Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Story of the "High Socks Legend"

Magic wore Converse. Joe D used to rock Asics. Michael...Nike. Guys like Slick Watts and Chris Gatling wrapped headbands around their bald domes. From as early an age as I can remember, though, I was pretty much concerned with one thing when it came to NBA'ers and their fashion sense: High Socks. Somehow, the cats wearing the socks up at altitude made everything look that much smoother.

When a 4-year old me decided to make the trek to nursery school wearin' the knee-highs, it wasn't just some arbitrary decision by a brainless, little tike. It was an homage to the great Adrian Dantley. Sure, I dug his classic post-up game and explosive repertoire on the offensive end, but mostly I just respected his socks.

I continued to strut into my classroom day after day with the confidence of a cat burglar, all because of my undeniably legendary fashion sense. I may have been a tiny lad still well under four feet, but there was no doubt...the High Socks Legend was born.

While just about anyone can wear their socks high, it is not recommended that everyone do so. It takes a certain sense of style and attitude to really pull it off. That's what made Adrian Dantley the perfect representative for High Socks Nation. He was a rangy 6'5, 208 pound small forward whose game defined 'smooth.' Dantley had that perfect type of body for the high socks look, too.

If you're a plodding 7-footer like Chris Dudley, you can't just decide one day to pull up the socks. It won't work. For the most part, big guys are eliminated from the discussion. When you see a guy with high socks, words like "quick" and "flashy" should come to mind. Meaning, if you're a lumbering fellow that operates in the paint, keep the socks at the ankle, or mid-shin, at the highest.

Most people forget the sad tale of Rik Smits. The "Dunking Dutchman" was a 7'4 monster that you could always count on for a solid outing in the middle for the Pacers. As a towering big man, he rightfully chose to wear his socks at normal length, so as not to awaken the temperamental NBA fashion gods.

Finally, in Smits' final season with Indiana, he made his first appearance in the NBA Finals. Unfortunately, Smits let the pressure of the moment get to him. He opted to shed his normal length white socks, for a much longer, stretched out black sock. It was wrong on so many levels.

First, Smits was breaking one of our most important rules: big guys don't wear high socks...ever.

Secondly, if you absolutely must do it, just stick to the classic white sock. The only time a black sock is meant to be pulled up high is if it's a dress sock, as those are usually tall and stretchy by nature.

For Smits to abandon the look that had gotten him so far, and to blatantly abuse so many of the longstanding sock traditions, the NBA Finals could only have one result. The Lakers came out guns a' blazing, the Pacers put up a little fight, and predictably in the end, it was Kobe and Shaq in 6. Smits became a non-factor and was eventually replaced during crunch time by Austin Croshere.

Would the Pacers have been able to shock the world and pull off the upset if Smits had just worn his socks the right way? We'll never know.

(Sidenote: to put the Smits' move in context, it would be akin to current Magic pivot Marcin Gortat raising his socks to knee-level and expecting his team to prevail despite the horror it would obviously cause. Unlike Smits, though, Gortat appears to know the fashion limitations set before him, and thus, he allows his squad a fighting chance to snatch this series from the heavily favored Lakers.)

Another element to becoming a High Socks Legend is having that underdog attitude. Normally, those wearing the high socks aren't MVP's or All-NBA performers. They stick to the traditional look and let their game do the talking. But for those of us that constantly have that little chip resting on our shoulder, the High Socks are a statement that says, "I may not be as strong as you...I might not be as talented as you...but you're in for the fight of your life tonight." No player exemplified this mindset more than Elliot "Socks" Perry.

Perry was a six-foot guard out of Memphis that weighed maybe 145 pounds soaking wet. He was quick, but he was no Tim Hardaway. He could shoot, but he was no Mark Price. He was left handed, but he was no Kenny Anderson. But Perry was determined to find a home in the NBA. He hooked up for a couple of 10-days, but was quickly exiled to the CBA. Perry kept the socks at the knees and pushed forward.

Eventually, he caught on with the Suns and started to carve out a nice little niche for himself. He'd hop off the bench bursting with energy, always amping up the crowd with his collection of tricky fallaways and deep bombs. Perry even managed to finish 2nd for the Most Improved Player award in 1994-95, losing to Dana Barros in one of the most hotly debated votes in league history. When the book finally closed on our boy, he had been able to spend close to a decade in the NBA while playing for approximately half the teams in the country.

"Socks" Perry was considered a longshot to be a contributor at the game's highest level, but the critics forgot the cardinal rule of scouting; you can evaluate a player's abilities all you want, but never discount the importance of the perfect High Sock's an invaluable asset.

While most of the High Socks Legends chose to wear the socks high for their entire career, there were also a rare few that only saw the light when their final years were approaching. The prime example of this was Nick Van Exel.

Nick the Quick was a cocky point guard in charge of leading the storied Lakers' franchise early in his career. He'd hit triples from five feet behind the arc. He'd high-step back down the court throwing an array of hooks and upper-cuts in one of the most original celebrations the league has ever seen.

But while Van Exel had some excellent years in LA, and probably played the best ball of his career, something was missing.

When Van Exel moved on to Denver, he experienced some injuries and failed to take the Nuggets to the next level.

On to Dallas, where Nick was now pushing past 30 years old and looking for a way to revitalize his career. Enter: High Socks. Van Exel made the wise choice to add some juice to his aging body and game, getting rid of the standard baby socks for some big boy knee-highs. The results were nothing short of fantastic.

In the 2003 playoffs, he simply went bananas. After tossing in around 12 points a game during the year, Nick wound up averaging close to 20 per in the postseason. He would fly in off the pine and just start abusing the opposing guards. The full arsenal was on display.

Three-pointers from the wing, clever post-ups, and the trademark Van Exel drive, where he would dribble into traffic, cradle the ball in his midsection like a running back breaking through the line, and then softly lay it in off glass over the outstretched arm of the oncoming shot blocker.

"Quick" would lead his Mavs all the way to the West finals before finally bowing out to the champion Spurs. He'd gotten that old-school feeling back, and it all came from the old-school high-socked look. The "Van Exel Sock Exchange" will go down as one of the Top 50 Most Impactful Transformations in sports history.

Even if you aren't as passionate about the High Socks craze as yours truly, I'm betting that you still have a soft spot deep down for these guys, and probably have a favorite Legend of your own. Maybe it's "The Wizard," Walt Williams, who wound up playing until he was like 65, canning treys until the very end. Or Kerry Kittles, the oft-injured paper-thin shooting guard for New Jersey that wouldn't be caught dead without the tall socks. Or maybe you're into Jason Terry, a guy that is so fanatical about his knee-highs that I'm not even surprised anymore when I hear the classic story of how he slid out of the womb during birth actually wearing a pair of big Champion socks. Regardless of which one you prefer, there is no disputing that all of these players are true High Socks Legends.

It takes courage, it takes commitment, and most of all, it takes heart. You can't just slip into the high socks on a whim. Your soul has to feel it. I felt it on that day walking into nursery school 21 years ago. I felt it during those times in middle school when the girls would try and push my socks down when I wasn't paying attention. They might have been scrunched low temporarily, but I always got 'em back up. And still today, you won't catch me out on the court dropping dimes and canning 3s without the signature High Socks look. Because you can fuss with my can untuck my can even untie my shoelaces. But leave the Socks where they's how I became a Legend.

Share your thoughts on High Socks Legends of the past, current, and future in the comments section...or shoot me an e-mail at

1 comment:

Shap said...

No mention of Jerome Williams? He even was able to pull of the high black socks look later in his career, with Toronto's darker jerseys.