The Miami Heat’s Gabe Vincent and Max Strus sat in their lockers side by side in Madison Square Garden an hour before a game against the Knicks. Strus was eating vegetables and rice, and Vincent was putting on his uniform after practicing his strokes.
But Vincent stopped when he heard Strus talking about wiping the soles of his shoes with the palms of his hands.
“Oh,” Vincent said incredulously, “are you the type to lick and clean?”
“I don’t lick,” Strus said, dropping his fork to reply. “I don’t lick. No, no, no. His voice was tinged with indignation, as if Vincent had accused him of a crime. Vincent laughed.
Many NBA players are meticulous, some even superstitious, about how they ensure their athletic shoes have enough traction for the court. Some use various cleaning methods: the maligned lick-and-wipe, in which they rub saliva on the soles of their shoes, or a dry wipe, in which they use only their bare hands. However, most rely on a cleaning cloth found on the edge of NBA arenas. It is officially called Slipp-Nott, but most gamers refer to it as a “sticky pad” or “sticky mat”.
“I feel like the sticky mat is a ritual at this point,” said Sixers guard Shake Milton. “Sounds like just what you should be doing.”
The Slipp-Nott was created in 1987 by Jorge Julian, who quit a cushy job at Northrop Grumman in hopes of making basketball courts everywhere squeaky with the sound of sneakers holding on.
There are translucent sheets on top of the Slipp-Nott coated with adhesive substances (Julian declined to share details so as not to help his competitors). Once a sheet absorbs too much dust or dirt to function properly, the user can tear it off for a new one.
The sticky pad comes in several sizes, but the standard is 26 by 26 inches, so large basketball-playing humans can fit their feet in it. Some teams whose arenas have narrower margins, like the Utah Jazz, order a small or medium version. The pads can be as small as 15 x 18 inches, which is just about enough for a size 20 men’s shoe.
Julian’s first NBA buyer was the Los Angeles Clippers, who bought Slipp-Nott in 1988 at a discounted rate of $70 per pad and gave Julian a staff pass to the arena. Back then, players used wet towels and wiping methods to gain traction, so many were skeptical about the pad. To ease their concerns, Julian, using his personal pass, went to the locker room with a VHS recorder to capture testimonials from trainers and players about the effectiveness of the pad.
Today, most teams use a Slipp-Nott and have custom pads with their team logos, but the price for these pads is now $588.
“He’s like my lifesaver,” said Golden State Warriors forward Anthony Lamb. “I play in the same shoes all the time, so sometimes when I run out of shoes and my shoes are ruined, I’m going to need that sticky pad.”
Lamb plays in the black colorway version of Nike’s Paul George 6 sneakers; worn pairs sit by his locker, with new pairs in boxes. He sometimes wears the shoes “five games too many,” he said, and they get slippery.
When the Warriors played the New Orleans Pelicans in November, Lamb said, he couldn’t reach the sticky block before entering the game and Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram made a move that knocked him backwards on the field. Lamb was on the wrong end of a highlight and butt of jokes in the Warriors locker room.
“My foot didn’t go down,” Lamb said as he laughed and put his face in his palms, “and I was thinking, Damn, I should have hit the sticky pad.”
Golden State forward Jonathan Kuminga may have the most shoes of anyone on the team, with countless pairs often lying in front of his locker and inside his drawers.
While many players use the pad or a wiping method, Kuminga typically relies on neither. He cleans the bottoms of one shoe on top of the other, partly because he saves time, he said, and because he’s been doing it since he was a kid. Because of this, many of the shoes in Kuminga’s locker look brand new except for the laces, which are ripped and covered in dirt and dust.
“Hopefully, one day, if I get my own shoe, I can maybe add something on my laces so every time I clean, I don’t have to mess up my laces anymore,” said Kuminga while holding up a pair of blue lace-up shoes which had been stained black.
Knicks long men Isaiah Hartenstein and Obi Toppin always finish their pre-game routine by wiping their shoes on the Slipp-Nott. Hartenstein sprints to the pad first, usually after the starters announce, and Toppin follows shortly after his teammate, tearing off a sheet when he’s done.
Hartenstein nearly forgot to do his part of their routine before Game 5 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but Toppin poked him on the chest and pointed him towards the pad.
“It’s definitely a ritual for us,” Hartenstein said. “We have to do it before every game and I always go first. We almost got into a fight once because he went first. It will never happen again.
After the creation of Slipp-Nott in the late 1980s, Julian dominated the on-court traction market in the NBA. That changed in 2011 with the introduction of Court Grip, a bottled liquid product developed by Mission Athletecare that users could rub into the bottoms of their shoes. Dwyane Wade, then a star with the Heat, was a partner.
Mission Athletecare founder and president Josh Shaw said at the time that “it will probably be six to 12 months before people realize it’s outdated,” referring to Slipp-Nott. A brief rivalry for supremacy of judicial traction began, but it was Court Grip that eventually became obsolete. The gray bottle has disappeared from the sidelines and, for now, the sticker block has the hearts and soles of players from all over the NBA
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