Imagine for a moment Steve Nash driving to the basket, doing that Nash thing where he slaloms through rows of defenders. But rather than shooting his little one-hand runner, instead picture Nash rising up and just yakking it on some poor dude, throwing down a mean one-hander.
Sound unlikely? OK, then how about picturing the 6-foot-3 Stephen Curry leaping to swat away shots at the rim or Brad Miller --he of the concrete feet -- soaring after rebounds. Or most frightening and awe-inspiring, Dwight Howard leaping a good half a foot higher on his jams.
All because of some shoes.
Not any shoes, mind you, but very expensive ones. Made by a company called Athletic Propulsion Labs, the new Concept 1's cost $300 and come embedded with a spring-like "Load n' Launch" gizmo in the forefoot that APL claims automatically increases an athlete's vertical leap by up to three-and-a-half inches, and in some cases much more. As proof, the company cites tests performed by two researchers boasting Ph.D.s in biomechanics.
Considering most basketball players' vertical leaps range from 20-35 inches, 3.5 inches is a significant increase. It's the difference between blocking a shot and merely pawing at it, between making and missing a tip-in, between nine rebounds a game and 10 or 11. And of course, for legions of almost-tall-enough young men around the world, it is also the difference between clanging the ball off the front of the rim and finally gaining entrance to the exclusive club of Guys Who Can Dunk.
From a recreational standpoint, there's no obvious downside. After all, who doesn't want to jump a little higher? At the NBA level, it's a different matter. If the APL shoes work as advertised -- and that's a big if -- they could theoretically provide an unfair competitive advantage to the players who wear them, making them essentially Performance Enhancing Footwear. So last month Stu Jackson and his lieutenants met with the founders of APL to determine whether or not the NBA should ban the shoes, a step last taken by the league in 1985, when it outlawed Air Jordans (though in that case because of the color scheme). To date, the NBA has yet to make a ruling on the Concept 1's --according to a league spokesperson, "we are currently reviewing the product technology to determine if it is in compliance with NBA rules."
At issue, of course, is the only question that matters, for NBAers and pick-up players alike: Do the shoes actually work? Last month, my editors asked me to find out. I contacted APL and, a week later, a pair of Concept 1's arrived in the mail.
First, some relevant history.
As long as teenage boys have dreamed of dunking, there have been people interested in selling them (usually expensive, generally time-intensive) jumping aids. With names like Air Alert and Vertimax, these programs are breathlessly advertised in the back of magazines like SLAM, as if they were penis pumps for your calves. The programs make promises such as "You'll gain a minimum of 8--14 inches in 8 weeks, or you'll get $100 cash" and "If you continue the program for 12 months, you'll have a 40 inch vertical or your money back!"
Most of these "systems" rely not upon any magic formula but lots and lots of training. My brother and I used one of the most popular, the Strength Shoes, in high school during the late '80s. Consisting of a regular shoe with a rubber pad approximately the size of an aircraft carrier stationed under the forefoot, the Strength Shoes were cumbersome and painful. Imagine walking around in high heels, only without the heel. And while the shoes proved moderately effective, I'm convinced it was not due so much to the shoes as to all the plyometric exercises -- box jumps, lunges, backboard touches -- we endured in the shoes.
In fact, when it comes to jumping higher, you can usually do it merely by learning proper technique. Dan Barto, a player development specialist at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., who works with a number of NBA players, says when he work with athletes he begins by aligning their bodies on takeoff. "We look at the imbalances and strengths," says Barto. "Some players are god's gift and their calves fire perfectly and their quads fire perfectly and on up. But usually our strength coaches, if they spend one hour teaching alignment, can probably increase a vertical by three inches or so."
There are other, obvious ways to jump higher: lose weight, jump rope, use the aforementioned plyometrics or engage in a full training program (for a good example, check out "Can He Dunk?", a program that took a group of young ballplayers and ran them through a gantlet of exercises designed to increase their leaping ability over the course of two months). The downside to all these options, of course, is that they require effort.
The big lure of the APL shoes is that you don't need to do anything. Just put them on, APL claims, and you will soar. In this respect, the shoes are quintessentially American. They offer all the reward without the work, sort of like liposuction, or, to use APL's analogy, a Big Bertha driver. Of course, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.
APL was founded by Ryan and Adam Goldston, 23-year-old twins from Los Angeles who walked on to the USC basketball team. If you're wondering how two recent college grads could start their own shoe company -- with private funding -- then it's worth noting that their father is Mark Goldston. One of the creators of the Reebok Pump, the LA Gear lights technology and Hexalite, the elder Goldston is something of a legend in the industry. The holder of 13 patents for shoe technology, he was the chief marketing officer at Reebok and later the president of LA Gear (this after becoming, in 1986, the youngest president of a Fortune 500 consumer products company when he was named head of Fabergé at age 31). Growing up, Adam and Ryan played the role of tester for their father's various creations, wearing the newest, strangest shoes to the park.
The Concept 1's were born of the twins' own frustrations. Both Goldstons were good high school players but early on, as Ryan says, "We realized we weren't NBA caliber athletes." Interested in maximizing their performance, they ran through a plethora of jumping aids: Strength Shoes, Air Alert, weight training. "They definitely worked," says Adam, "But at some point those programs take a toll on your body."
With the encouragement of their father, who is now the CEO of United Online, the twins started talking about creating a shoe that would eliminate that toll. The challenge was in the parameters -- the reason most basketball shoe technology is in the back of the shoe is because there is 15-20 millimeters of room to play with there, whereas in the forefoot there is only 8-10. But when a player jumps, it's off the forefoot, so implanting a spring-like device in the heel would miss the point.
The final product is the Concept 1, which includes a shank that runs the length of the sole and is made with rebound EVA rubber to provide increased elasticity. Theoretically, the shoe's design funnels energy to the forefoot, where the Load n' Launch pad -- essentially a metal spring sandwiched between pieces of plastic --- does its work. The more force you provide, the more it returns. In this respect, Ryan compares it to a diving board -- "just walking on it doesn't do anything."
The Goldstons rolled out the shoes this summer with the idea of making them a "boutique" item, akin to a performance sports car (or as Ryan puts it, "a luxury basketball brand"). So far, the Goldstons say the only store that stocks the Concept 1's is the Modell's in Times Square, a decision the twins made because, as Ryan says, "we were able to train the store associates to make sure they really got it."
Because of the high price, the Goldstons would rather you go to their website anyway. There you can learn the story behind the shoes and check out APL's research, which was headed by two unnamed Ph. D.s at an unnamed "leading United States university" using vertec and Kistler force plates (which are used by NBA and NFL teams). While the tests returned an increase of "up to 3.5" inches in vertical leap, Adam points out that number is just a baseline. "Our testing was with normal athletes, not the freakish athletes you'd see playing D-I, D-II, D-III or NBA ball," he explains. "So when guys with athletic ability put them on, they see an increase of at least four inches. We filmed a video for Modell's and one of these guys who'd never worn the shoes before, he literally got an eight-inch increase. The guy could never dunk with two hands before and with the shoes he could do it backward."
Personally, the Goldstons say they have both seen five-inch increases in their vertical leap. The 5-10 Adam says he now "finishes with dunks and get rebounds over guys who are 6-5" while Ryan values the "extra couple inches on my jumpshot."
This secrecy could be chalked up to an overly cautious approach, but even if that's the case it doesn't help convert the skeptical. APL's website also veers into self-parody at times, using faux science-y sounding language and coined terms like "jumpology." It should also be noted that the Concept 1's bear more than a passing resemblance to a shoe called the Catapult. You may remember it from the early 90s -- it was endorsed by Karl Malone and boasted a spring-like mechanism in the heel that purportedly helped you jump higher (though, by all accounts, it did not). As it turns out, the Catapults were made by LA Gear, which at the time was headed by none other than ... Mark Goldston.
So, on to the question at hand: Do the shoes work?
The short answer: Sort of.
Over the course of three weeks, I played in the shoes five times, twice performing jump tests, and also recruited three other players at the Berkeley YMCA to play in the shoes. Between the four of us, we covered much of the hoops spectrum. We ranged in age from age 19 to 39, in height between 5-9 and 6-4, and included both two-foot jumpers (think Jason Richardson) and one-foot jumpers (think Thunder Dan). Personally, I probably represent one slice of the target market: a 6-foot, 36-year-old pickup junkie who'd love to be able to recapture the springy legs of a decade ago.
