This was the 1969 Final Four, which wasn’t then known as the Final Four: UCLA, with Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar and his stellar supporting cast, beat Purdue for the national title; Drake — yes, Drake — and North Carolina were the losing semifinalists. A check of photos shows that all four teams wore white high-top Converse All-Stars, the famous Chuck Taylors.
Google the photos from the next year’s championship game, and here’s what you find: UCLA, sans the man John Wooden called “Lewis Kareem,” played Jacksonville with Artis Gilmore, and nobody on the floor was wearing Chucks. They’d scrapped canvas for more exotic brands, the regal Bruins opting for white leather with three black stripes. (I believe Jacksonville sported Pro Keds, but I could be wrong.)
That Final Four will be remembered, basketball-wise, for Sidney Wicks, six inches shorter, blocking four — or five, or six; accounts vary — Gilmore shots. To those of us in our teens, it was the Adidas Final Four. By autumn 1970, even kids in smallish Kentucky towns had the precious leather sneakers with the three stripes. I know. I was one. My pal Max, a good player for a school one county over, had them, too. We wanted to be cool. Adidas was cool.
I’m older now, with no real dog in the apparel fight, but Georgia Tech allying itself with Adidas — or adidas, if we do as the company does and dispense with upper case — seems fitting and proper. Tech is not, as Tech folks will gladly attest, like most big-time athletic programs. It’s not the flagship school in its state, but darned if it doesn’t up and sink those flagships now and then. Tech isn’t the center, but sometimes it’s the bleeding edge. That’s a good thing.
Most big-time programs are Nike programs, which makes sense. Nike has the marketing might. Nike has the memory of Michael Jeffrey Jordan in full flight. But Nike has so many schools — Oregon is THE Nike school — that you see a swoosh without really seeing it. The three stripes, though … well, they’re just different enough to catch the eye.
Don’t misunderstand. Adidas is no come-lately. It was involved with Puma in what Sports Illustrated called an “Amateur Track Scandal” back in 1969, when the swoosh was still a gleam in Phil Knight’s eye. Adidas is German-based and has been a global player for nearly a century. And if you had to ask me my current pick of shoes in the ol’ closet, it’s my Stan Smiths.
Stan Smith was the No. 1 tennis player in the world — he won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — but only us old-timers recall him as such. He’s known worldwide as the guy whose name (and face) grace the white leather sneakers with three rows of perforations, as opposed to three stripes. That Adidas model has, according to CBS, sold 50 million pairs.
True story: I smacked my toe against the couch and hobbled around for a week. My foot still hurt on the day the Hawks held their Philips Arena renovation announcement. I wore my Stan Smiths with a suit because sometimes needs must. Three people, all rather younger than I, made favorable comments. Said Jelani Downing, the Hawks’ manager of corporate communications: “Those are my favorite all-time shoes.”
Stan Smith says nobody knows him, but they darn sure know his shoe. Adidas has made a 70-year-old a paragon of coolness. It should do right by a big-city corporate client in a Power 5 collegiate conference. Can’t wait to see Paul Johnson in his Stan Smiths.