Sneaker Release Trauma is real. Just ask any suffering shoe collector

All I wanted was this particular pair of Jordans I couldn't have. Of course, a shoe is never just a shoe

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 13, 2022 8:00AM (EDT)

Part of Taka Okuba's Nike Air Jordan and Air Max shoe collection. (Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Part of Taka Okuba's Nike Air Jordan and Air Max shoe collection. (Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

I'm solid. Solid because I beat poverty and figured out creative ways to make money off the police brutality I endured while remaining a strangely optimistic person. I even have a reputation for being a pretty nice person. I'm choosing not to be bitter about racism; on most days, I can handle its horrible effects. As a matter of fact, I feel like I can almost handle anything. I am proud of my resiliency, but I still feel pain sometimes. A pain that invades my chest like a sharp blade and twirls apart my innards. A pain I can't escape no matter how fast I run. I can beat it on weekdays, but most weekends — mainly Saturdays — that pain rises, causing me to suffer from a condition called Sneaker Release Trauma. 

Here is one such Saturday: The sun and I wake up at 6 a.m. sharp. I brush my teeth and tip-toe downstairs, trying not to bother my wife and daughter. Multiple alarms had been set on my phone: one for 7 a.m., then 8, 8:05, 9:45. But I didn't need them. This Saturday would be a glorious day, a Saturday to remember! A Saturday I've thought about for months. On this Saturday, Virgil Abloh and Nike are dropping the Off-White Jordan 4s in a Sail colorway.

The release of these particular shoes had been rumored for years. And like most respectable shoe addicts, I follow every sneaker blog, sneaker-related Instagram account and specialty store closely. I save every photo of the shoes that dance across my screen. Personally, I prefer the BRED (that's black and red) colorway, but Sail, which looks like creamy eggnog, is beautiful.

"Baby, did you ask your friends to bid?" I asked my wife. "Did you?" 

"Yesssss," she responded, still half asleep. "I have all of my friends and their friends on SNKRS." 

Imagine how far Dr. King could have marched if he had a pair of Off-White Jordan 4s in Sail!

I know I can't do this alone. I'm happy that my strong wife and her friends are there for me. As the Civil Rights movement taught me, achieving something big takes a community. Imagine how far Dr. King could have marched if he had a pair of Off-White Jordan 4s in Sail! Maybe Rosa Parks would have preferred walking everywhere in her own pair of those thickly padded shoes. That is, if SNKRS comes through. Spoiler alert: It often doesn't. 

SNKRS, Nike's app that runs weekly raffles for the brand's most popular shoes, has not been kind to me, or to most people I know. In response to the boom in sneaker culture and the way people hungry for kicks were bum-rushing stores and jamming websites, Nike created the app in 2015 with the goal of making the shoes more accessible to those of us who were constantly finding ourselves unlucky. It was a good gesture; however, bots seemed to dominate it from the beginning, and resellers are allowed to purchase dozens of pairs they will then turn around and resell at a profit. For example, the Off-White Jordan 4s I craved retailed for $200. But the resale price is around $1,300 on average —or $3500 for my size 14. 

The 20 notifications I set on the top of my alarms begin going off around 9:30. "Get everybody ready!" I yell out to my wife, who I was now purposely trying to wake.

"They ready!" she yells back.

We all enter the 10 a.m. raffle with a message telling us we may be in line, just wait patiently, remain optimistic, you're feeling lucky, everything will be OK . . . then, what's supposed to happen is a glorious photo of the sneakers appears, with the message we've been waiting for: "GOTT'EM."

A "GOTT'EM" screen would make us all exhale. Alas, those messages rarely come. And in the case of Off-White Jordan 4s in the Sail colorway, none of us gott'em — not my wife, not her friends, not my friends, not the fake account I set up in my baby's name. As a collective, we lost. 

Like a responsible adult, my wife went on with her day, and I imagine her friends did the same. As for me, I sat alone watching my eggs burn and my coffee freeze, feeling my heart sink past my knees, through my socks and into the sole of my Retro Jordan 5s. There it was. Sneaker Release Trauma was setting in. 

Sneaker Release Trauma is the feeling of nothingness that absorbs your happiness and decimates your soul the second you lose a sneaker raffle.

I am no scientist, but I hold Johns Hopkins-level knowledge on Sneaker Release Trauma (SRT). Yes, SRT is a real condition, and I know this because I am battling it as I write this essay. Sneaker Release Trauma is the feeling of nothingness that absorbs your happiness and decimates your soul the second you lose a sneaker raffle. Who is responsible for Sneaker Release Trauma? Easy: shoe companies. They're the ones that release limited numbers of sought-after merchandise, making customers crazy. And that indirectly fuels the resale market, pushing prices through the roof.

It wasn't always like this. In the good old days, there was no secondary market, no tents pitched in front of Foot Locker with ice-pack coolers full of drinks for people spending the night on the sidewalk so they can be first in line when the shoes are released on Saturday morning. 

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As a matter of fact, I remember when you could just go to the store and buy a pair of Air Jordans, even if you missed the release day. Even if you waited a few months after they dropped. I remember when Jordans used to go on sale for a price under retail. 

And then something in sneaker culture changed. It wasn't an explosive Big Bang moment, more like something that grew gradually over time: shoes changed, from pieces of stitched-together cloth you threw on your feet to a staple of cultural coolness, and then into a piece of our identity. Many collectors remember when they first recognized the difference. Mine began with a pair of eggplant-purple Nike Foamposites.

