Secondly, footwear is more important than you may think. If you wear Doc Martens, you're a sucker. ANY other kind of boot is acceptable. As far as sneakers go, there is one and only one acceptable brand and that is Chuck Taylor Converse All-Star hi-tops. Now, I know you already know that, but what you don't know is that punks DO NOT wear red Converse, Christmas Converse, plaid Converse or any kind of Converse except for black. Uh, that is until recently. ...I've come to the realization that black C.T.'s have been co-opted by the mainstream and are now utterly unacceptable.
—Ben Weasel, "Punk Rock Dress Code"1

Charles "Chuck" Taylor (who was not the deposed leader of Liberia) is, at once, a celebrity and a mystery. His name is synonymous with a shoe and its company—the classic Converse All Stars. In fact, the shoes are almost better known just by invoking his name: Chuck Taylors (or shortened to Chucks—but let's try to avoid that). In the competitive, billion dollar business of sports shoes the only other comparable example is Michael Jordan and his Nike Air Jordans. [Perhaps a minor case could be made for Run-DMC and Adidas...but I digress.]

Everyone who knows basketball—and millions worldwide who don't—know who Michael Jordan is. But who was Chuck Taylor? Must have had something to do with basketball. And shoes. Right?

The story of Chuck Taylor is intertwined with both the sport and the shoes. To know it is to also know some important things about Converse and basketball.

Two paths that converge
Charles Taylor was born 24 June 1901 in Indiana—just seven years before Marquis Mills Converse opened his Converse Rubber Shoe Company in Malden, Massachusetts (and ten years after James Naismith had helped "invent" the sport of basketball). As Taylor matriculated through his Midwestern education, Converse made his living manufacturing and selling winterized footwear for the whole family. In the teens (and in his teens), Taylor attended Columbus High School in his native Indiana where he played basketball all four years and twice made all-state. Meanwhile, Converse begins making canvas tennis shoes.

In 1917, Converse makes the first All Star basketball shoes—which resemble the ones they make today. The next year, Taylor tried out his first pair and was so inspired (one source claims it was partly because of sore feet) that he went to Converse's Chicago offices with suggestions on how to improve the shoes. Reportedly Converse was impressed. Taylor was also beginning an eleven year career as a professional basketball player (he did not attend college) playing with some of the early teams like the Akron Firestones, the Buffalo Germans, Detroit Royals, and an early version of the Boston Celtics. Interestingly, for his entire pro career, no one has been able to locate even one box score with his name. Part of the legend.

The busy '20s & '30s
Taylor first started working with Converse in 1921. His design ideas for better traction and ankle support and a better sole—things important for the developing faster style of play— were implemented by the company. He also became the first player endorser in US history. He helped start the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which would continue to be published for sixty years. Taylor also ran clinics at various universities and colleges (North Carolina State University would be the first in 1922) to spread the word of the game. He would come to be thought of as the "Ambassador of Basketball." Not only in the US, but he was an unofficial ambassador (or not—he was doing it through the US State Department) outside the US, first going to Mexico (1941) and also teaching clinics in Hawaii (in 1950, nine years before statehood), Puerto Rico, North Africa, Greece, England, Belgium, Germany, and South America (all during the 1950s).

In addition to the clinics, he would put on exhibitions of his basketball skills. He could drop kick a ball into the basket from 50 feet away (just over 15 m) and bounce a ball into the basket from 70 feet away (just over 21 m). But wait—what about skills more germane to the actual game? He could make a basket from 30 feet (just over 9 m) away. Not good enough? How about facing away from the basket? And blindfolded. Of course, he wasn't just promoting the sport he loved, he was promoting the shoe and would travel from engagement to engagement in a white Cadillac with a trunkful of shoes.

Then in 1923 it happened. Something that would make Taylor and Converse All Stars bound at the shoe-DNA level: Converse added his signature to the star logo on the side of the shoes. And there it remains. That same year, Converse would also get involved in a sadly little known aspect of basketball history. It customized All Stars for a team known as the New York Renaissance (or New York Rens). It was a barnstorming team that was unattached to any league (why is upcoming). The Rens achieved one of the most stunning records in basketball history. Over 27 years, they had a 2,588-539 record. During an 86 day stretch in 1939, they would win 88 games in a row (yeah: two more games than days). In 1939, they had a 112-7 record and defeated the championship team from the National Basketball League (the Oshkosh All-Stars). And they did it all in All Stars.

What makes it all more remarkable is this: the Rens were an all Black team. Named for the Harlem Renaissance Casino where they played games on the second story ballroom, they were unable to join any league and had to find their own games, facing racism at every stop. But their achievements won them many admirers and they would be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963.

The 1930s would continue the close relationship between the man, the shoes, and sports. In 1932, Taylor personally picked the All-America teams. And not just an innovator in the shoe end of the business, in 1935 Taylor (with Wilson Sports) helped develop a new type of basketball—the Wilson "Chuck Taylor" Official Laceless Basketball. It's hard to believe today that there was a time when basketballs had outer stitching. Taylor used a rubber valve bladder which made the ball much lighter. The following year, basketball became an official Olympic sport (the US defeated Canada 19-8 on a clay court). The team all wore All Stars. In fact, Converse (not always All Stars) would be worn in every Olympic basketball game until 1984.

