by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)
Photos by Liz Barclay
OK, this time it's for real. If you're wondering "hey, didn't Ewing Athletics already re-launch?," it's probably because you live in the New York/New Jersey area, where the brand did re-launch on a small scale early this month. The for-real, nationwide launch happens this Saturday at these 33 stores, again with the initial two colorways (red suede and white leather), with blue suede and black leather to follow. We spoke to David Goldberg—an avid Ewing collector who has been working closely with Patrick himself on the re-launch—and David Falk, legendary superagent who has worked with Patrick for more than a quarter-century, and essentially invented the concept of the signature line in basketball. In addition, David Goldberg was kind enough to bring by a portion of his OG collection as well as the retros to show how close the retros are to the originals. Go ahead and click through all the photos first, then see what the Davids had to say.
David Goldberg is a sneaker collector. This is evident as he sorts through images on his phone, eager to show off various pieces of his diverse collection. He's got sort of a thing for Ewings, though—as seen in Sneaker Freaker—and the fact that he actually became the one to revive the entire brand is a sneakerhead's wildest dream come true. We asked him some questions about how this all came about, and why he loved Ewing Athletics to start with:
Do you remember what it was about Ewing that caught your eye the first time they released? Did you have a pair back in the late '80s, early '90s?
Just the fact that it said EWING 33 in huge font on the back and the strap as well. I tried to figure out what brand they were, but the only brand was his own name on the shoe. My first pair was a pair of black/white leather 33 Hi in a kids size 5 in 1990 when I was in 5th grade. I had to beg my mom to take me all over until we found them at Footlocker in Green Acres Mall in NY. After that I probably had 5-7 pairs over the next 5 years.
Did you remain a Ewing fan even while the brand was defunct, or was there a point when you re-discovered it?
I was always a fan of Ewing the player and the Knicks up until the Isiah era, but as far as his shoes, once the brand went under and he switched to Nike in 1996, I kind of forgot about it for a few years, until I got real heavy into the late '90s eBay/Niketalk scene and began hunting for old-school steals online, in about 1999 I bought my first pair to collect which were a pair of black suede 33 HI. Since then I would check for the brand on eBay when I made my search rounds hunting for hard-to-find deals.
My first pair of Ewings was a pair of black/white leather 33 Hi in a kids size 5 in 1990 when I was in 5th grade.
How many original pairs of Ewings do you have? And is there one specific pair/style you're still searching for?
Right now I have lost count because they are stored in a few separate places, but I would say over 100. There was one model I could never find as a kid or now, called The Image, but I recently obtained a game-used player sample of it. There are a few rare models I don't have, but I have all the flagship models he wore in games and all the important ones people remember to this day. I am always still on the hunt for more pairs though.
How long a process was this to revive the brand?
It has been about three years since I came on board to this point of the shoes now finally hitting the public, it has been quite a journey!
Why the 33 Hi first?
This was the most popular shoe in the line by far, and was in production for an amazing 3-4 years in over 50 colorways. In today's shoe industry, this would never happen, but back then the shoes kept selling so they kept pumping them out in new colors every season and the stores kept ordering. Designwise it had a great silhouette and the reversible strap was a defining feature. Culturally, the shoe was an integral part of the New York hip-hop scene and was seen and featured in many album covers and videos of the time.
Judging from your collection, you seem to have a thing for the underdog brands. Why is that?
I always had an appreciation for the smaller, more obscure brands for some reason. I was a fan of the big companies too, but the late '80s and early '90s was a time in the industry where there were many smaller brands in the market, who were able to hold market share and compete with the bigger guys, especially in the basketball sector. This was great for the consumer because you had a much larger selection, and more creativity from the brands.
How closely did you work with Patrick once you knew you'd be able to do this? What would you like his level of involvement to be?
We sit down with Patrick and show him the upcoming possible models and colorways we have thought of and get his opinion on what he likes and what he doesn't. Sometimes we'll go through old catalogs or I will just bring the old shoes for him to look at. So he's really in the loop from beginning to end, and anything that comes out has to have his final stamp of approval.
What's been the reaction from people to the re-launch?
The response has been tremendous, and not just in NYC or nationally, but globally. The feedback I get is that people are happy to see the shoe and brand return to the market, and that many guys in their late 20s to late 30s have strong childhood memories of the brand .
What are you most proud of as the launch actually happens?
I am proud that we were able to resurrect the brand, as it was the only remaining important brand from its era that had yet to come back. Seeing it come out in stores and people wearing and enjoying it will be very gratifying.
The only person with as much of a history with Ewing Athletics as Patrick himself is David Falk. Ewing's agent since he left Georgetown, Falk has brokered any number of sneaker deals during his 25-plus years in the business, none bigger than the one he did for a certain North Carolina kid with Nike back in 1984. But with Ewing Athletics, he had something completely different—something where the athlete's name was on the company, not just the shoe.
