Eastbay was more than just a magazine for basketball players

Eastbay's mail catalog was popular with Sue Bird, P.J. Tucker and LeBron James in the mid-1990s. Joel Kimmel

NEARLY THREE DECADES later, Philadelphia 76ers forward P.J. Tucker's face still immediately lights up, his eyes growing large as he describes what sounds like a religious experience for him.

Tucker's friend William Kane brought to AAU practice a mail-order magazine called Eastbay.

"'Yo, what is that?'" Tucker asked, he recalls in an interview with ESPN. "Everybody's like looking over his back. He's like, 'It's Eastbay. It's where you get the shoes from.'"

As a young basketball player in the mid-1990s growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, Tucker couldn't keep his hands and eyes off a magazine that would help cultivate his lifelong sneaker obsession.

"I was like, 'Yo!' Mind blown,'" Tucker said as if transported to his adolescent days. "Oh my gosh. Crazy."

It was Tucker's introduction to the shoe catalog -- not a PlayStation or Nintendo 64 -- that would deliver some of his fondest childhood memories as he flipped through the pages and obsessed over the hottest kicks.

"It's crazy to think now, like how passionate I was about that magazine," said Tucker, who still has vintage copies of Eastbay in storage.

Each monthly copy featured the newest sneakers from every brand across the athletic industry, for sports from basketball to volleyball.

Before the internet and do-it-all smartphones were in every household and every palm, Eastbay was what fed sneaker junkies.

"Eastbay was like how now when you just look online and all the people you follow [for releases]," Tucker said. "It was like waiting for that magazine to come in and just circle stuff. ... I couldn't even get everything in there, but I'll probably get one pair like every quarter or so. But it was like planning out which ones I was going to get, if I got the chance.

"I would have it in my backpack. I'd be in school just looking at my Eastbay all the time."

Foot Locker announced the end of Eastbay last December after 43 years, thanking the company's longtime fan base and marking the end of an era for shoe lovers. The parent company will focus on its existing Foot Locker and Champs Sports stores going forward.

For the NBA's sneaker king, to even "The King" himself, Eastbay was more than the Amazon marketplace of its time for the newest in athletic wear and sports jerseys. Its pages were a part of the fabric of sports culture for a generation.

"Me and my friends growing up, we used to love getting those magazines," Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James said. "And [dreamed of] hopefully being a part of some of the sneakers that were in there [too]. It was always cool."

EASTBAY WAS FOUNDED in 1980 by Art Juedes and Rick Gering, a pair of lifelong friends who were born just two days apart and grew up three houses from each other in north Wisconsin. They were also both youth sports coaches and realized there was a need for an easier way for athletes to buy footwear for their school seasons. With brands beginning to make sport-specific shoes throughout the decade, the timing proved perfect.

The duo partnered with Milwaukee's first running specialty store, Eastbay, and scraped together $7,000 to buy inventory. Their agreement allowed them to utilize the same name for their new company, based three hours north in their hometown of Wausau.

After selling the initial $7,000 worth of shoes out of a van at running clinics around Wisconsin, the duo launched a catalog in 1983 to sell baseball cleats and track and field shoes.

By the early 1990s, Eastbay was mailing tens of thousands of copies around the country each month.

As sneaker culture exploded in the mid-1990s, Eastbay went from an "if you know, you know" niche following, to a pinnacle pillar of the industry. Tucker distinctly remembers the first pair of shoes he purchased from Eastbay -- the white and black Air Jordan IXs. And he will never forget his all-time favorite Eastbay cop, like an adult fondly looking back to his or her No. 1 childhood Christmas gift.

"My favorite pair of shoes I got from Eastbay is the 'Columbia' [Air Jordan] XIs," Tucker said with a smile. "I wanted that shoe so bad. So bad."

Once Foot Locker bought the company in 1997 for $146 million, shoppers could sign up for the free Eastbay catalogs in its stores, expanding the audience even further.

"Since its inception, the passion Eastbay possessed for all things sports and sneaker culture inspired and served generations of athletes and sneaker fans," Frank Bracken, executive vice president and chief commercial officer of Foot Locker Inc., told ESPN.

"There was no other catalog like Eastbay back in the '80s, '90s and early '00s," longtime sneaker collector, writer and industry historian Drew Hammell told ESPN. "The catalogs provided technical information about every sneaker, along with release dates and colorways."

As print magazines and catalogs of all genres eventually faded and folded during the 2010s, Eastbay eventually became a casualty of that shift. The company with a quirky cursive logo that had called a town of fewer than 40,000 people home had lasted for over 40 years.

In a statement late last year, Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg dwelled on the local layoffs impacting the company's final 210 employees, calling Eastbay and Foot Locker an "employment pillar in our community for decades." Before entering politics, she worked in the marketing department at Eastbay.

