When I think of great athletes who’ve worn the Air Jordan XI Concord, a few immediately come to mind. The most obvious one is Michael himself, who famously debuted the sneaker during the 1995 NBA Playoffs. Then you have Allen Iverson, who broke both ankles and necks at Georgetown.
And right up there with both of those legends – for me, at least – was a guy by the name of Nate James.
If you don’t recall the name, which is perfectly understandable, James was a Duke swingman in the late 90’s and early 2000’s while I was a student there. Playing in the shadow of All-Americans Shane Battier and Jason Williams, James averaged a workmanlike 12 points for the Blue Devils’ 2001 title team, mostly on corner threes. He’s now an assistant coach.
James’ signature play was tipping in the game-winner in the 2001 ACC Tournament semifinals against Maryland, a really nice moment for a guy who tended to blend in amid a host of future NBA players. I couldn’t help but notice his choice of footwear: A pristine pair of Concords, which James wore a good number of times that season.
As a budding sneaker aficionado, it wasn’t the first time I was riveted by a player’s sneakers; I once got a pair of Vis Zoom Uptempos primarily because of Corey Maggette, with Allan Houston’s heroics also a factor. What fascinated me in particular about James’ kicks was that they represented the most well-known basketball alumnus of Duke’s hated rival.
It’s no coincidence that Air Jordans have been rendered taboo for Duke players at various points in time. James, however, was known to be somewhat of a badass, the sort of dude who would wear whatever shoe he damn well pleased, even on UNC’s home floor. (It was likely no coincidence that Julius Peppers also sported Concords much of the time.)
While nowhere near as cool or as tough as Nate James, I used to wear Jordan shirts around campus all the time, considering it a mild act of rebellion. But without a whole lot of disposable income, my first pair of Concords would have to wait a while.
Fourteen years after I graduated, I still like watching Duke basketball, but it’s no longer appointment television for me. I record most games and watch later, generally opting for a TV-free dinner with my wife. None of this is a bad thing, of course — our interests and priorities evolve over time, generally for the better. It’s just how things go.
And yet, some things never change: All these years later, I’m still fascinated by the sneakers players use to represent their individuality on the court. I include a “Sneaker of the Week” in the weekly college hoops articles I write for Finish Line, and thanks to Jahlil Okafor, I’m currently in the market for a pair of LeBron X Prisms. (Size 9, for the record.) I can’t wait to see if someone can top Arizona reserve Trey Mason’s first-game AZG’s from last year, an instant classic.
Past the sneakers, much of what makes the NCAA Tournament so alluring is the transitory nature of the whole thing. Players obviously also depart teams in the pros, but college basketball has its own built-in hourglass that starts dwindling the moment a player steps on campus. This time of year, every time you watch a senior or one-and-done type play for your team, it might be the last time.
March Madness thrives on moments because that’s exactly what they are: Singular moments in time. Buzzer-beaters and upsets burst onto the scene non-stop on the first Thursday and Friday and almost instantly begin fading away to the nether regions of your Twitter feed. Even the most indelible scenes — Laettner’s shot, Valvano looking for someone to hug, Webber’s ill-fated time-out — feel like old home movies played on a projector.
But no matter how faded our experiences and memories get, they’re still a part of our fabric, ready for us to call back up when we want or need to.
I finally landed a pair of Concords when they retroed in 2011, and with my wife’s encouragement – God bless her – I wore them for my wedding.
Like everyone said it would, that wonderful day went by at lightning speed, while I attempted in vain to take it all in. I recall just a few fleeting moments – breaking the glass, my best man’s speech, locking eyes with my wife walking down the aisle.
Before everything got crazy, I remember lacing up the Concords for the first time. I couldn’t help but think about Nate James for a second and smile. A decade after Nate’s tip-in, I finally had my pair.
For once, I even felt like a badass.