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Original Issue

One-Man Shoe

THE SPORTS WORLD went into hysterics last week when LaVar Ball announced that his son's new basketball shoes will retail for $495. It certainly seems like a lot of money, but remember: If you and a friend are willing to wear one shoe, you each have to chip in only $247.50—provided you can agree on who gets to wear the left shoe and who gets to wear the right. Otherwise, you'll need a new friend.

Ball can charge whatever he'd like for the shoes, which he is marketing under his family's Big Baller Brand. He believes his son Lonzo is the next Steph Curry, but better because he is a Big Baller. If he is right, people might even buy the sneakers.

In fact, a few will buy the ZO2: Prime shoes because of the price tag. Sneakerhead culture thrives on the belief that affordable shoes are shoes, but overpriced shoes are collectors' items. It started in the 1980s, when the nation was captivated by Michael Jordan's ability to fly. Air Jordans sold in record numbers, though once they left the store, most pairs never seemed to get more than three inches off the ground. These days Nike charges $220 for the LeBron XIV iD, which you can customize so that your airballs look better.

People do not really buy shoes to achieve greatness; they buy them, at least in part, to connect to greatness. This also explains another development from last week: Nike's attempt to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon.

Nike did everything it could to tilt the playing field—short of actually tilting the playing field. It hired pacesetters. It held its faux race in ideal conditions at a Formula One course in Monza, Italy, where a rotating phalanx of pacesetters blocked the wind; there were no sharp turns; and a Tesla motored along, marking the ideal pace. Kenyan star Eliud Kipchoge finished in 2:00.25. In my opinion as a marathon expert, he would have run at least 25 seconds faster if there had been race cars behind him on the track.

Kipchoge and his fellow runners wore customized lightweight shoes that (according to Nike) reduce, by 4%, the energy required to run. This was all in an effort to boost sneaker sales, and it's hard to fault Nike for that, since it manufactures millions of pairs of shoes every year, and selling them is a better business strategy than building an enormous closet. Personally I would buy any pair of shoes that would reduce, by 4%, the energy required to put the pair on a toddler. Why doesn't Nike work on that?

I bet LaVar Ball understands. There was a time when his Big Ballers were little ballers. Now Lonzo is off to the NBA and his younger brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, have committed to UCLA, which has a contract with Under Armour. I don't know if LaVar will sneak Big Baller gear onto his younger sons at UCLA, in violation of that Under Armour deal, but I believe that he will try. And critics of college athletics will argue that he should. If schools won't pay the players' market value, why can't shoe companies? Imagine the excitement across the land if young fans could buy the shoes that Duke's Grayson Allen wears when tripping opponents.

You might remember that when we last saw Lonzo Ball, he was outscored 39--10 by Kentucky freshman De'Aaron Fox in the NCAA tournament. Ball left UCLA for the NBA immediately after the game, showing the same level of raw emotion I often see at the Sunoco pump. Fox turned pro a few weeks later, and we can only hope that his first pair of signature shoes will be called the D-Fox Xtra Big 39--10 and sell for $495.01.

LaVar Ball does not want a traditional marketing deal; he wants to own his brand, just as Fox owned his son. That night notwithstanding, Lonzo Ball is a terrific player. He should make some city's NBA fans very happy, whether they buy his shoes or not.

Sneakerhead culture thrives on the belief that affordable shoes are shoes, but overpriced shoes are collectors' items.

What are the best sneakers you ever had?

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