Kickin’ it in style: Sneaker Con Phoenix draws large crowd, immerses basketball and sneaker culture

Lost Solez owners, Vida Martinez and Danny Fader, show off a variety of their collection to potential buyers at Sneaker Con. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Sneakers are so much more than simple shoes. Sneakers are swag, a fashion statement, a way to levitate, a collector’s item as rare as stamps or coins.

And they were on display in abundance when Sneaker Con rolled into the Phoenix Convention Center recently and people from all over, including some big names, came to buy, sell and trade shoes and other items at the event.

There were about 5,000 in attendance, including vendors, at this year’s Phoenix event, which also featured live basketball for the first time since 2020. This was Sneaker Con’s second time in the Valley after the first scheduled event was shut down due to the pandemic.

“We had flown here on a Thursday, the event was Saturday, and we had to cancel it. So that was Phoenix 2020,” said Sneaker Con managing director Will Debord, who has been with the company since its start in 2009 in New York.

Since then, the event was on tour for 11 years leading up to the canceled Phoenix event. However, after an 18-month hiatus, the company started touring again and has not stopped. The tour visited Phoenix last year and “now we’re just coming back year to year to keep building and bringing the culture here to Phoenix,” Debord said.

Debord joined Sneaker Con full-time in 2011 after graduating from Syracuse. He wanted to be a part of something that provided a “safe environment” for selling sneakers and clothing.

“What drives us is being able to provide a platform for kids to really learn business doing something that they love and being able to build their own career path,” Debord said.

Sneakers of different colors and styles were showcased at “The Greatest Sneaker Show on Earth” on Sept. 24. The annual event is building a strong culture and following among local sneaker enthusiasts. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/Cronkite News)

Sneakers of different colors and styles were showcased at “The Greatest Sneaker Show on Earth” on Sept. 24. The annual event is building a strong culture and following among local sneaker enthusiasts. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/Cronkite News)

Wherever it goes, Sneaker Con attracts buyers, sellers, traders and collectors of all kinds for the offerings and environment. Vendors lined the aisles of the convention center and sold rare shoes, merchandise and other products.

“I think the best thing that Sneaker Con brings is the people,” said Ray Ramirez, vendor and owner of Royal Clothing Club. Ramirez has been to every Sneaker Con since 2011 and said the reason he keeps coming back is because the networking opportunity is second to none.

“In sales, it’s a numbers game. The numbers don’t lie, they have (thousands of) people at their events every time, and you only need but so many to make your numbers,” he said.

A number of professional athletes showed up to Sneaker Con Phoenix, including the Phoenix Mercury’s Sophie Cunningham, who complimented the entire atmosphere.

“I think it is such a cool opportunity to have people show their personality,” she said. “It shows your creativeness of what kicks you like, it gives me, as a professional athlete, (the ability) to show people what I like to wear outside the court and on the court.”

Even though they already have a large audience, Sneaker Con continues to look for ways to grow, and one measure they took this time was getting more in touch with the basketball community.

Hoops return to Sneaker Con

Sneaker Con launched Sneaker Con Hoops in 2016, and began hosting a YouTube-influencer game at every Sneaker Con. By 2018, it had become very well-known and competitive, and many popular street ballers and NBA 2K gamers who also played basketball began playing at the events. However, it was shut down in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Stay Ballin’ TV, a Phoenix-based company, brought live basketball back to Sneaker Con Phoenix for the first time since the pandemic and plan to tour with the group.

They had a variety of events in Phoenix with street ballers and influencers, some who were local, some who were from elsewhere, including 1-on-1 games, a 3-on-3 showdown and a dunk contest.

“I used to watch the (Sneaker Con) basketball YouTubers growing up all the time,” basketball influencer and Phoenix native Gio Wise said. “And I always wanted to be a part of playing basketball at Sneaker Con and this year, I was finally able to make that a possibility.”

Taking a break from looking at sneakers, fans lined up along the railing of the court to watch the hoopers compete. The influencers also signed autographs and took pictures with the fans.

Wise, who had attended two other Sneaker Cons but never played basketball at them, was really excited to actually be one of the basketball players at the event.

“I can’t even put it into words. It’s just a real blessing,” said Wise, who was a captain of one of the four teams that competed. “Honestly, it feels awesome. To be able to inspire people and motivate people to also play basketball and create content.”

Stay Ballin TV’s first event at Sneaker Con was capped off with an incredible rim-breaking dunk by influencer Ian Murphy, who jumped over Shareef O’Neal, the son of Shaq and recent G-League Ignite signee. Suns forward Cam Johnson was a judge and gave the dunk a 10.

Basketball and sneaker culture

In addition to O’Neal and Johnson, several other professional basketball players, most notably NBA legend Gary Payton and his son Gary Payton II, also came out to Sneaker Con Phoenix to expand their collection and check out the fun.

Suns forward Ish Wainwright was among the few NBA players to attend.

“(Basketball) is a sneaker culture,” Wainwright said. “On the court, off the court, you’re gonna see kicks no matter what you’re wearing, no matter how you’re gonna wear it, you’re gonna see kicks.”

Wainwright said being at Sneaker Con was like being a kid in “a candy store.” It was his third time at Sneaker Con, but first in Phoenix, and he said he enjoys coming to community events like these to make kids’ days.

Whereas Wainwright and other athletes came just to shop around, Cunningham had a scheduled appearance to show off her shoes and meet and talk with fans. She said her first event blew away her expectations.

“If they’re going to invite me and I kind of get to showcase what I got in my closet, I’ll be back every time,” Cunningham said.

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Cunningham also feels like sneakers and basketball go hand-in-hand.

“I think that our game day outfits or our tunnel outfits (as) we call them are starting to be like a little fashion show,” she said. “It’s a pretty swaggy event, you got to dress to impress and so regardless of what you’re wearing, people are always looking at your feet and what (shoes) you’re wearing.”

People asked the athletes for pictures and autographs all day, but everyone seemed to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. One player many recognized was former Phoenix high school basketball star Kyree Walker, who is now on the Washington Wizards’ G-League affiliate, Capital City Go-Go.

Walker came to the event looking to add to his Kobe collection, which are his favorite shoes to play basketball in. It was also his first time being at a Sneaker Con, and he was loving every bit of it.

“I’d advise more NBA players, more high school, whatever you are, to come out here and be at an event like this because it’s real cool,” Walker said. “Like people know who I am, and it’s real genuine … so I think this is like one of those events that you come here, and you network with people, build relationships with people, and it’s pretty cool so far.”

Walker is currently a sneaker free agent and can wear whatever he wants, a freedom he enjoys because he feels like sneakers are more than just shoes.

“(Sneakers are) just another way to express yourself,” he said. “And to have some new kicks on or having kicks that people always wanted, it’s kind of like a statement for other people. So they’re a cool thing to have.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brendan Mau expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Mau has interned as a sports reporter with Times Media Group.

Brooklyn Hall BROOK-lyn hall (she/her)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Brooklyn Hall expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hall has interned with the Amarillo Sod Poodles and is currently interning with the Arizona Diamondbacks on their DBTV crew.