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Bulls' Wallace to visit area, introduce shoe collection

| Friday, Sept. 14, 2007

It seems too good to be true -- a pair of basketball sneakers, the same model worn by the NBA star they're named after, that costs one-tenth of similar shoes marketed by Nike, Adidas and Reebok.

But Chicago Bulls center Ben Wallace insists his new collection of Big Ben Wallace athletic shoes is the real deal.

"I played in these shoes last year in the playoffs and had a pretty good playoff run," says the four-time NBA all-star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year.

Fans can meet the other Big Ben today at a 7:30 p.m. autograph session at Steve & Barry's at Century III Mall in West Mifflin. They also can buy his signature shoe for $14.98.

"As a kid, as a younger player, I always dreamed of, one day, walking by a playground and telling the kids, 'My game is better than yours because I got on my Ben Wallaces,'" he says.

Steve & Barry's, a national specialty retailer, sells officially licensed sportswear at discount prices. Last year, the retailer partnered with New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury to introduce the Starbury II, a high-performance basketball shoe that also costs $14.98. Both models are designed by Rocket Fish in New Hampshire.

The "Starbury Movement" is intended to buck the trend of expensive athletic shoes that are marketed to poor kids, often by using the images of sports celebrities. Comedian Bill Cosby has criticized low-income families who shell out $500 for sneakers but won't buy "Hooked on Phonics" to teach their children better English. In some cases, kids have been robbed or killed for their high-priced shoes.

Wallace says he wanted to provide an affordable but cool alternative to youngsters who might feel pressure to fit in. He also hopes his low-cost shoes will help ease the financial burden on parents. As one of 11 children in rural Alabama, he grew up wearing hand-me-down shoes and clothes from his older brothers.

"I think I got my first new pair of basketball shoes when I started playing junior varsity basketball," he says.

Howard Schacter, chief partnership officer for Steve & Barry's, helps to manage the athlete and celebrity brands, which also include the Bitten line from Sarah Jessica Parker. They've also signed a deal with tennis star Venus Williams to market her EleVen line of sports and loungewear. Like everything else in the store, the pieces will sell for $20 or less.

Neither Wallace nor Marbury is paid to endorse their shoes. They receive royalties from sales. The Big Ben shoes that kids buy are the exact same model as what Wallace wears during games, Schacter says. Steve & Barry's can sell professional-quality shoes at affordable prices by eliminating the middleman. They also don't have the big advertising budgets of their better-known competitors.

"We want the exact same sneaker that he's wearing on an NBA court, which is what shoppers find on their shelves," he says. "It's his own aesthetic vision. What colors does he like• What design does he like• In each case, we work very closely with our partners. ... It's not a traditional endorsement relationship where we're simply using an athlete's likeness or name and they may appear in commercials. With us, they're actively involved in every aspect of the creative and design process."

Like many of Steve & Barry's competitors' shoes, Big Bens are made in China, but are not cobbled together in sweatshops, Schacter says.

Steve & Barry's is at Century III Mall, 3075 Clairton Blvd. in West Mifflin. Details: 412-650-0140.

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