The NBA sneaker scene ascended to rarified air this season when the league tweaked restrictions on what shoe colors its players can wear on the court, enabling them to show off their creativity via footwear on a nightly basis. The monumental change set a new precedent for a league that had otherwise monitored and enforced strict rules on the sneakers worn during games. With the shift in regulation, players have hit the ground running and have made a seismic impact on the sneakers fans get to see on the hardwood.
Enter Joe La Puma, the host of Complex's "Sneaker Shopping," the No. 1 sneaker series on the web, who's been at the forefront of sneaker and street culture at Complex for the last 12 years. As host of "Sneaker Shopping," La Puma gives millions of fans a look into the personal lives of the biggest names in music, sports and pop culture from the feet up, including the major players in the NBA sneaker game like P.J. Tucker, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas and Draymond Green among others.
In an exclusive interview with CBS Sports, La Puma discussed the NBA loosening its rules toward footwear, the state of Nike's major signature lines, how Under Armour has evolved into a force to be reckoned with and all things involving the current state of the association when it comes to sneakers.
CBS Sports: The NBA altered its sneaker rules prior to this season. How has that changed the way players handle the shoes they're rocking on the court?
Joe La Puma: What's really been great about the rules bending a little bit is that we've come so far from the Jordan 1 ban, where you weren't even allowed to wear shoes in colors that didn't match your uniforms. Now we've gotten so progressive in terms of the sneaker culture and how it relates to on-court shoes on a nightly basis. We've come a long way and what the rule change has done is allow these players to tell stories through colorways that they may not have been able to tell in the past. I think this only furthers the discussion on a nightly basis for sneakers. We've seen it explode to the point where every night before a game the tunnel has become like a fashion show walkway and it's always built from the feet up.
CBS Sports: Are NBA players the most creative athletes in terms of sneakers and fashion today?
JLP: They're all trying to best each other a little bit. With sneaker culture and the sneaker game it's always been like: One, how does this shoe look on the shelf? And two, what's the story that's being told behind the shoe? Some people don't care as much for the story, they just care that it looks cool. But some, like the traditional historians of sneaker culture, really enjoy that story that goes through it that points to the sneaker. It's like if you're in a space with another sneakerhead it's kind of like water cooler talk where for face value it may just look like a cool colorway of a sneaker but there is a story behind it that people are prideful to learn about and educate others about.
CBS Sports: The new sneaker rules have helped some NBA players who aren't 'stars' make huge names for themselves because of the shoes they wear on the court. What does that say about the sneaker community and the influence it has?
JLP: I think it's great. If this was your passion growing up and you now have the means to buy a lot of sneakers and it's in an authentic way because it's what you love but you just happen to be a professional basketball player who can afford a bunch of rare sneakers but you're not just buying these to show off, you just really love sneakers.
Now, in terms of the way that sneakers are covered on a nightly basis where there's blogs dedicated to what players are wearing. On social media it's a race to clock what kind of sneakers people are wearing to get a guy like P.J. Tucker who loves sneakers and is knowledgeable about sneakers and it just so happens that his profession and his passion lined up. It's a beautiful thing. People want to hear the in-depth stories about why Tucker likes one shoe more than another.
We're living in a time where content consumption for the style arena is heavily based on what people are wearing night to night. At one time you only had magazines to see what an athlete, musician or celebrity was wearing but now you have a nightly catalog of what people are wearing. And for someone like Tucker, who will tell you that they've been doing this their whole life and his passion lined up and I think it's a great thing to keep the audience guessing and for him to continue this notoriety through footwear that's happening.
CBS Sports: Can you put into words what P.J. Tucker does on a nightly basis in terms of wearing some of the most rare shoes we've ever seen on an NBA court?
JLP: Spending time around P.J. -- we shot his episode of Sneaker Shopping on Super Bowl Sunday [a year ago] -- this was a guy that was in New York for a game when we did the interview but the way that he was shopping -- meticulously taking his time -- he was actually going to sit courtside at a Knicks game and he was late to it because he was shopping at Flight Club and looking for shoes that he didn't have in his collection and had been waiting to get. It was like a two-hour process and what I took away from that was that this guy is not faking his love of this product, it's such a passion for him.
