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Parents stand up and cheer as a $15 sneaker enters the game

The Nation

An NBA star knows many families can't foot a $200 bill for high-end shoes, so he's created his own signature line.

April 04, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Waiting in a winding line for autographs from his favorite NBA player, 15-year-old Brian Cox lifted the lid of a shoebox to show off his synthetic leather high-top sneakers with black sides and blue-and-orange soles.

At a price his mother doesn't mind -- $14.98 -- he got his fourth pair of Starburys this week, a sneaker created by New York Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury. Joanne Cox brought her two teenage sons to Steve & Barry's University Sportswear after church Sunday for the launch of Marbury's spring line.

The NBA star "grew up in a poor neighborhood just like we did," said Cox, who is raising the boys on her own. She says it is not easy on the wages she earns as a city traffic officer, and she has spent thousands on her sons' shoes over the years. "Now that we got a price of $15, we're not going higher than that."

This is the world the 10-year NBA veteran is trying to change with his $15 shoes -- a world where parents are pressured to shell out money for expensive sneakers while struggling to pay rent and buy groceries; a world where kids get robbed, shot and strangled over the latest styles. (In January, 10 Detroit middle school students were robbed of their Nike boots and Air Force One sneakers at gunpoint.)

Marbury knows it will take a while to pull off a Michael Jordan impact at a Wal-Mart price. So far, he says, he's willing to do it one sneaker-crazed teen at a time. Starburys have been holding their own in schools and on basketball courts alongside kicks that cost 10 times as much.

Marbury is so confident of the sturdiness of his shoes that he is wearing them on the court this season. He says his pair is straight off the shelf, with no alterations or enhancements. Chicago Bulls center and four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace has also partnered with Steve & Barry's to release his own inexpensive sneaker -- Big Ben -- in late August or fall.

Still, sneaker aficionados wonder whether a $15 shoe will change a cultural phenomenon that has thrived since Jordan came out with his line in 1985. Not all kids are sold on the idea, even if the sneaker is endorsed by someone they admire.

"The theory is because an NBA athlete is playing in the shoe, it's a perfect shoe," said Matt Powell, a senior retail analyst with SportsOneSource, a data and research firm for sporting goods. "I could go out and play basketball in a pair of flip-flops, but that doesn't make them a perfect shoe."

Powell, who has examined the Starbury Ones, said they don't have the same cushioning, ankle-support or durable soles as high-priced sneakers. He said they are comparable to sneakers found at Payless ShoeSource or Target.

But T.J. Gray, a designer for Rocketfish, the firm hired to design the Starbury line, said the sneakers are about the same as high-end basketball shoes. "We're building them with the same construction, we're using similar materials," said Gray, who has also designed shoes for Nike, Reebok, Puma and Converse.

The Starbury II sneakers unveiled Sunday have better arch and heel support than the first version. The side of the shoe features an emblem that combines the letter M; Marbury's jersey number, 3; and a star. They come in six low-top colors and eight high-top colors, including one style for girls.

The popularity of sneakers has soared in recent years with people hunting for the latest styles on the Internet, said Bradley Carbone, associate editor of Complex magazine, which targets young men. Companies allow customers to design sneakers online. Exclusive boutiques sell limited-edition pairs, like the Slim Shady Nikes, endorsed by Eminem, which have retailed for $800. But Marbury's idea, Carbone added, is smart because it targets a different, often forgotten, consumer.

"You're not going to lure your big Nike heads and collectors," he said, "but you will reach people who aspire to that."

Tearful grandmothers

Marbury, 30, grew up wanting Air Jordans like every other kid, hoping for a pair on every birthday and Easter. He never got them.

"Kids don't understand that their parents can't spend $200 on a pair of sneakers when you got light and utility bills," Marbury said. "When you live in the ghetto and you don't have any money to buy your child something they want, that frustrates parents."

One of seven siblings, he lived in Coney Island's Surfside Gardens housing project, a cluster of 15-story beige brick complexes broken up by basketball courts, including one nicknamed "The Garden," after Madison Square Garden. The neighborhood is a 25-minute walk from the last subway stop in Brooklyn. Along the way, carcasses of old sneakers dangle from utility lines.

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