LIANE HANSEN, host:
Basketball was invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith, a physical education teacher at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. But more than a decade passed before any sporting goods companies started to market shoes specifically made for the new game. Now a collector says he's found a pair of shoes that could date all the way back to basketball's roots. From member station WNPR in Hartford, John Dankosky reports.
JOHN DANKOSKY reporting:
To see just how far the basketball shoe has come, you need look no further than the feet of Jeff Maliner(ph) from Herkimer, New York. He's 13 and already 6'3".
JEFF MALINER (13-Year-Old Basketball Player): These are the Tim Duncan shoes. They're made by Adidas.
DANKOSKY: What size shoe are you wearing?
DANKOSKY: Maliner chose these $90 shoes for the high-tech cushioning to protect those ever-growing feet. He and his family are in Springfield, Massachusetts, visiting the Basketball Hall of Fame where displays show the old-fashioned shoes worn by stars of the '50s and '60s. They were little more than a flap of canvas affixed to a flat slab of vulcanized rubber.
MALINER: It must have been really tough. I can't believe they can still walk after running 10, 15 years in those.
DANKOSKY: But that's what they wore. The basic style of basketball shoe didn't change very much until the 1970s. The Converse All-Star, which debuted in 1970, is thought by many to be the first real basketball shoe, popularized by barnstorming basketball marketer Chuck Taylor. But Matt Zeysing, historian at the Hall of Fame, says the Spaulding company made shoes that predate the All-Star by a decade.
Mr. MATT ZEYSING (Historian): In the Spaulding guide of 1902, the description says, `Made of selected leather, rubber sole. The suction caused by the peculiar construction of the sole enables the player to obtain a good purchase on the floor, a feature that should make this shoe very popular.'
DANKOSKY: These were thought to be the oldest known basketball shoes; that is, until Gary Peifer(ph) came along. Peifer is a vintage clothing dealer in Oceanside, California. Last year, at an estate sale, he was rummaging for old sneakers.
Mr. GARY PEIFER (Vintage Clothing Dealer): And at the bottom of the closet, I see a pair of basketball sneakers, and I didn't think much of them. I thought they were from the 1950s.
DANKOSKY: But then he noticed something odd. The ankle logo said `Colchester Rubber Company,' a company that went out of business in 1893, just two years after basketball was invented.
Mr. PEIFER: It just was not computing. I'm going, `This is ridiculous. This can't be happening because there's no such thing as a Victorian basketball shoe.'
DANKOSKY: The Colchester Rubber Company in Colchester, Connecticut, did make shoes but there's no historical record of any basketball shoes. Peifer kept digging. Colchester was only 50 miles from where Naismith invented the game. The shoes had been kept in near perfect condition and the estate that sold him the shoes had come from Denver, Colorado.
Mr. PEIFER: Dr. Naismith had actually moved from Springfield, Massachusetts, to Denver, Colorado, in 1895. And so I believe that these shoes actually belonged to Dr. Naismith or he, at one time, owned them.
DANKOSKY: Peifer points out that the shoes are high tops, and even the sole design seems right for the game with pivot points on the ball and heel of the sole. Basketball historian Matt Zeysing says it's possible Naismith owned the shoes, but he's still not convinced that they were made specifically for basketball. Maybe they were just gym shoes. Regardless, Peifer plans to make replicas which he'll sell to collectors of vintage-style footwear. And he's got his own version of Chuck Taylor to help sell them. He wants to name the replicas after Harry Lew, who became the first black professional basketball player in 1902.
Mr. PEIFER: And who knows, he could have wore shoes like these.
DANKOSKY: And Peifer may have a market for his Victorian-style shoes. Joe Grant of Springfield is shooting hoops at the Hall of Fame wearing a brand-new pair of retro Converse. He's a fan of the popular throwback style.
Mr. JOE GRANT (Springfield): Originality, you know, it just feels comfortable. They old school, you know what I mean?
DANKOSKY: Collector Gary Peifer says after his old school shoes hit the market, he'll likely donate his original Colchester Rubber shoes to the Hall of Fame, just a quick jump from where he says they first hit the hardwood. For NPR News, I'm John Dankosky.
HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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