Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte’s role in the intersection between NBA All-Star and sneaker culture

Call it a game within the game — a side show packaged within the biggest sporting event to hit Charlotte since 1991. Not the dunk or three-point contest, not the skills competition, celebrity game or any of the myriad events throughout the city.

NBA All-Star Weekend offers excitement in almost any direction, but look down to see some of the most exclusive sneakers in the world hit the Uptown pavement. No sport is more intertwined with sneaker culture than basketball, and this annual showcase brings with it some of the community’s biggest sneakerheads.

Combined Nike, adidas and Under Armour sold $37 billion worth of shoes in 2017, per But All-Star Weekend may be their best money-making venture all year.

Boston Celtics guard Dee Brown pumps up his Reebok Pump sneakers prior to performing a dunk during the 1991 NBA Slam Dunk Contest at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, NC. Brown would win the contest. Jeff Siner

Early releases, exclusive colorways (different color combinations of each model), even re-imaginings and reincarnations of a few classics — All-Star Weekend serves as the marquee intersection between the sneaker retailers and consumers.

“It’s a smorgasbord for companies to make an excuse to release a sneaker,” said Johnson C. Smith University professor Jemayne King. “Everyone has an All-Star colorway of their shoes now, even if they don’t make basketball shoes - because of the attention around the event. It’s a global event, it’s a chance to get extra exposure to your brand and for your company to even get a sliver of the market share.

“At this point, it’s colossal … If you can’t sell a shoe at any other time of the year, you can sell it at All-Star.”

King is more than a member of the sneaker community. He’s an expert, a historian — the creator of the country’s first English course on sneaker culture, which he teaches at JCSU. The author and culture influencer said Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan deserves a bulk of the praise for boosting All-Star Weekend’s value as a platform for the sneaker community, primarily because his sponsor company, Nike, often released new designs and colorways before the game.

Other companies followed suit over the years, as it became more clear just how big of a platform All-Star Weekend provided. Reebok learned that lesson by accident — and it happened the last time Charlotte hosted the event.

‘You started a shoe war’

Dee Brown wasn’t trying to sell shoes. He was sponsored by Reebok, but mostly because its headquarters shared a city with the team that drafted him — the Boston Celtics.

He was a rookie in 1991, more known for his dunking ability than his marketability — hence, his spot in that year’s slam dunk contest. But in a lineup that featured established stars in Shawn Kemp and Kenny Smith, and two Hornets in Rex Chapman and Kendall Gill, Brown was somewhat of an afterthought.

He needed to stand out, so before his first dunk, he bent over and pumped up his black Omni Lite’s with the Celtics-mandated white laces. The rest is history — Brown won the contest and became an icon overnight.

Reebok had no idea until after the event.

“They had no clue that I was going to do that with my shoes, they really didn’t,” Brown, 50, said. “I don’t think anybody was ready for it. I really only did it to get the crowd into it, just to get the crowd on my side.

“It’s iconic, people talk about it … it feels good that 28 years later, people still have an affinity for that dunk contest in Charlotte.”

Brown said Reebok took out a full-page ad in the Monday morning edition of USA Today commemorating the victory, and the global marketing phenomenon took off from there.

On a team with three future Hall of Famers — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish — the 21-year-old rookie was the most sought-after autograph of the bunch.

“I was like, ‘Wow, what did I just do’ — because I didn’t do it for any other reason than to win the contest. I didn’t know what it was going to change,” he said. “You talk about a person becoming a superstar marketing image overnight, that really happened. Now we’re flying to cities and everybody’s wanting to pass Larry Bird to get your autograph. People are walking past Kevin McHale to get your autograph. Larry Bird’s saying, ‘everybody wanted to shoot like me, now they want to dunk like Dee.’

“I was international. I was going on tours, I was going all over the world just because of pumping up the shoes and winning the contest and doing that dunk.”

Even after Brown’s rookie year, Reebok wasn’t finished milking all it could out of his dunk crown. Even more unheard of for a player of his status, Reebok gave Brown his own signature shoe — the Pump D-Time, complete with Brown’s logo on the back and image on the bottom.

Not a bad return for a few dunks and couple pumps of his sneakers.

“It was unique because back then, nobody had their own shoe,” Brown said. “At that time, obviously Michael had his own shoe but the only two other guys who had their own shoe were (Charles) Barkley, maybe David Robinson — and me. I don’t fit in that equation, are you kidding me? Those are three Hall of Famers and all-time greats — and Dee Brown.

