High top Converse Chuck Taylors remain an athletic icon.
On May 31, 1986, Doc Rivers was married in them — high-top pink ones, to match his bride Chris Campion’s wedding gown. On Nov. 21, 2000, Hosea Williams was buried in them — high-top red ones, to complement his blue denim bib overalls and red shirt as the Atlanta civil rights activist lay in state. And one starry night, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points while wearing the greatest basketball shoe of all time.
High-top, white canvas Converse All Stars. Remember?
Remember the patch on the inside of each ankle? Remember the blue star, the words Converse All Star and Chuck Taylor’s script signature in blue? By any name — Cons, Chucks, Connies, All Stars — they were once the basketball shoe of choice.
Or, as the advertising jingle advised, “When your feet start to slip and slide, buy the sneaker with the star on the side. Con-VERSE! Limousines for the feet!”
In this day and age of high-tech basketball shoes that routinely cost from $100 to $200 and sport more technology than NASA’s latest launch, in this year of the sneaker’s 85th anniversary let us now praise and recall Cons, which cost $9.99 a pair in the early ’60s and will forever remain in the memory of anyone who went backdoor in his, or her, Cons.
“The star was the thing,” said Rick Majerus, the self-described fat nerd from Wisconsin who later walked on and coached for Al McGuire at Marquette. Majerus now coaches at Utah and still lovingly recalls the Cons of his youth. Majerus is now a loyal Reebok guy, paid by the company to dress his Utes in Reeboks. But you always remember your first pair of Cons.
“You were so proud to wear this shoe,” said Majerus. “They were the Air Jordans of their day. It wasn’t about style. It was about prestige. You gravitated to them. We were getting the same shoes as the pros.”
Majerus finally graduated from P.F. Flyers to Converse All Stars when he made the eighth grade team at St. Catherine’s Catholic School. “The nice thing about your Converses was, you dreamed you could elevate and decide in the air,” said Majerus, whose friends often painted their white Cons black, just like the classic Cons worn by such old Boston Celtics as Jungle Jim Loscutoff. “You had your Cons on. Then reality set in. You got a couple of Spalding sandwiches.”
A couple of blocked shots slapped back in your face, by a leaper who was invariably wearing Cons, too. No matter. You no longer wore Keds, or P.F. Flyers. You were no longer a kid. You were a man. A hoopster. You wore Cons.
Everyone did. Bill Russell and the Joneses, K.C. and Sam, and all the Celtics. Oscar Robertson. Jerry West. Willis Reed. Wilt wore them that March 2, 1962, night in Hershey, Pa., when he lit up the Knicks for an even 100. When Mavericks coach Don Nelson was coaching Golden State, he was married in the Warriors’ arena dressed in appropriate formal wear: a black tuxedo and black Cons, just like the ones Nelson wore as a Celtic.
For decades, the Kentucky Wildcats wore Cons, until they went Nike in the late 1990s. Even after Converse expanded from classic white and black Cons to technicolor, some Kentucky fans wore special Cat-edition blue denim Cons (price: $85) when the Wildcats won the 1996 NCAA championship.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird once wore Converse — canvas Cons as little Midwestern boys, later leather high-tops that earned them millions from the company after they turned pro in 1979. By then, Dr. J was already a high-profile spokesman for Converse, which he first wore as the teenage Julius Erving at Roosevelt High School on Long Island, N.Y.
Lifetime Cons wearer Ira Berkow wore them, too. Now a columnist for the New York Times and one of the most prolific and esteemed basketball writers, Berkow swore by Cons growing up in Chicago, while playing junior college ball and for years in pickup games at the Vanderbilt YMCA in Manhattan.
“Low blacks or high whites,” said Berkow, 61, who launched his laser jumper competitively until a few years ago, when knee surgery relegated him to shootarounds in the park. Berkow was wearing high whites that day in Atlantic City. He couldn’t miss in a 2-on-2 game witnessed by actor Gene Hackman, the cinematic coach of Hickory High in Hoosiers. Afterward, Hackman told Berkow, “A shot like that argues a youth misspent.”
Berkow just played hoops in his Cons, just like millions of boys in the shoes with the red-white-and-blue rubber soles. He kept wearing Cons as an adult, even after developing a painful case of corns. A podiatrist, explaining that Berkow’s foot had grown wider, suggested trying another brand of sneaker. “I didn’t want Nike or whatever,” Berkow said. “So I got a bigger pair of Cons.”; He switched from a size 10 1/2 (Cons still have the size imprinted on the bottom of the shoe) to an 11. “I couldn’t give up my Cons, even for corns. And the corns went away! You ever have corns? They hurt like hell.”
So did Chuck Taylor’s feet, that day in 1921 when the salesman and hoopster walked into a Converse sales office in Chicago and asked if the company could make a better basketball shoe that didn’t leave his feet aching after games. The first Converse All Star had debuted in 1917, thanks to Marquis M. Converse, who founded the Converse Rubber Co. in North Reading, Mass., in 1908.
Enter Taylor, who’d played for teams back in Buffalo and New York, and was working and playing for his employer’s company team, the Akron Firestones. The rest of his story became history: Converse hired Taylor to do basketball clinics and sell Cons. The new-and-improved All Stars came out in 1922, with Taylor’s name added to the ankle patch in ’23. He became Converse’s “Ambassador to Basketball”, traveling throughout the country and the world, promoting hoops and Cons.
