the merchandise. The unidentified man holding the sneakers pulled out his own gun and shot back. Jabbar was 16.

Jabbar’s death complemented armed thefts in both New Jersey and Louisiana, a tear-gassed dispersal of prospective clients in Toledo, Ohio, and an April shooting in Houston, all of which centered around attempts to acquire the shoes. Since Air Jordans debuted in 1985, occasional violent crimes have accompanied their release because of the shoes’ limited render, volatile demand, and price tags that sometimes surpass $ 200.

Twenty years ago, Houston Rocket superstar Hakeem Olajuwon tried to combat not just the violence, but the affordability of sneakers worn by NBA starrings. Olajuwon was the first to make a concentrated attempt to subvert the trend of overpriced basketball shoes marketed to urban youth.

He failed.

While Stephon Marbury’s discount shoe” The Starbury”( priced at $14.95) would find more( but limited) commercial success a decade afterwards, Olajuwon sought to dissuade children from buying expensive Jordans in favor of his line” The Dream” by Spalding. Priced at an affordable $34.99, the shoes were sold in discount stores like Payless, Wal-Mart and K-Mart nationwide.

” How can a poor working mother with three boys buy Nikes or Reeboks that cost $120 ?” Olajuwon said upon their release in 1995.” She can’t. So kids steal these shoes from stores and from other kids. Sometimes they kill for them .”

The ploy seemed savvy. The press loved the idea( sample headlines included” Hakeem laces up a top job” and” Good enough to dreaming “) and Olajuwon was the centerpiece of the Houston Rocket 1995 NBA championship team. A graceful Nigerian 7-footer with a wide smiling, Olajuwon was an icon in a time where big humen( Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson) were the most coveted players in basketball. He was already the best player in franchise history and would finish his career with two championships, one MVP award, 12 All-Star selections, and six All-NBA first-team selections before. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008. Jordan once commented that he’d picking Olajuwon as the best center of all-time- not O’Neal, Ewing or Wilt Chamberlain. Shaq said that Olajuwon was the best big human he ever faced.

But major endorsements eluded the starring at the beginning of his career. Maybe it was his broken English, maybe it was his clean-cut appearance. But before Michael Jordan’s brief retirement in 1993, Olajuwon wasn’t selling.

” Madison Avenue opts an American guy ,” prominent advertising exec Marty Blackman told the New York Times in 1995.” Is that a disadvantage? Yes. It’s not racial. It’s just a fact .” Olajuwon’s agent, Ralph Greene, even claimed that his client was ” ripen, a professional- no rap, earrings or tattoos- qualities that don’t always translate if you’re targeting youth .”

A Hakeem Olajuwon signed Spalding sneaker. Photo: SCP Auctions

But with the void created by Jordan’s temporary retirement, Olajuwon’s cachet rose during a time when black athletes started to dominate athletic endorsements. Jordan remained the most marketable star in the world despite his absence from basketball, Shaq would haul in over $15 m in endorsements before he turned 24, and a fresh-faced Kobe Bryant would be plastered all over advertisings a few years later.

Eventually- between Visa, Taco Bell, Uncle Ben’s rice, Frito-Lay and a host of others- Olajuwon parlayed his affable demeanor and superstar play into two Super Bowl commercials and the ninth spot on the top-1 0 paid athletes of 1995, the year he signed with Spalding.

He didn’t approach the high levels of Jordan’s global celebrity( Jordan earned $35 million in endorsements to Olajuwon’s $ 3.8 m in 1995 ), but Olajuwon was a starring hired by the NBA to be its international diplomat. Playing in an era where fashionable basketball sneaker were at peak popularity thanks to Jordan( Nike ), O’Neal( Reebok) and Grant Hill( Fila ), Olajuwon notably wore off-brand sneakers like Etonic and LA Gear before his multi-year contract with Spalding in 1995.” The Dream” was a hightop fashioned similarly to the Reebok shoe worn by Shaq. The leather was lower-grade than the Jordan and the sole compressing was inferior, but the shoes were viable athletic shoes that seemed similar to most of the big sellers.

The problem was that they sold at Payless, WalMart and K-Mart , not Foot Locker or The Sports Authority. Olajuwon was a trusty, likeable and popular with older fans, less so with younger people.

In an illuminating 1995 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, faculty novelists Michael Sokolove and Nita Lelyveld found that few wanted to attend Payless to buy a option basketball sneaker. Foot Locker, the premier shoe outlet at the time, opted against selling Olajuwon shoes, which made their popularity further. Prominent outlets didn’t even want to danger displaying Olajuwon’s line. The thought process was if kids were assured wearing Hakeems instead of Jordan, they risked taunting at school. Nobody would be caught wearing Spalding.

Association , not circulation, was the problem. The shoes were sent to 12,500 shops but were seen as inexpensive- and not in a good way. Spalding claimed that they sold 4m pairs, but they weren’t worn by any prominent players- in the pros or in college- besides Olajuwon.

Olajuwon and his marketing camp was of the view that the sneakers were a success, citing the 4m figure and talking up the positive impact of offering affordable, authentic shoes. Unfortunately, most people agreed with Penny Hardaway.” Spalding is not competitive with companies like Nike ,” Hardaway told the Houston Chronicle in 1997.” No one wants to wear them, and I’ve never seen anyone wearing the Hakeem shoe .”

The interview was to promote the release Nike’s Air Foamposite, Hardaway’s shoe of option, which were $180.

Olajuwon’s contract with Spalding expired in 2000, the shoes never a commercial success and his career coming to a close. While Marbury’s discount shoes are still in production and help find a strong international marketplace( Marbury is still a starring player in China ),” The Dreams” faded from the public consciousness, raising the question whether a cheaper basketball shoe could ever approach the popularity of the Air Jordan.

In 2014, Olajuwon teamed up with his old sneaker company, Etonic, to rerelease a limited edition” 1984 Akeem the Dream” shoe.

They retail at $120.

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