WORDS BY STEPHEN YU
The world of streetwear and sneakers owe a hell of a lot to the sport of basketball. Just as essential to streetwear culture as brands like Stussy, or pieces like Dickies work pants, are some of the most iconic basketball sneakers of all time. It’s scary to think that in a parallel universe where Michael Jordan chooses to become a baseball player, the world of sneakers might be ruled by Skechers or even worse – Allbirds. Let’s be grateful we don’t live in a world without Jordans.
But, aside from being counter-cultural icons and blank canvases for your favorite brand’s sneaker collabs, it’s hard to imagine but many of the best basketball shoes of all time were once the most cutting-edge in footwear technology. While the Converse All-Star seems to pale in comparison to the latest Nike LeBron’s, and a rubber shelltoe seems insignificant next to adidas Boost technology, this just shows how far sneaker design has come.
With the basketball’s undeniable influence as the Formula One of sneaker aesthetic and performance innovation, it felt only right to trace the evolution of the sport’s footwear from its earliest incarnation to its more modern day counterparts. Along the way, you’ll learn some secrets about some old friends, as well as get introduced to new ones. Joining us to drop some real basketball and sneaker knowledge on our uneducated selves is Zack Schlemmer, Senior Editor at sneaker retailer Stadium Goods. So if you’re looking into buying basketball shoes, why not grab a pair from our list of the most influential basketball shoes of all time.
Converse Chuck Taylor All Star
Release date: 1917
OG colorway: Brown/Black
Grail colorway: Maison Martin Margiela
Most iconic moment: Every music moment from the Ramones to Nirvana
In 1908, the Converse Rubber Corporation was known for making galoshes and functional rubber work shoes, but in 1917 they would create North America’s first mass produced basketball shoe - the All Star. It wasn’t until 1932, after basketballer and expert salesman Chuck Taylor had done such a great job promoting the shoe, that they decided to add his name to the now iconic signature patch on the ankle. A legend was born.
“It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star ever was a basketball shoe because it’s so low tech and has been around for so long. It’s simply the most important sneaker of all time. Any shoe that has possibly been worn by both you and your great grandfather has to be important.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Release date: 1969
OG colorway: All-white
Grail colorway: Adidas Superstar 35th Anniversary #35
Most iconic moment: The Run D.M.C. video for ’My Adidas’
The Superstar was an evolution of the Supergrip that added the now famous rubber toe protector. This revolutionary low-top adaptation of the Pro Model was adopted by over 75% of NBA players at the time including MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but wouldn’t see a general release until the mid-70’s when it became a firm street culture favorite.
“Like the Converse Chuck Taylor, it’s hard to remember that the adidas Superstar ever was an on-court performance basketball shoe because it’s been iconic off the court for so long. Also known as simply the “Shelltoe,” the Superstar has been popular on the streets since the early days of hip-hop when it was championed by b-boys with fat laces and Run DMC with no laces. It’s never not been in style since.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Release date: 1973
OG colorway: Classic black
Grail colorway: Green YO! MTV Raps or any made in Yugoslavia
Most iconic moment: Tommie Smith’s black power salute at the 1968 Olympics
The signature shoe of the basketball player nicknamed ‘Clyde’ after his penchant for wide-brim hats similar to those worn by robber of the same name of Bonnie and Clyde fame, the PUMA Clyde is a narrower and more durable take on the legendary PUMA Suede silhouette. Although later adopted by football casuals in the UK, it’s cult following amongst the American b-boy and hip-hop scene alongside it’s exclusivity to US retailers meant they were known in Europe as – PUMA States.
“The first signature basketball shoe of all time has to be one of the most influential. New York Knicks star Walt “Clyde” Frazier was the perfect candidate to be the first to receive a signature model, thanks to his smooth style on and off the court. The clean and simple design of the Clyde ensured that it has since lived on as one of the most timeless and wearable sneakers ever.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Jordan Air Jordan I
Release date: 1985
OG colorway: Chicago
Grail colorway: Fragment ‘Royal’ Friends & Family
Most iconic moment: MJ supposedly getting fined $5,000 for every game he wore the banned ‘Bred’ colorway
Rewind to 1985 and you’ll find that Jordan’s basketball sneakers of choice were the Converse All Star, and definitely not Nike’s which he deemed to have soles that were too thick. Even after being presented with the idea for the Jordan brand by Nike, Michael was still close to signing for Converse – that was until Peter C. Moore creative director of Nike designed the Air Jordan I – and the rest is history. Although it had the thinner sole that Jordan wanted, he still hated the way it looked although it later grew on him. Funny seeing as for most sneakerheads it was love at first sight.