Taylor was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1968, a year before his 1969 death. By then, Gary Wolf was addicted to Cons. By then, Wolf — an Atlanta businessman and one of the foremost authorities in the world on trains and railroad accidents — was a 6-foot-8 forward at Ohio University. He was still wearing canvas, high-top white Cons, as he did as a high schooler back home in Columbus while starring for the St. Francis de Sales Purple Stallions. Like Cons kids everywhere, Wolf wrote his name on the strip running down the heel of the shoe. At each high school season’s end, he cut out a section of a shoe that included the starred patch and wrote that season’s year, record and how far the Purple Stallions had advanced. Wolf and his teammates laced up their Cons just so, with purple and white laces that never criss-crossed the shoe’s tongue but came straight across from eyelet to eyelet. And he’ll never, ever forget the scent of his youth
“Cons came in these maroon boxes,” said Wolf, 52. “You opened it up, and the smell of that rubber encased in there . . . Oh man, what a smell,” Wolf said, grinning. “The pungent smell of emancipated rubber that was cooped up in there for six months.”
By Wolf’s junior year in college, Ohio had switched to fancy new leather Adidas shoes. In an NCAA tournament game that season, Wolf was one of three Bobcats who held Notre Dame’s Austin Carr to 61 points, still the NCAA record for points in a tournament game. Surely, this was no accident. Surely, this would never have happened if Wolf and his buddies had still worn classic, canvas Cons.
By the 1970s, inexorable change was afoot in the world of Converse All Stars and basketball shoes. The company estimated that in the decade of the 1960s, 90 percent of pro and college players wore Cons. In 1966, Converse colorized, introducing Cons in several colors. This was not greeted with universal approval. In the early 1970s, Rick Sabetta, now a New Jersey entrepreneur, was the 5-foot-7 (“In my Cons”) last man on the 15-man Shelton, Conn., High Galloping Gaels the year their coach switched from high black Cons to orange. “We looked like elves,” said Sabetta. “We said, ‘Coach, we can’t wear these.’ ”
Alas, the Galloping Gaels had to, to the derisive hoots of opposing crowds. Alas, change came to the basketball shoe business: Aggressive new competitors for Converse, such as Adidas, Nike, Pony and Reebok. New-and-improved leather shoes that gave more support than canvas All Stars. In 1984, Nike signed an NBA rookie named Michael Jordan to a contract. The rest is sport shoe history.
Old canvas Cons fell out of hoop fashion. By 1988, they were available in 56 colors and designs, including robin-egg blue, day-glo orange and graffiti splash. Most serious basketball players no longer wore Cons, but millions of other folks did. They became fashionable among punk-rockers and skateboarders, musicians and yuppies, old hippies and new kids on the fashion block. Although Gib Ford, the president of Converse of the early 1990s, said of Cons’ colorization, “If Chuck Taylor knew, he’d roll over in his grave.”
Plenty of people wore classic Cons, just not to play basketball. Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days.” The Fonz. Queen Latifah. Springsteen. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Fashion models on runways in Paris and New York. TV’s “Dennis the Menace” and a truly menacing Dennis — Dennis Rodman, who later became an ill-fated spokesman for Converse when the company fell into decline in the late 1990s and also disastrously signed Latrell Sprewell to hype Cons.
When Atlanta attorney Candace Fowler, now a partner at Kilpatrick Stockton, was a law student at Emory, her footwear of choice was a pair of high pink Cons. She also had a pair of high blacks, for formal occasions. When her Emory classmate, Carol Naughton, and her husband Tim (a long-time Cons devotee) had their daughter, Fowler bought little Maggie an infant-sized pair of pink Cons to commemorate her birth.
But nothing could save the classic Con, not even that historic day in 1989 when an absurd Atlanta Hawks draftee named Jorge Gonzalez — a 7-foot-6, 413-pound Argentine — received his first pair of genuine basketball shoes. Those leather Converse were officially size 19EEEEE*. Why five E’s, with an asterisk?
According to Gary Stokan, once a college basketball player who was then a Converse sales rep and is now president of the Atlanta Sports Council, “We only [went] to 5E. It would be a 7E if there was such a thing.” Still, Stokan said, that was then the largest basketball shoe ever made, calling the story of Bob Lanier’s size-22 Cons “a myth.” Stokan said Lanier actually wore an 18 1/2. Those 22s? A Korean size, according to Stokan, who got his information from a Converse employee who’d been making Cons for four decades and said, “That’s good enough for me.”
But not enough to keep Converse afloat. In March, 2001, with sales plummeting, Converse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and agreed to sell its assets to another company. That same month, Converse shut down its production plant in Lumberton, N.C., and two others in Mission, Texas, and Reynosa, Mexico. Fearing that classic Cons would no longer be available, a baker from San Francisco called the Lumberton plant and ordered six pairs.
Fortunately, even if few folks these days wear Converse All Stars to play basketball, they’re still manufactured overseas and available in U.S. stores. At Walter’s on Decatur Street in downtown Atlanta, a pair of classic Cons costs $29.95. A pittance for a piece of hoop history, ingrained in the memories of millions who, like Rick Majerus, will never, ever forget their Cons.
By Jack Wilkinson
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer