We are standing in a parking garage, Sneaker Man and I, and it's
way too cold. I think back to Ron Harper--to his words --and
wonder if the insightful Chicago Bulls guard is right: Maybe
31-year-olds should buy their own sneakers.
Did I mention the cold? Alaska-like, with a Klingon chill.
Sneaker Man is leaning against a metal rail, surrounded by five
or six kids half his age. Sneaker Man does not notice the
temperature. He does not notice the security guard. He does not
notice me, blue in the face, dying, inches away.
He is in the garage adjacent to the Rose Garden, home of the
Portland Trail Blazers, and he is in "the zone."
"Hey," Sneaker Man whispers. "That's Clifford Robinson." He
points to a tall man 30 yards away.
April 6, 1997
"How can you tell?" I ask.
"Trust me," he replies. "It is."
A second passes. "Hey, Cliff!" Sneaker Man yells. "Cliff!"
Robinson, a Blazers forward, turns our way, nods and then
disappears through a door. When he returns five minutes later,
he has in his hands a pair of hightops. He slowly walks toward
us--me, Sneaker Man and, by now, about 25 kids. "Is he gonna
give 'em to me?" a silly girl asks. "Is he?" Robinson hands his
Nikes to the security guard and then points to the tall,
freckled Opie Taylor look-alike standing 10 feet away.
Get real, kid. These shoes are for Sneaker Man.
The idea, I tell Sneaker Man, is this. Wherever you go, I will
follow. Whatever you do, I will watch. In a five-day span,
Sneaker Man says his goal is to attain a pair of Michael
Jordan's game-worn shoes--signed by His Airness, to boot.
"The Bulls are coming to Seattle and Portland," Sneaker Man
says. "During that trip, I think I can get it done."
Sneaker Man's real name is Ronnie Duquette, and he is a
31-year-old purchasing manager with Ideal Steel, a metal-cutting
business owned by his family. He lives in Eugene, Ore., with his
wife, Elaine, their two kids, Marcus, 6, and Derek, 4, and what
must surely be a world-record 300 pairs of autographed athletic
Sneaker Man started as Sneaker Boy when, as a 10-year-old, he
won a contest to be a Blazers ball boy for a year. "It wasn't my
goal to go collecting stuff," he says. "I was pumped just to be
a ball boy." During that 1976-77 season, when Portland won its
first (and only) NBA championship, he snagged his initial kicks,
a pair of Corky Calhoun's Ponys. He returned as a ball boy the
following season and got a pair of autographed shoes from every
"You could say I'm a fanatic," Sneaker Man says now, "but it's
not like I'm one of those fans who doesn't know his boundaries.
There's a point where you just say, O.K., I'm not getting his
You look at Sneaker Man's collection--which includes footwear
other than sneakers and is stored in an attic at Ideal Steel's
main office--and wonder why he uttered those words. Row upon row
of autographed shoes fill the room: from those worn by Arnold
Palmer to Gerry Cooney to Rick Mirer to T.R. Dunn to Al Unser
Jr.; from Magic Johnson to David Wood to Dan O'Brien to Lance
Parrish to, well, you get the picture.
"Steve Young's a great story," he says. "I'd talked to him when
he was a rookie with Los Angeles in the USFL, and he said I
could get his shoes." It didn't happen then, but several years
later, after Young had joined the San Francisco 49ers, Sneaker
Man showed up at the Niners' training camp. "I told a security
guard I needed to talk to Steve, to tell him it was Ron from
Eugene. So the guy went over, and Steve looked at me with that
expression: Who? But he came over and remembered me. I got his
In seeking footwear, Sneaker Man relies on the straightforward
approach. "I usually walk up, explain myself and ask if I could
have the player's shoes," he says. There are also the three
tattered Polaroids, each depicting his collection from a
different angle, that go everywhere Sneaker Man goes. "They show
that I'm not a dealer," he says. "It seems everyone's out to
make a buck these days. I want them to see that I'm just a guy
who collects shoes." Sometimes, it takes good timing (the night
he was able to get Terry Cummings, Sidney Moncrief and Ricky
Pierce all in one swoop). Mostly it takes patience. Hotel
lobbies, Sneaker Man says, are a Sneaker Man's best friend. "If
you can catch the players when the team's checking in," he says,
"you have a shot."
Hence, here we are on a sunny Saturday morning, pacing the lobby
of Seattle's plush Four Seasons Hotel like a couple of expectant
dads. One hour passes, and another. Then, smack. "It's them,"
Sneaker Man whispers. The 20 or 30 other people in the lobby
rise, as if being approached by God, while the Bulls saunter
through the main entrance. Bill Wennington, Toni Kukoc, Steve
Kerr, Jud Buechler come through first. Then Luc Longley, Robert
Parish, Randy Brown, Dickey Simpkins and Michael Jordan.
I glance over at Sneaker Man, who does absolutely nothing.
Jordan walks right by us--20 inches away, max--without any
reaction from Sneaker Man. "The moment wasn't right," Sneaker
Man says afterward, sensing my disappointment. "You have to feel
these things out sometimes."
Roughly an hour later Jordan emerges from an elevator. Sneaker
Man pauses, waits three seconds, then--zoom!--follows his prey.
Sneaker Man says nothing. His eyes are agog. His face is red.
His mouth doesn't move. The moment is at hand.
"Hey, Michael," he yells, standing inches from Jordan at the
hotel's taxi stand. "I talked to you in Portland a few years ago."
Sneaker Man holds out a manila envelope, containing two Jordan
glossies. His Airness walks toward a waiting taxi and then looks
Sneaker Man in the eyes. There is hope. There is contact.
"Whaddya want me to do with that?" he asks. Jordan has opened
the car door. He is about to get in. Sneaker Man is a quick
thinker. He has been in this type of situation before--Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar, Derek Smith, Kevin McHale. Surely, he'll come up
with the right response.
"Do you remember Pam Eisenberg?"
"What about her?" Jordan responds. "She's married." With that,
Jordan shuts the door and roars off. Sneaker Man stands still
for a moment and then is told by a security guard he must leave
the hotel immediately.
"Who the hell is Pam Eisenberg?" I ask.
"About 10 years ago I asked Jordan about his sneakers," utters
Sneaker Man, obviously hurt. "And he told me to call Pam
Eisenberg." Back then she was in charge of Jordan's foundation.
Ten years ago?
We walk out of the hotel, Sneaker Man and I, two dogs booted
from the house. "I'm not giving up," he tells me. "I can still
go at it again in Portland."
Three days later I am in the Bulls' locker room before the game.
Harper, who had seen Sneaker Man in Seattle, says, "A grown man
can buy his own sneakers."
The game comes. The game goes. As Sneaker Man and I stand in the
cold garage, waiting for Robinson, someone tells us Jordan just
gave his Airs to a kid near the team bus on the other side of
the garage. We could have been there. We should have been there.
Why are we waiting for Robinson? Why not Jordan? Why not the
But then, quick as a killer crossover, Robinson's size 15 white
Nikes are handed to Sneaker Man, and his face lights with joy.
Michael who? Air what? "This makes it worth it for me," says
Sneaker Man. "Now the two-hour drive home won't be bad."
"Didn't you come to get Michael Jordan?" I ask.
Sneaker Man looks at me. He rubs his mustache. There are no kids
left, just me, the cold and Sneaker Man. "I wanted 'em," he
says. "But I still got me some sneakers."