Nike Air Jordan addict: hoarder, or a sneakerhead?

Mychal Denzel Smith isn't operating a branch of Niketown from his tiny bedroom in Brooklyn. It only looks that way.

There are two over-the-door shoe organisers full of sneakers, and a metal retail display rack against the wall can't fit another pair. A column of unopened Nike shoe boxes teeters over the bed, reaching nearly as high as the bookshelf next to it that is crammed with classics of black literature past and present, like Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon.

A few pairs of high-top basketball shoes rest on a plastic container at the foot of the bed, the first thing Smith sees when he wakes in this apartment he shares with three roommates.

Man, this is a lot of sneakers, you say, taking it all in.

There are more under the bed, Smith points out, trying to telegraph that he isn't a hoarder, just a sneakerhead. "What do I spend my money on?" he says. "I spend it on what you see: books and shoes."

Stepping out

Smith, a contributing writer at The Nation and an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute, didn't always have so many sneakers - upward of 200 pairs by last rough count. For a while, he mostly wore Converse Chuck Taylors.

"When I moved to New York, I was a broke, broke freelancer," he says, standing amid his collection. "Shoes were not in the budget."

But Smith, 29, soon began appearing on TV as a commentator and signed a deal for his first book, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, an impassioned memoir published in June that aims to capture what it's like to be young, black and male in America today. And with success came sneakers.

In fact, one can chart Smith's last few years in New York through the kicks he bought to mark big events. A life story told in shoes, if you will. Let's start with the Nike Air Jordan 3 Retro "Infrared 23" pair.


Smith bought them after he earned a raise from his employer.

Slam dunk

"I'd never had a pair of Air Jordan 3s before," he says. "They're the first shoe that Jordan did with Tinker Hatfield, who is Nike's golden god in terms of design. They have a huge place in the Jordan legacy."

The shoes – white-and-black high-tops, with the grey above-sole pattern known to aficionados as "elephant print" – were "heavy in the rotation" after Smith got them. So much so that the toe crease is no longer fresh and he is thinking about donating them.

Lifting his foot to show the shoes he is wearing (Air Jordan 1s in white, orange and black known as the "shattered backboard"), Smith explains that he wore them to a debate at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in New York, to "shatter" expectations of respectability.

"I kind of throw it in people's faces a little bit," he says. "Because I know there's an association people make with sneakers with a lack of intelligence, a lack of engagement with the world, with black youth, with wayward black youth."

Interrupting spaces

Marc Lamont Hill, 37, an author and distinguished professor of African American studies at Morehouse College and a mentor to Smith, says Smith brings hip-hop attitude and style to the role of public intellectual.

"Typically the price of entry to be on TV is you have to put on the suit, you have to put on the tie," Hill says. "Hip-hop is about interrupting spaces. Mychal really likes to dress like that. It's quintessentially hip-hop."

Smith says: "I need to wear my sneakers. That's when I feel most myself."

With a few exceptions, what Smith likes are high-top Nike basketball shoes, particularly Jordans. More than a decade after the player retired from the game, he still holds tremendous appeal in the sneaker world, even among young black men like Smith, who wasn't born when Jordan debuted in the National Basketball Association in 1984.

Bodily genius

In his book, Smith criticises Jordan for not being an outspoken political athlete in the way Muhammad Ali was.

But Smith also thinks that by his "bodily genius" on the court, the basketball star represented something important to black men. "He embodied a certain black cool, a black masculine cool that everyone wanted to emulate," Smith says during the interview in his apartment.

Buying and wearing big, bold, brightly coloured sneakers is a way to be associated with Jordan's cool factor and worldwide visibility.

"When I'm wearing a pair of Jordans, I feel more confident," Smith says. "I walk taller. I walk straighter."

He opens a shoe box at the foot of his bed and pulls out a pair of Air Jordan 1s in the classic red-white-and-black, a 30th anniversary reissue of the 1985 high-top that started it all.

He bought them after he finished the manuscript for his book, and got a second pair for his editor as a gift, for seeing him through the writing process.

"I knew exactly what I wanted," Smith says. "I finished my first book, I'm buying the first Air Jordans."

He still hasn't worn them. He is saving them for the first promotional event for his book.

Smith laid them back into the box. Got to keep thosee toes fresh.