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TO AIR IS HUMAN // BACK TO SCHOOL SHOPPING IN THREE ACTS

ACT ONE, scene one:

The setting: the Athlete's Foot, Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg. Store manager Alan Graff explains the celebrity-endorsed shoe phenomenon to a reporter who doesn't know what NBA team Scotty Pippen plays for or if, in 1996, one calls athletic shoes "sneakers." Karen Fils-Aime, 18, a store sales associate, gives the reporter shoe buying tips. ( See sidebar). Karen knows shoes. She's a '96 graduate of St. Petersburg's Lakewood High School where she ran track.

ALAN: The most popular endorsed shoe is the Nike Air Jordan. (Holds up a shoe.) But, the supply is limited. Nike Scotty Pippens are also very popular. (Holds up a shoe.) And the Nike Up Tempo is popular. (Holds up another shoe.) They sell just as fast as the Air Jordans.

Karen and Alan say both boys and girls wear the shoes. Because no celebrity-endorsed shoes are yet available in women's sizes, girls buy less expensive kids' shoes or men's shoes. Kids's shoes are cut large so a size 5 1/2 or 6 can accommodate a women's size 7. But kids' shoes stop at size 6. Girls who wear a size 7 1/2 or larger have to choose from the pricier men's shoes.

The reporter scans the display wall, picking up a shoe with air bubbles in the sole. It resembles a level, one of those tools with the yellow floating bubble that carpenters use.

REPORTER: (holding shoe with funky bubbles) What's this action?

ALAN: Some Nikes have visible air units.

REPORTER: What do the bubbles do?

ALAN: They're just for show.

Alan says the most expensive shoe for middle school-aged kids is the $95 Scotty Pippen. Air Jordans range in price from $89 to $95 and come in a limited supply to create a huge demand. Like compact discs, these shoes have release dates. People wait outside the mall for the store to open. Customers have tried to bribe Alan for Jordans. He has broken up arguments between people desperate for the last of a size.

ACT ONE, scene two:

Corey Robinson, 12, a student at Bay Point Middle in St. Petersburg, enters the Athlete's Foot with his cousin John Lockhart, 15. Corey wears a Polo sport shirt and worn black Nikes. His necklace says his name in gold. He tells the reporter his name is James. When she points to his necklace, he laughs. He's looking for a pair of Scotty Pippens. His Air Jordans "got old." Corey asked his mom today for Pippens. She said no. Too expensive.

REPORTER: Do you think that makes sense?

COREY: Yeah, it makes sense. They are too expensive.

REPORTER: Do you admit that to your mom?

COREY AND JOHN: (laughing and shaking their heads) No way!

Bernona Climes, Corey's mom, enters the Athlete's Foot minutes later. The reporter questions her about the Pippens. Bernona unleashes a monologue, a mother's litany blaming celebrity-endorsed shoes for everything that's

wrong with Western Civilization _ crime, bad parent-child relations and ugly footwear in general.

BERNONA: Before these guys started playing ball, they couldn't afford these shoes. It takes two paychecks to buy a pair of shoes. How are you supposed to buy a shirt and pants? These high prices are promoting crime!

_ Every three or four months they need a new pair. These boys are growing so fast.

_ In the middle of sixth grade he's gonna need a new pair!

_ I'm not paying $90 for shoes. These are just shoes. They did not come off Michael Jordan's feet.

REPORTER: What do you think of how they look?

BERNONA: (Picking up various shoes and grimacing) I think they are big and ugly. They look like shoes a monster in a movie would wear.

ACT TWO, scene one:

Aaron Cropper, 14, a St. Petersburg High School freshman with baggy shorts and a cool, skater-type haircut, walks through the mall with his mom, Lynn.

The reporter stops them to discuss Aaron's shoes, $65 Nike Air Flights. Mother and son laugh, explaining that they're shopping for $60 Airwalks right now.

