Sneakers today are a hot fashion item. Hip-hop stars like Nelly rap about their Nikes in songs like "Air Force Ones," named after Nike's best-seller.
Kids get robbed for their sneakers, or worse -- some have even been killed.
Sneakers are such a status symbol today that "sneakerheads," as they call themselves, pay hundreds of dollars for custom-painted or vintage sneakers. They gather to buy, sell and trade sneakers at conventions like Dunkxchange, which stages shows across the country.
How did the simple sneaker change from a canvas and rubber thing that allows you to run in comfort to today's $100-plus high fashion statement?
It began 20 years ago when Nike signed basketball superstar Michael Jordan and then hired movie director Spike Lee to make a series of commercials for Nike's Air Jordan line. The ads popularized the catchphrase, "Money, it's gotta be the shoes!"
And this led to a world where many kids believe "the shoes" help stars like Jordan play so well. They consider $100-plus sneakers, even $200 sneakers a necessity.
"Suddenly sneakers became a status symbol, when in the past, they were just completely utilitarian things to put on your feet when you ran around the street," said Stuart Elliott, advertising columnist of The New York Times.
"Nike came along and began to sell sneakers in a completely different way, through talking about fashion, and the idea that the sneaker helped you run faster or jump higher began to allow them to charge more for it," Elliott told me.
"If the sneaker was in vogue this year and would be out of style next year and you wouldn't want to be caught dead on the street with it, then they can charge every year when they change the styles."
Nike and other brands have made millions off of this ridiculous conceit. Now Nike even has stores that sell $2,000 sneakers, made of anaconda snake or crocodile with 18-karat gold accessories.
Enter Stephon Marbury, the NBA star of the New York Knicks, often called "Starbury." He grew up poor, in a housing project in New York City. Marbury, one of seven children, wanted Air Jordans as a kid but for his mother, he says, that was an automatic "no."
"She just wasn't spending that type of money for sneakers," Marbury said. But he had to beg for those sneakers. "Because it was just the shoe to have. It was a fashion statement," Marbury said.
"Two hundred dollars was $200. It was a lot of money. It was a sacrifice," said Mabel Marbury, Stephon's mother. "Anybody that would take their money and buy a pair of sneakers and don't have no food in their house -- is silly."
So when Marbury became Starbury, earning $17 million a year, he said "enough" -- he would come out with a line of sneakers that sell for less than $15. He teamed with Steve & Barry's University Sportswear, a national chain with 200 stores, and came out with the Starbury line of sneakers, hats and jerseys. Nothing sells for more than $14.98.
"I think Stephon's own involvement is probably key here," said Michael Atmore, editorial director of Footwear News. "There's never been a big name athlete that's come out and said you don't need to pay as much. And that's what Stephon is doing."
Marbury made a 40-city tour when the sneakers debuted and Atmore credits that for the shoe's success. "He showed the customer that he was behind it. And I think that's critical for kids to connect to this brand."