I think the first, and most obvious question is why now? I feel like this must have come up before.
We had been in discussion with several groups, three or four different groups, that have proposed to bring back Ewing Athletic. We’ve been in a fairly extensive vetting process over the past three or four years. And because my job has been to be sort of the brand manager to Brand Ewing for the last 27 years, we wanted to make sure that the group that we picked could manage the re-launch of the brand in a way we were comfortable with. It just took a long time.
And I think, as you know, there’s a strong push for retro shoes, and there’s been an incredibly large underground demand — Patrick’s been asked repeatedly over the past four or five years, “when are you gonna bring back your shoes?” And we told ‘em we were working on it. It’s been the right time for the past several years, but when you have a brand as established as Ewing, you want to err on the side of being protective.
You have the unique position of having been there the first time it launched. What was the impetus behind splitting from adidas and forming his own brand?
Well, you know. In the mid-80s, I worked with a gentleman named Frank Craighill, and Frank personally managed the business affairs of Horst Dassler, who owned adidas. So we had a very, very close relationship with adidas. And Horst died. And when Horst died, the company went through a series of re-organizations, and Patrick’s contract was so large they just weren’t in a position to promote it properly and make it all work. So we all agreed that it would be best for him to go in a different direction. And so I called up a gentleman named Roberto Mueller who founded Pony, and I asked him can you manufacture for me, a shoe identical to Patrick’s adidas with no logo, no coloring, just a pure white shoe. And he said ‘sure’—most of them were made in the same factory, Taiwan, Pou Chen. He made them, and wearing the white shoe created a tremendous mystique, if you will, in the Garden, people wondered what on earth Patrick was wearing. That was the whole intent of it. I wanted to create some distance between adidas and whatever we did next. And it worked so well, that Roberto wanted to—I didn’t want to launch anything until the following year, Roberto got so excited he wanted to launch it at the end of the season, so he did.
And I think it was unique—I’m skipping around, you ask the question [via e-mail] “what was it
When we went to Nike with Patrick, the head of marketing at Nike, Rob Strasser, said 'OK, let me guess—Air Ewing.'
like taking the floor in a shoe with your name on it,” the better question is, a lot of players—not a lot of players, it was actually fairly nascent at the time, very few players even at the time Patrick was on adidas had their own signature shoe. Larry Bird didn’t have it, Magic Johnson didn’t have it, even Dr. J didn’t have it. None of those stars had it really except Michael—Michael was really the only guy to have his own shoe, his own line. But for Patrick it wasn’t so much having his name on a shoe, he had his name on the company, on the front door of the company. That was then and is now very unique.
And of course you had a hand in inventing that whole thing with Michael Jordan’s deal.
Yeah, we did a number of times—you’re a shoe guy. We did Jordan in ’84, Ewing in ’85 and again in ’89, we did Xavier McDaniel for Spot-Bilt, we did Dominique Wilkins was the first guy for the Reebok Pump, Boomer Esiason was the first football player for the Reebok Pump, Charles Smith for Wilson, we did Iverson with Reebok, the Answer, we did Evan Turner with Li Ning—we’ve done a ton of these. We did Bryant Reeves and Glen Rice with WB, James Worthy for New Balance…
But Michael was the one who shifted the whole landscape.
Ralph Sampson had some kind of affiliation with Puma, no one even remembers it. Michael was not only the first, but the last if you will. The first and only. It was unique.
Is that something that Patrick sought to—I know they were close, they are close—was Michael’s deal something he sought to emulate?
No, but ironically—I was asked my job, my job is to come up with marketing plans and strategies to market these individuals. And when we went to Nike with Patrick, the head of marketing at Nike, Rob Strasser, said “OK, let me guess—Air Ewing.” I said no, Michael is the Air Force, Patrick is the infantry. We tried to make a line with Nike with Patrick called the Force, but we decided not to sign with Nike. So obviously Patrick was 21 years old, he wasn’t experienced in business—neither was Michael—and that’s my job. My job is to throw out ideas. And Patrick had an enormous name—he was in three Final Fours in college, won a national championship, he was extremely well-known, the Big East has the biggest television market in the country. And so he was a household name, and he was the first-ever pick in the lottery. And we felt in New York he was certainly big enough to carry a line. Very few players are big enough to carry a line. Especially now.
What do you want this to become? What do you—or what does Patrick—see this becoming? Where is it headed? Obviously you guys started primarily in the New York area, but people everywhere seem to be waiting for this re-launch.
