When he last took inventory, Keith Goodie, a University of the District of Columbia basketball player, owned 56 pairs of top-of-the-line sneakers, made by Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Reebok and Gucci, in colors that included red, white, black, gray, green, blue, brown and gold.

"That's just me," Goodie said of the $4,000 he spent on sneakers last year. "People tell me, 'Keith, man, you've got a pair of tennis shoes to match every jacket you wear.' I take it as a compliment. It's just me."

It's more than just Goodie.

Once associated with games of youth, sneakers have become a cultural phenomenon, promoted by millionaire athletes and bought by fashion-conscious Americans who last year spent $11.7 billion on 393 million pairs of brand-name athletic shoes. The phenomenon is especially remarkable in that black inner city youths such as Goodie set the pace and styles for an industry managed mostly by white businessmen who sell the bulk of these products to white consumers.

"I don't know anybody who doesn't have at least 20 pairs, just for dressing," said Goodie, 25. "My 5-year-old son grows out of them so fast, I have to buy him four pair a month."

The sneaker craze was spawned by the fitness boom of the 1980s -- and Nike took the lead through the signing of basketball star Michael Jordan as an endorser in 1984, the introduction of the Air Jordan shoe in 1985 and the airing of TV ads starring black celebrities such as Jordan and actor/filmmaker Spike Lee.

Nike revenues soared from $270 million in fiscal 1980 to an industry-leading $2.23 billion last year. But this classic American success story is about more than money: It is about marketing strategies and social responsibility, about what some see as sound business practice and others see as exploitation.

Helena Jones, principal of all-black Roper Junior High in Northeast Washington, says sneaker companies target their advertising toward black children. John Thompson, basketball coach at Georgetown University and a Nike consultant, says the companies' marketing strategies are questioned because so many of the endorsers are black.

Jones says demand for high-priced, high-tech sneakers drove some of her former students to sell drugs. Thompson says singling out sneakers is unfair because other luxury items are as coveted but do not face similar scrutiny.

"In the black community, name-brands are a status thing," said Goodie's coach, George Leftwich, a black Washingtonian and former salesman for the Converse sneaker company. "Yes, these are false goals. I don't know if low self-esteem is too strong, but for some reason people need to have visible importance."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, in an interview in his downtown Washington office, said black endorsers such as Lee, the Chicago Bulls' Jordan and San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson are fueling the desires of children who can ill afford the $125 Air Jordan or (coming soon) the $160 Reebok Pump II.

"They are exploiting an ethos of mindless materialism," Jackson said of the endorsers. "Our youth are trapped with economic depression, with zero-based self-esteem: 'I am nothing. You are less. If you cross me, I will shoot you. For my inadequate feelings about myself I must at least identify with the best. So I cover up my inadequate feelings with $200 tennis shoes.' "

Nike executives and endorsers reject Jackson's criticism.

"We're promoting people who are real positive role models," said Nike Vice President/Marketing Tom Clarke. "I mean, if we had {heavy-metal rock star} Axl Rose {as an endorser}, would that be as good? Or is it better to have athletes who have to work hard to do well?"

"The issue is our value system, not the fact that Spike Lee or Michael Jordan advertise Nike shoes," said Thompson, who receives more than $200,000 a year as a Nike consultant. "Because people will also kill you for your jewelry. Should we blame the jewelry companies too? Ninety-nine percent of the motorcycle gangs are wearing crosses. Does that mean that churches should shut down?" Who Buys What?

Nike officials say 87 percent of all their products -- including shoes, clothing and accessories -- are sold to whites. No racial statistics are kept on Nike basketball shoe sales because, Clarke said, "We just target one group: People who love to play basketball and anybody else who is excited or finds a lot of emotional bonding with that activity." Clarke said 60 percent of Nike's basketball shoes are bought by people who do not play the sport, even recreationally.

Visits to Washington-area shopping malls confirm that youngsters of all races are in the hunt for stylish basketball shoes. But buying patterns differ between blacks and whites, according to consumers and retail store employees interviewed in recent weeks.

"When the inner-city kids spend money, they'll buy the $130 Nike {Air Command Force} hightops, the $44 Champion sweatshirt and the $110 Starter hooded parka all at the same time . . . so you've got all the colors hooking up," said Vinny Vincenzes, head footwear buyer for Irving's Sport Shops Inc., which owns 19 stores in the Washington area.

"But in the {white suburbs} instead of the kids coming in, the parent will buy the shoes. Then maybe a month later the parent will get his kid the hooded parka. Then maybe for Christmas he'll buy the Champion sweatshirt. The {white} suburban kids don't buy product as fast."

Buying patterns varied among youngsters interviewed on a recent afternoon at Champs sports shop at the Pentagon City Mall.

