The year was 1991. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were facing the Los Angeles Lakers and about to win their first of six NBA championships.
Meanwhile, Kelso resident Chad Little was at Athlete’s Corner with his mother and saw something that would change his life forever – a pair of shoes.
They weren’t just any shoes. They were Air Jordans, specifically. And they were Jordan IVs to be precise.
But they were also $65 and Little only had $40 to work with. He begged. He offered to do chores around the house and outside of it for a pittance, if only he could get those magnificent basketball sneakers.
After waging the full court press on his mother Little wound up with the shoes, but only if he promised to wait until school started to wear them. A quiet kid, Little suddenly became popular because of his new Jordans. That experience kick started a fascination with shoes that led to sketching colorways and new designs in the back of the bus on the way to basketball games. It sparked a fascination that led to two years at San Jose State University after his two-year playing career at Lower Columbia College. And, it fostered a fascination that’s taken him to Germany, and then to work for Pony company, then the Jordan Brand itself. These days Little continues to hammer away at his dream in his basement workshop where he strives to cobble shoes that don’t merely look good, but that actually are good for an athlete’s feet.
The concept of a “Sneakerhead,” as shoe obsessed souls are now known, wasn’t fully considered in 1991. Basketball shoes hadn’t yet crossed over from practical athletic gear into cultural flashpoints that inspired an entire subculture surrounding foot coverings.
In fact, Little found himself on the forefront of that movement.
Having coached Little for two seasons on the hardwood for LCC, former Red Devil hoops coach Jim Roffler says it didn’t take long to realize that Little was a man on a mission.
“He just had a vision of what he wanted to become and how to go about it,” Roffler said. “He’s just really crafty and intelligent. Kind of a visionary.”
Having had his eyes opened to the allure of shoe culture with those fateful Jordan IVs, Little soon began thrifting with his brother. They’d pop into Goodwill and the Salvation Army, or other thrift shops to find sports gear for cheap. Then they’d resell their finds on Ebay.
In that realm of online commerce Little again found himself at the forefront.
He remembers finding a pair of shoes that were worn twice for around $10 and noted that they cost ten times that price out of the box. So, of course, he swooped them up and resold them. He’d ask his friends if they had any used shoes they didn’t wear or didn’t fit them. Sometimes he’d either resell them for cash to fund his obsession. Other times, though, he’d cut them open and dissect them to find out how they work.
What does an Air bubble look like? How does the sole work?
“It was just pure love of shoes for all it was worth,” Little explained.
His teammates noticed his love for footwear, too.
“He was his own guy,” said Doug Dietz, a fellow former Red Devil. “When we’d be on bus trips and everyone else was joking around and telling stories or whatever, he’s the guy who would be in the back of the bus with his sketch pad and drawing up new designs.”
At first, it didn’t occur to Little that he could design shoes himself. Way back then they were simply something to behold, something to fiddle with in art class, to look at on TV, or pursue at the store.
But actually design top of the line shoes? Well, that was unheard of.
In high school, Little was in art class and many of his projects were drawings or clay moldings of sneakers. Eventually his teacher had an idea: Make a career of it.
At 16, Little contacted Nike and asked what he could do to become a shoe designer. The shoe company giant recommended a handful of art schools from which they recruit, and sent him on his way. But Little couldn’t attend those prestigious and expensive art schools, so after LCC he headed to San Jose State where they have the same program in question.
While in the Bay Area, Little received a culture shock of going from a small town with its predictable culture into a vibrant, multicultural city. It was there that he began to find similar minds. Specifically, there were a bunch of talented Sneakerheads who wanted to design shoes at Nike, just like him.
Little was able to secure various internships. One was with an independent contractor (which he notes didn’t really count). The other was in Germany, where he got to ride around the city of Munich on a bike at night with seemingly the entire city to himself.
But there was another, less glamorous, summer gig that he says had an even bigger effect than the rest. It was with a podiatrist.
As the shoe game morphed from practical tools into cultural juggernauts, people began to think less and less about usefulness and ergonomics.
Of course, companies like Nike have spent untold millions of dollars on technology that go into their shoes. The very start of the company was based on a waffle iron innovation. But, according to Little, much of the Nike mystique is a lie, or at least somewhat untrue.
This jarring perspective is given credence by Ray McClanahan, owner of Northwest Foot and Ankle in Portland. He’s Nike’s foot guy, and he’s also Little’s mentor and close friend.
When he was in his 20s, McClanahan felt his body breaking down. He ran marathons — he was a top 20 marathoner in the world — but his legs started to crumble. And he didn’t know why.
So he packed up and went to Kenya to train with the best marathoners in the world. He was shocked to see they run barefoot and only put on shoes for events. That revelation was enlightening, to say the least.
