Sole Survivor

He sensed trouble the minute he stepped onto the tiled floor of the Town Center at Aurora. Everywhere he looked -- by the Star Makers photo studio and the TacoMex restaurant, around the fake trees and carts of cheap sunglasses -- guys were giving him the evil eye. Except they weren't eying him. They were staring at his shoes.

Bryan LaRoche didn't know that he'd walked into the aftermath of a debacle that, measured in shoe sizes, would have reached somewhere around a size thirteen. It had started the night before, when a handful of hard-core sneaker fans, aka sneakerheads, had hidden out in the mall parking lot, dodging security and braving the bitter January cold. Their goal: a very special combination of leather, canvas and rubber known as the Defining Moments Package, two Nike Air Jordan sneaker models -- one a reissue of the Air Jordan VI, the other a reissue of the Air Jordan XI -- to be released the next day for $295. Forget that both of these models had been reissued countless times since their first releases in the 1990s: From the gold detailing on the new shoes, to the double-shoe box tricked out with action shots of Michael Jordan, to Nike's delaying the double release for months and then decreeing that only several thousand sets would be available at select stores worldwide, this was a very big deal. And word on the street was that Finish Line, a shoe retailer in the mall, would be selling a small cache of DMPs.

But early that morning, a Finish Line employee had peeked out from behind the store's locked entrance, stared at the dozen or so bleary-eyed sneakerheads in line, and placed a sign on the door announcing that there would be no DMPs for sale. All available pairs had been shipped to New York -- obviously, to more important dealers and more important fans, the sneakerheads grumbled. Rumors soon spread that Finish Line's employees had been spotted smuggling boxes of DMPs to their cars, shoes they'd snagged for themselves. For those who had waited all night, who had dreamed of the DMP's fusion of black, white and gold perfection, it was too much to bear.


Bryan LaRoche

The former Aurora Mall is sacred ground for those who worship at the altar of the swoosh, a cathedral whose buttresses are Footaction and Foot Locker, Champs Sports and Underground Station, a place where you can get your Air Force 1s detailed, and where guys pop their trunks in the parking lot and whisper, "Yo, man, I got these Jordans..." Now that hallowed ground had been violated -- and the sneaker-clad congregation wasn't going to take it. They started yelling, then pushing and shoving. Mall security was called in as Finish Line employees cowered nervously behind the locked door. The ruckus eventually subsided, but the mall remained tense; everyone was waiting for the other sneaker to drop.

Several hours later, as LaRoche headed to his afternoon shift selling shoes at a different mall store, the unease was still palpable -- and all of it seemed directed at him. Here was this white boy, a lean 27-year-old with short brown hair and an earnest smile, wearing a suspiciously shiny pair of Air Jordan XIs. It wasn't long before someone approached him. "Where'd you get those, man? You got those this morning, didn't you?"

"Nah, man, I sure didn't," LaRoche calmly replied. "These are OGs." In other words, originals, the very shoes he'd purchased in 1996 when the Air Jordan XI was initially released. Shoes he'd worn for the past ten years but cleans so meticulously after each use that the only clue to their age is a slight yellow tinge to the white outsoles. Shoes he keeps in their original box, just like he stores his 200 or so other pairs of Air Jordans, a collection that includes original versions of every model ever released, I through XXI, plus countless reissues and never officially released sample versions, and just like he stores his entire sneaker stash, which numbers somewhere between 1,600 and 1,700 pairs.

If he'd had time, LaRoche could have talked on and on about the Air Jordan XIs on his feet. About how, when they were first unveiled at the 1995 All-Star Game, the commentators took one look at the black patent leather stretching around Jordan's mythic toes and said they looked like dress shoes; about how Jordan wore a version of them in the movie Space Jam; about how the Air Jordan XI commercial, one of his favorites, shows Jordan running down a seemingly endless basketball court, then jumping and soaring up and up and up, until finally he slams the ball off the rim and, realizing that he's a hundred feet off the court, looks at the camera as if to say, "What the hell do I do now?"

But LaRoche didn't have time to explain any of this.

Reporting to work, he learned about the riot that had almost erupted. "You better take those things off or you're going to get shot or stabbed for them," a fellow employee told him. LaRoche just laughed. "Anybody who's gonna try to steal my sneakers, they're gonna get blood on them before they get them off," he said. "They aren't getting this shit off my feet."

