Wauwatosa native Larry Awe discusses his collection of game-worn and autographed NBA shoes, found in an abandoned storage area at Capitol Court Mall.
JR Radcliffe, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE — “My Very Best.”
It’s a simple enough message, scrawled on an old athletic shoe that wound up in an abandoned storage room as Capitol Court Mall was being demolished in Milwaukee. It’s faded along with the signature that accompanies it: NBA superstar Michael Jordan.
But the man who found it says the memories it brings back are as fresh as yesterday.
Larry Awe, then head of maintenance for the disintegrating mall, knew to whom the white Nike initially belonged immediately. He’d been through the mall enough times and passed by sports apparel store Playmakers, where game-worn shoes from NBA players were routinely on display.
“We’d walk through the mall quite a bit,” said Awe, 67, who worked in maintenance at the mall for three decades. “I was a big basketball fan, and the biggest crowd I ever saw (in the mall) was when new shoes were displayed. ‘Look at the size of those!’ (onlookers would say).”
The shoe Awe remembers most from the display belonged to Bob Lanier, a size-22 monster.
But despite the comparative normalcy of the Jordan shoe — size 13, faded on the bottom, black trim starting to crack near the top — the artifact from the fledgling days of a basketball dynasty turned out to be quite the keepsake.
“I saw the box and said, ‘This isn’t going to the dump,'” Awe said.
“It was almost like a buried treasure,” said Chris Nerat, consignment director at Heritage Auctions, where the shoe has gone up for bid for its Platinum Night Sales, ending with final bidding Feb. 23-24.
Heritage estimates the shoe will be worth $20,000 at auction. The bidding starts at a quarter of the estimate ($5,000), and Nerat feels the shoe will sell for “multiples of our estimate.”
“Larry’s had it in his basement for 17 years and it happens to be what I consider and what Heritage considers the most significant Air Jordan shoe in existence, and I don’t think we’re overexaggerating,” Nerat said.
There is one twist, though, and it’s a big one.
Former Playmakers owner Ron Tesmer believes the shoe is rightfully his.
Where did the shoes go in 1997?
Tesmer can recall the details from many of the shoes in his display at Playmakers, a business he sold in 1997 before moving to California in 2000.
“I bought a big Plexiglas encasement and put the shoes in there against the wall and wrote up a little thing underneath the shoes, saying what size they were,” Tesmer said. “At any one time, we had maybe a dozen to 15 shoes. Each one of them was a little different. Larry Bird had a green canvas pro bottom that was so unique. Jordan’s shoe, he put an insole in it to make it more comfortable.”
Tesmer developed a relationship with Milwaukee Bucks players and other personnel, including the ball boys. The ball boys would collect game-worn merchandise, get it autographed, and then bring it to Tesmer in exchange for a new pair of shoes.
Sometimes, the ball boys would bring shoes from players that weren’t as notable as others, but Tesmer said he’d honor the agreement, because the next time around, the same kid might bring someone of greater prominence.
When he got out of the business, Tesmer said he packed up some of his favorites — Jordan, Bird, Dr. J, Ice Man, Kareem, Shaq — and stashed them in a box under lock-and-key in a storage room. He believed only he and his brother had a key to the room. When he came back into the room, the box was gone.
“I had kind of written them off and didn’t think they’d show up again,” Tesmer said Friday. “Twenty years later, now suddenly they’re there.”
Tesmer questioned how anyone could think he’d simply leave a box of memorabilia like that behind.
Awe said he didn’t know how the box came to be discarded, but he didn’t find the collection of shoes until 2001 during mall demolition.
Why the shoe is so valuable
On Feb. 17, 1985 — Jordan’s 22nd birthday — the Bulls rookie scored 26 points in a 125-105 loss to the Bucks at the MECCA. On his feet were a pair of Air Jordan Ones, among the first of their kind. The white shoe with black “swoosh” and toe, red laces and red across the top at the ankle, wasn’t available in stores.
