"The Bulls are coming to Seattle and Portland," Sneaker Man says. "During that trip, I think I can get it done."
Sneaker Man's real name is Ronnie Duquette, and he is a 31-year-old purchasing manager with Ideal Steel, a metal-cutting business owned by his family. He lives in Eugene, Ore., with his wife, Elaine, their two kids, Marcus, 6, and Derek, 4, and what must surely be a world-record 300 pairs of autographed athletic shoes.
Sneaker Man started as Sneaker Boy when, as a 10-year-old, he won a contest to be a Blazers ball boy for a year. "It wasn't my goal to go collecting stuff," he says. "I was pumped just to be a ball boy." During that 1976-77 season, when Portland won its first (and only) NBA championship, he snagged his initial kicks, a pair of Corky Calhoun's Ponys. He returned as a ball boy the following season and got a pair of autographed shoes from every Blazer.
"You could say I'm a fanatic," Sneaker Man says now, "but it's not like I'm one of those fans who doesn't know his boundaries. There's a point where you just say, O.K., I'm not getting his shoes today."
You look at Sneaker Man's collection—which includes footwear other than sneakers and is stored in an attic at Ideal Steel's main office—and wonder why he uttered those words. Row upon row of autographed shoes fill the room: from those worn by Arnold Palmer to Gerry Cooney to Rick Mirer to TR. Dunn to Al Unser Jr.; from Magic Johnson to David Wood to Dan O'Brien to Lance Parrish to, well, you get the picture.
" Steve Young's a great story," he says. "I'd talked to him when he was a rookie with Los Angeles in the USFL, and he said I could get his shoes." It didn't happen then, but several years later, after Young had joined the San Francisco 49ers. Sneaker Man showed up at the Niners' training camp. "I told a security guard 1 needed to talk to Steve, to tell him it was Ron from Eugene. So the guy went over, and Steve looked at me with that expression: Who? But he came over and remembered me. I got his shoes."
In seeking footwear, Sneaker Man relies on the straightforward approach. "I usually walk up, explain myself and ask if I could have the player's shoes," he says. There are also the three tattered Polaroids, each depicting his collection from a different angle, that go everywhere Sneaker Man goes. "They show that I'm not a dealer," he says. "It seems everyone's out to make a buck these days. I want them to see that I'm just a guy who collects shoes." Sometimes, it takes good timing (the night he was able to get Terry Cummings, Sidney Moncrief and Ricky Pierce all in one swoop). Mostly it takes patience. Hotel lobbies, Sneaker Man says, are a Sneaker Man's best friend. "If you can catch the players when the team's checking in," he says, "you have a shot."
Hence, here we are on a sunny Saturday morning, pacing the lobby of Seattle's plush Four Seasons Hotel like a couple of expectant dads. One hour passes, and another. Then, smack. "It's them," Sneaker Man whispers. The 20 or 30 other people in the lobby rise, as if being approached by God, while the Bulls saunter through the main entrance. Bill Wennington, Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler come through first. Then Luc Longley, Robert Parish, Randy Brown, Dickey Simpkins and Michael Jordan.
I glance over at Sneaker Man, who does absolutely nothing. Jordan walks right by us—20 inches away, max—without any reaction from Sneaker Man. "The moment wasn't right," Sneaker Man says afterward, sensing my disappointment. "You have to feel these things out sometimes."