Mystery Donation of Rare Air Jordans Raises Over $50,000 for Oregon Homeless Shelter

Amidst the usual hand-me-downs and items of clothing, Free stumbled upon a pair of men’s sneakers gleaming with bright gold

[Dec. 29, 2023: JD Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

Erin Holcomb, right, poses with Eric Bauer, executive director of Portland Rescue Mission, left, and Nike designer Tinker Hatfield. (CREDIT: Aaron Ankrom/Portland Rescue Mission)

In a heartwarming turn of events, a pair of extremely rare Nike Air Jordan 3 sneakers, custom-made for director Spike Lee ahead of the 2019 Academy Awards, was recently discovered in a donation bin at the Portland Rescue Mission.

This remarkable find has since ignited a buzz in the sneakerhead community and was set to go under the hammer at a Sotheby's auction on Dec. 18th, with pre-estimates suggesting they could fetch as much as $20,000. All proceeds from the auction benefit the Portland Rescue Mission, an organization dedicated to assisting individuals facing homelessness, hunger, and addiction since its establishment in 1949.

The intriguing discovery was made by volunteer James Free, who was diligently sorting through donated items at the mission's facility when something shiny caught his eye. Amidst the usual hand-me-downs and items of clothing, Free stumbled upon a pair of men's sneakers gleaming with bright gold, completely devoid of even the slightest scuff. What he didn't yet realize was that he had found a hidden treasure, a pair of sneakers imbued with history and rarity.

Erin Holcomb, the mission's director of staff ministry, shared her initial astonishment at the find. She recalled the moment the sneakers stood out from the ordinary donations, which were typically tossed down a repurposed McDonald's playground slide installed on the shelter's floor.

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"I could quickly tell just from Googling that they looked just like these Spike Lee shoes that he wore to the Oscars," Holcomb said. "But I thought, of course they're not those shoes. Why would they be in our donation bin?"

Determined to uncover the truth, Holcomb took the sneakers to a high-end sneaker store for a professional evaluation. The experts at the store confirmed the authenticity of the sneakers and revealed their rarity. These size 12.5 men's sneakers were not the exact pair worn by Spike Lee during his iconic moment at the Oscars, as the filmmaker himself had previously stated that he wore size 9.5. Nevertheless, they were one of approximately five pairs of custom-made shoes specifically designed for Lee and his inner circle ahead of the awards show, never before released to the public.

Intriguingly, the sneaker store immediately offered Holcomb $10,000 USD for the unique find. She wisely requested some time for contemplation, wanting to ensure that the decision made would ultimately benefit the mission's noble cause.

Director Spike Lee rocks a custom pair of Nike Air Jordan 3 sneakers as he accepts the award for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman at the 2019 Academy Awards. (CREDIT: Mike Blake/Reuters)

In an unexpected twist, Holcomb reached out to Tinker Hatfield, a renowned Nike designer and a Portland local who had collaborated with Lee on the design of these very sneakers. To her delight, Hatfield not only confirmed the authenticity of the shoes but also contributed framed concept art for the sneakers and a brand-new box, personally signed by him.

Hatfield expressed his happiness that the shoes had found their way to the Portland Rescue Mission, describing it as a "happy ending to a really great project." As for the anonymous donor of these precious sneakers, their identity remains a mystery. Holcomb suspects that it could be one of Spike Lee's friends, although the director himself has not commented on the discovery.

James Free, a volunteer at the Portland Rescue Mission, holds a pair of mint-condition Spike Lee Nike Air Jordan 3 sneakers someone anonymously chucked down a donation chute. (CREDIT: Aaron Ankrom/Portland Rescue Mission)

Free's journey to becoming a volunteer at the mission is one of resilience and transformation. Having battled alcoholism while living on the streets, Free's life took a positive turn when a family member connected him with a 45-day in-patient recovery program in 2022. After completing the program, he sought refuge at the mission for a meal and a place to stay as he began rebuilding his life. His involvement in sorting clothes at the mission's donation warehouse is part of his vocational training.

The remarkable turn of events has left the Portland Rescue Mission profoundly grateful, as the proceeds from the upcoming Sotheby's auction will provide much-needed funding for their vital work. Holcomb emphasized that every $2 USD donation to the mission allows them to provide a hot meal to someone in need, an opportunity to connect with services and potentially transition off the streets. This heartening story takes an even more personal turn when considering the role of James Free, the volunteer who found the golden sneakers.

'In 17 years I worked for Portland Rescue Mission, I can't remember a time that we ever pulled something to resell,' says Holcomb, the mission’s director of staff ministry. (CREDIT: Aaron Ankrom/Portland Rescue Mission)

On December 18, more than a month after Holcomb turned in the shoes, the auction went live and the Rescue Mission held a watch party.

The shoes sold for $50,800.

In reflecting on this remarkable find, Holcomb expressed her hope that it would draw attention to the challenges faced by individuals struggling with homelessness and addiction, highlighting individuals like James Free who discovered these exceptional sneakers. Free, though unavailable for an interview, shared his elation at the prospect of the find's impact on so many people and offered a piece of advice for those experiencing similar hardships: "Let someone help you."

In the end, this serendipitous discovery of rare sneakers not only shines a light on the generosity and goodwill of anonymous donors but also underscores the importance of organizations like the Portland Rescue Mission in providing assistance, hope, and transformation to those in need. With every step taken in these remarkable sneakers, a brighter future is forged for countless individuals facing adversity on the streets.

For more good news stories check out our Good News section at The Brighter Side of News.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.