Another interesting non-league team wore the shoes. The All American Redheads. And yes, they were an all female exhibition team. And in 1939, the first NCAA basketball tournament took place. Both teams wore Chuck Taylors (Oregon versus Ohio State; Oregon won 46-33). As late as 1974, 8 out of 10 players in every major college (and junior college) tournament wore the All Stars.

War comes to Converse
World War II affected every aspect of American life and that includes the hero of this piece as well as the shoe that bears his name. Taylor spent time with both the Navy and the Air Force (no info on the years served or where). He coached a team for the latter during the war.

Meanwhile, Converse (already helping to organize blood and rubber drives...hmm, that doesn't sound right) was working with the military to develop the A6 flying boot which would be worn by the whole US Army Air Corps. They also manufactured other gear like boots, parkas, and ponchos worn by servicemen. In 1942 they made a version of the All Star that would be worn by every man going through basic training. The shoes that helped win the war? Probably not, but Converse received numerous honors from the Army, Navy, Treasury Department and the War Department.

Rise of the Taylor
In 1949, the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League merged to form the National Basketball Association. At the time, pretty much every player wore Chuck Taylors. Eight years later, a seven year old Julius Erving got his mother to buy him his first pair of All Stars (at the time, just under four dollars—the shoes have remained one of the cheapest high tops on the market). Not 20 years later, he would become a player endorser of his own style of Converse named after him: The Dr. J.

The "Ambassador" would become a member of the Sporting Goods Hall of Fame in 1958 (only the second living person to be selected at the time). Four years later an NBA player scored 100 points in a single game—a record unlikely to ever be topped. The player: Wilt Chamberlain. The shoes: Chuck Taylor All Stars.

From early on, the shoes came in high tops and in two colors—black and white. That would change in the 1960s. In 1962, a low cut "oxford" debuted and 1966 saw seven new colors added to the line in order to better coordinate with NBA team colors. Since then, over 25 different colors have been produced (probably more—most of these are an abomination).

Not long before his death (heart attack) in 1969, Taylor got his due, getting enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a contributor to the sport. He had left his mark and the shoes that bear his name would continue to live on.

Beyond basketball
Something else was happening in the 1960s and 1970s (and would continue in subsequent years). All Stars were growing in popularity as a great comfortable, canvas shoe. Not just among actual or amateur basketballers (or those wanting to "Be like Chuck," so to speak), but among regular kids. People in movies, artists, and musicians all came to be fans of the unassuming shoes that were an icon. They also have a wonder nostalgic feel to them. A throwback to a simpler time and shoes that could be cool without being some showy, high-priced status symbol adorned with unnecessary rubber and plastic bits. All Stars are hip and laid back.

At the same time that the shoes were growing a wider fan base, they were also declining as an actual shoe intended for basketball. To be honest, having spent an entire day walking around a small town in a pair, I can't imagine wearing them in hard, tough ball games night after night. Perhaps it is because they have almost zero arch support (not helpful for flat feet). But I don't wear the shoes that bear the signature of this legend to play sports. They look cool, they are comfortable, they age well (seriously, they actually look better as they get scuffed and worn), they're inexpensive, and if they're good enough for the Ramones, they're good enough for me.

Coda: the end of an era?
Another thing that made the shoes an American icon is that, like Harley-Davidson motorcycles, they were Made in the USA. Just like the sport that was born and bred in the US, the shoes were singularly American. Despite having sold several hundred million pairs of All Stars (750 million between 1923 and 2002), all was not well. Even after introducing a new type of All Star (logo intact) in 1996. The All Star 2000 was a hit, quickly selling a million pairs. I have a pair. Nothing to write home about. But that wasn't good enough.

Sadly, it came to an end in 2003, when Nike bought Converse (which had filed for bankruptcy in 2001). Converse was hardly the major player like a Nike or a Reebok. In 2002 Nike made $10.7 billion and Converse only $205 million. The year before the bankruptcy, they had only made $145 million. So, for $305 million, Converse became the property of Nike.

The Chuck Taylor All Star is now made overseas like Nike's other gear. Converse is still around and may be strengthened with Nike's deeper pockets and ability to market. All Stars are still around, too. My current pair (black, of course), about two or three years old, were manufactured in Indonesia. That sucks.

That aside, thank you Mr. Taylor—so long and thanks for all the shoes.

1Written as a satirical piece when he worked for the magazine MAXIMUMROCKNROLL, it outraged hundreds of fans and nonfans alike who didn't realize it was a joke. But I've seen pictures of him in both black and white All Stars (low-cut).

The History of Converse
Converse - Inside Converse
Converse - Press Room: FAQ Sheets

Charles "Chuck" Taylor Biography
Note: there are some discrepancies (and a couple of errors—possibly typos) between the bios at the Hall of Fame site and the Converse site. I generally deferred to Converse.
NY Renaissance Biography
"Chuck Taylors: The Myth Behind the Autographed Sneakers"

"Nike hopes to cash in on 'retro' Converse" 9 July 2003 AP article
"For $305 Million, Nike Buys Converse" 10 July 2003 New York Times

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