On a recent Sunday afternoon, before the first snowfall, my wife Karli and I were driving with our two daughters on Lewvan Drive in Regina. We approached a red light where a 1970s muscle car was already stopped in front of us: a blue Chevelle SS. It was in mint condition, the tires a glossy black, and the chrome polished. I could see the man driving it had grey hair. He looked about my dad’s age, in his early 60s. I couldn’t yet see his face, but I turned to my wife and said, “The way that guy feels right now, sitting in his car is how I feel when I go in the basement, pull out one of my favourite pairs of Jordans, and put them on my feet.” Karli laughed.

She understood immediately. This is what it means to be a sneakerhead.

It’s not just that I have a lot of sneakers — Air Jordans, tennis shoes, running shoes, cross-trainers and the like — it’s that collecting them, and taking good care of them and lacing up a given pair for a cruise around town makes me feel a certain way. I feel good. I feel blessed. I get to flex¹. But where did this desire to flex come from? How long have I felt this way?

By his estimate, Pulga has between 80 and 90 pairs of basketball sneakers. Some, he admits, he has never worn. Photo by Trevor Hopkin
By his estimate, Pulga has between 80 and 90 pairs of basketball sneakers. Some, he admits, he has never worn. Photo by Trevor Hopkin

As long as I can remember, to be honest.

Excuse me if this sounds familiar. It’s back to school time and you’re excited to head to class, see your friends again, and to tell them about your summer vacation. You’re also excited to buy new school supplies with your parents or maybe just your mom — it was always mom who shopped for school supplies with me). You got new Laurentien pencil crayons, UHU glue sticks, Hilroy notebooks, Staedtler white erasers. Did you care about which brand of school supplies you got? Maybe you didn’t. But I sure did.

And I cared about what brand of gym shoes I got every fall. When I was six or seven, I didn’t care what brand of T-shirt, jacket or sweatpants I was wearing. Ok, I should confess: I did care what brand of sweatpants I was wearing. I wanted Converse. And my mom bought me “Converted” ones, with a diamond where the Converse pants had a star — they were knockoffs, and I was ashamed of them.

Frankly, I would wear generic sweatpants. Those were fine. I wouldn’t care about brand name apparel until I was in Grade 6 — which is when I started caring about what girls thought about me and how I looked. Before that, I only cared about sports.

And if you were into sports in the late ’80s and early ’90s, you were likely into shoes. I wanted cool ones. I wanted the ones the pro athletes wore. In 1987, going into Grade 2, I wanted the O.G.² Nike Air Trainers, the ones Bo Jackson wore. But my mom said, “No, you’re seven years old. Those are too expensive.” And she bought me the Lynx-brand knockoffs of the Air Trainers.

“One day,” I thought to my 7-year-old self, “I’ll buy those Air Trainers.”

In Grade 2 Pulga wanted but didn’t get Nike’s 1987 Air Trainer 1 “Chlorophyll.” He was finally able buy a pair when Nike reissued them in 2012. Photo by Trevor Hopkin
In Grade 2 Pulga wanted but didn’t get Nike’s 1987 Air Trainer 1 “Chlorophyll.” He was finally able buy a pair when Nike reissued them in 2012. Photo by Trevor Hopkin

Fast-forward to Grade 6. It was my first year of caring about my appearance and, coincidentally, of playing organized basketball. I was all about Nike. My favourite player was David Robinson. My dad, also a basketball player, wore David Robinson Nike pumps inflatable basketball shoes) to play men’s league. I begged and pleaded with him for a pair just like his. To my surprise and delight, he capitulated.

Thus, a new ritual was born: instead of new gym shoes every fall, it was new basketball shoes every fall. It was also a golden age for getting new basketball shoes. The reigning NBA MVP in 1992 was a player named Michael Jordan. All the kids and I wanted to be like Mike. Well, I wanted to be like David Robinson and Mike. But you get the picture.

