March 21, 2007 -- 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.
'Starbury' Had Enough
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."
The Proof Is on the Court?
And Marbury wears the same sneakers on the basketball court that are sold in stores -- proof, Marbury said, that he believes in their quality.
But will they do well? Will kids buy a low-priced sneaker?
Apparently yes. In city after city, kids and parents rushed in. Steve & Barry's President Andy Todd told ABC News that the chain sold out two month's inventory in just three days when the sneakers debuted last August. Seven months after the sneakers' debut, Todd said, they continue to sell well.
"Starbury, he thought about the kids. He thought about who can afford the Jordans," said one boy at Steve & Barry's. "So he put his sneakers to be $15, cheap so other kids could buy sneakers."
But are they good sneakers? I challenged Marbury, telling him, this is cheap stuff, 15 bucks. It can't be any good.
"No, this is not cheap at all," he replied. "This is star quality right here."
Dave Ortiz, owner of the popular, but oddly named, New York sneaker shop Dave's Quality Meat said: "It's made for a consumer who's smart about his money If these are made the same as the next one, I'll get these and run through these and get another pair and run through those."
"If it costs more, it's got to be better. And that's how people think," said Ortiz. "Whether it's going to make you perform better than the other average sneaker, no, I don't think so."
And this week, Marbury won a new fan for his sneakers: Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA rival Dallas Mavericks. Cuban was seen wearing a pair of Starburys at a Knicks-Mavericks game and according to hoopsworld.com, Cuban said, "I love, love, love, them. Are there better shoes? Yeah. Are there better shoes worth $120 dollars? No. I give him (Marbury) his credit. I don't think he has gotten enough props."
Cuban went on to say, "They're aren't many things we will do in our lives that will have an impact on culture and social change. To be able to send a message to kids and sell millions of shoes so the message gets through saying, save that extra $85 and buy your kid a guitar or some clothes. That is huge."
"You can look at 'NBA Cares' all you want. You can look at the things I've done for charity all you want. The NBA has never done anything as impactful as what he has done."
"The shoes ain't going to make you jump higher," Marbury told us. "It's definitely not going to make you run faster. It does nothing but say that you got $150 pair of shoes on, that's it."