The cover is a polemic, an image that shocks and starts. The account inside is more harrowing still. In May of 1989, 17-year-old James David Martin led 15-year-old Michael Eugene Thomas into the woods, strangled him to death, and took his two-week-old pair of Air Jordans. In Sports Illustrated’s iconic account, Michael Jordan himself is sitting at his locker when he is told the story. He becomes solemn and grieved. “I can’t believe it,” he says, on the verge of tears. The nation has become a warzone, the story seems to say, fueled by desperation and decadence alike: a place where a red and white bundle of leather and polyurethane warrants murder.
Except, that’s not the full story. Not nearly. Because James David Martin ceased to be a normal kid when he was six years old, when his mother beat his sister to death. It was later revealed that Martin not only strangled Thomas in the woods that day, he sodomized him as well. After serving seven years in jail, Martin soon went back in, this time for strangling a relative and stabbing him in the neck. Three months after being released in 2005, Martin murdered his girlfriend, Cicela Santiago, and left her body in a parking lot trash bin. Most recently, in 2012, he pled guilty to the 1998 rape and murder of Marleny Cruz, after new DNA evidence connected him with the crime. When asked if there were other victims, Detective Malcolm Reiman told the New York Times, “I would say it’s a very strong possibility.”
What is clear, for starters, is that robbing people for sneakers was, and still is, not a media fabrication.
James David Martin was not a fanatical sneakerhead, or an urban case study. James David Martin was a serial killer. One can speculate on the role a pair of Jordans, which didn’t even fit him, played on that day in 1989. But to borrow a phrase from Mars Blackmon, Spike Lee’s character from those iconic Nike ads: It probably wasn’t the shoes.
Before any of that was known, though, the murder of Michael Eugene Thomas was the leadoff single in a story that produced widespread shock and outrage, and became a seminal—and cautionary—tale in the rising notoriety of basketball and street culture in the public consciousness. In many ways, the story was viewed from two distinct, divergent sides: those shocked by the supposed brutality of a hood driven mad with capitalist lust, and those in the shit themselves, who saw a particular perspective on their world thrust, for better or worse, into the national spotlight.
Twenty-five years after that historic cover, sneaker culture and the country as a whole have seen dramatic change and upheaval. And yet, as is abundantly clear from today’s headlines, much that we thought would change has not; much that we want to change will not for a long time yet. The true story, then and now, is not one of statistics, but of optics: class, race, capitalism, and media constituencies—the facets we see in the lives of others, and the multitudes that says about ourselves.
What is clear, for starters, is that robbing people for sneakers was, and still is, not a media fabrication. In addition to the numerous accounts in Rick Telander’s story, from the outskirts of D.C. to downtown Chicago, many who participated in sneaker culture at the time remember similar incidents. But far from the nationwide psychosis diagnosed by SI, others saw it as something altogether more quotidian, a fact of life. “On every corner in the ’80s, there’d be what we called the wolves, the local yokels,” says Udi Avshalom, who owned the chain of Training Camp shoe stores at the time. “Hanging out, looking at girls’ asses, enjoying the new [hot rap song]. And if a kid walks out the store with a pair of [adidas] shell toes, or suede Pumas, all six next turn and look, and they’re like, Oh, shit, green suedes? And the next thing that happens: boop. Lights out. Kid wakes up, lump on his head, no shoes, no shopping bag, no chain.” But there was some solace: “A kid who’s gonna jack you for your shit,” he says, “he’s not a philosopher or doctor in jacking shit. If he can take that money from you without killing you, he’ll do it.”
Not that it was total bedlam, either. “In Brooklyn, kids earned their stars and stripes,” says Avshalom. “There was a rank and file. You had to know who the kid was, who his big brother was. There was a code of conduct. You’d have to be very careful who you jack, because maybe it’s not worth it. But then, the real kids in the neighborhood wouldn’t even have to raise a finger to jack your shit.” Sneakers, according to him, were like a form of currency in those neighborhoods, no different than cash but for its visibility, alternately conferring cred and being paid forth as tribute. An ad hoc form of law and order to which anyone who’s watched the hood-explaining classic The Wire can attest.
