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‘Even Jordan doesn’t have his face on a sneaker’: How Stan Smith became both a tennis and fashion icon | CNN



‘Even Jordan doesn’t have his face on a sneaker’: How Stan Smith became both a tennis and fashion icon | CNN


Depending on your age, the name Stan Smith probably means one of two things.

For younger people, it’s the name of a sleek and stylish leather Adidas sneaker. For those of an older age, it’s the name of a strapping six-foot-four, moustachioed US tennis star.

“People sometimes are surprised that there is even a person affiliated with that name at all,” Smith tells CNN with a chuckle.

“It’s been interesting over the years and it’s been fun in many ways to see people’s reactions … finding out there was a tennis player named Stan Smith.”

It’s rare for somebody to be talented and charismatic enough to become an icon in one field. It is rarer still for somebody to become an icon in two.

As sports journalist Cari Champion notes in the documentary ‘Who is Stan Smith?’, which explores the remarkable life of the two-time grand slam champion, activist and style icon: “He has his face on a sneaker. Even Jordan doesn’t have his face on a sneaker.”

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Stan Smith during his victorious 1972 Wimbledon run.

The documentary’s Emmy Award-winning director Danny Lee tells CNN “there’s something very understated and human” about Smith.

“He never, I think, endeavoured to become an icon and I think when it happens organically within culture, and in this respect, sports culture and fashion, it just makes more sense.

“So there’s something of Stan’s personality that’s imbued in the shoe. It’s understated. It’s elegant. It’s stately. And I think that’s why it works.”

In the mid to late 1970s, it became increasingly common to see people wearing sneakers casually, outside of the gym and integrating them into their individual outfits.

The rise in popularity of the Stan Smith sneaker coincided with a slump towards the end of his tennis career and it began permeating a wide array of cultures in the UK and US.

Young soccer fans began wearing them on the terraces in the UK, partly inspired by David Bowie donning the sneaker in the late ‘70s.

Then came its impact on hip-hop culture, led largely by the Beastie Boys and RUN-D.M.C.’s world tour in the late 1980s and the release of the single ‘My Adidas.’

“Every community embraced that shoe,” Pharrell Williams says in the documentary – “Hustlers, drug dealers.”

Nicolas Armer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

A now rare Stan Smith-Robert Haillet sneaker.

During the 1972 French Open in Paris, Adidas chairman Horst Dassler, son of the company’s founder, asked for a midnight meeting with Smith and his agent Donald Dell.

Adidas wanted to expand into the USA and saw Smith, the newly crowned US Open champion, as the perfect fit.

The leather design and perforations on the side of the shoe – which at the time of its launch was named Adidas Robert Haillet after the French tennis star – were technological advancements, historian and designer Gary Aspden explains in the documentary.

Smith agreed to wear the sneaker at Wimbledon that year, a tournament he went on to win.

“It had Haillet’s name on the shoe for about six or seven years and then they wanted to expand to the US market, so they asked me to be involved,” Smith tells CNN. “I was the number one player in the world at the time, an American, so they put my picture on the tongue and they had Haillet on the side.

“They had several iterations along the way. Then, finally, about four or five years later, they took the Haillet name off the shoe. And as they say, the rest was history.”

Arthur Ashe and the Davis Cup

The documentary charts Smith’s rise from a working-class family in Pasadena, California, where he was scouted by a club called the Pasadena Tennis Patrons. The club was made up of wealthy parents in the area, who would cover the costs of talented youngsters trying to turn professional.

In the 1960s, the Davis Cup – a team tournament contested by countries from around the world – was one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world, unlike the lesser status it commands today.

Henry Burroughs/AP

Arthur Ashe was the first African American to play for the US Davis Cup team.

In 1963, the USA welcomed Mexico to the Los Angeles Tennis Club for the Americas semifinal and it was there that a young Smith, a ball boy at the time, first caught a glimpse of rising tennis star Arthur Ashe.

Ashe being selected for the team was a “huge deal,” Dell says in the documentary. Ashe was the first African American to play on the US Davis Cup team.

At that time, a year before US President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, segregation was still rampant in America – the documentary shows clips of “White” and “Colored” entrances and waiting areas – and Ashe couldn’t go everywhere his teammates could go.

