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.