STEVE INSKEEP, host:
New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury has been described as prickly, self-centered and overpaid. But his latest off-court mission - to share the love, as he says - might just earn him comparisons to philanthropists and civil rights leaders. He is out to start a consumer revolution with a new line of ultra-affordable basketball shoes.
NPR's Ann Hawke reports.
(Soundbite of seagulls)
ANN HAWKE reporting:
Coney Island, New York. NBA player Stephon Marbury grew up here, about two blocks from the boardwalk.
He came back recently to shoot hoops with kids from the local boys and girls club. Standing in a cluster of star-struck tweens, Marbury handed out t-shirts.
Mr. STEPHON MARBURY (New York Knicks Guard): Oh, my friend, my friend, we got one for you too. One for you, one for him.
Unidentified Man: Thank you.
HAWKE: Marbury is turning tradition on its head. In a world of multi-million dollar shoe endorsements by NBA players, Marbury is sponsoring low-cost athletic wear and a $15 basketball shoe. Retailer Steven and Barry's is producing the clothing line using his nickname, the Starbury Collection. And Marbury receives nothing up front.
He's anything but modest when you ask why he's doing this. Somebody's got to change the world, he says. And Marbury wants to prove his low-cost shoe is NBA quality.
Mr. MARBURY: I'm going to wear this shoe on court. I'm going to wear the sneakers the whole season.
HAWKE: And if that guarantee isn't enough, he invites consumers to do a comparison with top brands.
Mr. MARBURY: How do I guarantee? All they got to do is go get a chainsaw and cut it down the middle. They're the same thing.
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HAWKE: It's not as easy as you might think to saw a shoe in half. NPR bought a pair of Starburys for $14.98 and found a similar looking pair of mid-range Nike Jordans. At about $95 they were over six times as expensive. We presented the two shoes, covering up their logos to an expert in shoe design.
Mr. JOE DAVIS (Shoe Expert): I could sum it up and say it's ingenious. I don't understand how they're able to do this for 15 bucks.
HAWKE: Joe Davis is a designer who used to work for Fila. He says basketball shoes can be as much as $350 these days. And the industry needs this kind of innovation on the low end.
Mr. DAVIS: This is a very nicely built shoe, extremely sturdy. This has good ankle support. The traction looks like it's good. It looks like it has a grippy bottom.
HAWKE: But flexing the shoe, Davis found it weaker in the arches than the Nike Jordan.
Mr. DAVIS: Me, if I was building the shoe, I would've said, hey, this is, you know, we want to sell this long. We want to make sure nobody gets hurt. Let's put some more arch support.
HAWKE: The Starbury got mixed reviews with other experts, like the seasoned crowd at West 4th Street in lower Manhattan. The shoes of NBA greats and other streetballers have squeaked across this court over the years.
Mr. KENNY PERCIVAL (Basketball Player): My name is Kenny Percival. I'm from the Bronx.
HAWKE: Thirty-three-year-old Percival and his friends had one and two-word reactions, like ugly or they suck.
Mr. PERCIVAL: You play three hard games on asphalt, your toe will be sticking out the bottom by the end of them. I understand his premise of making the $15 sneaker affordable for the minorities but make a quality product.
HAWKE: Eddie Valloy(ph) of Greenwich Village admires Marbury's idea but he wonders if this is an attempt to boost credibility on the street as a business plan.
Mr. EDDIE VALLOY (Greenwich Village Resident): The more street cred you got, the more marketable you are as a business, not so much as a player. And I think what Marbury is doing is that when he sees everybody in the hood wearing his shoe, it almost makes his stock as a businessman go up. And I think that's what he's looking for.
HAWKE: And then there are the diehard Jordan guys, who will never be won over, like Sherman St. John.
Mr. SHERMAN ST. JOHN (Jordan Fan): When I wear a pair of Jordans - this may sound weird - but I feel like I'm wearing a legacy. I'm not just wearing a pair of sneakers.
HAWKE: Starburys are luring New Yorkers to wake up at 5:00 a.m., take the D train from the Bronx and line up at Steve and Barry's Store in Manhattan.
Unidentified Woman: I threw her off the line. She got in front of me...
HAWKE: Mothers, teenagers, limo drivers. They're coming from Harlem, Queens and Brooklyn, like 45-year-old Charlie Watson. He's got on Nikes, but he's a Starbury convert.
Mr. CHARLIE WATSON (Brooklyn Resident): That's all we talk about, is supporting him. And I wish Jordan was here, 'cause I would take these off and burn them. I would do it. I'd burn them.
HAWKE: Watson says Marbury's new clothing line will do something for his community that he believes stars like Michael Jordan have never done.
Mr. WATSON: I mean where can you go to get two pair of sneakers and about another eight items of clothes for $100? That's giving back. Anyway you look at it, that's giving back.
HAWKE: Steve and Barry's says its figured out a way to produce the $15 shoes without losing money. The retailer is likely to make a bundle on its clothing from consumers like Watson, who plan to own every single item in the Starbury collection.
Ann Hawke, NPR News, New York.
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