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Life Of A Sneakerhead: One To Rock, One To Stock

KUOW Photo/Jason Pagano

Hieu Phan, 18, is a “sneakerhead” – he collects shoes that are rare and have trading value.

Phan remembers watching reruns of the Olympics with his dad when he was very young. When Michael Jordan was on the bench lacing up his sneakers in the second quarter, his shoes caught Phan's eyes. It was a special moment for him, but not as special as when he finally got his own pair of the same shoes Jordan had been wearing: Air Jordan Olympic 7.

But that wasn't his first pair. Phan’s mom first bought him a pair of Jordans in kindergarten. "Ever since then I've been in love with them," he said.

Wearing these shoes used to make him feel like Michael Jordan, but now that he’s older Phan sees the sneaker game as a competition to see who has the most of the 2,000 different models of Jordan shoes.

Every sneakerhead like him has a quest. "I only have about 60 pairs," Phan said, "so I don’t feel like I’m even close to where I want to be."

Like a lot of collectors, Phan sometimes buys two pairs of each shoe – one to rock and one to stock.

He has boxes stacked up to the ceiling in his closet, with a picture of the type of shoe inside on the outside of each. Phan gave an intricate description of a pair as he unwrapped it, "The leather is so creamy, and the elephant print has suede corduroy material with inner lining double stitching."

But there’s still one pair that he really wants to get his hands on: the Quai 54 Air Jordan 5, made in Tokyo. On eBay they go for around $1,000 or more.

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A lot of people think it’s crazy to spend so much money on shoes, especially Phan’s mom. He said at first she didn't like his collecting, but now she sees the benefits of it.

"Whereas other teenagers are wasting their money on other things that might harm their life, she sees it as a hobby that is neither illegal or bad in any way," Phan said.

Phan's friends think his hobby is really cool. But his mom still wishes he’d save money for college. Phan admits Jordan sneakers are expensive. To afford his hobby, he works at his uncle’s store. He's helped out there since he was 14; first sweeping floors and now working as a cashier.

Phan sees collecting sneakers as a way to help him in his future career. He wants to go into business. "I feel like it makes me be more responsible with my money," Phan said. "It also gets me into the mindset of how to invest and earn more money in a legal way."

But the sneaker game isn’t just expensive, it can be dangerous. There have been riots at the shoe releases. Some people have ended up in the hospital or dead.

Phan had a close call once. It was the day he bought a pair of Jordan 11. He was a sophomore in high school and was riding the bus home at 8:30 a.m. after buying the shoes. When he got off the bus, three males followed him, beat him up and took his shoes.

Right after the attack, Phan said he notified the police. They found the suspects and made them pay restitution. Phan used the money to buy another pair, but didn’t press any charges. "I knew they were sneakerheads that didn’t have enough money," he explained. "I knew their struggle and I didn’t feel like they should face jail time."

Nike has since come out with a solution to the high demand: People follow Nike Seattle on Twitter and message the company their name, size and the hashtag used for a certain shoe. Phan said the service, called Twitter RSVP, is a very good idea because it stops the madness.

Phan sees the day coming when he won’t be collecting sneakers anymore. "Actually I was talking to my girlfriend about this a couple days ago," he said, "and I decided that at the age of 22, I would stop for the most part buying retro Jordans. I want to be more representable and more respectable."

Someday, when Phan has a family of his own, he said he wouldn’t push his son to collect sneakers. He hopes that his son will see more valuable things in life, and won’t get into that habit at a young age.

"I don’t necessarily feel like it was a mistake," Phan said. "I just think there’s better things for him to do with his money – like buy books."

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive’s Spring 2014 Workshop. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.