Twenty years ago, the Houston Rockets star hoped that cheaper basketball shoes could stop troubling incidents of violence
The nation doesnt remember Jawaad Jabbar of Columbus, Ohio, but it may remember how he was killed. Jabbar left as one of the empty-handed customers at a Dayton, Ohio shopping mall on 20 December 2014 after lining up for the release of limited edition Air Jordan sneakers. After seeing two men who had secured one of the coveted pairs, Jabbar drew a gun and demanded the merchandise. The unidentified man holding the sneakers pulled out his own gun and shot back. Jabbar was 16.
Jabbars death complemented armed robberies in both New Jersey and Louisiana, a tear-gassed dispersal of prospective customers in Toledo, Ohio, and an April shooting in Houston, all of which centered around attempts to acquire the shoes. Since Air Jordans debuted in 1985, occasional violent crimes have accompanied their release because of the shoes limited supply, volatile demand, and price tags that sometimes exceed $200.
Twenty years ago, Houston Rockets superstar Hakeem Olajuwon tried to combat not just the violence, but the affordability of sneakers worn by NBA stars. Olajuwon was the first to make a concentrated attempt to subvert the trend of overpriced basketball shoes marketed to urban youth.
While Stephon Marburys discount shoe The Starbury (priced at $14.95) would find more (but limited) commercial success a decade later, Olajuwon sought to dissuade youngsters from buying expensive Jordans in favor of his line The Dream by Spalding. Priced at an affordable $34.99, the shoes were sold in discount stores like Payless, Wal-Mart and K-Mart nationwide.
How can a poor working mother with three boys buy Nikes or Reeboks that cost $120? Olajuwon said upon their release in 1995. She cant. So kids steal these shoes from stores and from other kids. Sometimes they kill for them.
The ploy appeared savvy. The press loved the idea (sample headlines included Hakeem laces up a top job and Good enough to dream) and Olajuwon was the centerpiece of the Houston Rockets 1995 NBA championship team. A graceful Nigerian 7-footer with a wide grin, Olajuwon was an icon in a time where big men (Shaquille ONeal, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson) were the most coveted players in basketball. He was already the best player in franchise history and would finish his career with two championships, one MVP award, 12 All-Star selections, and six All-NBA first-team selections before. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008. Jordan once commented that hed pick Olajuwon as the best center of all-time not ONeal, Ewing or Wilt Chamberlain. Shaq said that Olajuwon was the best big man he ever faced.
But major endorsements eluded the star at the beginning of his career. Maybe it was his broken English, maybe it was his clean-cut appearance. But before Michael Jordans brief retirement in 1993, Olajuwon wasnt selling.
Madison Avenue prefers an American guy, prominent advertising exec Marty Blackman told the New York Times in 1995. Is that a disadvantage? Yes. Its not racial. Its just a fact. Olajuwons agent, Ralph Greene, even claimed that his client was mature, a professional no rap, earrings or tattoos qualities that dont always translate if youre targeting youth.