I had a phone call with my boss today and told him that I was running out of ideas of things to write about with the NBA on hiatus. He immediately said, “write about your favorite shoe collecting story, man.” Given that I’ve already basically written an unpublished book about those experiences I was all in on this idea.
I saw a kid get a pair of Steve Stipanovich’s shoes in Indy after a Pacers game in the early 80s and made it my mission to do the same. In the end, I was able to get about 35 pairs of game-worn shoes from players between 1984 and 1986 (I was 15-16 years old), most of which now sadly sit in trash bags in a closet under the stairs. But there are some good ones in there – Dominique Wilkins, Darryl Dawkins, Rick Mahorn, Isiah Thomas, Akeem Olajuwon (no H back then), Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, Adrian Dantley and a lot more. So, without further ado, here’s the story of the second pair of shoes I was ever given by an NBA player. And it just happened to be from a really good one.
Chapter 2 – Mark Aguirre - The Second Pair
Mark Aguirre was one of my favorite players when he was in college at DePaul University in Chicago and was also featured on the cover of one of my favorite Sports Illustrated issues of all time. It’s Aguirre, Maryland’s Albert King and Virginia’s Ralph Sampson from December 1, 1980 with the headline of “That Old School Spirit.” It's signed by Aguirre and King, but I never was able to get Sampson to sign that one.
Aguirre was the 1981 player of the year with a career scoring average of 24.5 and led DePaul to the Final Four in his freshman year of 1979, where they lost to Larry Bird’s Indiana State team, who then lost to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the final game. Had DePaul beaten Indiana State, who knows if the historic ‘Bird vs. Magic’ rivalry would have ever happened? (It probably would have).
Aguirre was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks with the first pick in the ’81 draft and had a pretty fantastic NBA career, averaging 29.5 points per game in the season I acquired his shoes (’84), which was second in the league to Adrian Dantley, who you’ll read about later. Aguirre also won two NBA Championships (with the Pistons) and was also just the second underclassman ever taken with the first overall pick in an NBA draft, as Magic was the first two years earlier.
Aguirre gave me his shoes on January 21, 1984 after a win in Market Square Arena in which he scored 31 points and grabbed 10 boards for the Mavs that night. But getting his shoes wasn’t easy, as Aguirre told me ‘sorry kid, I can’t’ a couple of times prior to the game. I first asked him in the lobby of the Hyatt in the afternoon and he said no, but did sign the aforementioned SI cover for me, and then denied me again when I was able to sneak down to the court during pregame warmups and rebound a loose ball for him. Yes, you could do that without a problem in 1984. The Pacers’ attendance average for the 1982-83 season was a meager 4,814.
For some reason, I didn’t give up and decided to try it again after the game. In those days you could just hang out by the locker room and the players would have to walk through a small crowd of fans to get to the bus. When he finally came out of the locker room, I asked him again for his green-starred, size 13 1/2 Converse All Stars while everyone else was trying to get him to sign stuff, and this time he said, “Yeah man, come with me.” What? Maybe it was the fact he played so well, or that his team won, or maybe he just felt bad for me. It was probably a combination of the three, but I was in.
I was also in a bit of shock but followed behind him as we trekked through some icy winter weather to the Mavs’ team bus parked about 20 feet outside the locker room area. This was about to be the second pair of shoes I had ever gotten, so I was truly a rookie in the shoe collecting business. So, when he told me to follow him onto the bus, I didn’t know if it was standard operating procedure, or if I was entering the forbidden zone. (As it turns out, it was the latter). But once he gave the security guard the old “He’s OK, he’s with me” and we were on the bus, with the rest of the freaking Dallas Mavericks, Aguirre told me to wait for him, as he had to go sit down and take out his prosthetic insoles, and that he’d be back.
So, I stood there, in awe, next to the driver, by myself, at midnight on the Mavs’ bus. But I wasn’t by myself for long, as an older guy approached me from out of the dark and a seat close to the front. It was Mavs’ Coach Dick Motta, winner of 935 NBA regular-season games, putting him at 10th on the all-time list, just three wins shy of the legendary Red Auerbach.
“Hey kid, is Aguirre getting his shoes for you?” he asked me. “I hope so,” I replied. At this point Motta made a mini speech about why I was being given Aguirre’s shoes that night and that it was related to how well he was playing. But it’s all pretty fuzzy and I don’t want to put words in his mouth. I just remember I was in awe of what was happening and “he’s playing like an All-Star right now,” was a part of it.
As Motta finished his speech, Aguirre appeared with the goods, signed one of them with the Sharpie I gave him, and handed them to me. I thanked him, listened to Motta repeat what he had just said to me to Aguirre (“You know what I just told this kid, Mark?”), and got the hell off that bus, heading directly for my mom’s hideous two-tone green Ford van.
I vividly remember raising them in the air like a championship trophy, or Rocky Balboa on top of those steps in Philly, as I ran down the escalator, with my mom looking on from her parking spot in the tunnel under the arena. I couldn’t wait to show them to her up close and tell her my story, sort of like when your cat shows up with a dead mouse and drops it at your feet. Maybe she was more into it than we are when our cats give us dead animals, but I was pretty fired up. I knew I was collecting rare pieces of history that other NBA fans would love to have, and Aguirre was a number one pick, an All-Star, and a superstar, and I was hooked.
I also remember going to school the next day and telling people about my late-night escapades and what I had accomplished. Most of them were like, ‘Uh, OK, I was with my girlfriend, dude,’ but the rare single ones who loved basketball seemed to be impressed that I was on the Mavericks’ bus with Aguirre and Motta, and that I came away with a unique souvenir. I also wonder how many of them thought I was just a habitual liar.
Obviously, I didn’t have much going on during my high school career. I was one of those guys who was friendly acquaintances with kids in a bunch of different cliques but wasn’t really in any of them. I mean, I was on the golf team for crying out loud. And that was not a cool place to be before Tiger Woods came along a decade later. So, hanging out at Pacer games and trying to make friends with NBA players became my hobby. And I’ve got at least 35 crazy stories I can tell about those days.