The unlikely second life of the signature Stan Smith sneaker

The signature Stan Smith sneaker was re-released by Adidas in 2014 with much fanfare. Adidas

At a children's party this weekend, a 4-year-old walked in wearing blue-and-white Velcro shoes from an unexpected signature athlete.

Michael Jordan? Nope. LeBron James? Definitely not. Stephen Curry? Not these.

They were Stan Smiths.

"It has always been a great shoe," Smith told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "So clean and simple."

How did little Sammy come to be wearing the shoes of a 69-year-old tennis player who was last No. 1 in the world eight years before the child's parents were born? It's thanks to what might be the greatest sneaker revival of all time.

Adidas, which has made the sneakers for more than 50 years, now sells Stan Smiths in black, in pink, in blue, in men's, in women's, in kids' and infant sizes. There are knit Stans, suede Stans and Stans that are dipped in gold. And if you can't find a pair to your liking, you can go online and customize your own. You'll see them on feet from New York to Tokyo. In its 2014 annual report, Adidas revealed that the Stan Smiths were the company's best-selling shoes of all time, with more than 40 million pairs sold. Buoyed by the Stan Smiths, sales of Adidas Classics in the U.S. are up 60 percent for the first six months of 2016.

But Stan Smith -- the tennis player, not the sneaker -- started out as one of those guys who was just at the right place at the right time.

In 1965, Adidas made a plain white tennis shoe with green accents for one of the best tennis players in the world at the time, Frenchman Robert Haillet. Unlike other Adidas shoes, it had perforated holes in place of company's iconic three stripes, and it displayed Haillet's signature on the side.

The shoes were popular at the time, as the leather made it the best performance shoe available, but Adidas thought it had a problem in 1971 when Haillet retired. Horst Dassler, the son of Adidas founder Adi Dassler, reached out to Donald Dell, the former U.S. Davis Cup captain who started a sports agency the year before with two tennis clients: Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith.

Dell suggested Smith as a fill-in for the line. Though the ATP and its official rankings system hadn't been created yet, Smith was considered the best player in the world. Horst Dassler took Dell's advice and signed Smith to a small, five-year deal. Adidas, judging by the way its executives acted, didn't have much faith that Smith had staying power. Although Smith was the lead endorser, he was wearing a shoe that still had Haillet's name on it.

"I became friends with [Haillet] because of the shoe," Smith said. "His son called me when Robert died" in 2011. That son had also been upset years earlier, when Adidas took his father's name off the shoe.

That change came in 1978. Adidas put Smith's signature on the tongue of the sneaker for the first time, along with an image of Smith -- that strangely featured him without a mustache.

"My whole adult life I had one, save for a year [when I was] 23 and 24," Smith said.

The signature, which features an "S" shared by both Stan and Smith, was created with the help of Kathy Andrews, a Delta flight attendant who'd met Smith at an autograph signing years before.

"She thought I had a boring signature, so I did it with one 'S,'" Smith said.

On the shoe heel, Adidas added another green panel with Smith's full name and the Adidas trident.

In the 1980s, as the Stan Smiths started to lose relevance as tennis performance shoes, they started to become popular as fashion shoe. At some point, Smith got used to it.

"I was at the US Open in the early '90s," he said, "and some young man recognized me and told me, 'Your shoe is really big in the hood.'"

In 2001, his then 14-year-old daughter, Austin, told him he was famous.

"She told me that Jaysee had put me in his song," said Smith, who rotates through 50 pairs in his own personal collection. "I said, 'Who is Jaysee?' She said, 'No, it's Jay Z.'"

She wasn't kidding. "Lampin' in the Hamptons, the weekends man/The Stan Smith Adidas and the Campus," Jay Z says in a song on his 2001 album "The Blueprint." Smith has also been name-checked in songs by A$AP Rocky, Joe Budden, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne, among others.

As the shoe found a second life as an iconic element of fashion, Smith earned a flat fee each year until 2005, when Dell was able to convince Adidas officials that Smith deserved more -- a royalty structure paying him for each shoe sold. Neither Dell nor Smith would reveal how much Smith was earning from those sales, but it can't be too shabby given how hot the shoe now is.

"I'm not making Michael Jordan money," Smith said, laughing, referencing the more than $100 million MJ is said to make each year in Nike royalties.

In 2011, Adidas executives had a meeting with Smith and Dell. The executives told the pair that they felt the market was crowded and needed a little cleaning up. To that end, they were going to stop producing Stan Smiths for 2012 and 2013.

"I didn't like that idea," Smith said. "But they knew exactly what they were doing."

While the Stan Smiths were off the market, people didn't forget about them. In fact, the shoe still generated plenty of buzz, including in 2013, when Gisele Bundchen posed for the cover of Vogue Paris wearing only her Stan Smiths.

On Jan. 14, 2014, a day Smith remembers well, the shoes returned to the market with much fanfare. Adidas sent shoes to influencers such as Pharrell Williams and Ellen DeGeneres, replacing Smith's face with the stars' own.

Check out my new kicks.

A photo posted by Ellen (@theellenshow) on

Absence had indeed made the heart grow fonder.

"Most strategic plans fail at execution," said Eric Liedtke, head of Adidas global brands. "We got this one right."

Like young kids who drink an Arnold Palmer today and wonder why a golfer is on the can, people aren't buying the shoes because of Stan Smith. But he doesn't mind that Taylor Swift -- who was spotted wearing the shoes in Australia last month -- might not know who he is. It's enough that she was spotted wearing his shoes this summer.

"I tell my wife that 95 percent of people don't know that I'm an actual person," said Smith, who runs an elite tennis program and a corporate hospitality company out of his home base in Hilton Head, S.C. "Then she, of course, says the number is closer to 99 percent."