The man behind the best-selling basketball sneakers of all time is in the Basketball Hall of Fame and is still a household name even though his career ended years ago. No, it's not Michael Jordan. We're talking about Chuck Taylor.
This story originally aired on Nov. 2, 2013.
Millions of people around the world wear Chuck Taylor’s name on their ankles every day. His signature has appeared on the high-top, canvas All Star sneakers since 1932.
In Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., there's a steady stream of college students, tourists, hipsters ... and Chuck Taylors. On a sunny October afternoon, Morgan Goldstein was sporting a multi-colored pair of high tops. The 23-year-old has owned several pairs of All Stars.
Aleem Ahmed, 29, was wearing black low-tops. Ahmed has no problem explaining why he likes the sneakers, but like most Chucks owners, he’s less certain about Taylor’s story.
“I only know him from the sneakers. Maybe he has a skateboarding background? I don’t know,” he said.
Abraham Aamidor wrote a biography of Taylor published in 2006 titled Chuck Taylor, All Star.
“It became like Betty Crocker in a sense. If you were a cook, you knew the name Betty Crocker. There was no such person as Betty Crocker. But there really was such a person as Chuck Taylor. Most Americans didn’t know that," Aamdior said. "People who were buying his shoes by the '60s, '70s, '80s and beyond, they just thought of Chuck Taylor as a brand. His brand grew with the shoe even as his persona, the real persona, was lost.”
A Player In Basketball's Early Days
Charles Taylor was born in 1901, just ten years after Dr. James Naismith is credited with inventing the game of basketball. Taylor grew up in Columbus, Indiana and played for the Columbus High Bull Dogs. He graduated in 1919 and eventually landed in Akron, Ohio where he played for the Firestone Non-Skids, a semi-pro team owned by the tire manufacturer. But in 1922, he accepted a job as a salesman at Converse, and basketball was a critical part of his position.
Joe Dean worked for Converse for nearly 30 years, ending his tenure as a vice president. When Dean was hired in 1959, Taylor was already a giant at the company and in the world of basketball.
“He loved the game [of basketball]. He loved being a part of it. He put on clinics all over the country, helping kids learn how to play a little bit better," said Dean, who later served as the athletic director at Louisiana State University and is in the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
"He was a loveable guy and fun to be around and a nice guy, and he, at one point, knew every college basketball coach in the country. And if you wanted to hire a coach, you went through him. He’d recommend somebody."
In the 1920s and '30s, Taylor played on Converse’s own team and generated publicity in local newspapers with countless basketball clinics. The self-promotion paid off. The All Star sneaker had debuted in 1917 and Converse added Taylor’s name 15 years later, but Aamidor says customers had already made the switch.
“People would order ‘Chuck’s shoe’ or ‘Chuck Taylor’s shoe’ instead of the Converse All-Star. So his signature was added just under the five-point star. Brilliant marketing, brilliant branding.”
Taylor never asked for a royalty for having his name on the shoe. Air Jordans have earned Michael Jordan far more money than he ever made as a player, but Converse gave Taylor a full expense account and commission. By the time he retired in the mid-1960s, Taylor had been out on the road selling for more than 40 years. He married and divorced then married again later in life, but had no children. Dean says Taylor had no regrets.
“He went years without having a house or an apartment or anything. He lived out of a hotel 365 days a year. And that was happy for him. Christmas Day was just another day to him. Converse paid for Christmas. They were just glad he didn’t ask for a little extra change for his name," Dean said, laughing.
Technology Turned Fashion Statement
Today the All Stars’ waffle soles and white and black rubber sidewalls are instantly recognizable pop-culture images, but they were once cutting-edge features that helped Converse maintain control of the basketball sneaker market for the better part of five decades.
“I like to say the Chuck Taylor All-Star was born on the basketball courts, raised by rock n’ roll, and really adopted by street culture and fashion over the years,” Converse All Star Vice President Magnus Wedhammar said.
In Wedhammar's office in North Andover, Mass., there’s a row of new Chucks in a wild assortment of colors and patterns. Originally from Sweden, Wedhammar's connection to Chuck Taylors began long before his days in the footwear business.
“My first pair of Chuck Taylors was actually given to me. I was playing basketball back in Sweden and my team was sponsored by Converse back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. So that’s a pretty fond memory I have of the Converse brand. And I actually I played in the Chuck Taylor early on and in the Weapon, which is another iconic model.”
Wedhammar says after outliving their basketball usefulness, the sneakers became a statement for customers who are passionate about their Chucks.
“Not only passionate, but it’s a really personal relationship, and it evokes a lot of emotion," Wedhammar said. "And from young to old, they really have their own, always their own, personal story. And their personal love affair with the Chuck Taylor All Star today.”
Nike acquired the Converse brand in 2003 and sold 2 million pairs of All Stars the next year. By 2011, that figure was up to 70 million pairs worldwide. That’s more than 191,000 pairs of All Stars sold every day. The classic black high-top and white high-top remain the bestsellers.
The All Star's First Act Ends
That kind of success seemed impossible in 1969 when Converse pulled Taylor out of retirement to visit his friend and fellow Indiana native John Wooden.
“They knew that UCLA and John Wooden were thinking of abandoning the shoe," Aamidor said. "As the most famous coach in basketball at that time, if John Wooden abandons the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, if it’s no longer good enough for him, it’s not going to be good enough for anybody else.”
Despite the visit, Wooden’s Bruins –- like many other teams — switched to Adidas leather sneakers in the fall of 1969. But in the same year, Taylor also enjoyed a moment of glory. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. as a contributor to the sport. He died before year’s end. Taylor’s groundwork prepared the All-Stars for their iconic second act as a fashion item, but to Aamidor his self-made-man story represents something larger.
“He’s an American character in the sense that we talk about people reinventing themselves. You can’t say what he did. He didn’t win a Nobel Prize. He’s not a great mathematician. He’s not Johann Sebastian Bach. But his brilliance was in being an American and just an entrepreneur, and it’s great.”
It’s impossible to know what Taylor would think of the phenomenon his Chucks have become, but any salesman would like to be on a first-name basis with the world.
(Photo courtesy of Abraham Aamidor)
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