Say what you will about sports coming back: Maybe it’s irresponsible. Hopefully, no one will get sick or, worse, die. And maybe at a time when more than 130,000 people have already died from coronavirus, you find the entire concept of shooting a ball in a hoop to be utterly irrelevant. I know I did. Despite being a lifelong Lakers fan, there was a big part of me that didn’t care whether they were going to finish this season. Sure, I want LeBron to get his fourth championship in the purple and gold, but again, sports in these uncertain times don’t seem all that important.
But last week, on Thursday night, that changed. The Lakers were playing their first scrimmage against the Dallas Mavericks, and because I’m always home, I tuned in. I found a decent-enough bootleg Reddit stream, and I threw the game up on my TV. At first, I was only half paying attention, looking up every now and again the way most people watch Netflix. But amid the quiet of a professional basketball game played without a single fan in the stands, I heard it.
The sound of sneakers, slipping but catching their grip against the hardwood just in time to maintain the players’ balance.
Some symphonies are completely accidental. The basketball sneaker squeak is one of them. Scientifically speaking, it’s mainly just a vibration that occurs when the rubber outsole of a shoe hits the hardwood. “The herringbone structures of the shoe outsole are induced to vibrate at their low-order natural frequencies by stick-slip contact with the surface,” Martyn Shorten, who has a biomechanics consulting firm in Portland, Oregon, and who works mostly with athletic shoe manufacturers, concluded in his study on the subject, per a 2017 New York Times report. According to the same report, Shorten said that in basketball, it “tends to happen when the foot first contacts the ground and when the shoe is lightly loaded and moving quite quickly.”
In other words, the squeak is the sound of a foot planting, sliding ever so slightly, then sticking again. “It might feel like an instant stop, but the rubber sole is designed for flexibility,” John Branch writes for the New York Times.
For players, the squeak is the sound of reassurance. Last year, Kort Neumann, the lead designer for Steph Curry’s basketball shoe, the Curry 3, noted during an interview with The Post Game that Curry is heavily involved in the design of the shoes and insists that the squeak be loud. “He likes comfort,” Neumann told them, as referenced by Business Insider. “He loves the squeak of traction on the court. He really likes that squeak.”
Similarly, Ron Johnson, a senior product line manager for basketball footwear at Under Armour, also noted in an interview with Complex just how important the squeak is to Curry, noting that any shoe design has to pass “the squeak test.” All of which makes sense, considering quick footwork is central to Curry or any other guard’s game. “Too much grip in basketball is jarring on the body,” Nike’s senior design director Leo Chang told the New York Times. “Not enough traction is dangerous, too.”
But aside from its functional use, the squeak — the audible signature of basketball — doubles as its unofficial soundtrack. So much so that in 2006, Nike used the slip-stick sound of sneakers vibrating against the hardwood to score one of its commercials:
Somewhat surprisingly, for all the love of squeak on the court, off the court, it’s a different story. In fact, there are even two different kinds of sneaker squeak. The first is the one mentioned above, that occurs when you’re planting your foot on the hardwood. The second is the audible squeak of breaking in a new pair of Jordans that sounds like “a SpongeBob character,” per one YouTuber’s comment. The latter is less musical and more cacophonous, and therefore understandably embarrassing, which is why there are a few videos on how to get rid of it — most of which include spraying the inside of the shoe bed with some sort of lubricant, like WD-40.
But again, the real squeak — the sneaker-planted-against-the-hardwood-floor squeak — is a mark of comfort. Or for me at least, a great reminder of when I first fell in love with basketball. I was still in elementary school, and I was wearing Kobes. Just like him, I licked my hands and rubbed them against the near-fresh soles of my sneakers to wipe away the dust before planting them, erratically, against the hardwood floors. I didn’t fully realize it then, but I was listening for the squeak. For the reassurance that when I was put in a position where I needed to trust my sneakers, they’d be there to keep me from slipping.
Not a bad reminder to ring in your ears on a nightly basis in these fucked-up times.