tclakin

Where Has All the Great Gear Gone?

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2009 at 7:13 pm
Many things in our world have improved since the 1990’s. Computers, for instance. The Internet. High-definition television. But there’s one thing that has steadily gotten worse over the last decade and a half, regressing while the rest of the world has progressed.

And that one thing is gear.

You know, gear – sweet t-shirts, sneakers, jackets, whatever. Now, I’m not referring to workable, daily clothing here. I’m talking about gear manufactured as much for coolness and looks as for functionality. I’m talking about stylish, sports-oriented, get-it-before-your-friends-do badass gear.

Sure, some gear has improved since I was a kid, I’ll grant you that. The old plastic adjustable Pro Line hats might summon a wave of nostalgia, but it’s hard to argue that they are better than the fitteds carried at Lids today. Umbro shorts have thankfully gone by the wayside, as have Adidas sambas. You don’t see JNCO jeans or Karl Kani boots around much any more either. But in general, today’s youth wake up every morning to a world shockingly bereft of awesome gear. It’s a real shame and if I could do something about it, believe me, I would.

But while I can’t fix our gear-challenged world, the least I can do is take you back through some of the classics of my youth. Then maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to shine a little light on our collective darkness.

Here are just a few of my past favorites that have sadly gone the way of the T-Rex:

No Fear Shirts

A classic No Fear slogan

A classic No Fear slogan

These were the best. When I was a kid, there was nothing cooler than throwing on your best No Fear shirt with its ultra-intimidating slogan and heading out to play with your friends. “Let the big dog eat,” the shirts would read. Or “Losers Walk.” No matter what they said, as soon as you pulled on the No Fear, you were ready to go. It was as simple as that. Sadly, I just did a little research and found out that, while No Fear still exists as a brand, the company now sponsors MMA fighters and the current designs are basically imitations of those weird Affliction t-shirts that are ubiquitous in and around nightclubs. A sad day, indeed.

Zubaz Pants

The Zubaz originals

The Zubaz originals

These classics were all over the place in the 90’s. Although you probably don’t want to admit it now, you definitely had a pair. Elastic-waisted, zebra-striped, and severely tapered, Zubaz pants were pretty much an inexplicable phenomenon. They flat out didn’t look good on anyone, but everyone wore them anyway. The originals were the black & whites, but the best were the ones with your favorite sports team’s colors. You demonstrated some serious savvy when I was a kid if you sported a Patriots jersey with a pair of blue and red Zubaz pants. These need to make a comeback.

Caricature Sports T-Shirts

The classic Bird edition

The classic Bird edition

I have a big-time soft spot for the old sports caricature t-shirts. You know the ones I’m talking about, with the cartoony pictures of athletes on them, with their huge heads and little, tiny bodies. These were huge during my elementary school years and I’ve wondered many times why they died out as a fad. There were tons of memorable Boston ones back in the day – a few with Larry Bird, a Cam Neely one, and countless Red Sox versions. The best were the championship edition shirts featuring caricatures of the entire winning teams, whether it be Jordan’s Bulls or the Dream Team. All of them were awesome at the time and priceless now, since unfortunately it seems like they don’t exist anymore outside of vintage shops and thrift stores.

Adidas Wind Pants

The Chuckie pants are a classic

The Chuckie pants are a classic

Now these are an example of something that should absolutely still be around. Who didn’t love the Adidas wind pants? They were comfortable, useful and cool. Hell, Chuckie in Good Will Hunting wore them – what more can you possibly want? The best were the black ones with the white stripes down the side. And if you were really bold, you wore the tear-away version with the side buttons that you could rip off at a moment’s notice. After all, you never know when a basketball or street hockey game is going to suddenly break out.

And that brings us to my final classic retrospective before we move onto more important things. These were probably the peak of cool 90’s gear and they still go for hundreds on ebay today. That’s right, I’m talking about…

Starter Jackets

Gotta love the neon teal

Gotta love the neon teal

You remember these, don’t you? The big, puffy winter coat-style sports jackets with the goofy hoods that everyone wore out at recess? The thing about Starter Jackets was this – they were just so diabolically cool that you pretty much weren’t unless you had one. And for some reason no one ever had normal colored ones – it was always the Charlotte Hornets neon blue and purple or the San Jose Sharks black and teal. Just awful color combinations left and right out on the playground. Sure, every once in a while a kid would show up with a Bruins or Celtics Starter jacket and he’d have fifth grade girls flocking to him, but more often than not the brightest, ugliest colors seemed to be the most popular (or maybe just the most readily available at MVP Sports). In any case, the Starter jacket lives on in infamy today and frankly, if I still had one, I’d be wearing it right now.