But to mainstream America in 1990, it was the headline, borne by a crime that had little to do with shoes, that stuck—Jordans! Murder!—and which was the optic through which people on both ends of the spectrum reached their conclusions. “Through the racialized eyes of the media, this was supposedly and exclusively a black youth phenomenon,” recalled Kevin McNutt, a Washington, D.C.-area writer and high school basketball referee, for the New York Post in 2010. “The truth was far more complex. A high school classmate of mine, a police officer for 30 years serving in the Washington, D.C., area during the period, recalls a spike in incidents of crimes related to sneakers. But he cautioned that it was no higher than crimes for all sports apparel—specifically team jackets and other gear.”
That sort of caveat is a recurring throughline in many witnesses’ recollections of the time. Kids both black and white stole sneakers, but they also stole jackets, and shoes, and hats. They stole anything with a Swoosh on it, in fact, but lots of other stuff, besides: “Kids were getting shot for stealing car stereos,” says Avshalom. “Kids were getting shot for no fuckin’ reason at all.” Even in the original story, there is a quote from Chicago police sergeant Michael Chasen: “When you really think about the crime itself—taking someone’s clothes off their body—you can’t get much more basic.” Stealing another man’s valuable possessions is a tale as old as time. It transcends history, age, and certainly race. So why, then, was it all about the shoes?
One speculates, simply: because white, middle-aged readers of Sports Illustrated don’t understand sneakers. They do not get their allure, and so sneakers, not crime, not poverty, become the headline, a symbolic othering that underscores the tragic landscape of the inner city. Was it really the shoes? Would it be any different if, for example, kids walked around with hundred-dollar-bills glued to their flip-flops? No one could know for sure.
But that kids idolized the culture around basketball and hip-hop, and felt the sneakers were worth their, at the time, shocking sticker prices, was no surprise. “They value these ‘emblems,’ these symbols of supposed success,” says one sociologist to Sports Illustrated. “The gold, the shoes, the drug dealer’s outfit—those things all belie the real situation, but it’s a symbolic display that seems to say that things are all right.” Or as Avshalom puts it more simply: “I can’t steal a record deal, but I can definitely fuck up a kid walking out the store and take his shit. It was all part of turning nothing into something.”
The conclusions different sides wished to draw from that, however, was always in question. Even Wally Grigo, the New Haven store owner interviewed in the story, whose window sign banning drug money from his shops drew him a brief fit of national fame, sensed that people were deriving what they wanted to from SI’s account. “I got a call from the White House,” he recalls, “and I got the feeling they were interested because I was taking on African-American drug dealers in New Haven neighborhoods. But my message was, why were these guys doing this? They’re obviously smart; they’re good businessmen! So, why aren’t we giving them the opportunity to do something constructive with their lives?”
Avshalom, for his part, says that kind of action is too narrow: “That sign’s also got to say you don’t want Colombian (drug growers), you don’t want anyone who works [in pharmaceuticals] at Merck or Pfizer.” And it raises a good question: Where do you draw the line on responsible corporate behavior? How do you prevent dirty money from spilling through every crack and crevice of every upstanding business?
Of course, Grigo did consider taking a stand against another constituency: the salesmen for the sportswear brands themselves, who had no qualms about who they sold to or any consequences it might have. And it is telling that the part of the story the mainstream audience hooked onto was about the decay of urban life and values, and not, as Grigo recounted and Telander wrote, the insidious ways that sneaker brands marketed to those same troubled youths and pleaded ignorance afterward. “I’d get sneaker reps showing me the latest stuff,” says Grigo, “and then they’d pull out a sweatshirt and say, ‘OK, this one’s for your drug dealers!’ It’s capitalism run amok.”
Nevertheless, Grigo became a minor celebrity of sorts, and perhaps not in the way he wanted, called to appear on the likes of Larry King Live as an exemplar of a man taking a stand against the seedier parts of society. On whose behalf, though? “A lot of African-Americans thought what I was doing was racist,” he tells Complex, “that I was singling out young black males. And a lot of white guys thought that, too, which is what drew them to my stance.” The opinion of Grigo and the drug dealers he declined to enable echoes the ways in which people today view groups like law enforcement, or demonstrators both peaceful and riotous. Protectors of the peace, tools of the oppressors, champions for the marginalized, savage criminals, symptoms of something greater and more insidious—it all depends on where you’re coming from.
