That’s Shoe Biz

Bob Lanier of the Detroit Pistons is a 25-point-a-night scorer. He frequently grabs 20 or more rebounds a game. He played the most minutes and was the game’s MVP in the 1974 All-Star lineup that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Nate Thurmond.

And, yet, the first thing anybody notices about him is his feet. He’s got the biggest feet of any creature that wears shoes. If you saw his footprints in the snow, you’d run like hell.

If Bob Lanier played football, he’d have to line up one yard behind the line of scrimmage or be offside. Rumor has it, his shoes are off-loaded at the Detroit River docks by tug. It takes him 20 minutes to unlace them. Even in basketball, he can get a three-second violation while standing on the sidelines.

Bob Lanier is 6-foot-11, 250 pounds, but all anybody wants to talk about are the bottom 25 inches. He was on the CBS post-game show one afternoon, after an outstanding day on the court, and a girl reporter only wanted to try on his shoes. She disappeared into them. Bob Lanier disappeared, too. He threw the shoes against the wall and walked out.

Big Bob never wanted to be Big Foot. He tried to go around pretending everyone wears size 22 or so. Even as a kid, he was never able to go into Thom McAn’s and say casually, “Do you have anything in a 21-1/2 X?” He shouted any journalist out of the dressing room who tried to bring up the subject of feet. It was hard not to bring it up. Writers would stare at those toes, which are bigger than most peoples’ feet, and start the general questioning . . . “Uh, Bob, how many feet — er, I mean, rebounds, did you have tonight?”

But this year a curious thing happened: Lee Williams, the publicity man for the Basketball Hall of Fame, asked to include some pro basketball memorabilia in the bicentennial Freedom Train, decided to liven the exhibit with something besides the ball Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points with, or the warm-up jacket worn by Oscar Robertson — and he put in a pair of Bob Lanier’s shoes.

They quickly became the most popular exhibit in the car, not to say the train. I mean, let’s face it: The bat Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run with looks like any other bat. The Bob Lanier shoes don’t look like any other pair of shoes. They look, in fact, like supertankers.

It is not unusual for a person to rail against the thing which makes him or her unique. I can remember Marilyn Monroe loftily preferring to explain her reading of the ‘Brothers Karamazov,’ as if anyone with her dimensions needed a literary reputation.

Golfers on the tour who are great putters hate the reputation. And I can recall Hank Aaron standing around a batting cage and saying resentfully, “I do other things besides hit home runs.”

There is evidence Babe Ruth considered the rest of his career downhill when he left the pitcher’s mound. Terrible-Tempered Tommy Bolt always wanted to be known as a guy who could see both sides of a question equally. For all I know, W.C. Fields probably wanted to be known as a man of moderation. And Bill Shoemaker used to chin himself on coat racks trying to be 6 feet tall — so he could be driving a truck instead of Swaps.

And so Bob Lanier would probably have preferred to have been known as just another pretty foot.

But if Bob had any sense of shoe business, if the late P.T. Barnum had had him, he would probably begin wearing shoes two sizes (or more) too large for him. He would edge them in neon, or loud colors. He would sell advertising on the soles.

When your shoes can rival the Declaration of Independence, The Adams Chronicles, or Lincoln’s shawl as a national monument, your feet belong to the world. I would let my toenails grow if I were Bob and, if the Detroit Pistons get in the playoff finals, 20 million people will concentrate not on the scorer’s feats, but on the scorer’s feet.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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