Smith eventually made the US Davis Cup roster and in 1968, alongside doubles partner Bob Lutz – portrayed as Smith’s early club rival in the documentary – led the team to victory, ending Australia’s four-year chokehold on the title and simultaneously helping to spark a surge in the sport’s popularity across the US – known as the ‘tennis boom.’

In the documentary, produced by LeBron James’ Uninterrupted company, Dell calls 1968 “an extremely violent year in America.” Activist Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April of that year as protests against racial injustice raged across the country, which was also divided about the ongoing Vietnam war.

Ashe began using his platform as one of the US’s best tennis players to speak out, saying in a 1968 interview that “there’s really a mandate that you do something” if you’re Black and in the public eye.

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Ashe won the Wimbledon title in 1975.

Smith witnessed the racism Ashe had to face when traveling around America to play tennis. In the documentary, Smith recounts one incident in Houston, Texas where the tennis club wouldn’t allow Ashe to use the men’s changing rooms, instead making him use the junior facilities.

Smith admits in the documentary that his upbringing was “isolated,” which meant he didn’t really “dwell on the racial injustice as a kid.”

“But as we travelled around the United States and the world, I got to see that – and worse,” he adds.

Smith and Ashe, who died in 1993 aged 49, developed a close friendship and deep bond, a running theme throughout the documentary. Smith says he is still close with Ashe’s wife and daughter.

“I think the experience of traveling around the world with Arthur and with all the other players on the tour … it was that way when I first got on it [activism],” Smith says. “So I got to realize from all this experience that people are more alike than they are dissimilar and therefore looking for the same kind of meaning in life.

“I think that that really made an impact on me and realizing that there were things happening around the world that were terrible.

“‘68 was a tumultuous year worldwide with the Vietnam War going on and people protesting, first equal rights and of course in South Africa, things were going on that made our inner-city areas look like Hollywood in Beverly Hills compared to what was going on in Soweto and Alexandria, those townships there.”

Lee says Smith’s “North Star” in his career and life has been to “pay it forward, to help people that might not have the opportunities that he might have.”

That was never more apparent than in the case of Mark Mathabane, a Black South African tennis player that Smith, his wife Marjory and Ashe helped escape apartheid.

The two met when Smith practicing for a tournament in Johannesburg in 1977. Smith helped Mathabane get a place at the University of South Carolina.

Mathabane later became a bestselling author for his autobiography “Kaffir Boy,” the story of his childhood under a brutal regime.

Roger Jackson/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Winning Wimbledon was the pinnacle of Smith’s career.

In 1968, star tennis players began leaving what was then an amateur sport and defecting to the professional circuit, which meant they would no longer be eligible to compete in the amateur-only grand slams.

However, the International Tennis Federation eventually relented after much turmoil and the Open Era was born.

Five years later, Smith arrived at Wimbledon as the defending champion after winning the title in 1972. It was the pinnacle of his career.

“It was one of my goals to win that tournament,” Smith says. “It was like the world’s championships in a way, even though it wasn’t officially. So I really worked hard and it motivated me in everything I did to try to win that tournament.

“So when I lost in the final in ‘71, getting very close to that goal, winning in ‘72 was even more special.”

Ahead of the tournament in ‘73, the Yugoslav Tennis Association was unhappy with its star player, Niki Pilić, after he opted to play in the professional World Championship of Tennis doubles final rather than represent his country in the Davis Cup.

Pilić was suspended for nine months by his country’s tennis association, which then phoned Wimbledon organizers and requested he be banned from competing – a request that was granted.

In protest, the players formed the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and 13 of the 16 seeds – including defending champion Smith – withdrew in support of Pilić.

Michael Webb/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Stan Smith, Ilie Năstase and Tom Okker at a meeting of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in London, 20th June 1973.

“The history of tennis as it became open and democratized during the ‘60s and ‘70s where revolution was everywhere throughout the world – and that was no different in tennis when Stan defied and boycotted Wimbledon in ’73,” Lee says.

“And he led the charge in unionizing the sport with the ATP. So all of that story, when you put on those shoes, a lot of that is imbued in the shoe.”

Throughout the film, Smith regularly mentions the four goals he wrote down for himself at the start of his career: Make the US Davis Cup team, become No. 1 in the US, win Wimbledon and then become the world No. 1.

Smith accomplished all of that – and much more.

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