Unfortunately, putting the issue into pure statistical measures is nigh impossible. But what we do know from the numbers is that there is probably less sneaker-related crime than there was 25 years ago, because there is less crime, period. Whatever the real number of incidents now, it can’t be as SI painted it then: murders papering the headlines, 50, 60 sportswear jackings in one area of Chicago every month. Writes McNutt, in that same 2010 story: “My policeman classmate says that he can recall maybe one sports-shoe-related crime over the last eight to 10 years of scanning the daily watch reports at the precinct.” This is in a city, Washington D.C., that reported 3,725 total robberies just in 2012.
From a larger perspective, the numbers are startling. The nationwide rate of violent crime has fallen by about half since 1990; in many cities, like New York, that figure is closer to 70 percent. Explanations have varied over the years, from Rudy Giuliani and the “broken windows” theory of policing (increasingly debunked), a decrease in the number of disadvantaged young men following Roe V. Wade (filled with shoddy evidence), and even the elimination of lead from gasoline and paint (surprisingly, one of the most compelling theories of the moment).
But whatever the truth, the broad, macroscopic nature of all those theories points to a truth that one suspects (or hopes) most thoughtful individuals knew, even in 1990: that deep down, crime isn’t driven by object lust and emotional attachments. It happens because of economic disadvantage, and the inherent human craving for more, and the monetary value of those mores in front of you.
Crimes still occur over sneakers, of course. Even a cursory Google search turns up more than enough examples of kids getting jacked—which these days seem to be, most commonly, online exchanges that turn into real-life robberies. But if the sheer lustworthiness of sneakers were the cause of these transgressions, you would think that the modern sneaker scene, with its limited-edition releases and long, clamoring overnight campers, would be rife with it. But in today’s world of rare and collectible sneakers, transgressions have a white-collar air to them, and hardly ever escalate past, say, two resellers taking their spat over a pair of Yeezys to the set of Judge Judy.
And nowhere is that crossover more apparent than on the island of Manhattan, in what used to be the most murderous wilds of New York City. “It’s the hood, but it’s the good hood now,” says Romaine Thomas, owner and founder of Dead Stock, a new high-end sneaker store on 172nd Street. In the ’90s, Washington Heights was known as the murder capital of New York, raked with gang violence and police corruption. In 1990, there were 103 murders in the area; last year, there were two. By some measures, it’s now one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. “You see kids on the corner wearing $600 Gucci belts, they ain’t worried about getting jacked,” says Thomas.
As for how the kids afford those belts in the first place, Thomas isn’t a sap, nor is he getting on a cable talk show for his stance. “Of course, you take [the money],” he says. “Their parents probably know what they’re doing.”
Nevertheless, at Dead Stock, you can see a vision of sneaker culture that provides means for small businesses and the communities that compose them. Here, local designers stock the shelves with snapbacks sourced from a wholesale manufacturer down the block. The paintings on the wall are by local artist Dister Rondon, who has lived in the neighborhood all his life, and dreams of “buying up all the buildings” here so they aren’t snapped up by condo developers and gentrifiers. “This is maybe the last real neighborhood left in Manhattan,” he ruminates, with a mix of longing and anger. Dead Stock pays wages, according to Thomas, that rival anything the same kids could make running the corners. “These guys are my sons, my nephews,” he says. “I have them hustle sneakers, so they don’t hustle drugs.”
And maybe, whatever its past as a red flag or a bad influence, that is the future of the sneaker and sneaker culture. After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a nice-looking pair shoes. (Well, there might be, but that’s a whole other discussion.) It would be a shame if something that so many people love, work for, and obsess over couldn’t bring them closer together.
