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Originally published March 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 22, 2007 at 4:14 PM

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Jerry Brewer

Forget Ducks vs. Winthrop; it's really about Nike vs. New Balance

If it weren't for the physical exertion involved, we'd clearly see basketball is as vain as modeling. It's all about style, baby, from headband...

Seattle Times staff columnist

SPOKANE — If it weren't for the physical exertion involved, we'd clearly see basketball is as vain as modeling. It's all about style, baby, from headband to sneaker.

Rebecca Romijn has nothing on LeBron James.

So before you compare the X's of Oregon with the O's of Winthrop, check out their shoes first. They present a squeaky juxtaposition.

Today, we give you Team Nike versus Team New Balance.

It best explains the prince/pauper, rags/riches, gluttonous/ravenous delight of this game.

Oregon is Nike's pet school, the alma mater of Nike founder Phil Knight. It's the school that America's richest shoe company assists with marketing and uses as a guinea pig for cool new products. It's the school that Knight gave $40 million for football-stadium renovations. It's the school that has Knight and donors pledging $130 million toward a new basketball arena.

Meanwhile, Winthrop gets its sneakers from a company known more for making nifty running shoes.

"We've been laughed at plenty of times," Eagles guard Chris Gaynor said.

In December, Winthrop visited Northern Illinois, and the student section began chanting, "We hate New Balance! We hate New Balance!"

The Eagles' trainer turned and exclaimed, in a singsong tone, "We do, too!"

Winthrop has worn these sneakers for two seasons. The Eagles switched from Reebok — which "was just letting us wear their shoes," guard Michael Jenkins said — to an apparel deal with New Balance. Players resisted at first. They've since grown to tolerate them.

Last May, Winthrop toured New Zealand, and an opponent called its kicks "moon shoes."

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"We won the game, beat them pretty good," guard Torrell Martin said. "Then we told them, 'Maybe you need to get you some moon shoes.' "

Today, Mars Blackmon finally will get an answer to a question he has pondered since the late 1980s. You remember Mars, Spike Lee's Nike-pitching creation. (By the way, if Nike has Mars Blackmon, who's New Balance got? Pluto Nash?) And you remember how Mars harassed Michael Jordan in those commercials.

"Is it the shoes?" Mars would ask. "Is it the shoes? Is it the shoes? It's gotta be the shoes!"

Gotta be the shoes.

Unless Winthrop beats Oregon.

Then it's another example of the little guy stepping on the big bully's throat. The imprint will read "NB."

Winthrop players and coaches always laugh whenever they beat a Nike-sponsored team. The coaches make note of it, as if to tell the players to stop worrying about image.

Of course, image runs this sport. Headgear doesn't hide these players' faces. They are easily recognized and scrutinized. It only takes one pregame peek at the layup line to notice the black or white-and-red New Balances the Eagles wear.

They're functional, not fancy. They look, well, affordable.

New Balance's basketball shoes run $60 to $100. By comparison, Nike sneakers can cost $100 to $200.

Winthrop players praise the comfort of their shoes and jumpsuits, but they can't handle the negative perception.

A basketball player without a shoe fascination is no more functional than a baker without a sweet tooth. Over in the privileged locker room, I asked Oregon guard Aaron Brooks what he would do if Oregon suddenly switched from Nike to New Balance.

"If that's what I had to hoop in, that's what I'd hoop in, I guess," said Brooks, a Franklin High School product. "I wouldn't wear them off the court, though."

Sneakers rule basketball, unfortunately. At the prep level, they dictate which summer-league programs get the good players. They pour huge money into college programs. In some cases, they even dictate coaching hires and player signings.

By looking down at the Eagles' feet, you wind up looking up to them. High-tops haven't hijacked them. They might crave style, but they're better for their sartorial shortcomings.

"It's a shame that high-school players judge so much on shoe sponsorships," Gaynor said. "I'm sure we've lost a lot of high-major players because we wear New Balance."

They could strike back today. Beat Team Nike, advance to the NCAA Sweet 16, and Winthrop will be the best story still alive. The Eagles are the only double-digit seed left in this hoity-toity Big Dance.

Jack Handey, a notable humorist, once amended a common saying about judging people. It applies now for Winthrop, although Oregon might not want to use it.

Said Handey: "Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them, and you have their shoes."

Watch out, Team Nike.

Team New Balance seeks respect more than anything. If given the opportunity, however, the Eagles will beat the Ducks right out of their snazzy sneakers.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

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About Jerry Brewer

Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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