YOU MIGHT THINK Stan Smith is a fictional character spawned from Madison Avenue like Cap'n Crunch or Mr. Clean, a confusion that extended even to his own children, one of whom asked years ago if the Adidas Stan Smiths were named after Stan or if Stan was named after the Adidas Stan Smiths.
In the last half century, 50 million pairs of the iconic white kicks have been purchased, making "my Stan Smiths"—as Rick Ross has rapped—better known than the actual Stan Smith, who turned 70 on Dec. 14 and remains our greatest living endorser of athletic shoes. "For longevity, Michael Jordan and LeBron James aren't even close," says Smith, who wears Stan Smiths at home on Hilton Head Island, S.C., where he coaches tennis. When Smith told a reporter that 95% of people probably don't know that he's a real person, his wife, Margie, said, "More like 99%."
In 1972, Stan Smith was No. 1 in the world, winning Wimbledon 10 months after taking the '71 U.S. Open. And though he won 37 tournaments and eventually entered the International Tennis Hall of Fame, of which he is president, it wasn't until around 2001 that his daughter Austin became aware of her father's renown. "Dad, you're famous!" she announced one day. "Jay Z mentioned you in a song!"
When Jay Z rhapsodized about life in the Hamptons wearing Stan Smiths, it was in keeping with a long line of hip-hop royalty. Lil Wayne liked to "hold court like Stan Smith." Nas praised "shell toes [and] Stan Smiths." And while Kanye West rapped, "I don't know Rod Laver or Stan Smith," his daughter was photographed in Velcro toddler Stans. Music impresario Pharrell Williams now designs special-edition Stan Smiths for Adidas.
The model was introduced by Adidas in the mid-1960s as the first leather tennis sneaker, called the Haillets, after the French professional Robert Haillet. In '71, after Haillet retired, Adidas asked Smith to take over the endorsement, and thus began Stanley Roger Smith's slow metamorphosis from man to shoe.
In the royal box at Wimbledon last summer, the actor Hugh Grant confessed to Smith that he had his first kiss in a pair of Stan Smiths. Smith has heard dozens of similar stories. After Usher publicly praised his own Stan Smiths, Austin Smith, then 16 years old, tried to talk her way backstage at one of his concerts, telling security she was Stan Smith's daughter. "She was not successful," Stan says.
Like a podiatrist's, Smith's eyes are drawn to the human foot. He estimates that one in 20 people wearing sneakers in Tokyo are wearing his shoe. "In Greece," he says, "grandparents used to give newborns white shoes as a christening present." Thus generations of Greeks have taken their first steps in Stan Smiths. Margie Smith's sister lives in London, and her daughter was told in a gym class one day that she couldn't participate in her Stan Smiths. "They're fashion trainers," the teacher told her, "not performance shoes." To which Stan's niece replied, My uncle won Wimbledon in these, but I can't do the rope climb?
Indeed, Stan himself, when coaching, advises players not to wear his shoes for tennis. All four of his own kids played tennis in college—his son Ramsey is the men's coach at Duke—after being mostly home-schooled by Margie. "I was the principal," Stan says, adding sheepishly, after a long pause: "I didn't do anything."
Given his genius for self-deprecation, Smith has resisted the urge to remove one of his own size-13 shoes and point to the ageless portrait of himself on the tongue as a form of ID at airports. He thinks his name, more than his accomplishments, made his shoe an institution. "I think Stan Smith is a big part of it," he says. Goran Ivanisevic is somehow less rappable.
"Jack Purcells and Chuck Taylors were around when I was a kid," Smith says of two other sneakers with mellifluous names that have carried on long after their progenitors shuffled off this mortal coil. Stan Smith has already joined those men on our podiatric Mount Rushmore—alongside Dr. Martens, perhaps?—so that even when Smith ascends to another dimension, his shoes will continue to walk the earth, giving him a measure of immortality, an eternal repose of the sole.
The iconic white kicks are better known than the actual Stan Smith, who remains our greatest living endorser of athletic shoes.
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