Waiting for the shoe to drop

Many fashion fiends wouldn’t think twice about shelling out nearly as much as a mortgage payment for Manolos or maxing out the charge card for Choos, but they scratch their heads when they see kids lined up around the block for athletic shoes.

The motivations really aren’t that different: limited supply, huge demand, marketing mystique and an attachment that transcends dollar value. That’s why Los Angeles sneaker cognoscenti think a certain long-rumored, highly anticipated reissue of a sneaker that last saw store shelves nine years ago could end up as one of the most sought-after pairs of kicks this year.

“The Air Jordan XI’s Retro Space Jams are going to be huge,” says Matt Halfhill, the 25-year-old founder and editor in chief of the sneaker blog NiceKicks.com, based in Austin, Texas.

In Los Angeles, it’s the same two-word answer: “Space Jams,” says Liz Sanchez, manager of the Holy Grail, a downtown consignment shop that caters to the high-end sneaker crowd. “They’re going to sell out for sure. And we’ll probably see some for sale in here shortly after that.”

“Oh, the Space Jams for sure,” concurs Tak Kato, owner of the Blends boutique, also downtown. “It will probably be crazy demand.”

All this enthusiasm for a sneaker whose maker won’t confirm the release date.

The Jordan story

Rumors have been circulating since early this year on sneaker-collecting blogs such as NiceKicks.com, NikeTalk.com (not affiliated with the shoe company) and SneakerObsession.com. First they reported that it was to be the Friday after Thanksgiving; then they shifted the “official” release date to two days before Christmas. Public-relations representatives for Nike’s Jordan Brand, citing company policy, wouldn’t provide any information.

But even without an official release date, the shoe seems to have leaked out into the marketplace. Ostensibly authentic versions are posted on eBay with a $400 price tag — more than double the expected retail price of $175, and employees at one Los Angeles boutique —Flight Club — claim to have received (and sold) the store’s entire allotment of the 2009 reissued Space Jams for $350 to $450 a pair.

So what goes into making the clump of patent leather, plastic and fabric known as “Style Code:136046-041” so anticipated and covet-worthy?

The story starts in 1985, with the original Nike Air Jordan 1, Michael Jordan’s red-and-black high-top basketball shoe whose color scheme earned an NBA ban for violating the league’s uniform policy. The NBA levied a fine against Jordan — who played on nonetheless— and a sneaker craze was born, with new, Roman-numeral-designated versions of the Air Jordan (AJ) following just about every year.

NiceKicks.com’s Halfhill points out that the Air Jordan XI released in 1995 had sneaker collectors salivating not just for the way it looked — riffing on a tuxedo with a shiny, black patent-leather strip undulating around the base of the white nylon upper, a white midsole and a clear outsole — but for what happened in those shoes.

“It’s the first shoe Jordan won a championship in after coming back from his first retirement,” Halfhill explained. “So that was a big deal. Also the Bulls went 72 and 10 (an NBA record) when he wore that shoe.”

Halfhill also points out that — in the era before high-definition television, widespread use of the Internet and DVRs — the shoe’s debut on May 7, 1995, in the Chicago Bulls’ conference semifinal game against the Orlando Magic was a complete, and easy to miss, surprise.

“You either saw it or you didn’t, and there was no information released by Nike, so people were talking about it around water coolers and at the barbershop the next day,” Halfhill says.

‘Biggest release of the whole year’

One of those people was Ben Yang. Until a few years ago, the now-36-year-old Beverly Hills resident was the alpha dog of Los Angeles sneakerheads, a disc jockey and music artists-and-repertoire man who scored a marketing gig with Nike (a relationship that’s since soured, he says). His personal collection topped out at some 1,800 pairs before he sold it off for close to $1 million.

“I remember seeing the Air Jordan XI’s — they were so clean and futuristic, it was like seeing a Lamborghini Countach for the first time. And wearing them was like seeing spaceships on my feet.”

In 1996, Jordan appeared in the movie “Space Jam” alongside Bugs Bunny and a cadre of animated Looney Tunes characters. Footwear aficionados noticed that the AJ XI’s Jordan wore in the film were a different color combination — black on black with a pop of purple in the “Jumpman” logo on the heel.