BELLEVILLE, N.J. -- On a rainy morning in a working class neighborhood, an NBA player continued what can only be called a revolution.
New York Knicks forward Al Harrington and Golden State's Stephen Jackson are promoting an affordable shoe line they started called Protégé. This day, Harrington arrives at a Kmart, where the NBA has turned a parking lot into a glamorous outdoor arena.
|Will Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington's affordable shoe line be a successful venture? (Getty Images)|
A DJ with two turntables blasts old-school rap while cheeky and bouncing kids shoot jumpers on three sets of baskets. Harrington works his 6-9 frame up onto a stage and begins to take pictures with fans. Each person gets a handshake and sincere smile before the camera snaps. The rain drones on, and the line grows longer.
"You're doing a great thing for all of us," one woman says.
"Thank you," Harrington politely replies.
A girl on crutches with her left foot in a cast waits dutifully. Parents wait as well. The crowd is composed of all ethnicities and age ranges, and they each seem to understand what Harrington is trying to accomplish. He's making low-cost shoes specifically for people like them at a time they need them most.
"We need to shake up the shoe industry," Harrington says, "because the big shoe makers don't care about the poor."
This is a story of two NBA talents trying to do the right thing: One in Harrington, a red-blooded contrast to the stereotype of the self-centered player; the other in Jackson, who despite good intentions can't seem to get out of his own way. Jackson was scheduled to speak with Harrington but didn't show. More on that in a moment.
Both Harrington and Jackson have made tours in the New York area promoting Protégé. They are continuing what Stephon Marbury started, which is offer a well-made brand of shoe to people who can't afford to pay a small fortune. Most of Harrington's shoes are around $40.
Sports shoe and clothing cartels like Nike are unabashed in their piggishness, and athletes like LeBron James and Tiger Woods don't seem to care many of the shoe products they hawk aren't affordable in lower class neighborhoods across the country.
"I wanted to focus on empowering our kids," Harrington said. "There are still kids who can't afford expensive shoes, and there are still kids who get shot or threatened over shoes. That shouldn't happen."
"All we're trying to do," he said, "is give poor kids a chance to have some good shoes for a low price."
It's possible -- possible -- athletes like Harrington and Marbury could revolutionize the shoe market for the better. There might come a day when the underprivileged routinely have access to affordable, quality shoes, and if that day arrives, it will be because of people like Harrington.
The hurdle Harrington faces is the stigma that cheap means poor quality. It's a notion that angers Harrington, who says his shoes undergo the same rigorous quality checks as more expensive sneakers.
"Our shoes can hold their own against the Nike and Adidas, no question," Harrington said.
When message board and Internet rants from anonymous posters questioned the quality of Protégé shoes, Harrington turned to Twitter.com with a series of blistering retorts.
"Just wanna address the ppl who try and diss protégé," he wrote, "if u are in a blessed situation to not have to buy affordable anything, be blessed." He wrote in another: "but don't bash protégé. It's for ppl who are less fortunate but can buy something that looks nice and can be empowered by wearing it."
In his last tweet, Harrington wrote: "lets stop being ignorant to the situation ... if some cant afford ($100) shoes lets not try and make them feel bad becuz of it ... thanks!!!"
"I was tired of the ignorance," Harrington said. "If you can afford Jordans, these shoes aren't for you. These shoes are for people who can't pay $200 for a pair of sneakers. I saw a bunch of people writing how the shoes aren't any good. That's just ignorance. The people saying that stuff aren't kids. They're 30- and 35-year-old adults who shop at Bloomingdales. Do something better with your life than bash shoes made for people who aren't rich."
Harrington is a slice of good news in what's been a disastrous few months of athlete happenings with names like Plaxico Burress, Donte Stallworth and Mike Vick dominating the headlines.
Jackson was supposed to appear with Harrington but didn't. Jackson in the end had a scheduling conflict, according to a source, yet his no-show came simultaneously as news was made public Jackson no longer wanted to play for Golden State. It's possible the two happenings were a complete coincidence or maybe not.
Jackson isn't a stranger to alleged tomfoolery. He's one of the more underrated talents in the NBA but also one of its more confounding. It was Jackson who followed Ron Artest into the stands during the infamous MMA brawl in Detroit.
Jackson was once charged with felony criminal recklessness and misdemeanor counts of battery and disorderly conduct in a fight outside an Indianapolis night club when Jackson was a member of the Indiana Pacers. (Mom always said nothing good happens outside of a strip club after midnight.)
It's Jackson's saucy background that also makes him the perfect (imperfect?) Protégé salesman. He grew up in the rugged town of Port Arthur, Texas, where his older brother was beaten to death when Jackson was 15. Jackson himself was a gang member. That kind of childhood allows Jackson to understand some of Protégé's target clientele better than a suit working for Nike knows theirs.
But here's Jackson, a chance to show off his new line, promote his affordable kicks in front of an eager crowd -- with the NBA's backing, by the way -- and he's a no-show.
That's Jackson. The good, the bad, the ugly, the absent.
Coincidentally, the two men were once traded for another: Harrington was sent to Atlanta from Indiana for Jackson. The two would later play together in Golden State, where their friendship blossomed.
In Belleville, as the rain fell, Harrington put on the kind of sincere and impressive show that should earn him a seat next to Letterman.
After his picture taking and shooting jump shots on the makeshift court with fans, Harrington went inside Kmart to sign autographs for more than an hour.
Will Protégé work? Can Harrington's company (or Marbury's for that matter) tilt a lopsided playing field in favor of the working class for once?
"I'm crossing my fingers," Harrington said.