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.

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?"

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner