Each holiday season, an especially hot, must-have gift emerges, often triggering behavior by desperate consumers that seems wacky and ugly at the time — and even more so in retrospect. (Example: Some guy made $6,000 selling Zhu Zhu pets on eBay last year.) This year, the behavior surrounding one hot item seems especially extreme — fights, stabbings, pepper spray — and more disturbing than usual because it’s a product primarily being bought not for kids, but for grown men.
Just before Christmas, Nike released the latest Air Jordan basketball sneakers. They’re new, but also not new: Air Jordan 11 Retro Concords look just like the kicks MJ first wore in 1996, when he was at the height of his game. Apparently, it’s worth enduring a night waiting in the cold outside sneaker stores for a chance to buy a pair, and for some customers, the sneakers are worth $500 or more.
Earlier this week, sellers at Amazon were asking $600 to $975 per pair, while the going price on eBay has generally been in the $400 to $500 range. The shoes, mind you, have an original list price of $180 — which, proudly uncool cheapskate that I am, is already about five or six times what I’m used to paying for a pair of sneakers.
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What could possibly explain the craze over these sneakers? Here’s some insight from one “reviewer” of the product at Amazon:
My big brother CJ bought a pair of Nike Air Jordan 11 Retro Concords and as soon as he put them on his feet started to smell like roses. His acne was gone in three minutes, his missing front tooth grew back and by night he was two feet taller.
O.K., so this isn’t really a review at all. It’s a joke, poking fun at the people who feel it’s reasonable to drop $600, or even $180, on a pair of sneakers when there are plenty of alternatives on the market for a tiny fraction of the price. And let’s face it: odds are, the sneaker hounds paying half a grand for Air Jordans are very likely to have perfectly good, never-scuffed, still-in-the-box sneakers at home in their closets too.
To outsiders baffled by the Air Jordan craze — complete with stabbings and fistfights among customers waiting in line and the obligatory pepper spraying by the police — there really is no explaining the situation. Whether it’s the new iPhone or new designer fashions at Target or newly discounted tablets or the hot new video game (see: latest Call of Duty), it’s clear that nearly all crazes involve something that’s new, exciting, hotly in demand, and usually available only in a strategically limited quantity.
But it’s difficult to truly make sense of any craze, really. They’re crazes — as in, crazy.
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In honor of the current craze of Air Jordans, the Washington Post itself went retro by posting a story it ran in 1985 — when the first craze of Air Jordans (the original red-white-and-black ones) took place. Back then, the sneakers sold at retail for what was an especially pricey figure for basketball shoes: $65. And back then, it was teens and pre-teens who really started the trend:
From the city the craze spread to the suburbs, and from the young it spread to the younger and to teens at heart. In most cases, claims the corps of shoe-sales clerks, the kids came in dragging their parents to the Jordans. Many, but not all, parents were convinced. One mother in Silver Spring says when the craze “for expensive tennis shoes started, I put a ceiling of $35 on all my kids’ shoes.”
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Nowadays, though, when you look at the people waiting in line for the new Air Jordans, it’s rare to spot teenagers, let alone moms. Both the lines, and the stories about fights in lines, are dominated by guys in their 20s. These are adults who should know better. But maybe they’re having the last laugh. One shopper who’d just managed to purchase a pair of the new Air Jordans explained to a newspaper reporter what made the sneakers special enough to merit hours in line and the $180 asking price:
“I’m about to get five hundred dollars for these. If not more, honestly.”
Dropping $180 for something you’ll soon flip for a profit of $200 or more? There’s nothing crazy about that.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.