Who is Stan Smith? New film uncovers tennis and footwear legend

Who is Stan Smith? New film uncovers tennis and footwear legend

For sports fans of a certain age, the seasonal queues that form around shoe stores in anticipation of the latest Jordan sneakers are a painful reminder of the many young people who only know of the hoops legend as an athletic brand. But well before Nike reduced Michael to a Jumpman silhouette, Adidas was hawking Stan Smiths – the leather, low-top kicks that became such a fashion statement among rockers and rappers that perhaps more young people have no idea the mustachioed face on the tongue belongs to one of the most consequential players in tennis history. “A lot of sneaker enthusiasts want to understand the heritage and story behind it,” says the director Danny Lee. His latest film answers the essential question: Who Is Stan Smith?

Produced under LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s Uninterrupted imprimatur, Who Is Stan Smith? revisits the life and times of the former world No 1, from his working-class beginnings to his improbable bond with Arthur Ashe to his even more improbable emergence as a style icon – a SoCal James Bond, Sean Connery in country club kit. That’s despite, as one of his children helpfully points out in the doc, Smith rocking his trademark top lip strip for the better part of the last 50 years. That ’stache wasn’t just all the rage during Smith’s prime (in the late-60s and early-70s, mostly), it was part of a sandy-haired, cerulean-eyed 6ft 4in all-American package that the super agent Donald Dell turned into one of the most commercial billboards in sport. And yet: the glamor of the epoch has nothing on these times. “Now they’ve got teams, they’ve got people doing the jet set thing,” says the 77-year-old Smith, recalling the days on tour when it was just him and his wife, Margie. “It’s still tough as a professional athlete, but back then she and I were the team more or less.”

Besides leading tennis into the Open era and helping to establish the Association of Tennis Professionals at the expense of defending his 1972 Wimbledon title, Smith helped lead the US to victory in the 1968 Davis Cup – the title that effectively kicked off the American tennis boom of the 1970s and 80s. “When I saw Stan have a jacket on that said USA, I was like, Man, could I do that?” John McEnroe recalls early in the documentary. “And I did it!”

The 94-minute documentary is slated for a soft launch in New York and Los Angeles over the next two weeks before a wider release in May. It was originally teased during the 2022 Doc NYC film festival only to be delayed by the usual industry negotiations and the Covid-19 pandemic. But now that patience is rewarded with a 50-state theatrical release that not only comes just as the calendar approaches the heart of the tennis schedule, but also with the Zendaya-led pulp fiction Challengers reviving the market for tennis drama at the box office. (Take that, pickleball!) “Thankfully,” says Lee, “we shot this two- and three-scope wide, so it’s a real visual feast on screen.”

Sneaker geeks should beware that this film isn’t an extended version of Friedman’s Shoes – the sports Emmy-award winning short Lee directed about the Atlanta shoe store where Shaq, Magic Johnson and other plus-sized athletes have trekked to in search of luxury footwear in hard-to-find dimensions. While Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels and Pharrell speak to Smith’s sole impact on hip-hop in particular (suffice to say without Smith, Adidas probably never gets into business with Kanye West), Lee’s film caters more to tennis geeks who have long admired Smith’s serve-and-volley game and his equally relentless commitment to social justice causes.

Smith emerged as a global celebrity while the US was divided over the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement. In the film, Smith is candid about growing up in the homogeneous cloister that was 1950s Pasadena. It could have easily saddled him with a close-minded worldview. But instead of defaulting to whiteness, Smith embraced the things he didn’t know – not least Ashe, the best friend who remains in his heart. “He was just a great guy,” Smith recalls, “the leader, the one who was having to go through things we didn’t have to go through. His wife and daughter are still close to us. I mean, we really enjoyed each other’s company – and it was him who made that possible.”

Together, Smith and Ashe visited hospitals in South Vietnam with their Davis Cup teammate Clark Graebner and Bob Lutz – the partner with whom Smith set a new standard in doubles play. “Bob Lutz had a guy die right in front of him,” Ashe told the New York Times 20 years later. “It was a very sobering experience.”

As the current class of students lead protests on college campuses all over the country, Smith can’t help feeling like he’s watching history repeat – not least at USC, his alma mater. “It reminds me of the era when I was there,” he says, “when there were a lot of demonstrations – for civil rights, the war, political upheaval, Kennedy getting shot. It’s somewhat similar; I was thinking, Is it going to get back to a quieter time in another few weeks or months? What’s going to be the evolution of what’s going on right now? And certainly there was the evolution in my period where the war did end eventually, but there’s always been a tension in the subcultures in the United States and around the world. We don’t know how it’s going to transpire.”

With tennis being a balkanized sport played all over the globe, Lee had his work cut out tracking down footage of Smith’s career and shooting amid Covid restrictions – which robbed the project of one of the game’s most colorful personalities in Ilie Năstase, the bad boy who tangled with Smith at Wimbledon. “Năstase’s the type of guy where if you didn’t want him to talk, he would talk,” Smith jokes. “And then if you wanted him to talk, he’s quiet. He’s an enigma.”

man in a suit sitting on an armchairView image in fullscreen

Shooting at Centre Court, where Smith was crowned champion in the first men’s final held on a Sunday, was a massive coup. “Stan has such incredible relationships around the world,” Lee says. “So when he asked, it was like, ‘When do you wanna do this?’”

It was Lee’s good luck that the Smiths shot hours of home videos from the world tours and that Margie had held on to the footage all these years. And those behind-the-scenes peeks of their private life become that much richer when their family welcomes in Mark Mathabane, the South African émigré who went on to become a bestselling author and college professor thanks to Ashe and Smith hatching his escape from apartheid.

For as much as Smith has done publicly and privately to support righteous causes, in the film, Smith expresses some regret for not going even harder. “I could’ve done more with Arthur,” he says, before drifting back to a few of the small ways he helped Mathabane – whom Smith set up at USC. “I would drive and stop at a phone booth and call him back. He’d have a problem with a coach or something. He was like our first son, so we got that experience.”

Many of the traits that make Smith such an approachable superstar (his gentleness, his humility) can also make him an unintentionally tough nut to crack. But Lee eventually got him to open up by watching old match film and family home videos, the bulk of which Margie and Stan hadn’t seen since they were shot. (Watching them watch themselves for the first time in decades is one of the film’s many tender moments.) “He gets vulnerable,” Lee says. “He gets emotional. It was emotional for me.”

As for the shoes that Smith made famous, they might look simple next to the current crop of air-cushioned, moisture-wicking offerings. But back in the day, the Stan Smith was as hi-tech as it got, the rare sneaker that didn’t gush out sweat under heavy use. “We were wearing canvas shoes,” Smith remembers of the preferred footwear on tour. “One of the great things about [the Stan Smith shoe] was it had these holes in it, which would help when it was really hot in Washington DC and humid places like that. It was a big deal to be able to wear those shoes.” Now, at last, young sneaker heads know exactly why.

  • Who is Stan Smith? opens in Los Angeles on 3 May, New York on 10 May and around the rest of the US throughout May with a UK release to be announced