“Because I could sell shoes. I could market shoes. People identify with the guy that’s like your little brother, who’s not very imposing and did something nobody did before. I think that part is the part that’s still special. Shoe culture, (I) kind of changed the dynamics of the way people start thinking about shoes, how people start making shoes.

“The D-Time shoes came out with my logo on the back and image on the bottom — that was very unique back then, nobody did that stuff in the early-90s.”

The marketing campaign sparked a renaissance among industry titans. All-Star Weekend was Michael Jordan and Nike’s stage until Brown pumped some diversity into the game. As its popularity grew, Reebok eventually signed such stars as Kemp and Allen Iverson.

In one night, Brown established Reebok as a legitimate competitor to Nike.

And you know how competitive Jordan is. After the dunk contest, Jordan gave Brown a preview of what was to come.

“It was crazy, it happened so fast,” Brown said. “We were at an NBA event and all of a sudden, the crowd breaks in and they shuffled Michael Jordan (away). Somehow, I got shuffled in there in the same area with Michael Jordan.

“He just kind of congratulated me on the contest and (said) “You did a great job — but you know you started a shoe war now, and I’ve got to kick your (expletive) on and off the court.

“I was a rookie — this was Michael Jordan, my idol. The guy that I grew up watching and got a chance to play against on the court. ...It really kind of started (a war) with the shoes. ...For people to start talking about a combination of this (Reebok) shoe might be outselling Jordans and everybody’s wearing them, they’re pumping up their shoes, they want to try and dunk. That’s big time.”

The culture and the hardwood

All-Star Weekend, as grandiose as it may be, is ultimately a microcosm of the relationship between basketball and sneaker culture. The two have been symbiotic since the 1960s.

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Jemayne Lavar King, a professor at Johnson C. Smith, teaches a class on shoe culture. Matt Walsh

Legendary streetballer Pee Wee Kirkland, 73, who infamously turned down an NBA contract for more lucrative — and more illegal — ventures, deserves credit for that, King said.

“Pee Wee Kirkland,” King said, “when asked about sneaker culture in the ‘60s, said, ‘You couldn’t catch me in a pair of Pro Keds’ when comparing Pro Keds to the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star. What he was saying was, if your game is on this level, you didn’t wear this.”

In the African-American community, where sneaker culture originated, what you wore on your feet became an avenue of self-expression. To an audience so heavily influenced by sports and pop culture, sneakers could make a statement or even bridge the gap between perception and reality.

In theory, the quality of your footwear dictates the world’s perception of who you are, or who you want to be.

“Sneaker culture is a branch of hip-hop culture, which started as a way to give a voice to the voiceless. Individuals express themselves through sneakers,” King said. “So I could be poor, but when I put these sneakers on I don’t look poor — now I have status or a false sense of status within my community. Many minorities see entertainment and sports as a way to rise out of their social class.

“We know education is a means of doing that, but it’s not promoted as much as sports is — sports is second nature.”

A platform for industry titans

While consumers may expect one another to bring their best footwear to the Queen City this weekend, those expectations run parallel to those placed on companies to provide their best product.

New models, bold colorways, limited releases — the customer is always right, and especially during All-Star Weekend, the customer wants plenty of options to choose from.

Once again, tip your hat to Dee Brown for that.

“The Dee Brown dunk had an impact on the rise of basketball fashion in general,” said TNT analyst and former All-Star Chris Webber. “The dunk also helped bring technology to the forefront. Outside of the Nike Air lineup, there wasn’t much variety available. Not only was this promotion needed, it was also a refreshing break in the monotony of basketball shoes and sporting goods in general.

“I don’t know if it changed anything outside of the fact that today, fans expect every shoe company to step up and provide a new release during the All-Star break.”

But every company doesn’t have the same endgame this weekend. While obviously they all want to sell as much product as possible, there are subplots to each path to success.

By their powers combined, Nike and its subsidiary Jordan brand are the unrivaled kings of the shoe industry in terms of sales, and given the All-Star Game’s location in Michael Jordan’s home state, in a city where he owns an NBA team, both brands have released a litany of sneakers in preparation.

Sneakerheads showed up in droves for Nike and Jordan’s exclusive releases at some of Charlotte’s premier retailers. including the Black Sheep x Nike SB Dunk High “Black Hornet” colorway at Black Sheep Skate Shop, and the Social Status x Air Jordan VI at Social Status. But an underrated aspect of the weekend, King says, is the exposure it will bring to Jordan’s Hornets franchise.

