Gabe Vincent and Max Strus of the Miami Heat sat side by side in their lockers at Madison Square Garden an hour before a game against the Knicks. Strus ate vegetables and rice, and Vincent put on his uniform after shooting practice.
But Vincent paused when he heard Strus talk about wiping the bottoms of his shoes with the palms of his hands.
“Oh,” said Vincent incredulously, “are you a lick-and-wipe guy?”
“I’m not licking,” Strus said, dropping his fork to answer. ‘I don’t lick. No no no.” His voice sounded indignant, as if Vincent had accused him of a crime. Vincent laughed.
Many players in the NBA are picky, some even superstitious, about how they make sure their sneakers have enough grip for the court. Some use different wiping methods: the maligned licking and wiping, rubbing their saliva on the soles of their shoes, or a dry wipe, using only their bare hands. Still, most rely on a swiping pad that sits on the sidelines of NBA arenas. It’s officially called the Slipp-Nott, but most players call it a “sticky pad” or a “sticky mat.”
“I feel like the sticky mat is a ritual right now,” said Sixers guard Shake Milton. “It just feels like what you’re supposed to be doing.”
The Slipp-Nott was created in 1987 by Jorge Julian, who quit a comfortable job at Northrop Grumman in hopes of making basketball courts everywhere squeaker with the sound of chunky sneakers.
There are clear sheets on top of the Slipp-Nott coated with adhesives (Julian declined to share the details lest he help his competitors). Once a sheet picks up too much dust or dirt to function properly, the user can pull it off for a new sheet.
The adhesive strip comes in a variety of sizes, but the standard is 26 by 26 inches so that tall people who play basketball can put their feet on it. Some teams whose arenas have narrower sidelines, such as the Utah Jazz, order a small or medium version. The pads can be as small as 15 by 18 inches, which is just big enough for a size 20 men’s shoe.
Julian’s first NBA buyer was the Los Angeles Clippers, who bought the Slipp-Nott in 1988 for a discounted rate of $70 per pad and gave Julian a staff pass to the arena. At the time, players used wet towels and wiping methods to gain traction, so many were skeptical of the cushion. To allay their concerns, Julian, using his staff pass, went into the locker rooms with a VHS tape recorder to record testimonials from athletic trainers and players about the pad’s effectiveness.
Today, most teams use a Slipp-Nott and have custom pads with their team logos, but the price for those pads is now $588.
“That’s my lifesaver,” said Golden State Warriors forward Anthony Lamb. “I always play in the same shoes, so sometimes when I’m running out of shoes and my shoes are worn out, I need that sticky pad.”
Lamb stars in the black colorway version of Nike’s Paul George 6 sneakers; worn pairs sit near his locker, with new pairs in boxes. Sometimes he wears the shoes “five games too long,” he said, and they get slippery.
When the Warriors played the New Orleans Pelicans in November, Lamb said, he didn’t reach the sticky pad until he came into play and Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram made a move that sent him falling back onto the field. Lamb was on the wrong side of a highlight and the butt of jokes in the Warriors locker room.
“My foot didn’t go down,” said Lamb, laughing and putting his face in the palms of his hands, “and I thought, damn it, I should have hit the sticky pad.”
Golden State forward Jonathan Kuminga may have the most shoes of anyone on the team, with countless pairs often sprawled in front of his locker and in his drawers.
While many players use the pad or a swiping method, Kuminga usually doesn’t rely on it. He wipes the bottom of one shoe on the top of the other, partly because it saves time, he said, and because he’s been doing it since he was a kid. That’s why many of the shoes in Kuminga’s locker look brand new, except for the laces, which are torn and covered in dirt and dust.
“Hopefully one day when I get my own shoe I can add something to my laces so I don’t have to mess up my laces when I’m wiping,” Kuminga said, holding a pair of shoes with blue laces that were colored black.
Knicks big men Isaiah Hartenstein and Obi Toppin always end their pregame routine by wiping their shoes on the Slipp-Nott. Hartenstein sprints to the trail first, usually after the starters are announced, and Toppin follows shortly after his teammate, tearing a sheet off when he’s done.
Hartenstein almost forgot to do his part of their routine for Game 5 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but Toppin tapped him on the chest and pointed him to the pad.
“It’s definitely a ritual for us,” Hartenstein said. “We have to do it before every game and I always go first. We almost got into a fight once because he went first. That will never happen again.”
After forming Slipp-Nott in the late 1980s, Julian dominated the court traction market in the NBA. That changed in 2011 with the introduction of Court Grip, a bottled liquid product developed by Mission Athletecare that users could rub on the bottom of their shoes. Dwyane Wade, then a star for the Heat, was a partner.
At the time, Mission Athletecare founder and president Josh Shaw said it would “probably take six to 12 months for people to realize it’s obsolete,” referring to Slipp-Nott. A brief rivalry for supremacy of the court began, but it was Court Grip that eventually became obsolete. The gray bottle disappeared from the sidelines, and for now the sticky pad has the hearts and soles of players all over the NBA