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Sneaker freaks

It's a sunny Saturday morning and 15 guys are lined up outside Black Sheep Skate Shop, a skateboard and clothing boutique in South End.

David Horton is first in line. He's been here since 11 the night before in hopes of snagging a certain brand of new sneakers. A few minutes after the doors open, he walks out with a size 12 for his size 13 feet. It's the largest they had, but he's not fazed. “I'll take the insole out, so it feels like my size,” he says.

This is Sneakerhead World – a realm in which athletic shoe aficionados will do whatever's necessary to bag coveted footwear. Camping out and cramming feet into too-small shoes is nothing for this crowd.

The shoe prompting the excitement on this morning is a limited edition Nike SB, which sold for $125-$150. The SB stands for skateboarding, and Black Sheep is the only store in town that carries them. It's a high-top inspired by the 1986 skateboard film “Thrashin.'”

Because of Mike

Sneaker culture owes a lot to Michael Jordan, whose various Jordan-brand shoes have been known to grab thousands of dollars online.

“I'm in the process of getting one of every number (there are 23) and within that number getting various colors of each,” explains Raleigh-based lawyer Albert Hwang, 32, who displays some of his collection in glass cases.

“When Nike and Air Jordan started re-releasing their old shoes … I started buying them. That was in 2000. They remind me of a certain memory from when I was a kid.”

Although sneaker culture is bigger in places like L.A. and New York, Carolinians are keeping up. Online forums like www.niketalk.com and solecollector.com each have Carolina-centric threads.

So who determines whether a shoe will be a smash?

“It really depends on what hits the Internet and how much hype is generated around the shoe,” says Tyler Tufty, Nike SB's East Coast sales representative. “Sometimes a shoe will leak on the Internet and create hype.”

I have 'em, you don't

Marcus Simmons, 25, wore his Fender Bass-inspired Nikes for the first time that Saturday morning since he bought them at Black Sheep last year.

“If I buy them today, I will wear them today. Then I won't get them out again for at least a couple of months,” says Simmons, who checks tastemaking shoe site Hypebeast.com each night after working at his job at a local trucking company.

Simmons “buys everything," says Black Sheep's Chase Doerflinger, who puts out donut holes on the counter for these early birds. Adds Simmons, “If they don't have my size I'll get my girlfriend a pair.”

Of all the customers on that May morning at Black Sheep, Nathan Cummings, 32, can talk sneaker designers all day.

He has a Nike tattoo on his leg and his son's name written in shoelaces tattooed on his back. The West Charlotte High School physical education teacher and basketball coach began collecting Jordans in 1989 and stood in line for 19 hours at Black Sheep in February for the release of Nike's “Skate or Die" Dunks, brightly colored low-tops inspired by the 1987 videogame.

“Someone could offer me $1,000 and I wouldn't take it,” he says of his shoe collection. “I take pride in having them when you don't.”

Adds Truth Han, a Charlotte-based online shoe dealer (www.jumpmansneakers.com): Being a sneakerhead “makes you want to get the ones you used to have.”

Now just 18, Han, who began collecting when he was 12, turned his habit into a business by buying extra pairs of special releases and selling them on eBay.

“I needed a way to pay for the shoes,” explains Han, a student of international business at the University of South Carolina.

Odds are against you

Black Sheep usually receives between 12-24 pairs and doesn't know the shipment is coming until they receive a UPS notice a few days before delivery, store owner Josh Frazier says.

For a hyped release, the odds aren't good. After discovering collectors lining up at a store in Atlanta for Nike's Jordan 23 Titaniums (in Carolina Blue) five days before release, lawyer Hwang traveled to Baltimore, where a mall store ran a lottery to see who of the 250 collectors would actually get a pair.

He did.

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