Monday, April 19, 2010

If The Shoes Fit ...


The early 1990s was the heyday of “grassroots” basketball for the big shoe companies. Grassroots is basically a code word for giving talented teenage players a crash course in capitalism. They get free merchandise and plane tickets for playing in tournaments and high-profile camps, with shoe companies pinning their hopes on engendering loyalty that will last though possible professional careers. Falling short of that, the corporations still get exposure by putting shoes on the feet of the kids who determine what’s hot in the market.

Setting aside the issues of exploitation and backroom deals in this relationship, the shoe camps provided a lot of good in a strictly basketball sense. An unknown kid from the basketball backwaters got the chance to compete against the New York City prodigies that already had manila folders full of press clippings.

The shoe companies could become kingmakers, and the first ruling power to set about expanding its influence was Nike. The Air Jordan shoes changed the game, and with Michael Jordan at the height of his popularity in the early ’90s, Nike was sitting pretty. The Nike All-American Camp was the main proving ground for any serious baller. In 1993, Converse started cutting in on the market with its ABCD Camp, and Reebok also was growing in popularity.

Nike wasn’t worried yet, and its 1993 camp all-star game has become the stuff of legend. The ABCD Camp had its first coup that year, getting a commitment from top prospect Felipe Lopez, but Nike had amassed an impressive array of talent. ESPN even broadcast the all-star game (on tape delay), another benchmark in high school basketball becoming big business.

It is fascinating to watch 17 years later, with all the personalities involved. The most controversial was Allen Iverson, who had just been convicted in Virginia for his involvement in a bowling alley melee. Nike still paid Iverson’s way to Indianapolis, which stirred up more controversy in his hometown. The legal situation would keep Iverson from playing his senior season, so this was the last sight of him on the court until he surfaced at Georgetown. He was the best player in the IUPUI gym, and Iverson played with the now-familiar chip on his shoulder. No defender could stay in front of Iverson, and he could get his shot off at will despite being the smallest guy on the court. Too bad for Nike that Iverson signed with Reebok upon turning pro.

These glorified pickup games are always dominated by perimeter players who control the ball and push the tempo. Curtis Staples’ talents were suited to this kind of game, and the future three-point artist at Virginia put on an offensive showcase: drilling long-range bombs and finishing around the rim on fearless drives. Ron Mercer and Terrance Roberson were similarly impressive.

The action was above the rim, and the most intriguing aerial talents were Toby Bailey and Ronnie Fields. Bailey was a rising senior from California, with the emphasis on “rising.” He had several breathtaking dunks, the kind that would endear him to UCLA fans and make people wonder why he played only 73 games in the NBA. Fields was the youngest player in the game, having just finished his freshman season at Farragut Academy in Chicago. Fields definitely proved that he belonged with the likes of Iverson, Staples and Mercer. His two dunks in the game showed why people still talk about him despite a tough road that never reached the NBA.

Then there was a skinny kid from Mauldin, S.C., named Kevin Garnett. He was the breakout star that year. He was blocking shots, dunking with ferocity, passing behind his back and screaming out defensive assignments. The college coaches must have been drooling. Interestingly, sometimes it was hard to distinguish between Garnett and Samaki Walker, so predicting NBA superstardom is a fickle enterprise.

Garnett was thrust into the star system by the Nike camp. He would later play his senior season with Fields on a legendary team at Farragut Academy, and he skipped college altogether after finishing high school in 1995. Among his first endorsements as a pro was a contract with Nike.

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