Jordan and Nike were beginning to change the way sneakers were marketed. The shoes weren’t just shoes. They were an embodiment of Jordan’s personality and his performance on the court — he was the most electrifying and dominant player of his generation, and arguably of all time. His shoes were an “image” and they still are to this day.

Pulga is sharing his basketball shoe obsession with his daughter Estelle. Photo courtesy of Allan Pulga
Pulga is sharing his basketball shoe obsession with his daughter Estelle. Photo courtesy of Allan Pulga

The ritual of getting the coolest basketball shoes my parents could afford repeated itself each year until I got my first full-time summer job, the summer after graduating high school. Because I still lived at home, I had more disposable cash than ever. What do you think I spent my money on? Sneakers, yes. But what else?

I was very much into music and, bear in mind this was 1998, and the first iPod wouldn’t hit the market until 2001. I bought a lot of sneakers and CDs…and beer.

During this period of the late ’90s/early 2000s, a couple of things coincided with my Summer cash windfall. One, sneaker manufacturers were reissuing classic shoes. They had done this for some time, particularly with popular Air Jordan models from years past. But I can think of two pairs I went out of my way to buy: the 2001 retro3 of the “Black Cement” Air Jordan³ and the 2003 retro of the black Converse Weapon worn by Larry Bird in the early ’80s. I didn’t have to line up to buy these shoes; I just walked into the store and bought them. It was amazing to me.

"A lot has changed in the sneaker game since the Golden Age of the ’80s and ’90s. The internet and social media have, in my opinion, been both a blessing and a curse to sneakerheads like me."

Secondly, I reached an inflection point in my sneaker collection, which was now numbering in the teens. I had enough pairs of shoes that I could rotate them and keep them looking fresh and new. If you accumulate enough shoes that you never wear them into the ground, then you’ve become a collector. Sort of like that Chevelle driver on the Lewvan — he doesn’t need that car to get around. He just takes it out of storage and polishes it every once in a while when he wants to enjoy it.

In spite of working over the summers, I had to get my first student loan in the fall of 2002 to pay for University tuition and books. Prior to that, I’d been fortunate to use a scholarship trust fund my parents had saved up for me. My dad accompanied me to the bank to co-sign my student loan. At the start of that meeting, our loan officer asked me if I had any assets to declare.

“Assets?” I asked.

“Yes, like a car, or perhaps some property you own, which we can use as collateral on this student loan,” she replied.

“Oh…no I don’t have anything like that.”

My dad quickly interjected, “Ask him if he has any shoes or CDs…” The loan officer blushed. The meeting continued and went well. I was approved for the loan. As we were leaving, she pulled us aside and said, “I’ve never heard about shoes or CDs as an asset! Thanks for the funniest loan meeting I’ve ever had.” We all laughed. My dad has a natural sense of humour.

On one hand, major sneaker drops4 are more accessible to buyers in smaller markets like Regina) via online storefronts and drop info posted to social media. On the other hand, demand for rare sneakers from hypebeasts5 the world over has reached unseen levels, amplifying product scarcity, introducing the use of bots6 and creating a reseller market that inflates the price of a sneaker several hundred dollars, or in some cases, even into the thousands.

Pulga insists he’s not in over his head when it comes to his basketball shoe collection. Photo by Trevor Hopkin
Pulga insists he’s not in over his head when it comes to his basketball shoe collection. Photo by Trevor Hopkin

Sneaker reselling has become so lucrative that websites like StockX, Flight Club and GOAT were created just to connect buyers with resellers on a broad scale — private sales that used to take place in a section of eBay, Craigslist and Varage Sale are front and centre on sneaker-only websites.

Sneaker culture and streetwear have also climbed the ranks of society and high fashion. Whereas athletic footwear was mostly worn by jocks, skateboarders and rappers 35 years ago, nowadays rappers and DJs like Kanye West and Virgil Abloh are among the most influential fashion designers and tastemakers in Paris and Milan.

