How A Middling Hoosier Hooper Became A Sneaker Icon

Converse’s iconic Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society are teaming up this Sunday to present an oral history of Converse’s Chuck Taylor, the Hoosier sneaker icon. We spoke with storyteller David Matlack, an Indiana University lecturer and director of physiology teaching labs, ahead of this Sunday’s event at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center.

Tell me a little bit about the event.

This year the exhibit is delayed because of the pandemic until the year 2022, but we’re going ahead with the story — it’s a one-hour spoken word piece about Chuck Taylor, of the Converse All Star [sneaker]. He was born a Hoosier but left the state at the age of 19. He’s now iconic, you know, everybody knows the Chuck logo, the star with his signature on it. At one time, the Chuck Taylor Converse All-Star was the world’s most popular basketball shoe. And it’s kind of cool how it morphed into this shoe that the cool kids wear.

But most of the story is about Chuck’s life, and he actually had a very modest career as a basketball player. He played for Columbus High, a very modest career; he did not go to college. The he bounced around the Midwest on semi-pro teams, when full-time pro ball was just getting started. In 1921, he joined the Converse Rubber Company as a traveling shoe salesman. And you know, where you have sales, you have marketing. So, Converse marketing kind of took this spotty, not-well-known career, and suddenly they’re building him up as a former star.

So there, once you start his career with Converse, it’s really hard to separate the myth from the man. Even newspaper reports to this day, still list him as a former pro star with the Celtics and an Olympic champion… this was before the days of truth in advertising. Hype and hyperbole were expected.

He, single-handedly almost, made that the world’s most popular basketball shoe. He started to do some demonstrations, mostly on ball handling and the passing game. And then these morphed into basketball clinics, where he was teaching the fundamentals of basketball. And over the years, these became huge events. By the 1950s he was packing high school gymnasiums, which, you know, in Indiana, that’s six to eight thousand [people]. His contribution to the sport was introducing the art and the science of the game to hundreds of thousands of kids.

Ultimately, he was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame for his for contribution to the sport. You know, it certainly was not as a player or coach. But now what a lot of people don’t realize is the impact that his clinics had in introducing people to the sport, and teaching kids the fundamentals of the sport.

Do you remember when Chuck Taylors being popular when you were in school?

When I started junior high, it was already in eclipse as a basketball shoe, but it was what all the cool kids wore. And I can mark my junior high, senior high school, college [years] by what style, either low cut or high top, and color — always in the school colors — of Chucks I was wearing at the time, you know.

But what the cool kids wear is a fad, and fads come and go, so it faded into obscurity until 1991 when Kurt Cobain with Nirvana walked on stage wearing a pair of white Chucks and the Seattle grunge look swept the nation. Suddenly, Chucks are all the rage again, and now there’s all sorts of styles, but the original basketball shoe really did not change much from about 1921 up until maybe 2010.

With the hyperbole of the advertising, did he become a fashion icon because everyone thought that he was this basketball star?

Back in the day when he’s on the road giving these clinics, it gave the company some credibility to put this person out there. You know, if you’re going to be teaching clinics, you kind of need some credentials. The fact is that he had a very intuitive feel for the game. What he was teaching was good, and it was needed. In the sixties, pretty much every NBA team, Team USA at the Olympics, college, high school, they’re all wearing it. And as far as becoming a fashion icon, that came a little later, and I think it came out of a just a longing for simpler days. It was a retro thing. When our future looks scary, we tend to go back to retro.

What does Chuck Taylor’s legacy have to do with Indiana’s legacy as a basketball state?

They’re intimately intertwined. Much of my story is about the history of the sport, especially here in Indiana. His first sales territory was Indiana, and most of these clinics were here in Indiana. And Indiana just has so many great players and coaches. As I traveled the backroads, mostly over to Columbus High and the little, tiny town in Bartholomew County where he grew up, I started noticing how every place has a hoop nailed to the garage, the barn, or a tree, you know, and that got me thinking about, what is it about Indiana hoops? You know, why here?

Part of the story is about John Wooden, who went to Martinsville High, was All-State, and then All-American at Purdue and led them to a national championship. And then he was the all-time greatest collegiate coach with the UCLA Bruins. So, there’s another very influential Hoosier in the basketball world, and there’s a contrast between the two men because John Wooden was known for his honesty and humility, whereas Chuck Taylor, as a salesman, had to do a certain amount of self-promoting, [and was] not necessarily known for his honesty.

You mentioned earlier how you teach pre-med classes. What got you into storytelling?

I was planning a family trip to the Smoky Mountains about 30 years ago, and I saw this thing called the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. I had no idea what storytelling was. I thought, it was a cute, charming little town, and the festival gets really high ratings so I thought “The kids will like that, let’s go.” The kids were actually maybe a little too young, but I was just blown away by this art form. You know how just with a spoken word, a storyteller can lead you to tears, and riotous laughter, within five minutes. I started going to every workshop I could, and it just kind of morphed from there.

What about the Chuck Taylor story interested you?

Actually, I received a call and they said, “Hey, please do this story.” I did not seek it out. But I immediately was thrilled to do it, because Chucks were such an important part of my growing up. At the time if you’d asked me who Chuck Taylor was, I would have said he was some NBA star. So, it’s been really interesting to learn how he actually was not. But I think what he did was much more than stardom. He elevated the game.