Following in my children’s Converse footsteps

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 20, 2022.

Who was Chuck Taylor anyway?

I didn’t have a clue, but his name was on the sneakers I coveted as a kid. Converse Chuck Taylors – “Cons” or “Chucks” for short – were worn by 80% of college and professional basketball players in the 1960s. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points wearing them one night.

In 1968, I was an 8-year-old working on my behind-the-back dribble at Kennedy Recreation Center in Providence. Would a pair of Chucks up my game? I was counting on it.

Turns out Chuck Taylor was a journeyman semi-pro basketball player from the Midwest who suited up for a string of teams in the 1920s, including the Columbus Commercials and, presciently, the Akron Firestone Non-Skids. Legend has it, he walked into the Converse factory in Malden, Massachusetts one day complaining of sore feet. He also had an idea or two about how the company could improve its recently introduced basketball shoe.

Taylor must have been a better salesman than set shooter because by 1932, canvas Converse high-top sneakers bore a patch with his signature. Chuck Taylor All-Stars had arrived.

When I first set foot in the Kennedy Rec gym, I was wearing a pair of sneakers my mother had bought for me at Grants department store. Their plastic soles were hard as ice, and I skated across Kennedy’s blond hardwood floor every time I tried to come to a stop. After begging my father for a pair of Cons, he took me downtown to Geller’s on Washington Street. I walked out wearing a pair of Coaches – a Converse sneaker similar to Chucks, but three dollars cheaper. It was a step in the right direction.

When I did finally lace up my first pair of Chucks as a freshman point guard at La Salle, Converse’s foothold on the basketball shoe market was beginning to wane. Adidas, Puma, and Nike were making inroads, and by my senior year, I was one of only a few players on our team still wearing the iconic canvas high-tops. My favorite Converse tagline – “Limousines for the feet” – may have been a copywriting masterpiece, but it stretched credulity when I compared my sweat-stained kicks to a fancy pair of leather Nikes or Pumas. Chucks as basketball shoes were now less like limousines and more like Model Ts.

Converse upped its game in the 1980s with the introduction of its own leather basketball shoes, the Pro and the Weapon. The company also snared endorsements by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson who, in addition to skyrocketing their sport’s popularity as they faced off in three epic NBA Finals, hawked the Converse brand in television and print advertisements.

And what about Chucks? Did they fade away like the two-handed set shot and underhand free throw? Far from it, thanks to an embrace from counterculture music icons ranging from the Ramones and the Sex Pistols to Joan Jett and Kurt Cobain. Cons were classic, affordable, and cool, and their street chic endures to this day. Just ask Vice President Kamala Harris, who proclaims, “It’s either Chucks or heels. Always has been!”

Closer to home, I praised my daughter’s fashion sense when she walked into our kitchen one day wearing a pair of light-blue Chucks. And my son Evan recently returned from Los Angeles sporting black high-top Cons.

I’d like to think my kids are following in my footsteps, but I know better. As I lace up my first new pair of Chucks in almost 40 years – to wear to the office and rock invisibly during Zoom meetings – I realize I’m following in theirs.

17 Comments

Very cool! The Great Mandella (wheel of life)
Deb

I thought Chuck Taylor was an astronaut, always wondered how he ended up on a sneaker. Thanks for a great one, and clearing that up.

The aroma of sweat, the echo of the ball reverberating through the rafters…all wrapped in the comfort of a fine pair of Chuck Taylors. Life as we once knew it. Thanks for the ride down memory lane.

No doubt that the fates were kinder to Chuck than his actual record on the court deserved. Then there’s one of my all-time favorite players, who deserved much but got virtually nothing. That would be Bevo Francis. He played for tiny Rio Grande College, still holds the all-time NCAA record for average per game (48.3), and scored over 100 points at least three times. Bevo had a chance to go pro, but declined. I’m guessing Bevo had to buy his own Chucks.

That’s nice.

Haberdashery was my basketball. As a freshman fashionplate at Classical High, my most sought-after footwear were Bally boots. My first pair, courtesy of my Uncle Arthur, truly upped my game.

Just ask Denise …

    Uncle Arthur must have been a cool dude.

      The coolest. Arthur Beatini. My mother’s youngest sibling. Never married. My father passed when I was seven. Unc, who lived with us, took on the responsibilities attendant to caring for Ma and me in every way. He lived with me after Ma had left the building, and I cared for him until he followed her in his 91st year. Thank you for your kind and accurate mention.

Chuck got more credit than his actual record justified. One of my long-ago heros deserved credit but never got it. He was Bevo Francis, who played for tiny Rio Grande College in the 50’s. Bevo still holds the all-time NCAA record of 48.3 points average per game. He scored over 100 points at least three times. He was drafted by the NBA but declined. I’m guessing that Bevo probably had to buy his own Chucks.

Entertaining and educational as always! Thanks John!

Ernie

John, don’t under sell yourself-dads can be cool too.

I hadn’t thought about Chuck Taylor sneakers in decades. I’m glad they are still in production. Thanks for bringing back some memories. Neil S.

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