Is it the shoes? ...Money, it's gotta be the shoes!
—MARS BLACKMON, TO MICHAEL JORDAN, IN A NIKE COMMERCIAL
For 15-year-old Michael Eugene Thomas, it definitely was the shoes. A ninth-grader at Meade Senior High School in Anne Arundel County, Md., Thomas was found strangled on May 2, 1989. Charged with first-degree murder was James David Martin, 17, a basketball buddy who allegedly took Thomas's two-week-old Air Jordan basketball shoes and left Thomas's barefoot body in the woods near school.
Thomas loved Michael Jordan, as well as the shoes Jordan endorses, and he cleaned his own pair each evening. He kept the cardboard shoe box with Jordan's silhouette on it in a place of honor in his room. Inside the box was the sales ticket for the shoes. It showed he paid $115.50, the price of a product touched by deity.
"We told him not to wear the shoes to school," said Michael's grandmother, Birdie Thomas. "We said somebody might like them, and he said, 'Granny, before I let anyone take those shoes, they'll have to kill me.' "
Michael Jordan sits in the locked press room before a workout at the Chicago Bulls' practice facility in suburban Deerfield, Ill. He is wearing his practice uniform and a pair of black Air Jordans similar to the ones young Thomas wore, except that these have Jordan's number, 23, stitched on the sides. On the shoelaces Jordan wears plastic toggles to prevent the shoes from loosening if the laces should come untied. Two toggles come in each box of Air Jordans, and if kids knew that Jordan actually wears them, they would never step out the door without their own toggles securely in place. The door is locked to keep out the horde of fans, journalists and favor seekers who dog Jordan wherever he goes. Jordan needs a quiet moment. He is reading an account of Thomas's death that a reporter has shown him.
For just an instant it looks as though Jordan might cry. He has so carefully nurtured his image as the all-American role model that he refuses to go anywhere, get into any situation, that might detract from that image. He moves swiftly and smoothly from the court to home to charity events to the golf course, all in an aura of untarnished integrity. "I can't believe it," Jordan says in a low voice. "Choked to death. By his friend." He sighs deeply. Sweat trickles down one temple.
He asks if there have been other such crimes. Yes, he is told. Plenty, unfortunately. Not only for Air Jordans, but also for other brands of athletic shoes, as well as for jackets and caps bearing sports insignia—apparel that Jordan and other athlete endorsers have encouraged American youth to buy.
The killings aren't new. In 1983, 14-year-old Dewitt Duckett was shot to death in the hallway of Harlem Park Junior High in Baltimore by someone who apparently wanted Duckett's silky blue Georgetown jacket. In 1985, 13-year-old Shawn Jones was shot in Detroit after five youths took his Fila sneakers. But lately the pace of the carnage has quickened. In January 1988, an unidentified 14-year-old Houston boy, a star athlete in various sports, allegedly stabbed and killed 22-year-old Eric Allen with a butcher knife after the two argued over a pair of tennis shoes in the home the youths shared with their mothers. Seven months later a gunman in Atlanta allegedly robbed an unnamed 17-year-old of his Mercedes-Benz hat and Avia hightops after shooting to death the boy's 25-year-old friend, Carl Middlebrooks, as Middlebrooks pedaled away on his bike. Last November, Raheem Wells, the quarterback for Detroit Kettering High, was murdered, allegedly by six teenagers who swiped his Nike sneakers. A month later, 17-year-old Tyrone Brown of Hapeville, Ga., was fatally shot in the head, allegedly by two acquaintances who robbed him of money, cocaine and his sneakers. In Baltimore last summer 18-year-old Ronnell Ridgeway was robbed of his $40 sweatpants and then shot and killed. In March, Chris Demby, a 10th-grader at Franklin Learning Center in West Philadelphia, was shot and killed for his new Nikes.
In April 1989, 16-year-old Johnny Bates was shot to death in Houston by 17-year-old Demetrick Walker after Johnny refused to turn over his Air Jordan hightops. In March, Demetrick was sentenced to life in prison. Said prosecutor Mark Vinson, "It's bad when we create an image of luxury about athletic gear that it forces people to kill over it."
Jordan shakes his head.