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"This is a harmonic convergence of the highest order," declares Bill Walton, uncertain in the moment that he is still on planet Earth. Wherever he is—at home in San Diego or, as his trippy Zoom background suggests, beaming in from some astral junction—his coordinates have not dimmed the warm and vibrating glow of his universal enthusiasm. This passionate hum of the 67-year-old Walton, a two-time NBA champion-turned-sportscaster, is invited by topics as diverse as PAC-12 basketball, his unending love of the Grateful Dead, the majesty of the great outdoors, and sneakers. Which brings us to the whole harmonic convergence thing.
"These shoes are so colorful," Walton says. "These shoes are so electric and eclectic. They're gonna inspire me to get to ever new heights."
Prompting his rhapsody is the Grateful Dead x Nike SB Dunk Low collaboration, a three-shoe set of impossibly furry sneakers inspired by the band's ubiquitous dancing bear logo. They look like a product emerging from an acid dream. The orange one will release first, exclusively at legendary San Francisco skate shop FTC, on July 18. Nike picked that spot to debut the shoes as a reference to the city's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where the Dead were active early in their career. After that, the yellow colorway will release via SNKRS and select skate shops on July 24, with the green dropping the same day at skate shops.
The shoes, priced at $110 each, will be difficult to obtain. Walton understands this. Especially in his case—he's got to somehow secure some massive size 17s for himself and also get pairs for his wife, Lori. It's a tall order, but he says he's not worried, because he's a tall guy.
"Everything's hard to get," he says to me. "The minute you find something that's easy in life, Brendan, you be sure and tell me. I'm a very persistent guy. I've got sharp elbows."
So Walton, who's been a fan of the band since 1967, is getting a pair. That's pretty much a given. Nike came on his radar in 1974, when he moved to Oregon to play for the Portland Trail Blazers, the same year he met the Grateful Dead for the first time. And Walton's got a Nike exec on speed dial just in case he needs a backup plan. But are the sneakers appropriate for people who aren't diehard Deadheads?
David Lemieux, archivist and legacy manager for the Grateful Dead, isn't bothered by the inevitability of people who can't name any of their songs chasing after the shoes. The seminal psychedelic rock group formed in Palo Alto in 1965, tapping into the youth zeitgeist of the decade with records that could expand one's consciousness. They've sold over 35 million albums since. The swelling of their ranks of followers meant a wider dissemination of the associated insignias, colorful marks on merch that didn't necessarily indicate the wearer had listened to the Dead. This is of no great concern to Lemieux, who sees famous people with no apparent connection to the music don the gear all the time.
"I'm sure a lot of these celebrities don't know much about the Grateful Dead," says Lemieux. "But it's cool imagery and, to me, anything that kind of gets the Grateful Dead out there and allows people to see it and see how cool the imagery is, you know—there's a small part that might actually make people curious."
Granted, he's got a vested interest in selling more and more merchandise. But as a steward of the band's brand, he's also the guy who has to take the brunt of the abuse when its many followers are skeptical about a product tie-in, as with the recent all-natural Grateful Dead deodorant. Lemieux says he hasn't seen any complaints from fans about the Nikes. The sportswear company is going out of its way to cater to people who actually care about the band—there's a surprise planned for longtime patrons.
Lemieux, who went to his first Grateful Dead show in 1987 and has been to over 100 since, doesn't believe any original members of the brand had a strong affinity for Nike. Late lead man Jerry Garcia wore Air Max 90s, but his public appreciation didn't run deeper. Still, there are parallels between Deadheads and sneakerheads. Both cults are eager to shell out money for limited editions and collaborations, collecting trinkets for status. How much money has Walton, for example, spent supporting the act over the years? Not enough, according to him.
"Never enough—I want more," he says. "That's all I ever wanted in life." More shows, more stickers, more posters, more shirts, more recordings of live shows after his children dubbed over his old ones in the late '80s with an evil strain of sound not aligned with his galactic community.
Grateful Dead fans hoard tapes of live performances, returning to the same body of work expressed across years with different idiosyncrasies. Similarly, footwear collectors live for the retro, the endlessly revived silhouette that arrives with minor tweaks and changes every few years to pique new delight.
Sneakerheads may be more prone to gatekeeping. For some, you have to be an actual skateboarder to wear Nike's SB sneakers, which were designed for the sport. (Just in case it really does matter: Bill Walton says he started skating as a kid in the '60s before he ever found basketball.) For others, you need to know the catalog of the graffiti writer who designed that pair of shoes you're lusting after before you buy them. The idea in this subculture that you have to have a certain knowledge of an item or the person who made it isn't quite so pervasive among Grateful Dead fans.
