A Huge N.B.A. Rivalry: Sneaker Collections (pics)

A Huge N.B.A. Rivalry: Sneaker Collections (pics)

P. J. Tucker, a forward with the Phoenix Suns, really likes sneakers. He likes them so much, in fact, that he needs four locations to store his collection.

He keeps some at his home in Phoenix, where about 200 pairs are piled in boxes next to his bed. He stacks others in the locker room at US Airways Center, where he occupies two stalls.

His mother has been gracious enough to stow several dozen at her home. She was, after all, the person who enabled his shoe-buying habit as a child, driving him to a Footaction store whenever the latest pair of Jordans was available.

And then there is the climate-controlled warehouse in North Carolina, not far from where he grew up, where Tucker stashes the bulk of his 2,000-pair collection. He does his best to label the boxes; otherwise, he might forget what he owns.

“My mom asks me all the time, When is it going to be enough?” Tucker said. “I don’t know. It’s an obsession. It’s something that I love. My vice is shoes.”

Tucker has a lot of company. The love affair between N.B.A. players and their basketball shoes has never been more passionate. The players’ unquenchable thirst for footwear is evident on the court, where they cycle through styles hourly, it seems, and at home, where shoe boxes teeter in players’ closets like pieces in a Jenga game.

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P. J. Tucker in the Suns’ locker room at US Airways Center, one of the four places that house his 2,000-pair sneaker collection. “It’s an obsession,” he says. “My vice is shoes.” Mark J. Rebilas for The New York Times

“It’s really become a phenomenon where you see guys getting competitive with each other: Who’s got the hottest sneakers?” said Matt Halfhill, the publisher of Nice Kicks, an influential blog for self-described sneaker-heads. “It’s a big thing.”

Before a recent game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Nick Young of the Los Angeles Lakers, who is said to have one of the league’s finer sneaker collections, removed a pair of Nike Kobe 9 Elites from his locker. Nobody, Young made sure to underscore, had worn them before. He might as well have been handling uranium.

“It’s just that swag,” he said.

It is worth noting, of course, that basketball sneakers are a multibillion-dollar industry, and that players are virtual billboards for companies like Nike, Adidas and Reebok, which provide players streams of sneakers and other gear in their endorsement deals.

Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks has his own line of Jordan-brand sneakers. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, armed with a lucrative contract with Under Armour, unveiled a custom pair of Anatomix Spawns — the name of the sneaker, not a biological experiment — on Sunday in a game against the Portland Trail Blazers. The shoes were accented in gold as a tribute to the Grammy Awards. Curry scored 38 points, and the Warriors won.

But while sneakers are big business, many players take pure, unadulterated pleasure in acquiring them, wearing them and even displaying them. Nike, for example, pays Tucker to wear its products, and he still spends $2,000 a month to buy more. He calls this his sneaker allowance.

The Philadelphia 76ers guard Evan Turner, said he recently splurged on 57 pairs in a single afternoon at Sole Control, a boutique and consignment shop.

“I never really had a lot growing up,” he said. “So I think this is how I feel I’m wealthy in a certain way — just starting a collection and knowing I have them.”

It also makes sense given the restrictions players face with their game apparel. They must wear matching jerseys and shorts. (These are known as uniforms.) Even their socks are supplied by the N.B.A. But sneakers are different. Along with hairdos and tattoos, sneakers are one of the few ways in which players are free to express themselves. They must be white, black or gray, or fit in the team’s color scheme, per league rules, but players have ample room for sartorial flair.

“Players want to be seen, and they don’t want to look alike,” said Jay Gaspar, the Suns’ equipment manager. “Shoes become their identity.”

If that is the case, players are forever trying to figure out who they are. Tucker’s search seeps into pregame warm-ups, during which he drives Gaspar to the brink of madness. Tucker will swap his sneakers as many as three times in pursuit of the perfect pair: look good, feel good.

Nice Kicks, a sneaker site, runs an annual competition to determine which player wears the best footwear. The judging is based on five criteria, including “element of surprise” and “closet appeal.” Derrick Williams of the Sacramento Kings took the title last year, and Young won the year before that.

But a guard with the 76ers, Tony Wroten, claims to have “the best shoe game in the league” — better than that of Williams or Young. Better even than that of the Denver Nuggets’ Nate Robinson, who once broke out a pair of Air Yeezy 2s — an exceedingly rare sneaker, the product of a collaboration between Nike and the rapper Kanye West — back when he was playing for the Chicago Bulls. It was a bold statement.

“It’s not even a basketball shoe,” said George Kiel III, an associate editor at Nice Kicks.

While Wroten respects his rivals’ sneakers, he wants his feet to look especially slick whenever he matches up against one of them in a game.

“You’re not going to bring it up,” he said, “but you know in the back of your mind that he’s going to come with something, so you got to come with something crazier.”

Wroten said he wore 30 pairs of sneakers in the first half of the season. He said he would love to wear a new style every game, but that would be — what was the word? — impractical. The schedule is too demanding. So he settles for two or three pairs a week. “I just love shoes,” he said.

While wearing new sneakers so frequently might make some people cringe, blisters tend not to be an issue because most players wear orthotics molded for their feet. Others, after so many years in the game, have developed corns and calluses. Many players wear two pairs of socks. Their feet and ankles are wrapped in athletic tape. In other words, a lot of ugly stuff is happening inside that high-fashion footwear, and much of it helps to prevent injury.

Wroten was sitting in the visitors’ locker room at the Garden last week when a reporter pointed to a pair of gold, rhinestone-speckled high-tops that sat nearby. It looked like a chandelier had exploded on the floor. Was Wroten planning to wear those later? “Oh, those aren’t mine,” he said.

The quest for the N.B.A.’s best sneakers, in other words, is not the province of a select few. Josh Childress, a free-agent forward who played most recently for the New Orleans Pelicans, estimated that his collection included more than 1,000 pairs. While vacationing this month in Europe, he took six. He had to set a limit.

“And two of them are for working out, so they don’t really count,” he said in a telephone interview from Turkey.

Some of Childress’s sneakers have sentimental value, he said. He has pairs that he wore in high school and at Stanford, along with dozens of replicas. He also cherishes sneakers that Nike designed for him. These are known as player exclusives, and they are a rite of passage for young stars.

Unlike some of his peers, who treat their sneakers as if they should be behind glass (and they sometimes are), Childress will dip into his collection when he dines out or goes to the movies. But he also checks the forecast for rain and restricts their wear to leisure activities. “I’m not playing pickup in them,” he said.

Turner, the 76ers guard, uses four closets in his basement to house his collection, though he has plans for a more elaborate display. He said he was inspired by Jeremy Guthrie, a pitcher with the Kansas City Royals who has a sneaker vault in his home.

“I want to do something dope like that for them,” Turner said.

Turner has a sponsorship deal with the Chinese apparel company Li-Ning, which manufactures the sneakers he wears in games. Turner will cycle through nearly 50 pairs of them in a season, he said. He might stick with a pair if he plays well. A bad game? He immediately consigns them to the sneaker graveyard.

“They disappear,” Turner said. “I don’t even know where they go. I’m done with them, you know?”

The sneakers in his collection are a different story, and they feature many brands that are not Li-Ning. That can be a problem. Turner said he made the mistake of wearing several of them in public as a younger player, and his sponsor made clear that it was not pleased. So his collection is pretty much off limits to him.

Turner was asked what he wore around town instead.

“Mostly slippers,” he said.