DTLR, a Baltimore sneaker store, used to open at 10 .m. on Saturdays. When shoes I wanted were due to be released, I would arrive around 9:50 to be first in the store. On days I couldn't make it that early, a manager would put a pair aside for me — stores don't carry many pairs in size 14 — and I would slip them a couple of extra bucks from time to time. One Saturday, like any other release Saturday, I pulled up in the lot nice and early only to see a line of about 15 people outside of the store.

I remember when Jordans used to go on sale for a price under retail. 

I always champion diversity, but I've never seen this many non-Black people assembled in a Baltimore neighborhood. 

"D, I got you," the manager said. "Be cool!" 

"Are y'all giving shoes away or something?" I asked.

The crowd laughed. The manager let about three people into the store and then came down to the end of the line to meet me. 

"Man, these purple Foams got these kids going crazy," he said. "Some of them have been here all night, like it's a drug or something. But don't worry — I got yours in the back. I know you go crazy without your shoes." 

Dude was right — I've been crazy about my shoes since I was a little kid. I fell in love with Air Jordans back when I was a tyke. This kid named Ant who lived a few doors down walked past me wearing a pair of white 3s. My hungry eyes locked in on his shoes: I had never seen anything so perfect. I just had to have them. I don't know if I got into sneakers — which we Baltimoreans called tennis — at that moment because I was getting older or if his shoes were just that great. I think they might have been that great.

"These tennis were made for the best player to ever touch a basketball ever! Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls!" Ant said.

And honestly, it didn't matter to me if they were made for the worst player. I was hooked on the shoes. I caught up with my dad at the top of the block and basically told him that my life would stop if I did not get my hands on a pair of Air Jordans. He obliged, buying himself a pair as well. Those delivered me nearly-instant status in my neighborhood, allowing me to gain attention from all of the older kids, who pointed at my feet and even saluted me for having the insight to wear the same shoes as them. We were a special community because everybody in the neighborhood wasn't hooked on Nike.

Most of the kids loved to wear wheat-colored Timberland boots — what we call "Buttas" — or 996 and 1300 New Balance. Us Jordan kids, we were different. We paid attention to detail. We wanted to be connected to greatness. We were the foundation of modern sneaker culture. I kicked on my Jordan 3s 34 years ago and have not been able to take them off. 

Owning a pair of Jordans used to feel special. It used to feel like you were part of a secret club that most didn't care about.

But a lot has happened in 34 years. Sneaker culture has gone from something that a select group of us followed to a multi-trillion-dollar industry that it seems like everyone subscribes to. Owning a pair of Jordans used to feel special. It used to feel like you were part of a secret club that most didn't care about. Now owning a pair seems mandatory. Professional wrestlers who used to perform in neon knee-high leather boots and matching Speedos are now body-slamming in the ring while wearing Jordans. I sat at a bar next to an annoying prosecutor bragging about his Jordan fetish. Skip Bayless collects them. It seems like everybody has them, seems like kids are being born with them, owning three or four colorways as soon as they pop out of the womb. And so now, buying a pair seems kind of corny, yet I still do. And I still get crushed when my number isn't called. Cue the Sneaker Release Trauma again.

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Like an idiot, I punch the SNKRS app every weekend hoping to win while knowing that I will lose. You know that Einstein quote that isn't really an Einstein quote, the one that goes, "The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?" That's me in a nutshell. Approaching the game with optimism while knowing that the most I'll get out of it is four hideous words that trigger my condition: Your Entry Wasn't Accepted. 

And when my entry isn't selected, I stand in front of the mirror and recite my special anti-SRT chant: You are a good person… You always do the right thing, most times… You take care of your family and friends… You deserve those shoes… 

Why do I deserve those shoes? I was a part of the youth culture that built sneaker culture. We didn't follow celebrities, athletes or famous musicians — they came through the streets to follow us. We are the reason why all of these high-end designers are so vested now in streetwear. Back when luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Fendi were dumping all of their money into the creation of purses, luggage and high-class loafers, we were wearing the sneakers, the sweatshirts, the cut-up jeans we bleached ourselves, and styling them in revolutionary ways that are now the standard. And now I see them using the same styles we created. Gucci even partnered with famed Harlem designer Dapper Dan after one of the brand's designers stole one of his custom looks from the '80s. If we create the culture, should I be denied the opportunity to purchase a pair of sneakers at the original sale price because an elite class with more disposable income and a better hold on technology wants to dibble and dabble in styles that were birthed in urban neighborhoods like my section of East Baltimore?  

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You are a good person… You always do the right thing, most times… You take care of your family and friends… You deserve those shoes … 

Sometimes, when I think I really, really want a certain shoe, I pay that disgusting resale price and help some shoe flipper rich while depleting my daughter's college fund. (She'll get scholarships, I hope.) It's Nike's fault, of course. Nike's inability to create enough product for everybody, or at least me, and allowing the resellers to dominate their sites, is what's making me fiscally irresponsible. Look, I'm joking — I'm not going hungry, and my kid will go to college. Don't send in your donations just yet — I'm OK. But I'm not sure every person who covets the latest Jordans release is. 

If you are from where I'm from, the joy — the rush — you get from cracking open a brand new pair of sneakers is almost unmatched. That new-sneaker joy is the only joy that a lot of people will experience, if I'm being totally honest. Feeling recognized because they knew which shoe to pick and how to style it, and then had that moment of being the slickest person in the neighborhood. 

"Oh look at you and them new shoes, he think he slicker than a can of oil!" My friends would laugh as we saluted one another after cracking open new pairs. 

That feeling. The feeling of being run down, beat down and left nothing. The ability to flip that pain into happiness in the form of shoes has been compromised by outsiders, by culture vultures who have scavenged off two generations' worth of street innovators. That's what causes Sneaker Release Trauma, and it's only going to get worse. A shoe is never just a shoe. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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