Nike at its peak

Nike at its peak

But while I lament the loss of great milestones in fashion like the Starter jacket and carpenter jeans, there’s a far bigger problem facing today’s youth. A much more sinister fashion black hole awaits them in major shoe stores all across the country. That’s right, I’m talking about sneakers. Today’s sneakers are just sad. They aren’t cool, they aren’t innovative, and, frankly, most of them stink. We knew the wheels fell 0ff at Reebok years ago and Adidas is still cranking out its fairly lame, hasn’t-changed-in-years catalogue, but what hurts the most is that somewhere along the line, even the great Nike lost its fastball. Who saw that coming? Is it that their new line of signature athletes just can’t uphold the legacy left by Jordan and Pippen? Or could it be that they used up all their good ideas years ago and there just aren’t any cool shoes left in the pipeline (I hope not)? Whatever the reason, the shoe market today is a hollow shell of its former self. The excitement just isn’t there anymore. You don’t see kids (or adults, for that matter) lining up single-file for 3 city blocks outside Foot Locker when the new Lebron sneaker drops. But when I was a kid, people would literally fight each other for the new MJ’s. Today’s kids flock to stores only when the newest video game console is released. It’s depressing. I can hardly remember the days when Nike was at the top of its game.

But thankfully, today we have a little thing called the Internet so I don’t have to rely solely on brainpower as I take us on a stroll down memory lane, through the glory days of the American sneaker. Hopefully this list sparks your memory and maybe even inspires you to seek out your local underground sneaker boutique (the Resistance of the shoe apocalypse, to cite Terminator [too nerdy? Probably]) for a taste of the good old days.

Here we go – Ten of the best sneakers from back in the day:

1. The Bo Jacksons

Air Trainer Max 91

Nike Air Trainer Max 91

There was a day when the “Bo Knows” Nike campaign stood toe to toe with Air Jordan, and it had everything to do with the popularity of these shoes and their corresponding commercials. Other than Jordan, there was no athlete on Earth cooler than Bo Jackson. He hit home runs, he scored touchdowns, he snapped bats over his knee – there was nothing this guy couldn’t do. He was a certifiable freak of nature (in the middle of what we know today as the Steroid Era, but that’s another story for another day). Anyway, the Bo Jackson sneakers – officially known as the Nike Air Trainer Max 91’s – combined functionality and design. They were comfortable and they were cool, and consequently they were huge on American playgrounds in the early 90’s. I had a pair of the black & whites early on in my career and they’ve remained some of my favorites ever since.

2. The Reebok Pumps

Reebok Pump Omni Lite

Reebok Pump Omni Lite

The shoe that put Reebok on the map, the Pump was released in 1989. Soon after Dee Brown won the 1991 NBA Dunk Contest with his no-look one hander while sporting Pumps, every kid in America wanted a pair. I know, I was one of those kids – I begged my parents for some Pumps until they gave in. Pumps were so different from every other shoe out there, with their orange basketball-colored inflation  button and corresponding release valve. I think I liked the release valve even more than the pump, largely because of the psssssss sound it made when I would press it during class. (Let’s just say that my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Spahr, wasn’t a huge fan of the Pumps, and leave it at that.) The Pumps were revolutionary for their time and their influence lingers today. In fact, I have a fresh pair of retro Pumps sitting at home as we speak.

3. The Charles Barkleys

Nike Air CB 34

Nike Air CB 34

Now, I was never a Barkley diehard but I can certainly appreciate a good shoe when I see one and I remember recess being littered with these things in ’95. Barkley shoes were always a solid choice because they had a lot going on – all kinds of stripes, bright colors, and air bubbles – and were therefore attention-grabbing. When you’re 10, attention-grabbing gear is always a good thing. Maybe the Barkley’s weren’t the best-looking kicks, but they got the job done during games of Knockout and that’s all that matters.

