Patrick Cheung has dropped up to $15,000 on athletic shoes, most of which he'll never wear. There are tens of thousands of people just like him.

It's dark out as 21-year-old Patrick Cheung and his eighteen-year-old friend Corey Bowling speed toward San Francisco. Their destination: Niketown, a multistory all-Nike department store, where the company is releasing its latest Air Jordan Retro sneakers.

Patrick drives fast, but more than the Bay Bridge stands between the friends and a pair of some of the hottest shoes released this year. "Damn," he yells as he pulls up in front of the store. A line of people stretches from the front door out of sight up Stockton Street. "Dammit!"

It's 8:30 p.m., and Niketown won't open until midnight.

Corey hops out to grab a place in line. Patrick drives around the corner and swerves into a parking spot. His cell phone rings. It's Corey calling to say Niketown is already handing out wristbands for would-be shoe buyers to hold their places in line. Patrick starts running. A moment later, breathing hard, he joins Corey at the end of the line. In front of them, a group of girls is stretched out on blankets. Beats are pumping out of somebody's backpack and the smell of pot smoke drifts nearby.

There are maybe eighty people now waiting to buy the shoes, which are destined to sell out. Most are in their teens or early twenties. The guys are in baggy jeans with sweatshirts; the girls wear tight jeans with puffy jackets. A majority wear red and white, a nod both to the colors of the shoes being released tonight and the team colors of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Passersby -- mostly white, mostly older -- stop periodically to ask what all the fuss is about. The two young men and their neighbors in line joke about telling the next clueless person that it's the line for American Idol tryouts.

At about five foot four, Patrick is smaller than Corey, but he is clearly the leader of the two, at least when it comes to this particular scene. Patrick dresses and talks like a gangsta, idolizes Tupac and Michael Jordan, likes music-video girls, and believes sincerely that his heroes are good people. He is decked out in baggy jeans with an oversize Bulls jacket and matching hat covering up his black buzzcut. But the most important thing about his outfit is the sneakers. He's rocking a pair of Jordan XIVs. The uninitiated might not know that's a rare shoe, but tonight's crowd is not the uninitiated.

The guy behind us knows the XIVs. He and Patrick fall into conversation about the shoes, their history as a gang icon, and the chances that Nike will ever rerelease them. He is Lawrence Backus, a tall, attractive black guy from Hayward who says the only sneakers he wears are Jordans. Lawrence, like Corey, is here because he wants to wear the freshest new kicks.

That's not why Patrick is here. Patrick doesn't plan on wearing the shoes he buys tonight. Instead, they'll sit in their box, preserved by silica packs like those that come in new briefcases or vitamin bottles, on the left side of his closet with the rest of his Jordans.

The silica packs are a telltale sign of a sneakerhead.

Sneakerheads are collectors. They preserve sneakers the way others keep stamps or baseball cards. They store them out of the light in clean, dry places. They buy them and sell them, spend incredible amounts of money on them, hoard them, talk about them, make friends over them. Sometimes they even wear them.

Shoe collecting is typically associated with women -- think Sarah Jessica Parker's character from Sex and the City. Most sneaker fiends, however, are young and male. Their scene is all about hip-hop culture, street chic and, above all else, hoops. In its modern form, the sneakerhead scene could be traced back to one man: former Bulls guard Michael Jordan.

The cult of the tennis shoe has existed, in one form or another, for decades, but hardcore collecting has only really exploded over the past several years., the most popular of the online sneaker forums that began to crop up in the late 1990s, boasts 4.7 million posts and nearly 35,000 registered members. A documentary called Sneakerheads is due out this spring. And Sole Collector magazine, which debuted in 2003, claims a readership of 40,000.

The revived passion for shoe collecting has spawned scores of events, from Harry Potter-style midnight releases by stores to informal sneaker summits to "battles" in which collectors compete over who has accumulated the rarest pairs. Last fall, more than five hundred footwear fans packed San Francisco's Niketown for a Sole Collector-sponsored competition. In December, SF's Mezzanine club hosted a b-boy night called Soled Out, featuring a "sneaker bar." Simultaneously, the lowly sneaker has risen to the status of art object. SF MOMA held a sneaker show in 2000, and numerous exhibits and art projects -- many of them sponsored by the shoe makers -- have toured urban hotspots including the Bay Area.

Patrick and fellow enthusiasts conduct much of their business via specialized Web sites such as Niketalk, or on eBay, where a search for "sneakers" yields upward of six thousand auctions. They also scour boutiques -- such as Huf shoe store in San Francisco or 510 Skateboarding in Berkeley -- and haunt releases like tonight's Niketown event, where sneakerheads camp out like concert fans waiting for tickets.

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