Of course, not everyone sees the merits of sneaker culture, including Rick Telander, author of the SI story and now the senior sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Telander sees the sneaker, as many do, as a sweatshop-made object of little real value, whose rise to notoriety was fueled by the unprecedented power of 21st-century media. “What I saw,” he says, “is that advertising and television were becoming more and more sophisticated in their ability to create demand for something that isn't necessary. It was no longer a fair fight between impressionable adolescents and the advertisers, who had a guy like Spike Lee on the TV, selling their sneakers. And the power of this combination had far transcended the capacity of these shattered families—the absentee father, the working mother, and the 14-year-old—to deal with.”
Carlyle Garrick, a former University of Oregon football player whose short film, The Shoes, is an aching fictional account of the roots and dangers of sneaker idolatry, also thinks the lust instilled by Nike and its advertising firm, Wieden+Kennedy, is a double-edged sword for which the companies should be held accountable. Garrick made the film after a friend of his drove a U-Haul full of rare sneakers to San Francisco to start a sneaker store, only to be robbed of his entire inventory. “Sneakers aren’t the cause [of all this crime],” he says, “but Nike could definitely do more.” And in this sense, the corporations behind the shoes have long skirted their responsibilities. In particular, Garrick and many others have taken issue with Nike’s raffle system for new releases, a way of generating artificial scarcity and thus demand—for shoes that Nike could essentially manufacture infinite numbers of, at a moment’s notice—that has, on more than one occasion, resulted in death. “If Michael [Jordan] would come out and say something,” says Garrick, “if that changed even one person’s mind, it would be worth it.” But for all the handwringing he showed to Rick Telander in 1990, MJ has been noticeably mum on the actions his image and sneakers have driven young boys and men to commit.
So what happened to that Jordan, the one who seemed so rattled by the consequences of his product, and his name? “I’m not sure he ever cared,” says Telander. “I hope they weren’t crocodile tears.”
Avshalom, for his part, has always believed that Nike has contributed more than it has taken. “I was putting shoes on these kids’ feet, through Nike,” he says, “a product that, even if the kid lived in the belly of the beast in Brooklyn, he could walk up the block proud, in a crispy pair of Jordans. Nike gave a lot of kids reason to feel proud of themselves, for $50 to $100. And the vast majority of them knew better than to take a kid’s shit. To be a common crook, we grew up amongst that, anyone can do that. Instead, they’d work on the next hot song, or their jump shot instead, to be better than those kids, than dad. If Michael and Nike and Biggie did it, so can I.”
“They did so much for aspiration and belonging, in a place that sometimes could be very, very cold. Let’s keep sneakers out of it.”
In the end, it’s hard to see violence over sneakers as anything but a symptom, an object of desire whose power can and should be handled more responsibly, but never was and never will be an instigator of the diseases that ail us. The extent to which Nike and its brethren have any responsibility rather than turning a profit and expanding its clout digs at a conflict as old as the country itself: the eternal American hand-wringing between the importance of a moral bedrock that places emphasis on the right things, and the right of our hallowed capitalism to hawk its wares however it sees fit. To limit the power of the Jumpman would require regulation of the fashion advertising on par with that of the tobacco industry, and a wholesale revision of long-held American beliefs of corporate and individual agency. Perhaps we should do precisely that. (Joe Camel, anyone?) But that seems far-fetched, to say the least.
Failing that, the words that seem to ring most true are still Spike Lee’s, as quoted in his response to the New York Post’s polemic against him, Jordan, and the whole Nike advertising machine. “Let’s try to effectively deal with the conditions that make a kid put so much importance on a pair of sneakers,” Lee said, “a jacket and gold. These kids feel they have no options, no opportunities.” (To which Telander replies, in a conversation with Complex: “Why don’t you deal with the conditions, Spike, instead of hanging onto Michael’s ankles?”) After all, crime is crime. It doesn’t need a coercive campaign to spill into the streets. Kids stole sneakers. And now they steal iPhones, watches, and anything else flashed out in the open. Anything that offers, however briefly, a moment above the muck.
So we’ll ask once again, in the key of Mars: Is it the shoes?
Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?
Hopefully, you do.
Dennis Tang is a contributor for Complex. You can follow him on Twitter here.