4. The Scottie Pippens

Nike Air Pippen 1 (Bulls Colors)

Nike Air Pippen 1 (Bulls Colors)

Nike Air More Tempo - Pippen

Nike Air More Tempo - Pippen

Ah, the Scottie Pippens – one of only a couple signature shoe lines that actually released 3 or 4 solid versions, with the sequels being arguably better than the originals. The Pippens had a great design and a cool, squiggly colorway. The Bulls red-black original version were the initial highlight – my favorites because they actually said “Pippen” on the tongue alongside Scottie’s streaking-basketball logo so everyone knew exactly who’s shoes you were wearing. You might also remember one of the later versions of the Pippens that had AIR written in big letters down the side of the shoe. Pippen wore these during several of the Bulls championship runs and they subsequently caught fire in elementary schools and on basketball courts across the country.

5. The Shaq Attaqs

Reebok Shaq Attaq 1

Reebok Shaq Attaq 1

Shaq logo on back

Shaq logo on back

These things were pretty serious. Really just a signature version of the Reebok Pump, the Shaq Attaqs came out soon after Shaquille O’Neal emerged on the scene with the Orlando Magic and started shattering backboards left and right. The ones I had were jet-black hightops with a little Magic blue on the back and a silhouette of Shaq ripping down a backboard on the tongue. These were hard shoes – I mean, even the pump button was all black. They were huge and heavy and extended about halfway up a regular-sized kid’s calf. Let me tell you, kids got out of your way quick on the playground if you had the Shaq Attacks on.

6. The Penny Hardaways

Nike Air Max Penny 1

Nike Air Max Penny 1

The Penny "1 cent" logo on the back

The Penny "1 cent" logo on the back

Not everyone remembers this, but at one time (roughly ’94-’96), Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway was the next MJ. He had the moves, he had the shot, and he had the requisite sweet signature sneakers and their corresponding Nike commercials. I’m convinced today that it was those ads, featuring the legendary Lil Penny, that pushed Hardaway and his shoes over the top for millions of American kids. I mean, you can’t overstate how good the Lil Penny commercials were. I think I’d rank them a close second to the famous Spike-Lee-as-Mars-Blackmon Air Jordan commercials that set the tone for the future of footwear. In any case, the Nike Pennys were must-haves in the mid-90’s and they only got better as subsequent editions were released.

7. The Ken Griffey Juniors

Nike Air Griffey Max 1

Nike Air Griffey Max 1

Griffey's #24 on the strap

Griffey's #24 on the strap

Vertical Nike Swoosh on the back

Vertical Nike Swoosh on the back

Formally named the Air Griffey Max 1’s, the Juniors were basically the perfect sneaker. The colors – a mixture of black, white, and teal (or “fresh water”, in Nike-speak) – were phenomenal and perfectly matched Griffey’s Seattle Mariners team colors. The Griffeys weren’t so big that they were annoying, but not so small that they missed catching the casual eye. They were, really, the peak of the non-Jordan Nike signature line and – thank god – Nike just released a retro version of the originals a month ago. Of course, they are sold out everywhere (believe me, I’ve looked) unless you want to pay upwards of $250 to get them online (yes, I’ve considered it). I’m just glad they are back out in the world for a second generation of kids to enjoy. Yet, strangely I haven’t seen any of the Griffeys around – probably because you don’t have to wear sneakers to play Xbox or computer games.

8. The Grant Hills

Fila Ninety6 Leather

Fila Ninety6 Leather

Hey Fila, welcome to the party! Fila – the runty, socially awkward younger brother of Reebok, Nike and Adidas – did have their one moment in the sun in 1996 when they released the Fila Ninety6’s, also known as the Grant Hills. And, lest we forget, Hill himself was also one of the “next-MJ” label-wearers back in the 90’s so the Filas definitely got some exposure out on the playground. I never had a pair, but I knew kids who did. Sure they weren’t as flashy as Air Jordans or innovative like Pumps, but they were solid in their own right. (As you can probably tell, I’m not really that excited or nostalgic about the Grant Hills. I only put them on the list because someone reminded me that they existed. Let’s move on).