He noticed the Kenyans’ toes were splayed out, which created a large base. All the small muscles that line the foot had been fully developed and were strong. The shoes were just there to make sure it didn’t hurt to step on anything, or even to get stepped on.
So McClanahan came back to the States with what he learned and went to work. He developed a toe spacer that is similar to the gel insert that goes between toes at a salon. McClanahan says he started running faster thanks to the attention paid to his feet. His knees and back and hips were now all in alignment.
With the toe-spreader he even wore Crocs in races because they were the widest shoes he could find. He started running faster in those leisure shoes than he was in his “best running shoes available” and he gives all the credit to podiatry.
Little watched as world-class athletes came into McClanahan’s office for consultation, then began taking care of their feet, and later returned saying all the pain was gone.
Those interactions caused the gears in Little’s mind to start turning.
“So I’m taking all this information in, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s cool, but I still want this job at Nike,’” Little remembered. “That’s what I’m gunning for. But it didn’t happen.”
After college, Little got a job at Pony, an older company looking to find a new foothold in the industry. He then took a job with a company run by the owner of now-defunct LA Fitness designing shoes. He managed to hold that job for a whole week.
After a period of stagnation a phone call came that changed Little’s trajectory. It was the day after the Lakers beat the Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals and the call came from representatives from Jordan Brand. It was a Wednesday and they wanted him to start on Thursday. He said how about Monday? They said fine, so he packed his things in San Diego and moved back to the Northwest.
His journey had come full circle. It was his dream job.
“It was so fast, I had to move into my brothers’ house in Longview and drive to Beaverton every day,” Little said.
With Jordan Brand, the kid from Kelso did various small tasks but was mostly just adjusting colorways. So Little went to his boss and said he wasn’t challenged. He said he wanted something a little more involved. So they gave him a chance to work directly with a well-known athlete on a project. But still, Little knew he could do more.
That’s when he created a huge presentation and trudged down to the Nike Innovation Kitchen, a limited-access facility on the Nike campus where all of the company’s technological innovations are born. Shox came from the Kitchen. As did Air bubbles and Flywire.
His presentation involved everything he learned from McClanahan. The premise? Make shoes that allow the foot to act as it should, and don’t make the shoes that are intended to act as a foot.
The presentation found its mark. Right then and there a vacant desk piled with junk was cleaned off and he was given a workspace in the Innovation Kitchen next to the rock star designers who helped make Nike what it is today.
“I had this golden ticket,” Little said.
He still had responsibilities over at Jordan, but he also had free reign to walk into The Kitchen and start making whatever he wanted. He could put together a mockup of a shoe in-house. He felt so close to touching his dream.
That’s when Little wrangled up a meeting with Jordan himself at the Flight School fantasy camp in Santa Barbara and pitched the idea of molding a shoe to a foot, instead of forcing a foot into a generically designed shoe could cause toes to curl.
Unfortunately the company’s namesake didn’t quite follow along. His Airness asked about a friend who was bow-legged, and could it help him?
Little noted that Nike has the ability to take a one-to-one mold of someone’s foot, and part of their pitch is how the shoe will be technically geared to each athlete. To fit their body. To fit their feet.
But Little laments that no real attention is paid to any of it. He says one of the first things they do in the pitch meetings is show an image of what the new cleat or sneaker will look like on TV. Science be damned.
Little soon grew frustrated that his bosses seemed to only be concerned about price points and how apparel would look. So he began to brainstorm a new path forward.
The situation only grew more dire when Little underwent a knee surgery that kept him bedridden for weeks. During that time his desk at The Kitchen was raided and he was forced to awkwardly retrieve his belongings upon his return. Understandably, he felt ignored and underappreciated. So he left his dream job behind.
Little now lives in Longview, making shoes in his basement. He’s found it difficult to break into the industry as an independent designer and notes that the industry is rife with suspicions regarding proprietary secrets.
Still, McClanahan still wants to start a company with Little making custom-built shoes.
What started as an obsession with aesthetics for an eight year old boy morphed into an inspired quest as an adult to help people feel, and perform, better. As the years go by, Little is no longer merely interested in how things look. He is now captivated by how things work.
“I think people’s mindset in seeing that shoe is a mental aesthetic comparison — like/dislike — ‘I’ll just go with that one,’” Little said. “They don’t have education. But if you’re able to educate someone within your store or within your ad, ‘This is what your foot’s doing…’ Instead of just a Nike shoe or a Jordan shoe. ‘Here’s what your foot should be doing.’ And show the comparison.”
Little knows he’s the underdog against Michael Jordan, and Nike, and the rest of the shoe industry dynamos. However, he still believes that his vision can gain traction with athletes looking to perform at their peak and average people just looking to feel better.
“I think people would start opening their eyes to the concept that Dr. Ray has and that I have that people just don’t know about,” Little said.
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