The world looks different through the eyes of a sneakerhead. Everything important transpires in the space between the sidewalk and your ankles; anything higher is of diminishing significance. Here a sneaker is ranked like a pro athlete, delineated by myriad statistics: what colors and styles it comes in, when it was released and how many were available for purchase, what designer created it and what each element on the shoe -- from the eyelet configuration to the insole design to the toe-box stitching -- is meant to accomplish or represent.

"But it's not just the form and the function of sneakers that appeals to us. It's more than that hot color combo or the comfortable, form-fitting feel," says Robleh Jama, co-founder of Sneakerplay.com, an online social network. "It's all about self-expression and personal style. You can tell a lot about a person just from what they have on their feet." In this world, a shoe store is not just a shoe store; it's the arena where you have to use every trick in the book and work every connection to stay in the game and get the goods.

LaRoche knows this game better than anybody. Early one morning in August, he and his wife, Veronica, are standing outside Emage, a skate shop on Platte Street. LaRoche knows it's the best place in the state to find the most exclusive stuff from Nike SB, the company's skateboarding line, including shoes like the SB high-top that's coming out today. But as the store's doors open and the handful of other sneakerheads in line rush the front counter, their shoe sizes spouting from their lips, LaRoche takes his time. He knows there will be a pair waiting just for him.

"Ten?" says Emage co-owner Brandt Wisenbaker as LaRoche reaches the counter. "Come on!" LaRoche replies, knowing full well that everyone at Emage has his shoe size down. He inspects his prize, gently rubbing his fingers over the sable-green canvas and hunter-orange swoosh, and then he's ready for phase two of his shopping trip: strutting his soled stuff. LaRoche's usually quiet demeanor is transformed; he paces the room, gesturing erratically. "Grab the medium, man!" he hollers to a guy inspecting the black elephant-print jackets.

LaRoche is the undisputed king in the small but growing domain of Colorado sneaker culture, which includes three sneaker boutiques that have opened along the Front Range in the past year -- the 400 in Denver, Installation Shoe Gallery in Boulder and Unsoled in Fort Collins. On September 23, the 400 celebrated its one-year anniversary by selling exclusive sneakers it had created with Reef, and soon Unsoled plans to auction off six pairs of Nikes designed to match the store's colors. The local scene is slowly progressing beyond athletic chains and skate stores and inching its way toward the hype of the coasts, where sneakers are the subject of major modern-art shows and sold from rosewood display cases behind unmarked doors by invitation only.

Some sneakerheads collect for street cred, their shoes the ultimate fashion accessory, sneakers so rare or valuable or outrageous that they practically set the sidewalk on fire. Others accumulate kicks as if they were pieces of art, dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars on sneakers they'd always wanted as a kid but could never afford, then locking them away forever, putting them "on ice," never letting their precious rubber feel the harsh kiss of blacktop. LaRoche is a different breed entirely. For him, it's all about spreading the love one sole at a time, finding others who are as sneaker-crazy as he is.

"When people ask, 'Why do you love sneakers?,' I say it does everything for me. It's fashionable. I love the stories behind a lot of sneakers; I love the materials, everything. You can wear your passion on your own feet," he says. "And that's my favorite thing, to talk to people about sneakers."

Jordan heads, Dunk heads, SB heads, Air Force 1 heads, Air Max heads, Vans heads, Adidas heads, New Balance heads, Reebok heads -- LaRoche can rap with them all. He's been known to hang out with the guys standing in line all night in front of Niketown on the 16th Street Mall, swapping war stories with people like Dominique Thomas, a sneakerhead nicknamed "The Line Pimp" because he's the first in line at major sneaker events all over the country. He can chat about where to find the best "dead stock," or discontinued sneakers, with local shoe hunters like Luke Price, who scours Nordstrom Rack and Salvation Army thrift stores for great deals on super-rare sneakers, and Jelani Bryant, who jet-sets to undisclosed Philadelphia mom-and-pops to get his kick fix. And despite his own affinity for Nike, LaRoche will even listen thoughtfully to Ken Toledo, who's set aside an entire room in his Lakewood home for his 600 to 750 pairs of Pumas, as he talks about how that company is quietly pushing the aesthetic and technical envelopes.

As for the novices who've just begun to slip their feet into the comfy canvas-and-leather confines of sneaker culture, LaRoche will tell them that, yes, they can amass a killer collection without a six-figure job or Hollywood connections. "I tell kids, you can do it," he says. "You can discipline yourself. Don't buy candy, don't buy T-shirts. You can save. I did." And while he would never sell his collection for profit -- each shoe is too special, too personal -- if a kid really, really wants a certain sneaker and LaRoche has a few extra pairs, "I would sell some of my stuff, but you gotta prove to me you are never gonna sell it again," he explains. "You gotta write me an essay and tell me why you really love them, and I might hand them over. I would shed a tear over losing this stuff, so tell me something deep."