Jeremy Peine, a white 14-year-old, owns three pairs of sneakers, including Air Jordans. "My parents give me half the money for my Nikes, and I pay the other half," he said. "I save money from doing chores around the house, selling old things at yard sales and saving the holiday money I receive from relatives."

Milton Chan, a black 14-year-old, said his wardrobe includes 20 pairs of sneakers. "I need them -- I really do -- because my shoes wear out so fast," he said. "My money comes from a job at a seafood store. I make about $10,000 a year and probably spend $2,000 a year on {athletic} shoes."

Carey Porter, Jr., a black 20-year-old, said he refuses to become a part of the sneaker craze. "I have four pair and that's too many," he said. "Black people spend too much money buying shoes. We need to get more into values."

Nike offers 22 men's and women's basketball shoe models, most in black and white with accent colors such as "hot lava," "pink flash" and "clockwork orange." The company also sends a "special makeup" model -- the Air Force One, which was introduced in 1983 and sells for about $80 -- to selected inner city stores. "This shoe is strictly inner city," one Washington retailer said. "It's not in Nike's catalogue, but it sells well among blacks."

Nike executives say they do not design sneakers with any ethnic group in mind. But Roy Yun, director of product development for Next Sports Inc., a new sneaker company affiliated with New York Knicks star Patrick Ewing, said he consults with young blacks and Hispanics in Brooklyn, upper Manhattan and the Bronx before designing a shoe.

"They're the ones who are regularly open with their wallets to buy new items," Yun said.

"The 'brothers' set the trends . . . and the white kids slowly follow," Vincenzes said.

"The ethnic market . . . they buy quality," said John Morgan, basketball marketing director of Reebok International, Nike's major competitor. "That's their statement. They want to make a first-class statement with everything."

In sneaker fashion, colors are important. "I buy sneakers so I can match their colors with my clothes," Goodie said. "Tomorrow, if I wear a red Polo shirt, I might wear my red New Balance shoes. It's all about matching."

It's also about status. "I don't play in these shoes, I walk around in them," said UDC basketball player Henry Moton, 22, wearing a pair of Nike David Robinson Force shoes. "You know, I just sport them, let people say, 'Whoa! He's got the David Robinson pump on.' "

"Kids wanting sneakers is no different than any banker or insurance person wanting to carry a Mont Blanc pen," said John Slahetka, a manager of Snyders In Step Shoes, Inc., which has three shops in Northeast and Southeast Washington.

It's difficult to explain why a particular brand, style or color gets hot. Or why, several years ago, sneaker chic meant wearing one's shoelaces untied.

"Anything all-black is a guaranteed winner in the inner city," said Vincenzes. "The Air Jordan that just came out in black sold out in two days. Purple also does well. But in the suburbs . . . the kids want whatever is being promoted and advertised as being the hottest. Colors aren't as important."

"It's very clear that black, inner city kids have a very different fashion sense from white suburban kids," said Wally Grigo, owner of three Connecticut stores. "At my store that sells mostly to blacks, we sold 700 pair of Fila hightops during a seven-week period last year. We didn't advertise. It was all word of mouth. And not one of those shoes sold in our 99-percent white store."

"One difference between whites and blacks is that a lot of black kids won't wear dirty sneakers," said Kevin Lewis, 20, a black salesman at Athletic Shoe Box in Alexandria. "If the shoes get a little dirt on them, kids will buy another pair. When I was in high school, the longest I had a pair was a month and a half. My shoes had to look fresh." Ethnicity and Economics

Though Nike officials say they do not target sales to any ethnic group, black dialect has been used in some Nike TV ads.

In one spot, Mars Blackmon, the nerdy Spike Lee character, presses Air Jordan sneakers to each side of his head and says: " . . . Yo Homes, Yo Homes, Yo Homes. . . . These sneakers be housin', housin' across the country . . . And every homeboy should be bum-rushin' to get some, get some."

Nike Chairman Phil Knight, in an interview at his sprawling headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., said the ad "talks to the black athlete and inner city kids and to the white basketball player in the suburbs."

Clarke, the Nike vice president, said white teenagers "generally know what's happening" in the ad. The word "housin' " he said, means the sneakers are "moving," or selling.

Jesse Jackson said the ad is aimed directly at young blacks. "First of all, it's clear that blacks do not refer to whites as 'homeboy,' " he said. "It's ethnic. It's targeted. You know, ghetto lingo."

Thompson said he is "suspicious" of people who say sneaker companies are targeting inner city youth. "The minute black folks can capitalize on money, it becomes sinful for them to endorse shoes," he said.

