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Why the Return of the Starbury Is a Very Good Thing

What do the iconic shoes mean to low-income basketball players?
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(Photo: Eric Molina/Flickr/Pacific Standard)

(Photo: Eric Molina/Flickr/Pacific Standard)

Word on the street—by which I mean Instagram—is that former New York Knicks star Stephon Marbury is planning to bring back his Starbury line of basketball shoes. That's big news, because Starburys fill a much-needed niche: Affordable sneakers, effectively marketed.

In 2006, at least, the sneakers cost less than $15. That's in steep contrast to most ball-player-endorsed shoes, which can cost over 10 times that amount. And while Marbury is not the first player to offer discount shoes (remember Shaquille O'Neal's shoes?), he actually wore his own line during NBA games, suggesting that these were not second-tier products. In numerous media interviews, Marbury has said he wanted to make a shoe that families like his own, while he was growing up, could afford. "I grew up in the ghetto," Marbury, who lived in a Coney Island housing project, told the New York Daily News in 2006. "I grew up on food stamps. I know what it's like not to have money. I understand how kids feel when they walk into a store and see a pair of shoes they can't afford."

Starburys fill a much-needed niche: Affordable sneakers, effectively marketed.

The shoe—and its promotional campaign—were unlike anything marketers had seen before. It wasn't long before business textbooks included Starburys in case studies. International Cases in the Business of Sport, for example, highlighted the fact that Marbury orchestrated a "shoe tour," during which he visited stores and signed footwear for fans. "The typical NBA player spends considerable time and effort trying to avoid fans or signing autographs," the book notes. Marbury's approach was "truly revolutionary."

In addition, the shoes came out about 15 years after the beginning of a different kind of revolution in NBA marketing: the advent of expensive basketball shoes aimed at ordinary kids, especially black American teens. Research from the time found that black American teens were highly affected by TV sneaker ads featuring black NBA stars like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. (Remember, kids usually prefer role models of their own race and gender.) Among a sample of black American public high school students in Houston—half of whom came from households earning $30,000 a year or less—the large majority were wearing basketball shoes at the very moment researchers talked to them.

As many scholars have noted, stars' basketball shoes' scarcity and just-out-of-reach pricing are part of their appeal. But that high cost can cause strife for kids. In that Houston high school, for example, 14 percent of students said they owned shoes that cost $100 or more. Almost half had fought with their parents over their purchase of the shoes. It's no surprise, then, that the sneakers are targets for theft. Writer Stephen A. Crockett Jr., a "recovering sneaker fiend," has written movingly about dying for sneakers:

I'm tired of kids dying to be fresh. A week ago I wrote a piece comparing Nike to the notoriously cold-blooded and equally business savvy drug kingpin Stringer Bell from HBO’s "The Wire." In it, I asked Nike to own up to the violence that comes with dangling limited amounts of sneaker dope to sneaker fiends. And I wanted them to see what this is doing to kids and parents in a recession.

Starbury sneakers were different. One sports-industry consultant even told the New York Daily News he didn't think the shoes and their campaign were a "publicity stunt," despite their launching at a time when Marbury's popularity was flagging. "I think he did it out of altruism," the consultant, Marc Granis, said. "I think he truly believes the cost of sneakers has gotten out of control."

While Stephon Marbury is no longer the household name he once was, here’s to hoping his revived shoes can re-claim their level of popularity.