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Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Updated: October 18, 8:58 AM ET
It's not just about the shoes

By Kiese Laymon
Special to ESPN.com

LeBron James
When you put on your brand-new LeBron James Nikes, you feel akin to greatness.

Less than an hour ago, I was in the middle of the Poughkeepsie Galleria Finish Line, determined to pay the rumored $340.20 for the new LeBron "Kang" James "LeBron X" sneakers. My decision to pay $50.20 more for a pair of sneakers than the minimum wage employee in Mississippi makes in a week wasn't at all impulsive. The full-time Kang-haters on network TV, the hating members of my family and hate-ish friends on Facebook, made my decision to buy the Kangs less of a trek in excess and more of a quest fueled by the hate that hate(rs) produced.

"These the LeBron X's?" I asked the tiny saleswoman helping me at Finish Line, and held up a $150.00 blood-red size 13 with a black swoosh and a glowing green bottom.

I learned that the X's hadn't come out yet, that I was holding a special Liverpool edition IX. "The X's won't be nearly as expensive as people think," the saleswoman told me. "The most expensive pair will probably be around $290."

She looked down at my ashy ankles and my dusty green suede Pumas. "You're buying these IXs for someone else, huh?"

"Yep," I lied and paid $169.75 for the shoes and two pairs of green and black shoelaces. "My little cousin loves him some Bron-Bron." I fake laughed and walked out of Finish Line having paid $170.45 less than I hoped to.

By the time I made it to the parking lot of the Galleria, I was bubbling in that convenient guilt. I had made a poor decision. I figured that paying $162.75 for sneakers that probably cost less than $15.67 to make in China should be shameful. I also wondered what special closet in hell awaited those of us who made it possible for Nike to make more of its popular "Lazy But Talented" T-shirts. As I drove into the parking lot of my building, I actually pondered organizing a boycott of overpriced Nikes on Facebook called "Living Beyond the Swoosh."


But see, I'm home now and the Kangs are so much more beautiful under the soft light of my apartment than they were at Finish Line. Plus the soles literally smell like bleeding birch trees. When I put the shoes on my cracked feet, not only do I feel like a certified member of the Kangdom; I feel, even just for a second, like I'm capable of occupying that space beyond greatness, too.

Instead of organizing a boycott of Nike, I decide to take a picture or video of myself rocking the red Nike Liverpool IXs, baggy black shorts and a black hoodie. I'm determined to place the photo or video on Facebook with a caption that reads, "I'ma let all y'all bitter Kang-haters finish, but the LeBron 'Kang' James shoe, like LeBron 'Kang' James, might be the greatest of all time. All time!"

I'm rehearsing what I'm going to write to the haters on Facebook. I convince myself that it doesn't make any sense to pinpoint the ways that LeBron James or his Nikes might be complicit in urban decay when the net worth of black families in the U.S. is only some $5,000. If we really wanted to find ways to stop young brothers from hitting other young brothers upside the head for Jordans and LeBrons, we would find a way increase black familial net worth to far more than 15 pairs of LeBron X's. Plus, when the best players in the world design and brand $100, $200 and $300 shoes, why wouldn't a kid who comes from a similarly maligned place, who listens to similarly maligned music and speaks a similarly maligned language, want to literally walk in those similarly maligned shoes?

"Don't hate the player," I say for the first time in my life, looking down at my blood-red LeBron "Kang" James sneakers. "Hate the game."

I'm so 2002.


I walk in front of the long mirror next to the bathroom with clunky self-righteousness swinging from my neck like cubic zirconia. I'm bouncing in front of the mirror, trying to do the dance LeBron did near the end of Game 5 in the 2012 NBA Finals.

We have a problem.

I want the slimming mirror to emphatically state that I'm a baller. Instead, it screams that I'm a has-been, a lame writer, teacher and wack fan in his late 30s.

LeBron James
LeBron James debuted the Nike LeBron X as he represented the United States this summer at the London Olympics.

Somehow, some way, I have eaten and aged my way out of being a baller and now I resemble a baller's overweight Uncle Roscoe. Uncle Roscoe does not bounce. Uncle Roscoe quakes. And quaking like Uncle Roscoe in new blood-red LeBron "Kang" James shoes is not a good look at all. Now I have another problem.