“To be quite honest with you, I don’t think there’s any pressure on Jordan brand for this particular All-Star Game,” King said. “There’s going to be more exposure to the Hornet franchise than it is for Jordan Brand.

“Because Jordan Brand is so tied into the intellectual property of the Charlotte Hornets — sneaker-wise it’s going to do well, but they need the exposure on the Hornets. It’s a chance to show the world that, ‘Hey, we’re a first-class city and we can host major events like this.’”

Under Armour is the youngest of the sporting good industry’s giants but sponsors arguably basketball’s most relatable superstar ever in Stephen Curry, who grew up in Charlotte. Because of Curry’s star power and North Carolina ties, Under Armour may have the best built-in fan base to rival Nike and Jordan Brand, but it’s not necessarily looking to go head-to-head when it comes to shoe sales.

However, the company isn’t ducking the challenge. It debuted a limited supply of the Curry 6 Coy Fish colorway — a nod to a prank he pulled at Davidson College — and created a Queen City colorway of its Phantom SE running shoe.

But this weekend is more about building ties with a state that raised some of Under Armour’s biggest stars, like Curry and Fayetteville native Dennis Smith Jr.

“We aren’t trying to be anyone else,” said Justin Brown, Under Armour’s lead brand marketing manager for basketball. “We aren’t trying to be anything other than what we know and what we want to deliver to athletes everywhere is best-in-class footwear to power your game from the feet up. Because we’re young, we’re also still very much telling our story, making those emotional connections to consumers is a priority.

“It really drives our approach, especially this weekend — whether it is our special (All-Star Weekend) products that tell deep, meaningful stories about our athletes that you might not have known before, or the opportunity to get out in the community, help and inspire people, and really show folks the face of Under Armour Basketball and what we stand for as a brand. We’re here and not taking anything for granted.

“NBA All-Star is a huge opportunity for us to not only support our athletes and fuel their on-court performance during the game’s most visible moment, but we’re directly connecting with the sneaker culture and community who are no doubt passionate about the gear we provide.”

Where to go

King pointed to Social Status and Black Sheep — both in Plaza Midwood — as two of the premier retailers in the Charlotte area. Shoe aficionados can also get their fix at Owners HQ, a Nike and Jordan brand retail hub at The Mint Museum in Uptown, or Foot Locker’s House of Hoops locations at Carolina Place Mall and Southpark Mall.

Local retailers like R3bound, Request Charlotte and Sole Station each buy, sell or trade options and display inventory on Instagram.

Don’t expect to grab every shoe you covet this weekend, but there should be plenty of product to go around.

“What it’s also creating is FOMO,” King said. “They’ve been using ‘fear of missing out’ marketing before we actually had that term. This is what All-Star is going to be — people are going to take (losses) on getting a shoe that they wanted and they’re going to leave with some other shoe.”

When they’re not playing, keep your eye to the ground to see NBA stars and celebrities rock some of their most pristine custom sneakers as they watch from the stands.

But be careful — you may not want to look back up.

“You’re going to see a lot of custom shoes. Especially during Friday night, you’re going to see some of the most exotic, delicious, nutritious shoes you’ve ever seen,” King said. “You’re going to see exotic sneakers the whole weekend. You may see more exotic sneakers in the stands than on the court — but anyone who even wants a crumb of market share, you’re going to see brands pull out their best work for this weekend.

“A lot of retro shoes, a lot of retro silhouettes.”

Sneakers range anywhere from the $110 Nike PG 3 shoes all the way up to the rare $350 Nike Fear of God sneakers. It may be worth the investment — on StockX, a mobile app that serves as a marketplace to re-sell sneakers, there are bids as high as $935 for the Fear of Gods.

NBA All-Star Weekend is the biggest sporting event in the sneaker community, a global platform for the deep-rooted intersection between basketball and sneaker culture.

And given Charlotte’s past and present role in each subculture, this year’s version could be the best yet.

Marcel Louis-Jacques: 704-358-5015, @Marcel_LJ

Marcel Louis-Jacques covers the Carolina Panthers for the Charlotte Observer, keeping you on top of Panthers news both on the field and behind the scenes. He is a 2014 graduate of Arizona State University and grew up in Sacramento, California.