No wonder many sneakerheads refer to LaRoche in almost mythical terms. "I would say he is kind of like a brain surgeon of sneakers," says Chris Weichert, owner of Unsoled.

"He's up there on the international level," says DeJongh Wells, vice president of business and advertising for the sneaker magazine Sole Collector and a friend of LaRoche's. "He is at the level of a lot of celebrities and musicians."

LaRoche doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk. He's not afraid to rock any pair he owns, whether the sneakers are worth $5 or $5,000. But doing so involves braving a dangerous world where old bubble gum and blacktop tar lurk underfoot like land mines, destruction from above threatens in the form of pigeon droppings, and happiness is a stretch of clean, dry linoleum. "There'll be times where you step close to his sneakers or he steps near a puddle of water, and he'll just kind of stop and brush his sneakers off," says Adam McCombie, another friend. "He needs to know they're safe."

Every night LaRoche cleans what he wore that day, removing pebbles from the outsoles, applying special cleaners to the leather and canvas, and packing the original tissue paper back into the toe box just right to prevent permanent creases. Then he'll scour the next day's weather reports, since the best kicks are reserved for sunny days and he'll need to pack an extra, all-weather pair if there's the slightest chance of rain. And finally there's the challenge of dressing from the feet up, selecting something that will match not just his choice of sneakers, but also that day's routine. Today, in honor of the big SB release, he's wearing SB from head to toe: a pair of low-top SB Dunks designed in outlandish colors by punk artist Pushead, complemented by a pair of SB socks designed to look like green, white and orange SB "Eire" sneakers, and topped off by a black-and-purple SB T-shirt.

Veronica, who's been talking with an Emage employee, looks over at her husband, who's pulling off a sneaker to show a multi-colored sock. She shakes her head and laughs. "It took him an hour to get ready today," she says.

At first glance, LaRoche's one-bedroom apartment looks like pure chaos, with towers of shoe boxes stacked on every inch of floor space in the living room like a Lilliputian cardboard metropolis. After a few minutes' study, however, a color-coded classification system becomes clear. In the corner, looming over all the rest, is the Air Jordan section, each midnight-black box emblazoned with a signature Jordan "Jumpman" logo. The SB subdivision dwells in two territories: the newer items, in black-and-purple boxes, are gathered around the dining-room table, while the older stuff, sheathed in vintage SB pink and gray, crawls up the wall by the end table. What remains of the Nike contingent, the sneakers entombed in indiscriminate corporate orange, congregates by the heater. And huddled nervously on one small spot on the carpet are a few blood-red Puma boxes, their white-cat logos forever leaping to the left.

With LaRoche acting as a sneaker archaeologist, sorting through the arcane artifacts and studying the strata of orange and black and gray, a story emerges from the assemblage. While it's only a partial tale -- the vast majority of his collection is dispersed among family and friends, stashed in undisclosed locations halfway across the country -- it's still a pretty thorough biography told by hundreds and hundreds of leather tongues.

There are many valuable and outrageous kicks in this room -- from a pair of 1989 Nike Air Pressures (the big swoosh's version of the famous Reebok "Pump") to a pair of SB Jordan P-Rods, the only Nike ever to sport both a swoosh and a Jumpman -- but what may be LaRoche's favorite pair, what's referred to in sneaker culture as his "holy grails," is remarkably plain. It's a pair of all-white Nike Court Classics, decorated with a simple navy swoosh, probably size one (though it's hard to know for sure because the number has long since worn off). This was LaRoche's first pair of Nikes, a present from his father on his third birthday.

It was far from a simple present; it was also an introduction to the family tradition. In the rare spare time he had from his factory job, LaRoche's father would show his only child how to take a toothbrush and soap to a sneaker's outsole. His mother would skip that book or blazer she wanted so that when the family went to Athlete's Foot or Foot Locker, they could come home with two pairs of shoes -- one to be placed in the father's closet, one to be slipped under the son's bed. And LaRoche would listen in as his dad and his uncles and his grandfather talked for hours -- not about politics or religion or sports teams, but about shoes.

