When LeBron James stepped on the court wearing mismatched sneakers in the nation's capital, it wasn't a fashion statement by the NBA's most popular athlete. The message was clearly emblazed in gold on the back of his kicks, one white and one black: Equality.
Sneaker enthusiasts around the world eagerly await NBA All-Star weekend when new and limited editions of the latest shoes make their debut, but the month leading up to the highly anticipated shoepalooza is often used to make a social statement.
Starting with Martin Luther King Day and coinciding with Black History Month, players and companies honor the past and create dialogue about the future through footwear.
"I just think it's more of a paying homage to people that paved the way before me," Warriors forward Kevin Durant said. "It's much more than just shoes. It's more so of a memorial more than anything."
Nike, which started building Black History Month campaigns in 2005, has created an entire theme around equality.
Kyrie Irving's fourth signature shoe has the word repeated over and over in black over a white body with a red and green outsole. There are multiple Air Force 1 models with "equality" on the body, and the Jordan line has been involved from a flyknit Air Jordan 1 to player-only editions of the Air Jordan 32.
Jonathan Johnson-Griffin, the global senior creative director of Nike Basketball and Olympics, says they also wanted to celebrate the Pan-African flag, leading to a red, black and green motif featured on several models that didn't specifically include the word "equality." He believes the messages are especially pertinent during divisive times epitomized by the violent demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"Equality is the north star that we want to celebrate in sport," Johnson-Griffin said. "We feel like people feel a lot more equalized in sport than sometimes they do outside of sport. We want to celebrate the many chapters of that idea and many different dimensions of how we can celebrate equality. And BHM is a really iconic one.
"When you see LeBron making a statement around equality, that's a big invitation to everyone to come celebrate who they are."
Nike isn't the only apparel company celebrating Black History Month. Last year, Adidas honored Arthur Ashe on the James Harden, Damian Lillard and Derrick Rose models. A 2018 collection wasn't created, but Lillard's "Dame 4" has an edition that honors the Harlem Renaissance with nods to the Apollo Theater and Savoy Ballroom.
"When I can have something like the Black History shoe that's close to home, close to my heart," Lillard said, "it's always good to be able to tell that story through the shoe."
Players across the league have been seen wearing a variety of custom shoes in the last month touching on the theme. Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell wore a pair of Dame 4s with "I HAVE A DREAM" on the side and a closed fist on the toe box on MLK Day. Russell Westbrook recently wore his first signature performance shoe featuring a red, black and green colorway.
The movement is about more than just selling shoes. The Nike Equality campaign encourages people to get involved in youth organizations such MENTOR and Peace Players.
James, who has been extremely outspoken about social causes and injustices, knows he and many other players can spread those messages through footwear.
"You want the narrative to be sharp because you want to inspire people through that narrative," Johnson-Griffin said. "It's almost like when you curate an amazing museum exhibit. The narrative that you create should be a very meaningful and impactful one. We want to give people an opportunity to be part of that narrative.
"The BHM line is about inspiring, making an impact on sport and changing the world. ... We want to celebrate people that are doing it and want to inspire people to do more of it."
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Detroit contributed to this report.
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