A sneaker collector's gotta have sole

Updated: June 2, 2009, 10:13 AM ET
By Jim Wilkie | ESPN.com

Ping ChaoPing ChaoPing Chao busts out tricks with his prized "kicks."

Collecting sports-related items has a such a grip on people that the hobby tugs at the senses and can hold a place in someone's memory much like a familiar smell, the taste of a favorite food or a beloved song from years ago.

So when The Life asked Ping Chao when he got started collecting Air Jordan sneakers, he didn't provide an answer in the ballpark. He replied with a surprisingly specific date (Feb. 17, 2001) because he was a student at the time and had been saving up for the purchase.

"And I remember the scenario that day that brought me into the store and that sort of thing," said Chao, 27, of Edison, N.J. "My decision-making process that was going on in my head ... all that is crystal clear because as a student these sort of things are hard to get into.

"I guess it just depends on who you were with that day and what their mindset is. I guess I saw a couple of my friends doing it and then I kind of got hooked in that sort of way. It just kept snowballing, turned into a passion for that."

Now Chao's collection has grown to more than 100 pairs of sneakers with an abundance of Nikes and an emphasis on Air Jordans (see more in a photo gallery). Sure, some of the many sneakerheads have more -- such as OutKast's Big Boi, who has about 400 pairs, according to CNN.com -- but Chao, a senior Web designer for ESPN, acquired his without the advantages of a hip-hop career.

"Especially now I purchase sneakers for the value or the potential value in the future," Chao said. "And Nike stock is always steady and rising. So in terms of specific sneakers I like to look at design because I'm a designer. The Air MaX 95 series is one of my favorites ... also Nike Dunks."

To illustrate his fanaticism, Chao said he and his wife designed and personalized pairs of Nikes for the groomsmen and bridesmaids in their wedding as thank you gifts. Chao, who shares his sneaker passion on his Web site, SolelyGrails.net, conservatively estimated his collection's value at around $8,000 to $10,000.

After that initial pair had to serve a functional purpose, Chao no longer wears the sneakers he collects. He still looks for pairs in his size range (8½ to 9½) so he could still use them if he ever chose to, but he said he rarely steps out of that size range unless it's a rare shoe he can flip with confidence.

Asked the obvious question for any shoe collector not named Imelda Marcos, Chao said yes, size matters.

Companies make fewer shoes in half sizes, which automatically makes them harder to find and therefore makes them increase in value a little bit faster, he said. The popular size range is from 8½ to 11½ because it seems the majority of the population fits in that range. Chao said he has friends who wear size 8 or 7½ and have a much easier time collecting than he does.

Periodically, The Life will be featuring sports fans such as Chao and their passion for collectibles and memorabilia and invite you to submit tips for future collectors to profile.

For our debut of The Collector's Life, we asked Chao about his hobby. Here is what he had to say about his collection:

What distinctive sports-related items do you collect?

Chao: Sneakers, aka "Kicks" (Nike, Air Jordan, etc.)

When did you start?

Chao: Feb. 17, 2001.

Why?

Chao: Growing up and going to grade school in the 1990s, and being a fan of the game of basketball, everyone knew who Michael Jordan was, and Jordan was the reason I am still a Chicago Bulls fan to this day. Besides being a fan of "Air" Jordan the basketball player, the phenomenon surrounding his sneakers also spread beyond the sport itself and into street and pop culture. It became a style, an identity.

Everyone in school wanted to own a pair of Air Jordans. I was no exception, however, I wasn't fortunate enough to do so until my sophomore year in college when I had a part-time job. After purchasing my first pair of Air Jordans, the XVIs (and then getting over the buyer's remorse from spending that amount on a pair of shoes), I realized firsthand what the intrigue was with these sneakers, and with sneakers in general -- I was hooked.

What item(s) are you most proud of? Describe them.

[+] EnlargeAir Jordan shoe
Courtesy Ping ChaoLike the sneaker's namesake, the Air Jordan III Retro "True Blue" is a personal favorite of Ping Chao.

Chao: There are two pairs that come to mind when speaking of my proudest acquisitions -- The Air Jordan III Retro "True Blue," and the Air Jordan XI Retro "Cool Grey." My favorite sneakers are the ones that I was able to purchase at an obscenely good deal, and these two represent the top two best investments in my collection.

AJ 3 (III) Retro+ (White/True Blue): Released in 2001 and retailed for $100. The feature, and trademark, on this style was the elephant print used at the heel, toe area, and lacing tabs. The sneaker had a white leather upper with blue and red accents.

This third installment in the Air Jordan Collection was most known for being the one that kept Michael signed with Nike back in 1988. Without these, who knows, maybe the AJ Collection would've stopped at No. 2.

AJ 11 (XI) Retro (Medium Grey/White -- Cool Grey): Released in March 2001 and retailed for $125. This style (AJ XI) has been dubbed as the most popular style of Air Jordans ever designed, a design that is anchored by one of the first successful uses of patent leather on a basketball shoe.

Other style features include the white midsole to complement the grey upper, and the shoe sits on a clear outsole with a carbon fiber plate, and air sole with herringbone traction pattern.

What item was the most difficult to find and obtain?

Chao: The pair of kicks that was most difficult to get my hands on has to be my Air Jordan III Retro "Fire Reds." Every time the AJ 3's were re-released, there was a lot of hype and a lot of sneaker fanatics would come out in packs to get their hands on a pair.

Long story short, I recruited a buddy of mine to come with me one Saturday morning ... really early morning ... at about 1 a.m. we were the first to get into line. The time was determined based on some research done prior to the day via sources working in the store or friends in other areas. After waiting for the 10 a.m. opening, I figured I was in line for so long, that I might as well make it worthwhile, so I bought four pairs.

What shoe is atop your "get list"?

Chao: The most recent one, Kanye West actually just teamed up with Nike and designed a sneaker and he took bits and pieces of some Air Jordans and kind of put his own flair into it. That actually is one that I've been looking for.

I tried waiting in line for them, but they were sold out. They were sold out hours before the store even opened because they were passing out vouchers and all that. I'm too old to compete with the young guys now because people had tents, they had sleeping bags and they'd been there for days, so there's no way I would have gotten a pair.

But that's one of the things I'm looking for now. I'm waiting for the demand right now to die down because right now the shoes retail for about $300 and on eBay right now they're $1,200.

Where do you typically purchase items to add to your collection?

Chao: There usually isn't one specific place that I look to buy sneakers from, simply because there are so many sources out there, and with each release there are different locations that carry those sneakers. Living near New York City helps because of the sheer number of sneaker stores in the area.

I've bought shoes from your typical retail chains like Foot Locker, Footaction and FinishLine, but also from smaller mom and pop shops that you'll typically find in New York City or the surrounding cities. Some popular online mediums for buying and selling sneakers are eBay, as well as online social groups like NikeTalk.