"It doesn't matter," says Mordechai Rubinstein, who published a book this year chronicling outfits at Grateful Dead shows. "I asked some older Deadhead friends that I respect and I look up to. And I said, 'Look, what would Jerry and the band have said about these people that just go out to buy a T-shirt and wear it?' And I don't think that they would have cared."
While attending shows and researching for his book, Dead Style, Rubinstein saw a strong hypebeast contingent in the audiences. There were young people draped in vintage garb that ended at their feet, which would be clad in a pair of Sean Wotherspoon Air Maxes or an Air Jordan XI. He attributes the prevalence of hypewear at these shows to John Mayer, a longtime sneakerhead who plays guitar in the Grateful Dead-adjacent band Dead & Company. While Mayer appeared in Nike promotional materials for the 2018 Acronym Vapormaxes, he is conspicuously absent from the rollout of the Dead Dunks.
The leadup to the sneakers' release hasn't generated as much hype as Nike SB's "Chunky Dunky" Ben & Jerry's ice cream shoe that released in May, but it's another step toward the Swoosh sub-label collaborating with bigger pop culture entities. It's also got a coincidental overlap with Grateful Dead in that Garcia has his own Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor. Lemieux believes that the shoes' warm and fuzzy design helps them appeal to a larger audience, something that Nike SB collaborations, which have historically been more niche, are more interested in doing lately. He's thankful that the brand didn't go the frequent route of using the Dead's "steal your face" lightning skull logo prominently.
"I think they're a little too on the nose to be honest," Lemieux says of those kind of projects. "I was very happy that they didn't go in that direction."
The direction they did choose references both the joyful dancing bears that appeared first on the back of the on group's 1973 LP History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1 (Bear's Choice) and bears of Nike SB’s history. The three sneakers, with their faux ursine treatment, have a precedent in the "Three Bears" pack of SB Dunks from 2006. Those old pairs resell for plenty of money now, but they were not celebrated by diehard sneaker lovers when they first released. They were almost objectively ugly, bizarre in a way that wasn't as playful as Jeremy Scott's bear sneakers for Adidas. Nike SB's latest pack of bears will likely be received better, as the crowd awaiting them is less serious than it once was.
"I love that shoes are being fun again in, like, a silly way," Rubinstein says. "Like, looking at the Ben & Jerry's, it's so easy to joke around like those are hideous or clown shoes or whatever you want to call them, but they're works of art that you can wear."
They will be worn, Walton is certain of that. He's confident that the SB Dunk Lows will make him a better dancer. (Nike makes no specific claims about the footwear offering this advantage.) He's eager to make use of the shoes once live shows are a normal part of human life again—not that his is a particularly normal human life.
"I can no longer go barefoot," says the man who's been through 38 orthopedic operations, "and they do not encourage people to come naked to the shows."
In a way, the sneakers are built specifically with shows in mind. While collectors may wince at the act of trampling through a dusty festival ground in a pair that's likely to be a hot commodity on the resale market, there's a hidden design detail just for that kind of activity. Tucked inside the tongue is a zippered stash pocket, a clandestine pouch not unlike the ones found on weed-themed Nikes.
"I love that stash pocket in the tongue where you can keep all your stuff," Walton gushes, "because when you go to a show, you don't want to be burdened with a lot of stuff."
What is he putting in the pocket?
"Whatever goes in there is gonna make me really happy," he says.
It's not clear how many other moods Walton has. Over the course of our 40-minute conversation about the SBs, he is permanently radiant and fluorescently positive. He admits to not being into Nike when he first discovered the shoes in the '70s—"It wasn't my thing then"—but there's some sense that his collision with the brand at this space, in this time, was fated. Maybe it was a journey he unwittingly began long ago, ignoring nascent Swooshes in favor of prismatic bears in the 1970s only to have them come together in a reverberation decades later.
He sees the figures of that era, purveyors of sportswear or sonics, as seekers and adventurers swirling around the same galaxy. This goes for Phil Knight, the Swoosh cofounder with deep roots at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Same for Ken Kesey, the countercultural author who grew up just outside of Eugene. Kesey, a friend of Walton's, was close with the Grateful Dead, who first performed under that name at one of his parties in 1965. (Oregon's Knight library is the permanent home of Kesey's archive.) Also in these ranks is LSD entrepreneur Owsley "Bear" Stanley—Walton knew him, too—a man who worked closely with the Dead and inspired the logo the Nikes are based on.
The sneakers are not a flashback to a potent Owsley trip, though. For Walton, they are a contemporary stop on his travels to everywhere and everything. Where in his odyssey does he expect to be when he finally gets the SB Dunks on his feet?
"I am just going to be floating over the Earth," he says, "or whatever planet I happen to be on that day."