First, the good news: The most impressive results came from Zach Reed-Parsells, a 24-year-old grad student. He performed three jump tests in regular shoes, then repeated them in the Concept 1's. Off one foot, his increase wasn't noticeable, but jumping off two feet, he got about four inches higher. He went from barely touching the rim to grabbing it with his palm. To be honest, it was shocking to watch. "I've never jumped this high" said Zack, grinning. "I just want to keep jumping." And so he did.
Here's the thing, though: When he was finished and I pried the shoes from his hands, for a control I had him put back on his regular shoes and ... he jumped just as high. Which is to say, higher than he ever had. Now, there are a host of reasons why this could be: Perhaps he got more warmed-up, perhaps it was the adrenaline, perhaps it was a placebo effect with the Concept 1's and then, realizing he could jump like that, he was able to replicate it. When I ran this phenomenon past the IMG crew, head IMG trainer Patrick Tanner suggested that it might even be "an elastic muscle memory response" triggered by wearing the Concept 1's, "and that is why he maintained the height in the vertical jump once he put his regular shoes back on." Either way, intriguing.
The first time I wore the Concept 1's I had a similar experience, though not as dramatic. I jumped in regular shoes, then put on the Concept 1's and jumped a little higher -- at the time, I remarked that it felt like being in a "time machine" as I put down a couple of the type of emphatic dunks I hadn't pulled off in years -- then put back on my regular shoes and, like Zach, jumped just as high. It was weird. It was also not replicable, at least for me. In successive jump tests over the next few weeks I never felt the same boost using the Concept 1's, at least off one foot. Alas all my dunks, in either regular shoes or Concept 1's, fell into the unimpressive category, suggesting perhaps I'd just been amped up that first time. Jumping off two feet, I did continue to notice a difference, though it was only a gain of an inch or so.
Of the other two testers, one, 39-year-old Chris Heine, saw no increase in his jumps while the other, 19-year-old Albrey Brown, got about an inch or two higher when jumping off two feet. For Brown, this was enough; he was able to grab the rim with two hands for the first time and came thisclose to throwing down his first-ever dunk off an alley-oop. Since I was filming him at the time, he would have had proof too.
All of this jumping was in a vacuum, though. When it came to actually playing in the shoes, I can't say I felt any difference. If anything, after a few weeks, I was ready to return to my old hightops. My jumpshot felt no different in the Concept 1's, my drives were no more acrobatic and I certainly wasn't coming down the lane and dunking on people, like Adam (though I won't lie and say I hadn't hoped this might be the case). On the other hand, I was often aware of the Load n' Launch pad, which at times felt like a wad of gum stuck under the shoe, digging into my forefoot. I also found the Concept 1's less responsive than my regular shoes, perhaps because of the plastic shank in the sole.
If there was a benefit to wearing them, it came on defense, where I felt like I could perhaps challenge shots better. This sentiment was echoed by Zach, who liked wearing the shoes, saying "I felt a difference on rebounds and contesting shots." Heine, the big man, was not a fan, actually taking them off in the middle of a game after playing for an hour or so, though to be fair this was mainly because he found them uncomfortable. For what it's worth, the Concept 1's did draw rave reviews for their looks from the many shoe connoisseurs at the Y -- a group of ex-high school and junior college players -- who deemed them "dope" and "mad handsome." So they have that going for them.
By the end of the three weeks, I had mixed feelings about the shoes. If your only goal is to get about an inch higher on your dunk attempts, and you've got $300 to burn, then these shoes are worth a try. I can't vouch for whether the gain is really from all the patented APL technology or just from a potent combination of endorphins, optimism and having an audience, but especially for two-foot leapers, there seemed to be a boost.
If you want to become a better basketball player, however, I'd recommend instead taking that $300 and using it to go to a basketball camp, or investing in a gym membership. As for the NBA, I can't imagine these would provide much of a competitive advantage, outside of maybe the dunk contest. Though if Stu Jackson does go so far as to ban the Concept 1's, he would at least be providing a competitive advantage to someone, or in this case two people. After all, it's hard to imagine a better tagline than Banned by the NBA.