History Of The Basketball Shoe
Whether you’re into the basketball shoe culture or not, there’s no doubt you’ve noticed the buzz that they can generate. These sneakers have been around for decades and we’ve seen them evolve as styles changed and footwear design got more innovative. For each example I will try to have the original shoe and a later or newer version to help us see how each shoe evolved.
If you want more details on a certain shoe, just click on the image of the shoe.Let’s take a step back to survey how far these kicks have come, as well as highlight some of the best basketball shoes of all time.
The Shoe That Started It All: Chuck Taylors
These days, most people wouldn’t dream of playing basketball in a pair of Chucks, but back in 1917, the Chuck Taylor shoe company started designing a shoe specifically for shooting hoops. By 1922, they had reinforced the design to allow for more flexibility and comfort, as well as support for athletes.
An ad from the 1920s highlighted the sneakers for their “non-skid” and “suction” soles. The company also boasted that their shoes had a double-piece panel on the back of the high tops, which allowed for more support around the ankles.
By the time the 1930s came around, professional sports teams in the United States were sporting Chucks on the court. They were even worn at the first NCAA basketball tournament in 1936.
For about 50 years, Chucks were seen as the best basketball shoes for men, and they continued to dominate the sports scene until the early 1970s, when other shoe brands started to seep into the market.
Chuck Taylor was a basketball player and trainer.
1970s: Adidas, Nike, and Puma Join the Ranks
In 1969, Adidas came out with the Superstar, which had the first genuine leather upper, herringbone traction pattern on the sole, and a whole new look.
It was quickly embraced by NBA players in the 1970s and has since become an iconic shoe. Instantly recognizable with its three-stripe design on the side and rubber shell toe, it offered better grip on the hardwood and a more sporty look.
Of course, Adidas wasn’t the only brand heading into the realm of basketball shoes. Nike introduced the Blazer in 1973, borrowing its name from Portland’s NBA team. George “THE ICEMAN’ Gervin from the Trailblazers was the first player to wear the Nike Blazer.
This sneaker featured exposed foam on the tongue, as well as leather and synthetic uppers. It also had an autoclave structure which fused the outsole and midsole together for a cleaner look. Such as the Superstar, the Blazer had a herringbone traction pattern for more grip and durability.
This era also ushered in the trend of endorsing athletes and celebrities. Puma worked with Clyde Frazier of the New York Knicks to design the Puma Clyde. Released in 1973, it featured Clyde’s autograph along the side and was considered the OG of celebrity signature basketball sneakers.
Over at Adidas, the company picked up NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Pro-Keds, the basketball line by Keds, had endorsements with George Mikan, Nate Archibald, and Pete Maravich.
1980s: The Michael Jordan Age
Sneaker culture of the 1980s pretty much belongs to Michael Jordan. Nike was surging to the front of the pack in terms of innovative design and footwear technology.
In 1982 Nike released the Air Force 1 designed by Bruce Kilgore, which was their first basketball shoe to feature air pockets in the soles. This was to improve a player’s jump shot and offer more impact support. The shoe was a hit with the youth, becoming what many considered to be one of the best basketball shoes for kids in the inner cities.
Two years later, Nike came out with the Dunk, a sneaker that was snatched up by college basketball players around the country. Originally sketched by Peter Moore and called the College Color High, the Nike Dunk was an artistic mash-up of the Air Jordan 1 & the Nike Terminator, a common design practice at Nike for ‘80s basketball shoes.
These sneakers also had the Nike Air technology for a more springy feel. The extra padding on the tongue made them one of the most comfortable kicks on the market, while the high-top style added flair.
Then, 1985 saw the introduction of the Air Jordan sneaker, inspired by Michael Jordan’s grace, fluidity, and power on the court. The Air Jordan 1s changed the basketball shoe game forever. These sneakers were instantly recognizable, thanks to the iconic Jumpman logo, which was a silhouette of Jordan soaring with a basketball in hand.
Designers used a mix of leather and mesh, and really made a point to play with performance and style. The combination of Michael Jordan’s athletic prowess and Nike’s latest innovations of the day made for a must-have basketball sneaker.
Around this time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still sporting Adidas sneakers, as was Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks. The company scored big with the Adidas Conductor and Ewing 33 , with supportive reinforcements that extended from the counter and wrapped all the way around the shoe for more stability.
