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THE SHOE ISSUE : Not just a sneaker : The expected reissue of the Air Jordan XI Space Jam has athletic shoe fans’ tongues wagging.

Many fashion fiends wouldn’t think twice about shelling out nearly as much as a mortgage payment for Manolos or maxing out the charge card for Choos, but they scratch their heads when they see kids queued up around the block for athletic shoes. What could make a pair of second-hand basketball shoes be worth $6,000?

The motivations really aren’t that different: limited supply, huge demand, marketing mystique and an emotional attachment that transcends dollar value. That’s why Los Angeles sneaker cognoscenti think a certain long-rumored, highly anticipated reissue of a sneaker that last saw store shelves nine years ago could end up as one of the most sought-after pairs of kicks this year.

“The Air Jordan XIs Retro Space Jams are going to be huge,” says Matt Halfhill, the 25-year-old founder and editor in chief of the sneaker blog NiceKicks.com, based in Austin, Texas.

It’s the same two-word answer all over town: “Space Jams,” says Liz Sanchez, manager of the Holy Grail, a downtown L.A. consignment shop that caters to the high-end sneaker crowd. “They’re going to sell out for sure. And we’ll probably see some for sale in here shortly after that.”

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“Oh, the Space Jams for sure,” concurs Tak Kato, the owner of the Blends boutique on 4th Street. “It will probably be crazy demand.”

And all this enthusiasm is for a sneaker whose maker won’t even confirm the release date.

Rumors of the release date have been circulating since early this year on sneaker-collecting blogs such as NiceKicks.com, NikeTalk.com (not affiliated with the shoe company) and SneakerObsession.com. First, they reported, it was to be the Friday after Thanksgiving; then they shifted the “official” release date to just two days before Christmas. PR reps for Nike’s Jordan Brand, citing company policy, won’t provide any information.

But even without an official release date, the shoe seems to have leaked out into the marketplace. Ostensibly authentic versions are posted on EBay with a $400 price tag -- more than double the expected retail price of $175, and employees at one local boutique -- Flight Club Los Angeles on Fairfax Avenue -- claim to have already received (and sold) the store’s entire allotment of the 2009 reissued Space Jams for $350 to $450 a pair.

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So what goes into making the clump of patent leather, plastic and fabric known as “Style Code:136046-041" so hotly anticipated and covet-worthy?

The story starts in 1985, with the original Nike Air Jordan 1, Michael Jordan’s red-and-black, high-top basketball shoe whose color scheme earned them an NBA ban for violating the league’s uniform policy regulating colors. The NBA levied a fine against Jordan -- who played on nonetheless-- and a sneaker craze was born, with new, Roman-numeral-designated versions of the Air Jordan (AJ) shoe following just about every year.

NiceKicks.com’s Halfhill points out that the Air Jordan XI that was released in 1995 had sneaker collectors salivating not just for the way it looked -- riffing on a tuxedo with a shiny, black patent leather strip undulating around the base of the white nylon upper, a white midsole and a clear outsole -- but for what happened in those shoes.

“It’s the first shoe Jordan won a championship in after coming back from his first retirement,” Halfhill explained. “So that was a big deal. Also the Bulls went 72 and 10 [an NBA record] when he wore that shoe.” Jordan also notched his eighth scoring title and earned his fourth championship ring in the XIs.

Halfhill also points out that, in the era before high-definition television, widespread use of the Internet or DVRs, the shoe’s debut on May 7, 1995, in the Chicago Bulls’ conference semifinal game against the Orlando Magic was a complete -- and hard to see -- surprise. “You either saw it or you didn’t, and there was no information released by Nike, so people were talking about it around water coolers and at the barbershop the next day,” Halfhill says.

One of those people was Ben Yang. Until a few years ago, the now 36-year-old Beverly Hills resident was the alpha dog of Los Angeles sneakerheads, a DJ and music A&R; man who scored a marketing gig with Nike (a relationship that’s since soured, he says). His personal collection topped out at some 1,800 pairs before he sold it off for close to $1 million.

“I remember seeing the Air Jordan XIs -- they were so clean and futuristic, it was like seeing a Lamborghini Countach for the first time. And wearing them was like seeing spaceships on my feet.”

In 1996, Michael Jordan appeared in the movie “Space Jam” alongside Bugs Bunny and a cadre of animated Looney Tunes. Footwear aficionados noticed that the AJ XIs Jordan wore in the film were a different color combination -- black on black with a pop of purple in the “Jumpman” logo on the heel. Adding to the desirability was the fact that what came to be known as the Space Jam color-way didn’t exist outside of the movie set, since only a handful of size 13s were made for the personal use of His Airness during filming. Still, Yang says he managed to score one of those exceedingly rare pairs -- thanks to a friend whose mother worked as a personal stylist to Jordan at the time. He forked over $400 for shoes that he estimates were worth several thousand.

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It was four more years before the shoes would be available to the general public (with a blue Jumpman logo instead of purple), and when they were released in late 2000, they were a hot seller.

Kato points out that the delay to market helped stoke demand. “And they haven’t been reissued since that time. So that’s nine more years of demand there. That’s probably going to make it the biggest release of the whole year.”

Kato says “probably” because no one -- including the folks at sneaker boutiques -- yet knows how widely available the Air Jordan XI Retro Space Jam will be when it is officially released -- or how many will be made available. A wider release would mean less cachet, and more stores mean less frenzy and fewer lines snaking around the block.

Of course, by declining to confirm or deny the rumored release date of Dec. 23, the folks at Nike’s Jordan Brand are only adding to the air of intrigue.

“Nike’s marketing department is tops in that department,” says the Holy Grail’s Sanchez, who notes that even when there’s an officially announced release date for a given shoe, Nike has been known to switch the release date by a day or so. “They like to keep people interested and hungry for more,” she said. “This shoe is going to sell out, it’s a hot shoe, and I’m already seeing them selling for $350 on the Internet.”

So whether the reissue comes close to the end of this year as most of the sneaker brain trust think it might, or sometime early next year, all the factors are in place to make the Air Jordan XI Retro Space Jam a slam dunk.

“Most people have what’s called a Holy Grail list,” Halfhill says. “It’s kind of like a bucket list for sneakerheads; shoes that they want to have in their collection before they die.

“And I can tell you that shoe is on a lot of people’s Holy Grail lists.”

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adam.tschorn@latimes.com


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