LaRoche rummages through his collection and pulls out an ancient orange box. Ever so gently, he removes a pair of banana-yellow sneakers swathed in plastic wrap, their disintegrating foam soles held together by rubber bands. These are the 1980 Air Mariahs, he says, holding them as if they were the Hope Diamond. These were Nike's first racing flats, shoes so light, so airy, that they felt like "running on feathers." Just holding them, LaRoche can feel the blacktop underfoot, his muscles aching and his lungs on fire. It feels like home.

"Sneakers are the tool of running. It's just like a glove to a baseball player, a golf club to a golf player," explains Michael LaRoche, Bryan's father and a runner who still competes in middle-distance races. Bryan ran just like his father, just like his grandfather, just like his hero, Steve Prefontaine. He ran the LaRoche way, with 110 percent passion, in blizzards, in 40 mph winds. He ran until he got sponsorships from Powerbar and Oakley and moved to Colorado after high school to train at altitude. And he learned that while his family might not have had much, what they did have -- their running, their passion and their shoes, of course -- should be valued above all else.

"I think what I get from my father is valuing everything I own. And the most important thing he owned were his sneakers. Not his car, not where he lived, not some furniture or some TV," remembers LaRoche, leaning gently against one of his many stacks of shoes. "So whatever I got from my parents, I took very good care of. My sneakers were something to treasure, to cherish, something to put right next to your trophies. And to be passionate about 110 percent. It's a family thing: Whatever you do, be 110 percent about it."

Luckily for young LaRoche, he grew up just outside the capital of all sneakerdom. His grandfather took him right to the heart of it, taking the train with him from upstate New York though Grand Central and into the boroughs -- Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx -- to stores like Jew Man's and Frankel's, places with legendary selections of Diadoras and Etonic Trans Ams and Le Coxes. Here on the streets, LaRoche saw that your Puma Clydes and your Chuck Taylor All Stars were tools, whether you were breaking on cardboard or doing the dipsy-do under playground backboards. From boomboxes, he heard Run-DMC hollering, "I walk down the street and I bop to the beat/With Lee on my legs and Adidas on my feet." And he got the message loud and clear: Sneakers aren't just a fashion accessory, they're a lifestyle.

LaRoche pulls a notebook from the clutter. Its cover is warped with age; the yellowed pages are plastered with photos of Nike Air Wildwoods, Nike Waffle Racers and Nike Zoom Extras clipped from magazines. He flips to the inside back cover, where, in a thirteen-year-old's unsteady handwriting, lists descend down the page. "Nike Duelist PR 91, $53.49, June 22, 1991. Air Icarus 91, $53.98, August 10, 1991. Air Pegasus Racer 92, $65, December 26, 1991." This is the journal he kept when he got home from school, still wearing the Jordan jumpsuit that made other kids laugh and call him Nike Man. This is what he did while his parents were at work and there was no one to talk to. He'd scour his father's running magazines and the sneaker-tech sheets he'd begged from store clerks and make list after list of the sneakers he wanted and the sneakers he had, of the technology behind the insoles, of the science of the air pockets.

This was where it all came together -- the perfectionist drive he got from running, the sneaker lifestyle he learned on the streets, his family's 110 percent passion. "He was an only child," says Michael LaRoche. "And distance running is kind of a lonely sport. There's very little reward in it, except an individual reward for yourself that you can do it. And so he went and found something that interested him, and he latched onto it. And when you do that, you try to find everything about it."

"It's part of my own personality," says Bryan LaRoche, slipping the notebook back into a pile. "It's like anything. If you are passionate about it, you want to be educated about it. If you love something, take care of it." But he didn't want to just take care of a shoe, a bit of rubber and leather and canvas. He wanted to cherish everything about that shoe.

There was only one company, one type of shoe, that could satisfy such a quest. "Nike was just the brand for me," says LaRoche. "It fulfilled every need I had." The brand fit him like the perfect sneaker. Here was a company built on unrelenting innovation, imbuing shoes with the importance of rocket science since its founders first designed outsoles based on an old waffle iron in 1972. It was a company that marketed not just a shoe but a lifestyle, a world populated by "Nike Guys," mythical athletes and iconoclasts who always gave 110 percent, guys like Prefontaine and, later, a wunderkind from the University of North Carolina who defied gravity every time he stepped on the court. It was a company that unleashed sneaker after sneaker after sneaker, leaving its fans thirsting for more. It was a company that told LaRoche, with unwavering certainty, "Just do it."

So he did.

Veronica LaRoche will never forget The Talk. The first time she met her future father-in-law, he sat her down and said, "We have certain passions that other people will find very weird. My son is going to love sneakers forever. You either have to love it or find someone else. This is what you look forward to until the day you die."