The sole was made to be softer towards the toe for comfort and firmer towards the heel for support. A webbed cushion on the midsole added extra cushioning for a balanced, high-performing shoe.
1990s: Style Wars
As the world welcomed the 90s, the basketball realm was honing in on the success of signature basketball shoes. The Reebok Pump had a moment at the 1991 NBA Dunk Contest, when Dee Brown of the Celtics bent down to pump up his kicks before serving a beautiful slam dunk.
He went on to win that Dunk Contest, and fans everywhere were dying to get their hands a pair of Reebok Pumps. The shoe had a unique inflation system that pushed air into the insole to provide extra cushioning and lift.
Air Jordans were still considered to be one of the best basketball shoes for kids on street courts and pros in the NBA, with the Air Jordan 11s becoming the crown jewel. Released in the mid-90s, they included a ballistic mesh upper and carbon fiber outsole to make them more lightweight and airy.
The patent leather mudguard stirred up a lot of talk and was praised for its ability to keep the foot securely in the footbed even while making multidirectional movements. Most notably, Michael Jordan wore the 11s while playing in the 1995 to 1996 NBA Championships and the Space Jam movie.
There were other kicks rising to the top, too. The Air Max Penny from Nike was inspired by all-star player Penny Hardaway of the Orlando Magic. Its wavy midsole and “Foamposite” technology made it look futuristic and innovative.
Nike also enlisted the help of Charles Barkley in a campaign for its Nike Force & Air Max basketball shoes.
Reebok banked on Allen Iverson in 1996 with The Question, a highly aesthetic design that was Iverson’s first signature basketball shoe.
Finally, there was Kobe Bryant, who shook up the NBA scene in 1997 while wearing a pair of Adidas Crazy 8s. They came to be known as the Kobe Bryant All-Star shoe, and they’re a retro favorite today. They feature colorful pull tabs, tumbled leather uppers, and plush ankle support.
2000s: Let’s Get Technical
Elitism started to show up in sneaker culture as shoes got more expensive and were seen as a status symbol for athletes, hip-hop artists, and their fans. The Air Jordan 17s were the first $200 basketball shoes on the market. The best basketball shoes weren’t just about function and performance, they were about making a fashion statement.
Rising star Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors made the Nike Shox BB4s a hit, with their revolutionary support system and hollow midsole columns.
LeBron James enjoyed his first pair of signature basketball shoes with the Nike Air Zoom Generations in 2003. James was part of 2008’s Redeem Team for the United States in the Summer Olympics, along with Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony.
Nike’s Jordan Brand division worked with Anthony on Jordan Melo M5, a lightweight shoe with a molded heel counter, Zoom Air technology in the forefoot and heel, and a stable shank plate.
Dwyane Wade had the Converse Wade 1, 2, and 3, as well as the Air Jordan 2010s. I left the Jordans out of this one because I have them in another article “The Almighty Jordan Shoe”, check it out.
2010s: Modern Innovations, Old Favorites
The past 10 years have solidified some of the NBA’s top players in basketball show glory. Nike has a hold on the majority of them, including Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Paul George. The Kobe A.D.s and Kobe Protro sneakers have Zoom Air cushioning, breathability, and herringbone traction on the outsole. Add to that extra padding on the collar and a springy foam midsole and it’s the makings of a great basketball sneaker.
The Kevin Durant collection includes the Nike KD12s, which have ultra-responsive cushioning, multi-directional traction, and a perforated midsole for more breathability. A ¾-high ankle creates a great fit, while the multi-layer mesh lends itself to an instant broken-in feel.
Nike’s Kyrie 5 basketball shoe is stylish without skimping on performance. Air Zoom Turbo technology is light and bouncy, and the curved outsole wraps around the sides to allow for traction no matter where you’re headed. The combination of a flytrap-inspired overlay and a foam midsole adds just the right amount of cushioning.
LeBron James is still in the sneaker game, and the LeBron 16 is inspired by his 2003 rookie year. Max Air and Zoom Air innovations create a responsive shoe with excellent shock absorption. A rigid heel clip keeps the foot stable, and a more sophisticated traction pattern makes an appearance.
Finally, Paul George-inspired PG3 is Nike’s take on the all-star’s moonshot. The cozy ½ boot construction, a padded collar, Air Zoom pockets, and traction patterns resembling moon craters. Form meets function these days, but what will the upcoming decade bring?