How does one responsibly get rid of a pair of brand-new, blood-red LeBron James sneakers in a city with mounds of violence and a bruising fascination with the color red?

I'm thinking about throwing my new shoes in the Dumpster but I respect the Kang and my $162.75 too much to do that. I could take the shoes back to Finish Line, but that would feel like a victory for the millions of Kang-haters. I start to wonder for the first time whether LeBron James feels any anxiety, not about branding shoes that could lead to even slightly more violence in American cities that resemble Akron but about not branding dope T-shirts and Armstrong-style bracelets that read, "Our people over your profits" or "National Defense = Championships but Public Education = Saved Lives."

I think about all the work LeBron has done with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and how he has made a number of his friends from Akron millionaires. It's only a matter of time, I tell myself, before every Kang James Nike is less than $100.08 and comes with a note saying, "Thanks for wanting to walk in my shoes. Do something great to help people in them. Be imaginative. Be careful. Kang."

The haters would probably find a way to hate that, too, but it feels like the right thing for the Kang to do.


After an hour of going through my phone, I narrow the possible recipients of my new red Kangs to Prescott Saunders, a 48-year-old He-Man who can still shoot 30-foot 3s and catch 360s with ease, or my boy "Air Dave," a Baron Davis lookalike with audacious defense and equally audacious experiences in the penitentiary.

Before calling Prescott or Air, I write on Facebook "Anybody in the Poughkeepsie area want a brand new pair of size '13 Lebron James sneakers? Not sure I can be held responsible if u get hit upside the head for them though."

Six comments in, Kang-hater extraordinaire, Maurice "Mo" Elrod, my smooth college teammate and creator of highschoolhopefuls.com, writes, "Send them to a real hooper."

I'm reading Mo's comment and thinking about how he spent the past two years refusing to admit that the Kang did more with less in Cleveland than even Jordan could have. Jordan had Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc and Phil Jackson. The Kang had Anderson Varejao.

Three comments later, I write "… It would be poetic justice for me to offer you the Kang's sneakers, given your hate … uh, I mean, potent criticism of his game."

Seven comments later, Mo writes, "Never hate. Just the truth! I'll send you my address. Good looking, homie!"

Mo and the rest of the Kang-haters haven't said much about LeBron's overpriced X's this summer and fall, but I'm sure they'll continue to critique LeBron James this season as a decidedly "talented" freak with a teeny clutch gene. And of course, they'll create opportunities to tell the world that the Kang has no chance at catching Jordan, that KD is on his heels, that the Kang is the most mentally fragile superstar in history, that rings are the only measure of greatness.

But deep in the darkness of their homes, after the haters have tossed their powder in the air and hopped into their LBJ pajama sets, they'll readily admit to their partners or the LBJ bobblehead under their "Decision" pillow that LeBron James worked himself into becoming the only basketball player in the world for whom the word "greatness" is too small. They might even admit that going on Facebook and Twitter after the Finals and telling LeBron James that, "Now you can call yourself King," is as loony as someone 30 cents away from a quarter telling Oprah Winfrey "Now you can call yourself the queen of a media empire."

My quest for the rumored $340.20 LeBron James X has revealed that we Americans will do any and every thing with our money, our hate, our bodies and our adulation to form a relationship with that space beyond athletic and imaginative greatness. It has also revealed that we have more in common with the few human beings occupying those spaces than I thought.

Far more extraordinary than a 6-foot-8, 250-pound point guard/small forward/power forward, defensive center who eviscerated a healthy Thunder team is the American human being who creatively and routinely puts a passionate concern for people and transformative principles over profit. I am not that American human being.

Are you? I'm really asking. If Nike offered you $93,000,000 to sell gaudy $200 shoes to kids, what would you do? How would you make your decision right?

It's complicated, right? It always is.

The truth is that most of the young brothers who acquire the new LeBron X's will get them the same way I acquired my red IXs; they will buy them. This doesn't stop me from neatly placing a scribbled note inside the box I send to Maurice. "I'm glad you're becoming a member of the Kangdom," I write. "Seriously though, be careful, homie. Folks are doing anything to walk in these shoes. Be careful."

My decision won't make much of a difference at all. But it feels like the right thing to do.