She didn't need The Talk, though. "I wanted someone who was a little bit different, and I definitely got what I asked for," she says. She might not have realized what she was getting into when she met the shy, polite Niketown employee who helped her try on shoes, but she knew it as soon as they started going out and he told her, "You can't hang out with anyone but me."

Coming from most guys, this would sound like a macho thing. But she'd seen enough of how LaRoche treated his sneaker collection to know that he didn't mean it that way. "At that point I realized this was someone who knew what was his was his, and he took care of the things he loved. It meant he would love me, care for me and take care of me," she says. "It's like I am one of the most valued items in his life. To relate it to a sneaker collector, I am, for him, a first-edition Jordan I."

That's why, two months into their relationship, she asked him when they were getting married. And that's also why, when they recently visited Flight Club, one of New York City's hottest sneaker stores, she had no problem dropping $500 on a limited-edition pair, causing LaRoche to exclaim, "I'm turning her! She's come to the dark side!" And that's why today, sitting outside a downtown coffee shop, she's rocking a pair of plaid "Prison Issue" Vans sneakers in such fantastic colors that passersby stop and say, "I love your shoes."

Of course, she admits, sneaker life has its downsides. Setting aside hundreds of dollars every month for her husband's fix, turning big shoe releases into full-day outings; waking up to find that LaRoche has been up all night, plugged into niketalk.com, slamxhype.com and hypebeast.com: Sometimes 110 percent sneaker passion is 10 percent too much. "A lot of time I feel it is out of hand," she says. "It almost makes me wonder, do I really matter?"

But she mattered enough for LaRoche to shift the focus of his obsession. When they got together, he was digging his job at Niketown, winning employee-of-the-month awards, hearing talk of a promotion. But Veronica had a jealous ex-boyfriend who also worked at the store, and he decided to make things rough for LaRoche, she says. The kudos and promotion rumors disappeared. It didn't matter that LaRoche was the biggest sneakerhead around; his nemesis had more connections, was a bigger part of team Nike. LaRoche didn't understand what was happening until he read a profile of Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, which detailed how he used his iconic "Nike Guys" to build a company that celebrated unwavering competition and thumbed its nose at social conventions.

That's when LaRoche understood the cold ruthlessness behind "Just do it," that ubiquitous motto. "I wasn't fitting the team if I didn't just go with the flow," he says. "If they like you, you don't have to follow the rules. It's all about who you know, not what you know. And that bothered me."

Eventually he quit his job, leaving the position he'd wanted since he was five years old. In the past he would have dealt with the loss by hitting the blacktop, but not anymore. He'd suffered a few injuries, and then there was Veronica. "His passion for running really switched when I came into the picture, because he wanted to be with me," she says. "He chose me over being committed to his running." One day he stopped running altogether.

Other than Veronica, all he had left were his sneakers -- and he crawled deep inside them. "When all of that stuff went down, it's like a part of him died, and in a sense it got revived with major collecting," Veronica recalls. "He delved into it ten times more when he faced opposition from other people. He saw the shoes as loving him back. They are his, and they don't talk back. They will always be there for him."

LaRoche picked a hell of a time to lose himself in his shoes. By now, sneaker-obsessive disorder had reached pandemic proportions across the country. It was no longer just about getting the kicks with the flashy designs or the sneakers that Jordan wore when he nabbed his career-high 69 points; it was about scoring the ultimate limited-edition pair, one of only 420 or 150 or one worldwide, shoes so rare that to get them you had to stand in line for days and pay $500 at the counter and then risk getting mugged by a sneaker-hungry thug on the corner. And before you even had time to catch your breath, you were back online, back on the phone with your contact at the mall, obsessing over the next release and the next release and the next after that. The new "Nike Guy" was a relentless competitor -- and the sport was shoe consumption.

Taking a new job at a shoe store at the Aurora Town Center, LaRoche kept up with it all: hyper-strikes, sample shoes, U.K.-only colors, customs, China knockoffs, graffiti-artist collaborations, reissues and retailer tie-ins. "This whole thing seems to be a marketing effort to hype the brand rather than the business model," says David Jacoby, co-producer of It's the Shoes, an ESPN show dedicated to sneaker culture. "When they come out with 200 pairs of shoes, they are not doing it for the profit margin. They are doing it for the snowball effect that grows and grows and grows, and becomes in a way an advertisement. A hundred pairs of shoes gets talked about by four million kids."