Well, we started in New York because Patrick’s career started in New York, he had his greatest success in New York. He’s extremely popular in New York—and he lives in New York, just outside of Manhattan. It rolled out in New York, and it’ll roll out nationally in 33 doors—obviously we picked that number intentionally. And it’s gonna go international. And I think, what happens when people brand products there’s a tendency to try to blow it out, and frequently it dies out immediately. You have a little supernova and it lasts a short period of time. Our goal is to try to do the opposite. We want to start slowly, we want to limit the amount of production and distribution of the shoe in hopes that we can grow it over a period of time. The original Ewing Athletic was doing really really well, it stopped because there were internal problems with the distributors and there were some trans shipping problems, but it was doing phenomenally well. And so we’re not looking—we’re very confident that the people that we’re with understand and agree that this needs to be carefully managed. It’s like owning a lot of real estate. I own a beach home in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, it’s one of the most successful golf resorts in America and they release very few lots every year. They have tons of lots, they don’t release but 15 or 20 a year because it maintains the value. If they released 100, they’d flood the market and the value of the property would go down. We’re going to go slowly and build the demand, and I think that there’s a strong connection between not only people who remember Patrick while he was playing, but a strong connection between people who really love the color and style of the shoe, who are shoe collectors—we think there’s going to be a broad-based market. But it’s gotta be managed carefully.
I think you’re right—there’s been a lot of brands that have flared back up and gone away just as fast.
And yeah, I think the other thing that’s interesting, because Patrick’s son just signed to play in Germany, we hope that he’s going to be able to wear the shoe—we think there’s a very strong market in Europe for this as well. We think when Patrick Jr. wears and promotes the shoe in Europe it will energize the younger audience.
We know there’s a strong demand for the shoes, the test is can we grow it, can we grow it and maintain it?
But you asked the question whether it will appeal to people who didn’t see Patrick play—when I grew up, and I’m old, the shoe was Chuck Taylors. I never knew who Chuck Taylor was. I’ve been teasing Michael for years that there’s gonna come a time when kids buy Jordans 20-30 years from now who won’t even know he played. It’s just gonna be a great brand.
I assume he disagrees with that.
[Laughs] Yeah, he never wants to accept that. I just tease about that—I’m half serious. But I say “you’re gonna become Chuck Taylor. People are gonna say ‘great shoes—who was Michael Jordan?’” Hopefully that never happens, I’m just teasin’ him—but my point is that when you want to create a brand, the brand has to supercede the individual. That’s what it almost means to become a brand, that it assumes an identity separate. And if we’re successful re-launching the brand, Ewing brand, then it won’t be as important that people saw him play or knew how good a player as long as they like the shoes and the design and quality that the shoes stand for.
How many people know who the guys Mercedes and Benz were? How many people know Olds, the Oldsmobile? How many people know Pontiac was a guy? Nobody. Most people have no idea those people were individuals. When you say “I’m gonna buy a Benz,” do you get it because you like the guy, or because you liked the cars he designed, or because you liked the way he drove? Ferrari. How many people know who Enzo Ferrari is? How many people know there is an Enzo Ferrari? And I’m not saying that to be comical, I think it’s important. I think that Patrick is young enough—he’s still coaching, he’s still visible, he’s still young enough that people remember that he played—but as far as selling shoes I think what’s important is that people look at Ewing as a quality brand at a popular price at a time when shoes are becoming extremely expensive. They have a very clean design, and if people know Patrick Ewing was the progenitor of the shoe, great, and if they don’t, but they think that Ewing stands for quality products, that’s great as well.
Do you see this expanding beyond the initial retro product— do you see there being new Ewing designs at some point?
I mean, initially I think you can’t be offering all things to all people. We’ll initially start with re-launching some of the previous models and depending on how the demand goes it’s certainly possible we could design new shoes. But to do that you’d probably have to have younger players wearing them, because Patrick’s better days as a player are behind him.
It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.
He definitely is gonna be extremely involved in the brand—he’s been to nearly every meeting. Patrick is a very bright individual. And he’s keenly aware that his name is not only on the shoe, it’s on the door of the company. So he wants to have quality control and stay involved. We’re very excited about the idea. We probably could have done this three or four years ago, but we were just taking our time vetting the different groups that were proposing to re-launch the brand. And that’s just my nature—sometimes it’s better to wait to do a good deal than it is to rush and do a bad deal.
The test is not—we know there’s a strong demand for the shoes, the test is can we grow it, can we grow it and maintain it? That’s one of the amazing things about Jordan Brand, it’s going into his 28th year and it’s as strong, stronger than ever. We’re not here to compare Ewing with anyone, Ewing has its own niche, it always had its own niche, it’s not part of a $20 billion company. And we think that there’s a strong demand for Ewings, and we hope we can satisfy that initial demand and grow it. They’ve done a really good job, I’m very happy with the job they’ve done, and I think Patrick, because he’s an owner of the company—this is not an endorsement, he owns a significant portion of the company, so he’s going to be totally involved in trying to make sure it’s successful.