The story of basketball and the story of sneakers are forever intertwined. One cannot exist without the other. That’s the premise that compelled Russ Bengston, the former editor-in-chief of SLAM magazine and long-time sneaker editor at Complex, to write his new book, A History of Basketball in Fifteen Sneakers.
Through thoughtful research and interviews, Bengston artfully chronicles iconic silhouettes like the Converse All-Star Chuck Taylor, Nike
“I feel like if I had one book to write — that my life has sort of led up to at this point professionally and just things I was interested in — it was this,” Bengston told me. “I go back to going to sneaker events in the past or talking to a designer or talking to someone at a brand. My first thing I would bring up always was context. ‘How does this fit in? How are you just putting this [sneaker] out and not really explaining it?’”
Bengston doesn’t miss a beat contextualizing the 15 sneakers he features and many others. He dives in, revealing details and insight that are informative and engaging. When he set out to write the book, he knew he’d have to cover specific shoes — the Chuck Taylor, at least one pair of Jordans, the Adidas Superstar — but two sneakers motivated him to capture their stories.
“The Air Force Max, that was one of the first ones I really keyed on that I wanted to write about because of the Charles Barkley [and] Fab Five context,” Bengston said. “I think that’s sort of a point where … super-younger players [were] really dictating a lot of things. And then the And-1. The Tai Chi and just this democratization of a shoe — like a non-signature model — and sort of dragging all this streetball stuff into it.”
The most poignant moment for Bengston as he worked on his book came when he was researching his chapter on the Nike Kobe Zoom IV. Benston spoke with Kobe Bryant, with whom he had a relationship since Bryant was in high school, about the future of basketball in late December 2019. The following month, Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven others died in a tragic helicopter crash in California.
“The last thing I said to him was, ‘I’ll see you at your Hall of Fame induction,’ Bengston said. “And two weeks later, I was on vacation in Western Australia and got the notification on my phone in the morning about the crash. I had to look at it so many times, it just wasn’t fathomable. It’s kind of still not fathomable.”
Even though A History of Basketball in Fifteen Sneakers inevitably helps further deify certain shoes and brands in the pantheon of sneaker history, Bengston is wary of the current state of the sneaker industry. While the And-1 Tai Chi may have signaled a democratization of basketball sneakers, the resale market and influx of retro models, especially from Air Jordan, have negatively warped, saturated and homogenized sneaker culture.
“The subculture of sneakers used to be an actual subculture,” Bengston said. “If someone talked to you about it, you kind of knew there was a level you were probably both at. You could start somewhere. Now, I go back to the mall I used to go to when I was a kid, and they have a resale shop in there, and it’s just like, ‘Is this better?’ I don’t see who this is better for except for maybe the companies because they can sell out something that maybe people don’t even care about, but it’ll get bought to get put on the resale market. They don’t care if it ends up reselling for less than retail because they got their money, and it’s good for rich people.”
“Now, you have brands and retailers hedging their bets,” Bengston continued. “If a new release is coming, there’s a huge process where it’s like it’s going to get sent to influencers, it’s going to get hyped up online, it’s going to get sent to all the typical sneaker blogs and podcasts and whatever else. It reaches the point where it hits saturation before it even comes out, even a month before it comes out. That used to be something … that was reserved for the top-line stuff. That was signature models. That was the new Iverson or the new Jordan. Now, it’s for everything.”
Commodity markets aside, the significance of the 15 sneakers Bengston details in his book and their place in basketball history is unquestionable. From the inception of the game, created by Dr. James Naismith in 1891, up to today, he dutifully captures the ever-evolving nature of the sport, the shoes the players wore — many of which achieved celebrity status themselves — and the gambles sneaker companies made choosing athletes to market their products well before they attained immortality.
“I think one thing I learned while putting this together is a lot of times when you look at history, you look at the decisions that were made and from the standpoint of where you are now,” Bengston said. “It’s so different to try and get in the headspace of what it was like then and what those decisions would be. I think I touched on it in the Air Jordan 1 chapter. If you look back now at how successful it is, and even how successful it was initially, it just seems like such an inevitability. But back then, you were taking a risk.”