“When it comes to influential, landmark basketball shoes, none are bigger than the Air Jordan 1. The stars aligned in 1985 when a young rookie named Michael Jordan hit the court in his new Air Jordans. Had MJ turned out to be a bust, or he signed with adidas instead, or the Air Jordan 1 just didn't look this good, sneaker culture as we know it today probably wouldn’t exist.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Release date: 1989
OG colorway: OG White
Grail colorway: Court Vicory Pump Felt ‘ALIFE’
Most iconic moment: Dee Brown’s ‘no-look dunk’ at the 1991 NBA Slam Dunk contest
Wishing to challenge Nike and orientate itself as a leader in sports performance technology, Reebok’s answer to Nike’s air technology was the Paul Litchfield designed Pump, which featured manually inflatable air cushioning in the lower and tongue for added support around the ankle. Secondly, the Pump cemented the brand’s name in basketball after it became the signature of their new signing – the legendary Shaquille O’Neal
“Pump it up! The Reebok Pump debuted in 1989, and quickly had people interacting with their footwear in a way they never had before. A customized fit was achieved with just a few pumps of the little basketball on the tongue. And oh yeah, it looked really cool, too.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Jordan Air Jordan XI
OG Colourway: Concorde
Grail colorway: Derek Jeter
Most iconic moment: Space Jam
Designed by the legendary Tinker Hatfield, who deems it his all-time favorite shoe due to the technology packed inside it, the Air Jordan 11 was Jordan’s first shoe after he came back from retirement following his brief baseball phase. Some of the firsts the AJ11 introduced into the world of basketball sneakers? Patent leather paneling, ballistic mesh uppers, and a more lightweight carbon fiber spring plate in the outsole making it one of the lightest basketball shoes to ever exist. Unlike the AJ1’s, Jordan was such a big fan of the AJ11’s initially he wore the samples to the playoffs thereby incurring fines yet again for breaking uniform guidelines.
“It’s impossible for the sneaker community to agree on the greatest Air Jordan of all time, but you won’t find many collectors that don’t rank the Air Jordan 11 somewhere within their top five. And anybody who was around when it originally hit the market in late 1995 will have a hard time not placing it at number one. The Jordan 11 was a game changer. You had never seen anything like it, or ever wanted a shoe so much.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Nike Air More Uptempo
Release date: 1996
OG colorway: Black/White
Grail colorway: Supreme ‘Suptempo’ Red
Most iconic moment: Scottie Pippen at the 1996 Olympics
In an era when basketball sneakers were starting to move away from overt branding, the Air More Uptempo stood alone in its design maximalism. Overseen by Wilson Smith, the Uptempo’s shape was derived by Smith’s background in architecture, whilst its Air branding was inspired by graffiti and pop-art of which Smith was a fan. While aesthetically disruptive, the ‘AIR’ branding followed the shape of the cushioned footbed while creating super supportive uppers which made the sneaker one of the comfiest of all time.
“If you have any doubt as to what kind of cushioning this sneaker has, you might be blind. Released in 1996 and still one of the boldest sneakers of all time, the Air More Uptempo isn’t for the faint of foot. Originally championed on court by Scottie Pippen during the Chicago Bulls’s legendary 72-10 season in 1996, the More Uptempo has endured as one of the best off-court hoops shoes of all time.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Nike Air Foamposite One
Release date: 1997
OG colorway: Dark Neon Royal
Grail colorway: Paranorman
Most iconic moment: That iconic print ad or the release of the ‘Galaxy’ colorway
At the pinnacle of innovation from Nike at the time, the Foamposite One was the first shoe made with a completely new construction process - named Posite technology - that used molded plastic and synthetic uppers rather than the traditional leather and rubber. Inspired by the aerodynamic shape of beetles, it was completely devoid of branding except for a tiny Swoosh at the toe, yet many modern-day releases feature graphic prints. So revolutionary was its design that nobody thought it could be made until car manufacturer Daewoo mastered the plastic formula needed to mold the foam uppers.
“Can you believe this shoe came out in 1997? Still futuristic looking today, the Air Foamposite One was a first-of-its-kind design. Its designer Eric Avar was inspired by foam-covered hard shell sunglass cases for its design, aiming to create a basketball shoe that was protective yet soft and flexible. Today it thrives as a prominent footwear option on the streets, released in a plethora of colors and graphic prints that accentuate its unique boldness.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Nike Air Zoom Generation
Release date: 2003
OG colorway: OG Black
Grail colorway: Gloria
Most iconic moment: Any moment from LeBron James’ rookie season
LeBron James’ dynamic playing style has always demanded the most innovative cushioning and performance in Nike’s arsenal, and nowhere was this more evident than his debut shoe – the Nike Air Zoom Generation. Featuring Air Zoom technology in the forefoot alongside Air Max in the heel as well as a moisture-wicking sock liner, this Hatfield designed sneaker marked the beginning of a beautiful relationship between King James and the Swoosh.
“No list of influential basketball sneakers would be complete without a mention of LeBron James and his Nike line, who together have dominated the basketball footwear market pretty much since the day LeBron entered the NBA in 2003. There are a few Nike LeBron models that could make an argument for appearing in this list, but we might as well just go with the shoe that started it all, the Nike Air Zoom Generation. LeBron’s first and still best model in the eyes of many fans, the AZG is incredibly important to basketball sneaker culture.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Nike Air Zoom Kobe 4
Release date: 2009
OG colorway: White/Black Del Sol
Grail colorway: MLK Gold
Most iconic moment: Kobe dropping a then record-breaking 61 points at Madison Square Garden
An obsessive sneaker designer, Kobe created one of the first low-top basketball sneakers since the adidas Gil Zero, taking inspiration from his love of the game of soccer which he played growing up in Italy. Now, it’s common to see low top shoes on the likes of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and other NBA stars, but at the time Black Mamba’s fourth signature shoe was revolutionary. Fitting that it would also be the first time Bryant would win the NBA finals MVP.
“Kobe Bryant certainly wasn’t the first NBA player to wear low-top shoes, but he and Nike definitely shifted the trend away from bulky high-tops when they debuted the Kobe 4 in 2008. The high performance design inspired by football boots convinced hoopers that you could play in a low-top without breaking your ankles.” - Zack of Stadium Goods