Wednesday, November 01, 2006

High-top Marbury

Stephon Marbury's reputation is about what you'd expect from your average multi-gazillion dollar NBA player.

He's brash. He's full of himself. He's selfish. He jacks up shots like they're going out of style. He desperately wants to be the one-man show who can lead his team to victory.

He couldn't co-exist with Kevin Garnett in Minnesota. A sportswriter once referred to it as the "Batman and Robin" syndrome: One had to be the superhero, the other the sidekick. And there was no way Garnett was going to be Robin.

So Marbury sulked his way out of Minnesota, turning what could have been a multiple-championship run for the Timberwolves into a string of playoff disappointments.

Marbury subsequently wore out his welcome in New Jersey and Phoenix before landing in midtown Manhattan as the undisputed centerpiece of the Knicks, mired in one of their worst stretches in franchise history.

Wouldn't you know, that's where Marbury would find redemption. And he's found it in the most unlikely place: Athletic shoes.

Marbury has attached his name to a line of shoes and apparel that sells for $15 and under at Steve and Barry's University Sportswear. It's not just superficial. He recently went on a cross-country tour promoting his "Starbury" line, geared toward families with multiple children and limited incomes.

USA Today noted that Marbury didn't sign an endorsement contract. He gets paid a commission based on how well the merchandise sells.

But the story isn't how much or little Marbury will make from this venture. He's already made enough money to last his family for generations. The story is the kids and parents who will buy his $15 shoes.

Ever since the first Air Jordans appeared on the market more than 20 years ago, a sneaker war has developed. It would be nice if I was speaking solely in the figurative terms of corporate board rooms. But I'm not.

On the mean streets of inner city America, children have been shot over their shoes. Expensive shoes have triggered murders, armed robberies, carjackings and who knows what else.

Expensive shoes get sold for drug money. Drug money is used to buy expensive shoes. Expensive shoes become the hot button of envy among teens. Expensive shoes surpass their stated role of foot protection and become status symbols.

That's what the Starbury line is able to fight. Expensive shoes will always be around, and jealousy over expensive shoes will always be around, but Marbury's line is creating a kind of bleacher democracy, where kids from all walks of life and many different income brackets can have the same types of shoes.

The Starbury line is also shining some much-needed light on the question of why, exactly, must Nike, Adidas and Reebok charge so much for their shoes. The $15 Starburys and $110 Nikes with LeBron James' name attached to them are both made in China, both contain a majority of the same parts, both lace up and tie in the same manner.

Marbury might not have intentionally meant this, but he is taking part in a large social experiment, one that can challenge all the conventional wisdom about basketball shoes and their status role in teenage society. One that can force the shoe industry to change, however incrementally.

And above all, his shoes will give lower-income parents a break, while still allowing them to outfit their kids in something new and trendy.

After years of selfishness on the basketball court, it might be that Marbury's most benevolent act is being performed on a much larger scale: In the streets and classrooms of America's cities.

Maybe Marbury isn't such a typical NBA player after all. We might even have to forgive him for being a Knick.


Hornless Rhino said...

From what I've read, although the shoe is a great concept and not bad looking, it isn't something you'd actually want to play basketball in. Marbury already injured his heel in the preseason, so it will be interesting to see how his feet, ankles and legs hold up if he really does wear these all year.

Joel said...

Loved this from Marbury, loved this post from you. I couldn't even care less if he wears them or not (or wears a version that's a little higher quality), the fact that he attached his name to something that's going to benefit so many kids is good enough.

I don't care how much selfish stuff he's done (and this has a hint of selfishness and image building to it), this will be his legacy for me.