Aaron says he's not into celebrity-endorsed shoes. He wants Airwalks because his friends say they're good shoes.

Also, Aaron says, "I like the looks of them."

Lynn will pay more for shoes that will last, but she doesn't see the point in spending a fortune on a celebrity-endorsed shoe.

LYNN: I'll probably spend up to about $60. After that it's up to him. But it really doesn't pay to buy cheap shoes.

ACT TWO, scene two:

Lan Bui and Jennifer Eisert, both 14 and in the ninth grade at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, leave the Chick-Fil-A restaurant. They wear baggy pants and matching $59 white and green Adidas.

Lan wears a Franklin basketball jersey. Jennifer wears a Yaga T-shirt.

Lan has $89 Air Jordans at home. She's over them now. The Adidas are more comfortable.

Plus, she says it's stupid to pay so much for Michael Jordan's name. Jennifer has old Nikes at home, but she, too, prefers the Adidas.

JENNIFER: My mom says they were a waste of money.

REPORTER: Whose money?

JENNIFER: My dad's money.

LAN: My mom hates them, too, but she doesn't like any of the clothes I wear.

ACT THREE, scene one:

Rodney Robison, 15, a Dixie Hollins sophomore, stands outside Fun-N-Games arcade.

He wears a Quiksilver T-shirt, huge black Jnco pants, and $40 black and brown suede Airwalks. He listens to Green Day on earphones.

His friend Rob Lee, 13, an eighth grader at Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg, wears baggy shorts, baseball cap, and checkerboard Airwalks he got on sale for $15.

The reporter asks their opinion of celebrity-endorsed sneakers.

RODNEY: I wish they'd outlaw those things.

Both guys want jerseys outlawed, too, especially those with famous players' numbers on them.

Their friends don't wear that stuff, and neither do the girls they like.

ROB: Airwalks have those girls' plastic shoes. (Looks disgusted.)

RODNEY: No, they're awesome. I'd rather have a girl wear something like that than those Nike or Reebok high-heeled shoes.

ACT THREE, scene two:

The reporter sits in the mall cafe area, noticing the footwear of each passerby.

She spots the swoosh again and again: Nike. Nike. Nike _ like a mantra. To Air is human, she thinks.

Glancing down at her own smelly, navy Converse low tops, she feels unhip, out of touch and, possibly, a little relieved.

Who's got a shoe?

A short list of who endorses what:

+ NIKE: Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls), Penny Hardaway (Orlando Magic), Scotty Pippen (Chicago Bulls), Ken Griffey Jr. (Seattle Mariners), Dennis Rodman (Chicago Bulls), Deion Sanders (Dallas Cowboys)

+ FILA: Grant Hill (Detroit Pistons)

+ SPALDING: Hakeen Olajuwon (Houston Rockets)

+ REEBOK: Shaquille O'Neal (L.A. Lakers), Emmett Smith (Dallas Cowboys)

Before you just do it, try them on!

Tips from Karen Fils-Aime and the Athlete's Foot on selecting sneakers:

+ Ask the sales associate which brand and style suits your individual foot.

+ Don't buy a shoe based on size only. Different brands fit differently.

+ A shoe fits when there is a thumbnail's length between Mr. Big Toe and the front of the shoe. (Use your thumbnail length, not the salesperson's.)

+ Measure your feet every time you buy shoes. Feet grow until you're 18.

+ Try on shoes after you've been active for a few hours. Feet swell throughout the day.

+ Bring in your old, stinky shoes. The wear patterns will help determine the support you need.

Wacky shoe tidbits

+ Nike has been making Air Jordans since 1985.

+ Dennis Rodman's Nike shoes lace up on the sides!

+ 12- to 24-year-olds buy the highest percentage of athletic shoes each year.

+ $12-billion is spent on sneakers every year.

+ The average person takes 9,000 steps a day! (That's 115,000 miles in a lifetime.)

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