And so from basketball's Jermaine O'Neal (who has called jersey-collecting a competitive sport among his Pacers teammates) to baseball's Cliff Floyd (who has a thing for old Sixers, be they Billy Cunningham, Jelly Bean Bryant or Moses Malone) to football's Warren Sapp (who has built a closet for his throwbacks and usually refuses to buy jerseys of quarterbacks) to rap star Fabolous (who accessorizes his more than 500 vintage jerseys with matching warmups), the phenomenon has become, as Hyman puts it, "Prada for men." On his album Street Dreams, Fabolous gives a shoutout to the guys at Mitchell & Ness: Rube, tell Pete to keep it comin'.
Capolino has long since bumped up Harley's salary and perks, as well as his title, to vice president of marketing. (As he lives larger and larger, Big Rube's jersey size enlarges, too; since joining M&N in 2001, he's up one notch to an XXXXL.) Running a circuit that includes music awards shows and All-Star weekends, he's now equal parts traveling salesman, product-placement guy, design guru, public face, and confidant to the stars. His cellphone chirps constantly. "Wassup?" he answers, and, inevitably, "Watchagot?" But his conversations with clients go beyond crude commerce. Having achieved the same meteoric success as so many of the rapmasters and superstars he services, Big Rube patiently and compassionately hears out his clients as if—well, as if he were Oprah.
Just don't utter the f word in his presence. "A fad is here today, gone tomorrow," Harley says. "This isn't a fad, because it can't be. These uniforms are the history of sports. They're just like the players wore them, down to the fabric and stitching and lettering. Styles come and go, but you can't change the 1979 Magic Johnson jersey. It has its place in time."
By definition, a cutting-edge trend can't begin with a mass-marketing campaign. Style dictated from the top down will have no Kid Zero, no Promethean urchin who spilled onto the sidewalk one inspired morning in customized joints or a jersey that no one had ever rocked. In the late '80s, as Nike, Reebok and Adidas turned to multimillion-dollar endorsers and flogged signature lines of basketball shoes, kids on the street could no longer ask, "Ay yo, Money, where'd you get those?" Everyone knew, because everyone wore the same few things.
Robert (Bobbito) Garcia, author of Where'd You Get Those? New York City's Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987, is a music consultant, deejay, movie actor and writer but also an over-the-moon basketball Benny, a former pro ballplayer in Puerto Rico who still travels with a trick ball handling troupe, Project Playground, that does halftime shows around the world. Garcia cut off his sneaker survey in '87 because that's when the money and marketers took over—when high school stars began to choose colleges based on whether the team wore Nikes, and basketball shoes became, as Garcia writes, "over-designed and straight-up ugly."
Bobbito is a throwback himself, to an era when kids weren't blindly brand-loyal. Coming of age in New York City during the late '70s and the '80s, he cared less about a shoe's provenance than its look, feel, performance and ability to confer distinction. "Envy is one of the seven deadly sins, and the easiest way to avoid it is to always be ahead of everyone in the sneaker game," he writes. While watching NBA games on TV, he confesses, he used to hope players would go down with ankle sprains, so the camera would bore in and he could check out brand, lacing, colors and customizations.
Garcia recalls a day in the early '80s when an interloper showed up at Harlem's Goat Park, "a white dude with an old school jump shot like butter, like he'd played with the Fort Wayne Pistons. He had on a pair of One-Stars"—the Converse model that appeared in stores for the 1974-75 season and disappeared, just like that. Was it the guys's game that had Bobbito and his posse fiending for those shoes? Or the shoes that had them bugging over his game? In the retelling, Garcia can't divorce one from the other. In his head, style and substance had long since merged into one.
You might think Garcia would welcome the vogue in retro shoes, for it's allowing kids to recapture the foot-fetishism that fired his own youth. But as a connoisseur, not a collector, he rolls his eyes at patrons of Soho boutiques like Classic Kicks, and the Alife Rivington Club, a tiny, signless, buzz-your-way-in space on a half-abandoned, graffiti-festooned block on the Lower East Side, where the door opens onto deep-pile carpet, wood paneling and wall-mounted glass display cases of shoes in hard-to-find colors.
"Some of us have been retro for 30 years," Bobbito says, "and now we've got people wearing jerseys who don't even play ball. I mean, they suck at ball. Everything's been taken so far out of context. Now sneakers have become such icons that they're being bought and never worn. Yeah, we used to buy joints, put 'em on ice, then bust 'em out a few years later to be able to say, 'Ha! You're not wearing these? But to never wear 'em? It's freaky.
"A lot of people assume that the NBA influences kids, and that's true. But kids influence the NBA, too, especially with so many players in the league so young and from urban communities heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. Off-season, guys come back around, see the thin sideburns, the Uptowns, the Mitchell & Ness and say, 'Lemme rock that s—in the league next year!'