The Chuck Taylor All Star basketball shoe has been a symbol of Americana for decades, worn by everyone from Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to Richie Cunningham and Kurt Cobain.
But the shoe will soon lose its "Made in the USA" proclamation that has been stamped on its heel for more than 80 years. Converse, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, is shutting down its U.S. plants and shifting production to Asia.
The Lumberton plant that has churned out 8 million to 10 million pairs of Chuck Taylors a year has sent its 475 employees home, and the factory officially closes Saturday. Plants in Mission, Texas, and Reynosa, Mexico, are also being closed by the 93-year-old company.
The company plans to sell off the rights to make and distribute Converse footwear in the United States, joining Nike and other competitors by operating exclusively through licensing agreements around the world.
Years before technological advances translated into basketball shoes with air shocks and Michael Jordan as their pitchman, basketball greats Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson were wearing Chuck Taylors. Chamberlain scored 100 points wearing the flat-soled canvas creations.
Baby boomers who made the high school basketball team claimed the shoes as their prize. The shoes carry a connection to simpler and happier times, as seen on TV shows Dennis the Menace and Happy Days.
"First and foremost, the Converse basketball shoe is a really interesting mode of introducing sports into popular life," Alison Scott, an expert on popular culture who buys artifacts of Americana for Harvard University's libraries, said Tuesday. "The basketball shoe is really the first to become active daily wear. Most of the other clothing of sports is really specialized. But the basketball shoe infiltrated the culture."
Converse started making an All Star shoe in 1917. The sneakers were revamped in 1922 after traveling salesman and hoops junkie Chuck Taylor walked into a Converse sales office in Chicago and asked if they could create a shoe that didn't make his feet hurt after a basketball game.
The company recognized Taylor's contributions by adding his signature to the All Star ankle patch in 1923.
Converse has since churned out more than 575 million pairs. All Stars accounted for 70 percent to 80 percent of the basketball shoe market in the 1960s, the company says.
Initially, "Chucks" were only available in black or white, and sold only in sporting goods stores. The company began producing them in colors in 1966.
Converse leased an old rubber plant in Lumberton, N.C., in 1972, and since then most of the All Stars were either made entirely or finished in the south-central North Carolina town.
All Stars came back into style in the 1980s as the retro fashion look became popular and skateboarders had to have the old-style shoes. Rockers, notably Seattle grunge bads like Cobain's Nirvana, began sporting them in the early 1990s.
Converse tried to diversify as sales of basketball shoes started slumping in the mid-1990s. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Glenn Rupp said modern basketball shoes now account for less than 20 percent of sales, making its leisure-wear lines like Chuck Taylors and skateboarding shoes more important to the North Reading, Mass.-company's bottom line.
Still, Converse reported a net loss of $6.3 million, or 36 cents per share, for the third quarter ending Sept. 30. It listed assets of $202.1 million and debts of $226.2 million.
The company said this month it was selling its trademarks and inventory to an acquisition group for about $117.5 million, pending court approval.
Some question whether Asian-made Chuck Taylors will lure buyers who look for the "Made in the USA" label.
"I think in some people's minds there's a question as to whether the quality will be as good," said Corky Fulton of Kings Mountain, N.C.
Fulton's online shopping site, Classic Sports Shoes.com, sells athletic shoe models that are still in production but hard to find, including at least eight styles of yellow, khaki and unbleached white Chuck Taylors.
He said he has had a rush of demand since Converse sought bankruptcy protection. Last week, a San Francisco baker ordered six pairs of All Stars, he said.
Fulton said Chuck Taylors have managed to stay in demand because they are a relatively cheap counterculture statement you can buy three pairs of All Stars at about $33 each for the cost of one high-tech pair of basketball shoes. And they seem to come back into fashion with young people every few years.
"If you do that for 70 years, you always have people in their 30s and 40s who wore them when they were kids," he said. "It's kind of a matter of if you've tried something and they feel good and you aren't worried about being in fashion, which changes all the time, there's no reason to wear anything else."
©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.