This convergence of style and comfort has raised the profile of the once-humble sneaker, and as a result, the sneaker market is larger than ever. Because reselling has become such big business — many resellers do it full-time and make a good living — the ability for an old sneakerhead like me to casually walk into a Foot Locker and buy a pair of Black Cement Air Jordan 3’s  like I did back in 2001) has gone extinct. A re-release of a coveted shoe like this one sells out online and in stores where sneakerheads line up, in some cases overnight) in minutes. So much of one’s ability to cop7 a pair for its retail price online depends on pure luck. Millions are content with paying high resale prices for sneakers like these, but I am stubborn and have yet to do so. I say “yet” because sometimes it feels like it’s only a matter of time. Still, my passion for sneakers burns as strong as ever.

"This is my life…and sneakers are a big part of it."

One of the biggest reasons I don’t shell out several hundred dollars for a pair of rare sneakers is because I’m a dad. I recently told a fellow sneakerhead buddy of mine that I couldn’t buy a pair of $260 retail price) shoes because I need to put my two girls through college. I was only half joking.  It’s also a bit ironic to think back on my student loans and the role sneakers had on my need to get these loans.)

That doesn’t mean that I haven’t spent $260 on shoes since having kids. I have. But I pick my spots. It has to be the right pair. It has to be something I’ve always wanted, something nostalgic. Or if it’s a modern design, it has to add something to my collection, which is currently somewhere between 80 and 90 pairs. I don’t want to buy too many shoes that look alike, for example. And I definitely want to keep up with the latest shoe technology.

And like everyone else, I have a mortgage, bills to pay, and I need to save up for my retirement. Once in a while, I’ll treat myself to a new pair of shoes.

Although it’s less frequent, Pulga still purchases the occasional new shoe. Like the latest Air Jordans he recently picked up. Photo by Trevor Hopkin
Although it’s less frequent, Pulga still purchases the occasional new shoe. Like the latest Air Jordans he recently picked up. Photo by Trevor Hopkin

A few weeks ago, for instance, I bought the latest Air Jordans: the Air Jordan 34. Nike called them a new standard in performance and design. I still play pick-up basketball once a week with my friends and I was excited to try these new shoes out on the court. This excitement was always what drew me to sneakers, even from a young age — the excitement for better performance technology and an original look.

The latter implies that sneakers are more than sports equipment. They are a form of self-expression. As a dad, the sneakers you buy your kids reflect your taste as well. I don’t go out of my way to match my daughters’ sneakers, but I’ve done it once. And I gotta admit, I underestimated the delight I would feel the first time my eldest daughter and I wore matching sneakers. It was the look on her face that made it. She was so proud to dress like daddy.

As I reflect on what I appreciate about sneakers, it’s mostly about emotional connections. It’s how they make me feel. I can tell you a story about every pair in my collection. The places I’ve travelled. The experiences I’ve had. Whether it was the pair I brought back from the Philippines, or the pair I wore on a family trip to Disneyland, or the pair I bought on our honeymoon in France, each pair takes me back to a time and a place.

This is my life…and sneakers are a big part of it.

Sneakerhead lingo:

1 Flex: To display or stand tall with pride. It’s not always ostentatious; sometimes a flex is subtle, or a “low-key flex.”

2 O.G.: Original Gangsta — the first edition of a given sneaker.

3 Retro: A reissued pair of classic sneakers, marketed years later as a tribute to the O.G.

4 Drop: A much-anticipated release of a given sneaker, either of a retro or a heavily hyped new model.

5 Hypebeast: A sneakerhead who follows all the hottest trends and product releases; one who buys into all the “hype.”

6 Bots: Software designed to buy up multiple pairs of a rare sneaker model and circumvent a website’s maximum one-pair-per-customer policy.

7 Cop: To purchase or obtain a pair of sneakers.