During the interview, Knight was shown a glossy color photo in Nike's 1989 annual report that featured Jordan -- a tense look on his face -- modeling Air Jordan shoes and apparel in front of a grimy, graffiti-scarred brick wall.

Knight examined the photo and said: "We wouldn't run that picture today because of certain sensitivities. But, I mean, basically, basketball has an enormous number of faces. It has an inner city face, a playground face, a country-road face, an Indiana face, the pro face. That was the inner city face."

Knight added that the photo was seen by company executives and shareholders, not by the general public. "The guys who get this annual report are institutions and, you know, white guys with money, really," he said.

Reebok's Morgan said blacks are selected to appear in basketball ads because, "Basketball is dominated by blacks and authenticity is really important. To have a basketball ad with all whites and Chinese doesn't make sense. Kids get turned off because it's not authentic."

Knight said some Nike ads featuring black athletes shouldn't be taken too literally. In Nike's "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" TV campaign, for example, David Robinson asks viewers if they know how to say "kick some butt."

"The 'kick some butt,' we knew we were pushing it a little," Knight said. "But that is the way people talk when they say, 'Okay, let's go get 'em.' It speaks to the youth." The Drug Equation

One outgrowth of the athletic shoe craze -- and a public relations nightmare for sneaker companies -- is the profits retailers and manufacturers earn, if unintentionally, from sales to gangs and drug dealers.

"That's a frustration: to see everything we're doing that's good and positive get derailed for something that is really, to some degree, out of our control," said Peter Ruppe, Nike's marketing manager for basketball products.

Knight said he refused to fill an order from a large retail company that had requested sneakers in new colors. "Gangs have these color codes," he explained. "When we understood that {the retailer} wanted colors to coincide with some gangs, we refused to do it."

Law enforcement officials said athletic shoes and apparel took their place in the drug culture in the mid-1980s, early in the sneaker boom.

Now, in the Washington area, drug dealers assemble wardrobes with as many as 100 pairs of sneakers, adopt shoe brands as nicknames, use athletic apparel to recruit pre-teenage runners and lookouts, accept stolen sneakers as payment from addicts and substitute the word "sneakers" for "ounces" in coded conversations, according to federal and District law enforcement sources.

"I first encountered this during a raid in Los Angeles about six years ago," a Drug Enforcement Administration agent said. "When we went into this dope dealer's house, he had over 100 pairs of sneakers in his bedroom. He had every color imaginable. At first I thought maybe he was also dealing in shoes on the side."

Vincenzes, the Irving's buyer, recalled seeing suspected drug dealers in a national chain store where Vincenzes worked in 1987: "They'd buy 10 pair of shoes at a time. I'd see 15-year-olds with a wad of bills that would choke a horse."

Last fall, when a federal agent raided the house of a drug suspect in suburban Maryland, he found two closets full of sneakers, many with price tags still attached. "Your mid- to upper-level drug dealers use sneakers as a recruiting tool," one narcotics officer said. "Sneakers are status."

Sneakers retain their status in jails. "On the streets, drug dealers equate status with the automobiles they drive," another DEA agent said. "In jail, sneakers have the same structure. Since they're all wearing the same prison clothing, the better your sneakers, the more status you have."

Even in court, some drug defendants make basketball shoes their footwear of choice. Former cocaine kingpin Rayful Edmond III wore sneakers to a sentencing hearing at U.S. District Court here last year. A basketball enthusiast, Edmond once named an adult summer league team that he coached "Reeboks" and outfitted his players in Reebok shoes and T-shirts.

At a federal court trial here in 1989, prosecutors introduced into evidence 76 sneakers confiscated during the arrest of Melvin Butler, a Los Angeles Crips gang member and Edmond cocaine broker.

"The shoes were such an unusual discovery, it was like Imelda Marcos's closet," said Cynthia Lobo, Butler's lawyer. "It's the kind of thing that people say, 'Look, they're $200, $300 shoes. Where'd you get the money?' The government introduced this evidence to suggest to the jury that my client was a young black male who had so many tennis shoes." Lobo called the tactic "racist."

Ruppe said gangs identify with name-brand sneakers because, "They're extremely popular with youth regardless of whether you want to be in a gang or not. It's part of the culture. It's like: Hey, if I'm on a team, I wear what the rest of the team wears."

Mark Van Grack, who owns the three Snyders stores, said he will not turn away business from known drug dealers. "Who is any retailer, no matter what product they're selling, to be the judge of how somebody made their money?" said Van Grack, who is white. "And then because of how they made their money, restrict them as to the product they can buy? That's prejudice. You can't do that."