9. The Deion Sanders Air DT’s

Nike Air Diamond Turf Deion Sanders

Nike Air Diamond Turf Deion Sanders

Deion's 21/24 numbers on the tongue

Deion's 21/24 numbers on the tongue

Nike Air DT Max '96 - a later version

Nike Air DT Max '96 - a later version

These are right behind the Griffeys on my all-time list, as Deion rounds out my trifecta of favorite athletes with Junior and Jordan. The original Deion DT’s (Diamond Turf) came out in 1994 and took recess by storm. The red-black-white version was the best, but shockingly I never had them myself. I have no idea why and I’m disgusted about it. What an aggregious error in judgment – they must have been out of my Mom’s price range or something, because I can guaran-damn-tee you that I wanted them. Anyway, my best friend had a pair which resulted in a good 3-4 month stretch of vicious jealousy on my part. Fortunately, Nike – in another brilliant move – just retroed the originals so maybe now I’ll get them and flaunt them all over  the place just to make up for lost time.

10. The Jordan XI’s

1995 Nike Air Jordan XI (original colors)

1995 Nike Air Jordan XI (original colors)

From the side

From the side

From the back - note the off-center Jumpman logo, a personal favorite touch

From the back - note the off-center Jumpman logo, a personal favorite touch

The white/black version of the XI

The white/black version of the XI

And once more, from the back. You can barely make out the vertical "23"

And once more, from the back. You can barely make out the vertical "23" in the middle

And finally we come to my favorite sneakers of all-time, the Nike Air Jordan Elevens. If I was Nicolas Cage in “Gone in 60 Seconds,” the Jordan Elevans would be my Eleanor. I never had them as a kid because of their $160 price tag (in 1995 dollars, remember) and there was simply no way my allowance was ever going to fit that bill, certainly not with all the baseball cards and Big League Chew out there waiting to be bought. So I just dreamed about them, occasionally catching a brief glimpse of them on TV during a Bulls game. Ever elusive, the Elevens were the white whale to my Captain Ahab. I loved their shiny patent leather and black-red color combination. The gum soles were awesome, the “23” on the back was awesome, and the off-center Jumpan logo was awesome. Really, everything about them was awesome. To this day, I think Nike perfected the pure sneaker form when they created the Elevens and for my money (or lack thereof), it hasn’t been improved upon since. Frankly, the Elevens are the only shoes that I would drop upwards of $200 on and I would do it in a heartbeat. But for $200, I can’t even get a decent pair of Jordan Eleven shoelaces, so it looks like they are going to remain just out of my grasp. For now.

Nike Zoom Lebron III

Nike Zoom Lebron III

So ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our tour of 1990’s gear. I hope you’ve enjoyed your stroll through the Sweetness Smithsonian. I sure have. Now, I don’t want to sound like a nostalgic old man, rambling on about how I used to walk uphill both ways to and from school in the blinding snow wearing awesome Nikes, but I just can’t help it: Today’s shoes cannot hold a candle to the list I’ve just presented you with. They just can’t. In fact, if today’s shoes ever saw that list, they would run away screaming and hurl themselves off the nearest bridge. The inferiority complex of shoes today must be astounding. Sure, there are a few sneakers here and there that aren’t too bad, but half the time those precious few are merely retreads of old Nike releases – like the new Nike Air Max Griffey Swingman, which is basically an upgraded version of the original Griffeys.

Adidas "The Kobe" Playoff Version

Adidas "The Kobe" Playoff Version

None of the big name signature shoes today are any good. The Lebrons are squarish and clunky, featuring too much heavy leather and not enough imagination. And don’t get me started on the Kobes – hell, he hasn’t even had a consistent sponsor throughout his career, what with the little incident in Colorado that no one seems to remember anymore. His original Adidas “Crazy 8’s” from back in 1997 were pretty solid, but the shoes he’s put out since then are downright weird, seemingly the result of some desperate designer trying way too hard. There seems to be a real shortage of creativity in the sneaker industry today. So, really, is it any great wonder that Nike just keeps releasing new Air Jordans each year? Or that people keep buying them? The unfortunate fact is this: Nothing can top the originality and smooth innovation of 1990’s Nike sneakers.

Hoping for something better to come along is like waiting around for the next MJ.

It’s never going to happen.

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