Aside from knowing what’s going on in hoops before the masses, the NBA insider also has a history in shoes. Although he is now lacing up his favorite Air Jordans, Nikes and Puma sneakers, he was once ringing customers up for them as a kid at The Athlete’s Foot in Harlem, NY that his family owned.
Below, Robinson shares with FN his family history in the footwear business, reveals what is in his shoe closet today and discusses how the current basketball season in the NBA bubble in Florida will play out.
How was your family involved in the shoe industry?
“My grandfather moved from Florida to New York and shined shoes outside of Grand Central Station, saved his money. Then he went up uptown to Harlem and opened the shoeshine stand, saved money and opened a shoeshine store called Better Way Shoe Repair. After that, he opened a shoe store called Men’s Walkers — it was right across the street from the Lenox Lounge. The store itself was a place where everybody hung out. After hours, Malcolm X and my grandfather would kick it — this was a time where everybody was moving to Harlem and hanging out. My grandfather and my nana ended up opening a sneaker store in 1979 called The Athlete’s Foot, then my grandfather passed away and my nana ran the shoe store during the day and at night was a nurse at Rikers Island. My late Uncle Kevin took over the store because he was in college and didn’t like to see my nana struggle. They ran the sneaker from 1979 until 1995. I’ve had the experience of ringing a cash register as a child, bagging shoes, going in the stockroom, knowing different codes and going downstairs to get the shoes on the men’s shoe side. And on the sneaker side, I had begun working in that store I want to say, like, 5 or 6 years old. I remember seeing sneaker posters of different people like Hakeem Olajuwon and seeing Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler do sneaker releases in the store.”
What does your footwear collection look like today?
“At this point I own maybe maybe 60 pairs of sneakers and in total about 100 pairs of shoes. It includes some of the things I couldn’t afford spending money on either in high school or college where you broke just trying to make things happen. When I finished grad school in 2011, freelancing here and there, I felt like bow ties and suits was the way to go so I was rocking loafers or wingtip shoes. But now that I’ve immersed myself so much into just focusing on basketball that I wear Air Jordan 3s, I have the LeBron that came out this year [Nike LeBron 17] in the smoke gray color, I like the high-top [Nike] Air Force 1s that I have in blue and in gray, I have a khaki-colored suede pair of Air Force 1s. And I was at [NBA] All-Star Weekend in Charlotte last year and Puma had a special-edition sneaker that was attributed to both the Bobcats and the Hornets [Puma Uproar], I have those. I never thought that I’d be able to wear a dress suit with a pair of Air Force 1s in a media room like they’re dress shoes. It’s really a versatile shoe that as a person who saw [retired NBA star] Rasheed Wallace wearing them in the 1990s never thought that they could be a part of a dress suit. And I got a pair of Giuseppe [Zanotti shoes] in February, I never owned a pair of those in my life.”
What shoes would you never be caught wearing?
“It was against the law to go to Payless as a child coming from a shoe background. I don’t think you’d catch me wearing anything from Payless just because I was raised that way. But I remember on the on the come up I used to buy those moccasins that you could get for like $15 or $20 dollars at Payless and when I would sit in the studio for hours those were the most comfortable shoes you could find. Growing up, that was something I wasn’t supposed to wear but I broke that rule because the moccasins I bought were some of the most comfortable pairs of shoes that I have worn my life.”
What is the biggest challenge the NBA faces with the season restart just underway?
“Health. There’s a lot of guys that didn’t want to go. When I spoke to Joel Embiid [recently] he expressed to me that he really didn’t want to go but he trusts himself to stay in his room and not go out and just play video games, so he’s [mentally] prepared. A lot of guys expressed the notion that they didn’t want to play. The biggest challenge is the unknown, the fact that we’re still trying to figure out COVID and will there be a vaccine? Will there be a cure? There’s no such thing as being socially distant when you’re playing a box-and-one defense. At the end of the day, personally, I think it’s too soon.”
Given the number of players who tested positive prior to the restart and Florida being a coronavirus hotbed, what are the chances the NBA will finish this season?
“I don’t think it’s likely, but I do know that in order for the NBA to make the rest of their money as it relates to TV money, you have to play at least 70 games. The NBA, if they didn’t resume play, would lose $2 billion dollars this year. I know that the NBA is looking to finish their season but I still don’t think it’s safe. I’ve spoken to various players and front office people who are just like ‘we don’t know.’ I pray, most importantly, that these guys stay healthy. And what about next season? I think the focus right now is so much on this season, what if guys get sick and then we’re looking at next season being a carryover? It’s a very scary time. I think this is very risky and it is very probable that they won’t finish.”
Because of how the NBA season played out with a four-month pause, will this year’s champion be considered legitimate?
“Some would say no, I say yes because when it was all said and done the teams that were supposed to be there will be there. The best three teams in the NBA throughout the course of the season have been the Los Angeles Clippers, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. Any of those teams could show up and win it so there shouldn’t be an asterisk next to their name, as everybody thinks they should be. Whoever wins it, they earned it. They trained for the season, there was a pause and I think between those three teams, if they win it, they earned it.”
As someone who has worked to become an NBA insider, what role do you have in mentoring up-and-coming Black journalists?
“I believe in the phrase, ‘the higher you go up on the elevator, it’s your responsibility to send it back down.’ I believe that I’ve done a good job of that, specifically when I speak to different schools. I’ve been pulled to the side by some of those young people who want to be in the position that I’m in and we end up exchanging contacts or following each other on social media. I’m able to give them advice and guide and mold the same way that I had strong mentors who helped me. As a person in media who is of color I am in the minority of people who look like me, who do what I do on a day-to-day basis. I’m glad to be that person that someone can look up to. I always imagined that I would be that person that was able to stand in a college setting and tell people my story and have it be a good story to tell — but not just talk to people because it’s a photo op but to actually be able to impart that wisdom and also give them a starting point. It’s good to not just share those words but to actually bring some of those people with me on set, on field trips, have them help transcribe an interview and as they continue to progress I can make good recommendations and point them in the right direction. I appreciate that opportunity to do it because it was done for me.”