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 remember how he was killed. Jabbar left as one of the empty-handed clients at a Dayton, Ohio shopping mall on 20 December 2014 after lining up for the release of limited edition Air Jordan sneakers. After seeing two men who had procured one of the coveted pairs, Jabbar described a firearm and demanded the merchandise. The unidentified man holding the sneakers pulled out his own gun and shoot 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 supplying, volatile demand, and price tag that sometimes outstrip $ 200.

Twenty years ago, Houston Rockets superstar Hakeem Olajuwon tried to combat not just the violence, but the affordability of sneakers worn by NBA stars. 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 store like Payless, Wal-Mart and K-Mart nationwide.

” How can a poor working mother with three boys buy Nikes or Reeboks that expense $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 task” and” Good enough to dream “) and Olajuwon was the centerpiece of the Houston Rockets 1995 NBA championship squad. A graceful Nigerian 7-footer with a wide grin, Olajuwon was an icon in a period 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 man he ever faced.

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

” Madison Avenue prefers an American guy ,” prominent ad exec Marty Blackman told the New York Times in 1995.” Is that a drawback? Yes. It’s not racial. It’s just a fact .” Olajuwon’s agent, Ralph Greene, even claimed that his client was ” mature, 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 period 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 ads 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 hotshot play into two Super Bowl commercials and the ninth place on the top-1 0 paid athletes of 1995, the year he signed with Spalding.

He didn’t approach the height of Jordan’s global celebrity( Jordan earned $35 million in endorsements to Olajuwon’s $ 3.8 m in 1995 ), but Olajuwon was a star hired by the NBA to be its international ambassador. Playing in an epoch 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 illuminate 1995 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, staff writers Michael Sokolove and Nita Lelyveld found that few wanted to attend Payless to buy a selection basketball sneaker. Foot Locker, the premier shoe outlet at the time, opted against selling Olajuwon shoes, which hit their popularity further. Prominent outlets didn’t even want to hazard displaying Olajuwon’s line. The thought process was if children were assured wearing Hakeems instead of Jordan, they risked pestering at school. Nobody would be caught wearing Spalding.

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

Olajuwon and his marketing camp insisted that the sneakers were a success, quoting 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 selection, which were $180.

Olajuwon’s contract with Spalding expired in 2000, the shoes never a commercial success and his career coming to a shut. While Marbury’s discount shoes are still in production and help find a strong international market( Marbury is still a superstar 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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