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Originally published July 7, 2011 at 10:02 PM | Page modified July 8, 2011 at 11:14 PM

Corrected version

Steve Kelley

Must be the shoes: Air Jordans play role in landing Oregon recruit

Reports that Nike made a special pair of Air Jordans to impress an Oregon football recruit shows how far a major-college program will go to try to get a recruiting advantage.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Remember when high-school athletes chose their colleges because they were impressed with the business school, or maybe the math or communication programs?

Or maybe the athletes wanted to stay close to home; or the parents felt comfortable with the coach's ethics and knew their son or daughter would be in good hands.

Maybe the athletes chose a school because they believed the offense the team ran was best suited to their talents and would help them in their pursuit of a pro career. Or they came to school because the program was rebuilding and offered them a chance to start right away.

Many athletes have chosen their universities because of certain intangibles: small class sizes, intimate campus settings, great weather, cool stadiums, regular television appearances.

But footwear? Sneakers? The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wear a custom-made pair of Air Jordans?

In the slimy narrative that is becoming the latest scandal in college athletics — the questionable recruiting tactics Oregon used to lure running backs LaMichael James and Lache Seastrunk from Texas to Eugene — the most ridiculous aspect is the apparent involvement of sneaker giant Nike.

Texas "scout" Willie Lyles, who was paid $25,000 by Oregon for his alleged skills in talent assessment, included in his report to Oregon head coach Chip Kelly the inside insight that Seastrunk loved Air Jordans.

In a tweet sent July 5, Lyles clarified his quote in a column written by The Oregonian's John Canzano. "The shoes were on display and I never said they were given to Lache (Seastrunk)."

However, you can almost imagine the conversation between Kelly and Nike co-founder and chairman and Oregon Ducks fanatic Phil Knight.

"Hey, Phil, I've got another running back down in Texas, who wants to come up here to play ball. We're this close to getting him. There's just this one hitch."

"So why are you telling me?" Knight asks Kelly.

"The kid loves Jordans."

"You want me to arrange a meeting with M.J. and the kid?" Knight asks. "Consider it done."

"No, no, you don't understand. It's more complicated than that. Lache loves Air Jordans. He wants a pair. We get him the shoes. We get him."

"Just so I have this right," Knight says, "you want us to drop everything and make a special shoe for some teenager who just happens to run a 4-something 40?"

"Um, well, in a word, Phil, aah, yes."

"When do you need them?" Knight asks.

It almost sounds like a vintage Spike Lee Nike commercial, doesn't it?

"Must be the shoes."

According to Lyles, who talked with The Oregonian's Canzano this week, Nike — the Beaverton-based sports-apparel company that cares about Oregon athletics with the same kind of passion that the Gates Foundation cares about world hunger — specially made a pair of Jordan shoes for Seastrunk.

Lyles said it was one of only two pairs of this particular shoe ever made.

I wonder what Chuck Taylor would think. Maybe Bill Walton would have chosen USC over UCLA if he'd been promised a specially made pair of canvas Converse high-tops.

If there had been such a thing as Air Russells in the 1960s, maybe the entire history of college sports would have been rewritten.

Sometimes it's all about the bling, and the bling for at least one talented Texas teen was one super-expensive pair of gym shoes.

There is something seriously wrong with the system when a major company gets this involved with a major university in the recruitment of a college athlete. Maybe this isn't against the rules, but it is against all common sense. It's downright silly.

This is the extent to which an institution of higher learning is willing to go to woo a teenage recruit? This is how far Oregon believed it could stretch its credibility to flatter one football player?

This is how asinine the system can become. It's not the worst part of the Lyles-Kelly-Nike-Ducks story that was broken wide open last week by Yahoo! Sports.

It's just the most absurd. It makes Nike look ridiculous. It embarrasses the University of Oregon, and it should embarrass the kid.

Lache Seastrunk is a Duck, a redshirt freshman running back. It must be the shoes.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published July 7, 2011, was corrected July 8, 2011. A previous version of this story did not include a reference to a tweet by Willie Lyles clarifying Nike's participation in Lache Seastrunk's recruitment. Lyles said that specially made Air Jordan shoes were displayed but never given to the prospect.

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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