He was playing with the Suns in Charlotte one game and Michael Jordan was courtside and he was wearing a Jordan 5 Shawn Marion P.E. and M.J. himself yelled to P.J., "how'd you get those?" He has Kevin Durant and LeBron James shoes that K.D. and LeBron don't even have. The thing I like about P.J. is and he told me: 'Listen, it's tedious and I'm talking to plugs from all over the world non-stop to get these grail shoes.' And I think for him his grail list just keeps growing. It's like baseball cards when we were younger. And for me the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card was always something that escaped me and I was saving money to get, it's that same type of rabidness and cultural passion that people share. I think P.J. lucked out that the sneaker rules are a little loose and that he is in the most authentic way a true sneakerhead.
CBS Sports: P.J. Tucker wears shoes that people consider grails on a nightly basis and it seems so effortless. What does that say about his approach to the shoe game?
JLP: There's stories behind what he does. He played in Charlotte a couple of days ago and he wore player exclusive UNC Jordan 4s that you can't get -- I think they're like $15,000 -- and unless you're super connected you can't get them. It's all kinda cool that he's checking a bunch of boxes: wearing rare sneakers because he likes them, and wearing sneakers that match up to the city he's playing in. Sneakers have stories, and P.J. is someone who's telling those stories through footwear on a nightly basis really well.
CBS Sports: Let's talk Nike. They have the major signature lines out right now featuring LeBron, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Paul George. Where does Nike stand right now with those players and how would you project them getting creative moving toward the future?
JLP: As much as the demographic of sneaker culture is a wide net, I think kids and the youth fuels a lot of what makes this industry very healthy. You see someone like Kyrie Irving who's doing these type of themed shoes -- in the past he's done Lucky Charms -- and the same thing with Paul George who's doing Playstation-themed shoes. So you have someone who's a big gamer and doing a Playstation model or Kyrie doing a colorway based off his favorite cereal and it's really resonating with kids. I think that's part of what's really cool now with Nike's signature lines. They're checking multiple boxes and it's not just from a performance standpoint where a kid can wear them on the playground and beat them, but starting from a young age the people that are buying these sneakers they're telling stories and it's not just for face value anymore, and Nike is doing a good job of telling those stories.
CBS Sports: What do you think Stephen Curry's impact has been for Under Armour since his career took off and he established himself as a bona fide star?
JLP: Steph is identifiable with the kids because we see a lot of NBA players -- think of like Shaq or LeBron -- and they're larger than life and Steph Curry is someone who is built in a way where he's not the biggest athlete and he doesn't look superhuman but he resonates with the youth. It's almost his point guard frame that they identify with and it seems like he was never supposed to be as good as he is, and to see him perform like he does really struck a chord with kids.
I remember going home for Christmas and going to the deli in my local town and seeing like four kids and they were only wearing Under Armour. I feel like Steph really penetrated the market when it comes to a younger audience and I think they look at him as someone who isn't 7-feet or sculpted like a statue like some athletes are and I think that helps with moving product. Then comes his talent, being one of the best shooters in the history of the game. You know every time you were shooting in your backyard, yeah, layups are fun, but you're always taking 3-point shots and you're counting down from five seconds to take the winning 3 and I think Steph Curry is a good representation of that. And when you have shoes to match that story I think it's a hit.
CBS Sports: LeBron James is on his 16th signature shoe with Nike, and he's signed to a lifetime deal with the company. How would you describe his line at the moment and where it projects in the future?
