Air Jordans: 'Sneakerheads' flock to grab retro kicks (VIDEO)

Air Jordans went on sale Friday and police were called out to control 'shop mobs' across the US – some using pepper spray to subdue crowds. Critics say Nike deliberately limited production in order to create a frenzy.

Lisa Baertlein/REUTERS
US Navy Corpsmen Shawn Sykes (L) and Leon Clare show off the re-released Nike Air Jordan Retro 3 Black Cement sneakers purchased in January. The two men drove more than 100 miles from their base in 29 Palms to Santa Monica, Calif., to be among the first to buy the shoes. Both men are scheduled to ship out to Afghanistan in the coming months.

With nary a whisper of advertising, the debut of the Air Jordan XI, an exact replica of the original Air Jordan shoe released in 1996, just became the most raucous product release of 2011.

Upon its release Friday, “sneakerheads” – mostly young men who collect sometimes hundreds of pairs of sneakers, or “kicks” – converged on malls across the US, breaking down barriers, getting into brawls, and generally causing mayhem, all in hopes of landing a pair of the limited issue Air Jordans, which retail for $180.

“Everybody is trying to get these Jordans, it’s ridiculous out here,” a man who gave his name as Cardell told a local Fox affiliate after police were called to the Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, Wash., to restore order. News reports indicate that police had to use pepper spray to break up the shop mob.

The crush of sneaker fanatics surprised police, who made dozens of arrests as they encountered large crowds breaking into malls and scuffling over their place in line. At Stonecrest Mall in Atlanta, police arrested several shoppers after they broke through the mall doors before dawn on Friday. One woman was cited for leaving two young kids in the car while she shopped. Police also had to break up rowdy crowds and mall brawls in Louisville, Houston, San Antonio and Spokane.

Fueled by athletic stars like the former Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan and the growth of the hip-hop industry, sneaker collecting began in the 1980s. But in recent years, sneaker collecting has branched into its own aesthetic, inspiring a museum, the Shoezeum, in San Diego, a college course at Carnegie Mellon University called “Sneakerology,” and dozens of sneakerhead websites devoted to shoes and even help collectors find rare issues.

Devotees aren't shy dropping a few hundred dollars to have the latest style. Long after Michael Jordan retired, his shoes have become a $1 billion a year business, with some 10 million pairs sold last year alone, compared to the 500,000 pairs of Nike's Lebron James signature shoes.

The Air Jordan XI “Concord” shoe released Friday is the exact replica of the original Air Jordans that Mr. Jordan wore on the parquet in 1995-1996, when he won the season and All Star game MVP awards and helped pull the Bulls to the NBA finals.

It's styling and design may be retro, but that's hardly a drawback for collectors, who sometimes never even don their duds.

For sneakerheads, “the appeal of Air Jordan shoes is only partly rooted in nostalgia for the greatest basketball player ever,” writes the Oregonian's Allan Brettman. “Sneakerheads also like collecting shoes, sometimes never wearing them, leaving their catch pristine in the original box. On the other hand, he adds, “The Air Jordan XI, with its black patent-leather accents on white, is their perfect choice any social occasion, from weddings to proms.”

To goose the shoe's mystique, Oregon-based Nike has not announced how many pairs it produced. Industry experts believe about 300,000 to 500,000 are – or, rather, were – available.

Some sneakerheads have criticized the company for limiting the production run in order to create a frenzy, which the strategy – given the general mall mayhem witnessed overnight – certainly accomplished.

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