How Chuck Taylor Taught America How to Play Basketball
It was 1936, and the United States men’s basketball team stepped onto the rain-soaked outdoor courts sporting bright white Converse shoes—patriotic blue and red pinstripes wrapping around each sole. The Americans were taking on the Canadians in the Olympic finals, and the conditions were miserable. As it poured, water inundated the courts, turning them into a “sea of mud,” according to the New York Times. But, in a painfully low-scoring game, the U.S. ultimately won 19-8.
This was basketball’s inaugural year in the games and the first of seven consecutive Olympic gold medals for the U.S. men’s team. But it also marked the first appearance of the iconic “Olympic white” Chuck Taylor shoes—a design still around to this day.
The history of the shoe is nearly as old as the game of basketball itself, and in a way both matured together. In 1891, YMCA physical educator James Naismith invented the indoor game, played with a soccer ball and two peach baskets, to keep his students fit during the frigid Massachusetts winters. Seventeen years later, Marquis Converse founded his Converse Rubber Shoe Company, also in Massachusetts, to produce rubber galoshes, a far cry from the canvas kicks the company is known for today.
The company churned out these protective boots for the wet spring, winter and fall, but sales inevitably dropped during the dry summer months. After two years of Converse firing his employees at the beginning of the slump and rehiring when the rains returned in autumn, the entrepreneur made a bid to keep his most skilled workers year-round. He started making a non-skid, canvas-topped shoe.
The first version was a low-top oxford kind of shoe, says Sam Smallidge, the head archivist at Converse. But these dressy sneaks quickly became associated with sports, specifically the rapidly spreading basketball craze. In 1922, the Converse Rubber Company hired a charismatic athlete named Charles “Chuck” Taylor as part salesman, part player-coach for the shoe’s club team, the Converse All Stars.
“It was all about promotion,” says Abraham Aamidor, author of the book Chuck Taylor, All Star. “The team was not in a league, but would travel through small Midwestern towns and challenge the local hot shots to a game.”
By Aamidor’s count, the All Stars played about 30 games a year. In addition to these games, Taylor hosted clinics to teach people the relatively new sport. Sporting goods stores sent representatives to the clinics to sell Converse All Star shoes to the captive audience—touting the kicks as the best basketball shoes around.
“What Converse was doing was teaching America to play basketball,” says Smallidge. But in addition to this, these clinics “allowed Converse to cement this relationship with basketball itself as being the premiere basketball shoe.”
The clinics would often include a basketball game and a sideshow featuring Chuck and free-throw fiend Harold “Bunny” Levitt, according to Aamidor. “Chuck did his trick shots and Bunny Levitt never missed a free throw,” he says. The duo would then pass out pocket-sized instruction books on how to play the game.
Taylor traveled all over the country hosting clinics and promoting the shoes. Shoe sales were booming, but all was not well with the company. In the mid-1910s, competing rubber companies ventured into the production of rubber galoshes, which were still a Converse classic. So Marquis Converse tried to edge in on the competition’s money-maker: rubber tires.