LUMBERTON, N.C. — The Chuck Taylor All Star basketball shoe is a throwback, an American standard that in 80 years has changed only in subtle ways.
The latest change is subtle in appearance alone: the end of the proclamation "Made in USA" stamped on the heel.
The forces of globalization hit home when the factory where Converse Inc. churned out 8 million to 10 million pairs a year sent its 475 workers home.
The plant officially closed last month, ending U.S. production of the shoes that meant on-court performance for Bill Russell and a grunge fashion statement for Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain.
Plants in Mission, Texas, and Reynosa, Mexico, are also being closed by the 93-year-old company, which was forced into bankruptcy protection in January.
The company will sell off the rights to make and distribute Converse footwear in the United States, joining Nike and other competitors by operating exclusively through licensing agreements around the world. Asian suppliers already make half the shoes Converse sold.
Years before advances in running-shoe technology translated into basketball shoes with air shocks and Michael Jordan as pitchman, Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson were wearing Chuck Taylors. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points wearing the flat-soled canvas creations.
The shoes, now used more for leisure than sports, have become part of the American scenery.
Baby boomers who made the high school basketball team claimed canvas-and-rubber sneakers as their prize. The shoes carry a connection to simpler and happier times, exploited by producers of TV shows including "Dennis the Menace" and "Happy Days" who dressed their stars in them.
"First and foremost, the Converse basketball shoe is a really interesting mode of introducing sports into popular life," Alison Scott, an expert on popular culture who buys artifacts of Americana for Harvard University's libraries, said Tuesday. "The basketball shoe is really the first to become active daily wear. Most of the other clothing of sports is really specialized. But the basketball shoe infiltrated the culture."
Whether cut low to curve under the wearer's ankle or reaching up with canvas to wrap the joint, each pair bore little rubber tabs on the heels boasting the shoes were "Made in USA."
The high-tops also were labeled on the ankle with a white cloth ring bearing a blue star, the company's name and the signature of Chuck Taylor, a traveling salesman and hoops junkie who made it into the Basketball Hall of Fame without significant recorded triumphs on the hard court.
Converse started making an All Star shoe in 1917. Four years later, Taylor walked into a Converse sales office in Chicago and asked if they could make a shoe that didn't make his feet hurt after a basketball game.
Since his revamped model was introduced in 1922, the company has churned out more than 575 million pairs. In the 1960s, the company claims, All Stars accounted for 70 percent to 80 percent of the basketball shoe market.
Converse leased an old rubber plant here in 1972, and since then most of the All Stars were either made entirely in Lumberton or finished here.
In the 1980s, NBA stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson wore Converse — which now was producing leather court shoes with better padding and fit — and coaxed renewed sales out of the exploding market for sports shoes.
Converse executives took the division public after a series of corporate restructuring and buyouts in 1983 just as Madonna helped popularize a retro fashion look that made the old Chuck Taylors hot again. Young skateboarders had to have them. And rockers, notably grunge bands from Seattle in the early 1990s, sported them, too.
Converse tried to diversify as sales of basketball shoes started slumping in the mid-1990s. Chairman and chief executive officer Glenn Rupp said modern basketball shoes now account for less than 20 percent of sales, making its leisure-wear lines like Chuck Taylors and skateboarding shoes more important to the North Reading, Mass.-based company's bottom line.
Still, Converse reported a net loss of $6.3 million, or 36 cents per share, for the third quarter ending Sept. 30. It listed assets of $202.1 million and debts of $226.2 million.
The company said this month it was selling its trademarks and inventory to an acquisition group for about $117.5 million, pending court approval.
The Lumberton plant's closing means Boston-based New Balance is one of the last athletic shoe companies manufacturing in the United States. The privately held company said its worldwide sales reached $1.1 billion in 2000.
Some question whether Asian-made Chuck Taylors will continue luring buyers who look for the "Made in the USA" label.
"I think in some people's minds there's a question as to whether the quality will be as good," said Corky Fulton of Kings Mountain, N.C. His online shopping site, Classic Sports Shoes.com, sells athletic shoe models that are still in production but hard to find, including at least eight styles of yellow, khaki and unbleached white Chuck Taylors.
He's had a rush of demand since Converse sought bankruptcy protection. A typical order came last week from a San Francisco baker, who ordered six pairs of All Stars.
"He wanted to have a two- or three-year supply," Fulton said. Converse told him after the inventory in its Charlotte distribution center runs out, it will be mid-August before new stocks from Asia are available, he said.
Company spokesmen did not return calls last week.
Fulton said Chuck Taylors have managed to stay in demand because they're a relatively cheap counterculture statement — you can buy three pairs of All Stars at about $33 each for the cost of one high-tech pair of basketball shoes. And they seem to come back into fashion with young people every six or seven years.
"If you do that for 70 years, you always have people in their 30s and 40s who wore them when they were kids," he said. "It's kind of a matter of if you've tried something and they feel good and you aren't worried about being in fashion, which changes all the time, there's no reason to wear anything else."