JLP: He's one of the best players in the world, if not the best. The Nike LeBron line is as healthy as it's ever been and it goes back to them being able to do special makeups for him on a nightly basis. The LeBron line has always been good when it comes to incorporating special design cues that make the silhouette stand out from each other. Whether it's an all-purple colorway for the Lakers or what he did in the past with his "LeBron Watch," I think LeBron has become a student of different models. He was a big fan of the Nike Air Max 95s and then he did a couple of colorways on the LeBron 15 that took a couple of cues from the Air Max 95. There's an Atmos collab for the LeBron 16 that just surfaced online and everyone's kinda going crazy over it. He did the "Watch The Throne" special makeup, which a special nod to Jay-Z and Kanye and that album. It goes back to the pop culture cues, where all these guys are interested in convergence culture and it wasn't always this way. But now these guys are listening to music walking through the tunnel, they're wearing the fashion brands people care about through the tunnel and they're wearing the sneakers that people care about through the tunnel.
LeBron has leaned in and worked with someone like Ronnie Fieg and KITH for special makeups, he's worked with John Elliott -- a lot of people featured on my show show up in the John Elliott LeBron special makeup. I think as LeBron continues to sprinkle in special makeups and keeps the foundation of his regular model on the 16, I think his line will continue to be healthier than ever.
CBS Sports: Kobe Bryant hasn't played in an NBA game since 2016, but the Nike Kobe line continues to thrive. Which players have played the biggest roles in keeping that line where it is right now?
JLP: Just from interviewing people, I know that Isaiah Thomas is really into Kobes. The same thing with DeMar DeRozan. I think the Kobe line is something that current players still love playing ball in. In terms of an ambassador, I really couldn't say on who's exactly carrying the torch but it does speak to the Kobe line having such substantial staying power within the league that all these guys who play at a high level really like playing in those shoes.
CBS Sports: Some players have turned to sneaker customizers to get exclusive work done on kicks they're rocking on the court. What do you make of the impact sneaker customizers and custom kicks are having on the NBA?
JLP: I gotta say I think customs work better for football cleats to be honest. I think in the beginning when they loosened up the rules we expected to see tons and tons of customs and I'm not sure that many of them have broken through in terms of something that has really stuck. And it might have to do with that most of the top-tier athletes have signature lines, but I do think that customs are more prominent in football. To me, I think LeBron or Kyrie writing on their sneakers on special colorways breaks through and gets coverage more than a lot of on-court customs. And I thought that maybe in the beginning when you heard the NBA was changing the rules that you would see an influx of customs and I'm not sure it's hit compared to when you see an Odell Beckham Jr. warming up in customs. I think as it stands football seems to play more into the custom game than the NBA.
CBS Sports: The LeBron vs M.J. debate is one that won't ever go away. Which two sneakers in your opinion are in the conversation for the greatest of all time?
JLP: It's always going to be personal preference, but for me it's the Jordan 3 and the Jordan 4. However, the Jordan 1 is such an iconic shoe and it's the first shoe that ushered in a totally new era of sneakers and it really kicked off, no pun intended, this big industry. Me personally, I like the Jordan 3 and the Jordan 4. The story behind the Jordan 3, they say, is that Jordan was about to go to Adidas and Tinker Hatfield met with him and showed him and said this is going to be your third model and he was blown away by it and it saved him from going away to Adidas and that's kinda the tale behind the Jordan 3.
The Jordan 11 was the first shoe to feature patent leather in basketball, and now a golf shoe comes out 20 years later that looks just like the 11 and it sells out. It's personal preference but there's a group of sneakers and silhouettes that could be argued are so iconic that you wouldn't get much flak. The staying power of these silhouettes jog people's memories from when they first came out, everyone could argue what their favorite two silhouettes were but I think there's a bunch that would be accepted by most sneakerheads.
CBS Sports: Who are the notable NBA players you have yet to feature on Sneaker Shopping that you're most interested in getting on the show?
JLP: I want Luka Doncic, I want Kyle Kuzma. A lot of these young guys who are performing well on the court and have these distinct sneaker styles. And then it goes without saying: Kevin Durant, LeBron James. I always say that we haven't got them yet, but I'm going to do everything in my power to feature them and get them on the show. I look forward to talking to these guys about their sneaker habits past, present and future.