One Snyders customer was Edmond, whose gang was linked to as many as 30 murders. Asked about the business he received from Edmond, Van Grack said: "I'd have to say, you know, no comment because whatever I say in that regard is going to be perceived wrong. . . . No, we don't condone what he does. . . . Why ask the question? What's the difference?"

Grigo, the Connecticut retailer, focused national attention on this issue in 1989 when he displayed a sign in his front window that read: IF YOU DEAL DRUGS, WE DON'T WANT YOUR BUSINESS. SPEND YOUR MONEY SOMEWHERE ELSE.

Grigo, who is white, said he put the sign up after suspected drug dealers -- most of them black -- were spending about $2,000 a week in his downtown New Haven store. That summer, Grigo said a sales representative from a major sneaker company told him, "You've got to find your market niche. You're an inner city store. You've got to hook up the drug dealers." Grigo declined to name the company. The Price of Looking Good

In Washington, drug dealers can buy sneakers from truck vendors who cruise narcotics strips. "The hustlers like to buy straight out of the trucks because it would cost them money to leave The Strip," said a Washington Metropolitan Police Dept. narcotics officer. "Sometimes I think they'd rather have a pair of sneakers than a place to live."

At Sasha Bruce Youthwork Inc., a Washington juvenile services organization, counselors speak of how 14-year-old crack dealers routinely wear top-of-the-line sportswear, how one teenager bought $80 sneakers with his mother's public-assistance check and how fearful parents buy their children big-ticket athletic apparel to discourage them from dealing drugs.

A 15-year-old juvenile offender, enrolled in a Sasha Bruce program, said he began selling crack cocaine as a seventh grader for one reason: " . . . so I could have enough money to buy good-looking clothes and sneakers."

What troubles some inner city parents and educators is that drug dealers have become trendsetters to a larger community.

Kevin Lewis, the Alexandria sneaker salesman, recalled the adulation drug sellers received at T.C. Williams High, where he was a student in the late '80s.

"They'd come in on a Monday morning with a brand new pair of sneakers," he said. "The average kid would walk down the hallway saying, 'Man, I like those shoes. But, damn, I can't afford them.' Some kids idolize those types of human beings and they'll do anything to get the kind of clothes they're wearing."

In some large cities, muggings for sneakers and jackets are commonplace; murders for trendy athletic shoes and apparel also have occurred.

Knight, the Nike chairman, said he became aware of sneaker-related violence in early 1988 when "Spike Lee called and said, 'God dang, some kid just killed another kid for a pair of Air Jordans. That just drives me nuts. Here I am using my creative talents {to advertise Air Jordan} and this happens.' "

In April 1990 Nike began airing "Stay in School" TV spots, starring Lee, Jordan and Thompson. That did not satisfy critics. New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick attacked Nike for continuing to air "commercials with no conscience" that urged "tenement-poor kids" to buy "ripoff" sneakers. In May, Sports Illustrated examined sneaker violence in a cover story headlined YOUR SNEAKERS OR YOUR LIFE.

Last summer Nike released a "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" TV ad in which the 7-foot-1 basketball star tells his viewers: " . . . Garbage is anyone who's into drugs. If you're into drugs, don't get into my shoes. Mister Robinson doesn't like garbage in his shoes. . . . "

But the most frequently aired ads send another message: Buy sneakers. Nike, Reebok and L.A. Gear spent $4 million for 2 1/2 minutes of advertising during this year's Super Bowl. Attitudes and Values

The sneaker business continues to grow, if at a slower pace due to the recession. Reebok Chairman Paul Fireman predicted in a magazine interview last year that by the mid-1990s, "Kids will wear a different pair of sneakers to school every day, depending on their mood."

For Helena Jones, the Roper principal, that's an unsettling thought.

Until 1988, when she instituted a voluntary uniform policy at Roper, Jones said her students were obsessed with sneaker fashion.

"One kid would buy shoes and tell everybody how much he paid for them," she said. "Then everybody would talk about how cool they were. And everybody had to have a pair. Then a month later, when that color went out of style, the kids would want another shoe.

"The shoe companies definitely gear this keeping-in-style thing to the black kids. Just look at who's buying these sneakers. I know the kind of clothing the white kids wear to school. They don't have a new pair of tennis shoes every month."

Jones said the craze has eased at her school. "Now about 95 percent of our 360 students are wearing uniforms," she said. "And you don't hear them talk about sneakers anymore."

But Jones has unhappy memories of the days when sneakers were the talk of Roper Junior High.

"A lot of good kids were lost to selling drugs during that time," she said. "And for some, getting the latest clothes and sneakers is what drove them to sell drugs. What else does a seventh grader want? If you don't have the latest sneaker, you're out of style. You're square. You don't know what's happening. It's sad. But until we change our values, this will be the attitude."