"Running to your mailbox to check out the latest catalog brought excitement and joy to so many people," Bracken said. "This same energy is something Champs Sports and Foot Locker Inc. will continue to channel to tap into the sneakerhead in all of us."

While the company is no more, social media accounts have popped up to preserve the beloved product pages.

For years, Hammell chronicled the sneaker landscape on various platforms and even wrote for Eastbay's blog. As the word spread last fall that Eastbay's run would be coming to an end, Hammell launched an Instagram page dubbed Eastbay Archive, where he posts vintage catalog scans from his personal collection.

"Every day I get to hear stories about sneakers people had or wish they had when they were growing up," Hammell said. "The account has brought a lot of people in the sneaker community together thanks to that nostalgia factor."

FORMER SEATTLE STORM guard Sue Bird has been "chilling" and enjoying retired life since playing her final WNBA game last September. But it was a December email that left the star feeling empty.

As a "valued customer" for decades, Bird went from waiting monthly for the catalog to arrive in her parents' mailbox as a kid growing up in Syosset, New York, to finding out in her digital mailbox that Eastbay was retiring as well.

"Low-key, I was still buying my socks off Eastbay," Bird told ESPN with a laugh. "Eastbay was my go-to to get this one pair of Nike socks.

"I mean, maybe I'm the only 42-year-old in the world [who] was still buying s--- off Eastbay."

When the news broke of Eastbay shutting down, Bird wasn't the only one in the basketball world left heartbroken.

"Really?" Lakers coach Darvin Ham asked when told Eastbay was closing. "Wow.

"It was the Bible and then my Eastbay catalog."

From New York, where Bird developed her well-known sneaker swagger eyeing David Robinson's Nike Air Command Forces and Charles Barkley's Air Force Max, to Compton, California, where Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan wanted the latest adidas Kobe's, Eastbay could be found in classrooms, locker rooms, homes and dorm rooms coast to coast.

And it didn't matter if one couldn't actually afford to place an order.

"Eastbay [was] my whole childhood, that's all it was," DeRozan told ESPN. "Let me tell it: I wanted everything and I had to have everything out of Eastbay. It was always just that motivation of seeing what new shoes were coming out, just seeing if they had my size. Seeing unique kicks.

"But I was never able to actually get nothing."

Still, Eastbay's pages provided inspiration and motivation to young athletes who dreamed of becoming the next Shaquille O'Neal or Allen Iverson hawking their latest Reeboks or Ken Griffey Jr. showing off the new Air Griffey Max.

"I've always kind of been a sneaker guy my whole life," James said. "Even when I wasn't having the opportunity to afford them, obviously.

"But just looking through the Eastbay and seeing all the shoes and they had the players connected to that shoe, either if it was a signature guy or guys were just wearing those shoes, it was pretty cool to be able to see that."

Bird dreamed big when she saw women having their own signature shoes for the first time within Eastbay's pages.

"There was like a one- to two-year period where Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper, [Sheryl Swoopes] and Dawn Staley had [signature shoes] put out for them," Bird said. "And I remember the Cynthia Cooper ones because they were called the Shake 'Em Up. That's what we wore my freshman year of college.

"That was a big deal because those were women's basketball shoes. And it's kind of the first time you were really seeing women's basketball shoes."

Today, kids are only a click or swipe away from buying the latest must-cop sneaker.

As Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone explains, his daughters will never understand the anticipation some of his generation felt for weeks before a new Eastbay catalog or an order would show up in the mailbox.

"Kids today, that is like a foreign concept," Malone, 51, told ESPN. "Wait, what? Mail? You couldn't go on the internet? You couldn't go on the sneaker website? My girls go on sneaker websites all the time and they order shoes.

"But back then, without the internet ... you had to wait for the new catalog to come out, flip through, place an order and wait for the order to go through and then get your delivery. "

Jason Kidd, who during his first stint as a player with the Mavericks wore the Nike Air Zoom Flight 95 -- a shoe that graced Eastbay's pages and became one of the Swoosh's many classic kicks from the '90s -- even facetiously joked about life after Eastbay.

"What are we going to turn to? How do you shop now?" the Dallas Mavericks coach said.

"... But as you know, technology wins sometimes in this game, so we've got to go to those apps."

Tucker, who has "no idea" how many shoes he currently owns though he has estimated it's well into the thousands, looks back fondly to a simpler life flipping through the sacred pages of Eastbay, long before the Nike SNKRS app or resale sites such as eBay, GOAT and StockX.

"It's just like so much emotion," Tucker said. "I don't really take a lot of time to think back to my childhood. [But when Eastbay closed] I was like, damn.

"That [catalog] was a real moment in my life. Like, a big chunk of my life."

Dave McMenamin, Tim MacMahon and Jamal Collier contributed to this story.