At the time, it wasn’t a secret that Jordan was a budding star; he just wasn’t yet a sports-apparel empire. But this particular shoe was a key part of that transition. It’s identical to the shoes on Jordan’s feet in the famous “Jumpman” advertisement that turned into an internationally recognizable Nike logo (the image with the Chicago skyline in the background, not the original photograph that has been the subject of a recent lawsuit).
The shoe, whose red-and-black twin was “banned” from the NBA for failing to adhere to dress code standards that dictated shoes needed to be mostly white, wasn’t worn by Jordan for long. He switched to white shoes with a red toe later in his rookie season. Heritage estimates that he may have worn these shoes in a game fewer than five times.
“The signature was pretty faded, but it was legible enough that you can make out that it’s a vintage signature,” Nerat said. “He only did that (writing ‘my very best’) very early on, maybe just his rookie year. The most important thing, as far as authenticating, is the serial number that’s stamped into the interior of the shoe that dates it.”
The shoe’s stamp indicates it was created Nov. 8, 1984. Jordan shoes were made available to the public in 1985, and the black toe was only worn his rookie season and not put into circulation.
There are only a few photos of Jordan wearing the shoes during a game, including one from that Feb. 17 game that clearly shows the signature MECCA floor in the background. Whoever offers the winning bid for the shoe will get a print of that photograph, as well. Given the photographic evidence from the other games that season, it’s almost certainly the only game in Milwaukee during which Jordan wore that particular shoe.
Take a look at this YouTube video explaining the significance of the black-toe Jordan shoe (this version isn’t game-worn) vs. the generation of shoe that immediately followed. The second video includes a timeline that discusses the “banned” shoe in greater detail.
“Michael Jordan collectibles have never been hotter,” Nerat said. “The 1980s was by far the best era (of the NBA), and I don’t think you can even argue that. Everyone still calls him the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), because I think he is. Game-worn Michael Jordan items are at a high, and I expect this to set records.”
A series of stunning surprises
Donald Griffin said there was “a lot of profanity going on” with each shoe that Larry Awe brought out of his basement.
It was just after Christmas 2017, though Awe was giving Griffin an early present for his Jan. 16 birthday. Griffin, who will marry Larry’s daughter, Emily, in June, is also a huge basketball fan. The No. 23 in Griffin’s email address is a giveaway to his favorite player — Jordan.
First came the appetizers; as you might have guessed, Jordan’s shoe wasn’t the only one found in that storage room. Awe had kept game-worn sneakers from Dennis Johnson, Dominique Wilkins, Bird, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Junior Bridgeman and more. Awe paraded them out one at a time to draw out the drama.
“Larry’s bringing these shoes out one by one in plastic grocery bags,” said Griffin, 42.
Stuffed with pieces of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper from 2007 by Larry’s late wife, Debra, the shoes had been stored away. The grand finale, of course, was the Jordan shoe.
“Larry said he gave me the shoes, one, because I’m a big MJ fan, and also to see my reaction,” Griffin said. “I honestly walked around Larry’s house with a different shoe that whole weekend, with the black-toe (Jordan) very close by my side.”
Griffin, who now lives in Minnesota, began to investigate the shoe’s worth. He reached out to collectors on social media, and he believes there are only three of the version (with the black toe) that are known to exist.
Heritage Auctions stands to get a cut of the final price, but Larry and Donald figure to get the majority of what it sells for.
“This is one of the coolest stories I’ve ever come across,” Nerat said. “It has everything going for it. The story behind it maybe even trumps everything.”
That’s assuming this is where the story ends. Tesmer said Friday he’s contacting the auction house to see if the sale can be stopped.
“As you can imagine, issues of title dispute do come up regularly when dealing with auction consignments such as these,” Heritage Auctions offered in a statement.
“At the time of consignment, each consignor attests that they have clear title to sell the material. However, if a title claim is made during an auction, then Heritage allows the pertinent law enforcement or judicial system to make the judgment regarding title, and we follow the ruling.”
As of Sunday, the listing was still viewable on the Heritage website.