Veronica understands what drives her husband, why he's always fiending for the next sneaker fix. She's felt that way herself; it's what led her heart to stop for three minutes when she was eighteen and her veins were filled with heroin and speed. "I come from a world of addiction," she explains. "The same love he experiences for his shoes is the same I had for drugs, though his is socially acceptable in today's society. We are no longer consuming for basic needs. We are consuming for wants and desire. And that's an addiction."

"What's going on, man?!" This is how LaRoche welcomes every customer, and the eagerness in his voice barely hints at the experience lying in store. LaRoche never just punches the clock; the shop's sleek metal racks and wall displays are his court, and every shopper is another chance for him to fly, to dunk, to be like Mike. "It's pretty much the only job I've ever had," he says. "I could definitely work somewhere else and make a lot more money, but I couldn't do what I love and I couldn't talk to sneakerheads all day." The in-store discount doesn't hurt, either.

So when you walk in, LaRoche will tell you about each shoe on the wall: the Adidas Adicolors you can customize in personal colors, the RBK G-Units endorsed by rapper 50 Cent, the new Reebok Pumps that inflate automatically mid-stroll, the Nike+ shoes that transmit data about running workouts to your iPod. If you want to know when the new Nike Court Forces will come out, he has a printout of all upcoming releases. If you start mouthing off about Nike sweatshops halfway around the world, he'll stop and ask, "Aren't you wearing Banana Republic and Gap?" If he's busy, he'll refer you to one of the other sales associates working that day, each presumably pumped up by the old Air Jordan commercials and the sneaker documentary Just for Kicks that LaRoche plays on the store's video screens.

At the end of the day, LaRoche still hunches over his notebooks. But rather than list shoes, he now records his work day, evaluating his sales and in-store performance. It's all prep work, all planning for a future that stretches well past the time when the sneakerhead craze goes the way of Beanie Babies and trucker hats. "You know who the guys are who are going to be there when it's not a fad anymore," says friend Thomas Gilner. "Bryan is going to be a sneakerhead the rest of his life."

Since he's in it for the long haul, LaRoche knows it's not the end of the world if he doesn't get a particular shoe. "You miss out on one fucking shoe, come on," he says. "If I miss out on a Dunk SB or a Jordan, I just look in my apartment. I have 500 friends in my apartment."

And sometimes he ignores even those. "There are times when, other than the shoes on my feet and the fantasies in my head, I shut it all off," he insists. "Sneakers aren't going to save your life. They aren't going to save your soul."

But, he believes, sneakers can make dreams come true. That's why he and Veronica are buying a house in New York, just down the street from his parents, a few miles from the high-school track he pounded day in and day out, a couple of hours up the line from the city that embodies the soul of the sole. He's planning on purchasing a storefront in a nearby town and placing a sign out front that reads "Upstate Kicks" or "Sneaker Library." He envisions a two-part operation, half devoted to shoe sales and half to a sneaker museum, the latter showcasing gems from his collection and those of his friends and family. Shoes will be broken down not just by brand, but by fashion, year and technology. And whenever a big new retro shoe comes out, like a reissued Air Jordan, he'll be sure to wear the original to work. "It's been my dream ever since I was a kid," he says. "And it's my family's dream, too."

LaRoche recognizes that breaking into the business won't be easy. He's seen enough kids wearing shoes with crooked swooshes, make-believe "Air MVP" logos and unheard-of designs to know how many fake sneakers are pouring out of unsanctioned factories and flooding the market. He's watched enough guys buy out entire lines of new shoes and then hawk them on eBay for double, triple, ten times their original price to know that the online resale business is big competition. He's heard enough small shoe-store owners complain about Nike's eternally frustrating internal sales and distribution system to know that getting the best in-store selection of shoes doesn't depend on how big a sneakerhead you are, but on cash and connections.

But he's willing to risk it, to pursue his dream the LaRoche way -- with 110 percent passion. "I am going to pull every connection I've got," he declares. Somehow, he's going to open his shoe store/museum, a celebration of plastic and foam and canvas and leather and laces and Velcro the likes of which the world has never seen.

"That would do it for me," he says. That would solidify his family legacy, fulfilling the aspirations of his father, his uncles and his grandfather. That would make him feel like he did when he used to win marathons. That would make him feel like he was actually in the Air Jordan commercial he loves so much, the one for the Air Jordan XI, jumping off the basketball court and soaring up and up and up, until finally he slams the ball off the rim and, realizing he's a hundred feet off the court, thinks to himself, "What the hell do I do now?"

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