The 1960s was a decade dominated by two players. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell battled on the court and on the boards as the leagues two giants. But I’m not here to talk about two of the game’s greatest legends, I’m here for their shoes. In the days of Bill and Wilt, players essentially had two options for their footwear: the Converse Chuck Taylor or the Adidas Superstar. Ironically, the bitter rivals Russell and Chamberlain not only battled each other on the court, but also with their choice of shoe. Wilt made the all-white high top Chuck Taylor his signature look, while Russell preferred the less flashy, low-top Adidas. Russell later switched to a custom shoe made by Bristol Manufacturing, which he sported in the later years of his career. Russell using a custom made shoe was unheard of for the time. 1973 was a revolutionary year for sneakers on the hardwood as Nike and Puma both bolted on to the scene. George “the Iceman” Gervin was the first to rock the Nike Blazer in game, which was also made in a low top version deemed the Nike Bruin. Puma made its biggest impact through the Puma Clyde, sponsored by the legendary fashion icon, Walt “Clyde” Frazier.
More and more sneaker companies were working their way into the basketball community but Converse remained the dominant force. The release of the Converse Weapon was first worn by the great Dr. J and was a popular choice among the players of the NBA. The shoe gained so much steam that custom colorways were made for the Bad Boys Pistons, Larry Bird’s Celtics, and the Showtime Lakers.
Twenty years of sneaker innovation set the stage for one man. In 1984, a rookie from the University of North Carolina signed a $500,000/year contract with Nike. Nike had the option to discontinue the deal if the brand failed to sell $4Million worth of shoes after three years. 70 million dollars’ worth of Air Jordan’s were sold within the first two months of production. It’s safe to say Nike underestimated the national appeal of Michael Jordan. Despite the skyrocketing sales, Mike’s contract with Nike was controversial from the very beginning. Jordan chose to wear a black and red colorway of the Nike Airship that read Air Jordan on the heel. This issue with this particular sneaker was that it violated the NBA’s dress code policy, which states, “A player must wear shoes that not only matched their uniforms, but matched the shoes worn by their teammates.” Nike allegedly covered the fine for the sneaker, $5,000 each game, while MJ continued to violate league policy. Jordan brand continued to grow and experiment with innovative concepts through the 80s and into the 90s. The Air Jordan 3 was the first sneaker to feature the modern Jumpman logo as we know it today.
After the Air Jordan 11 dropped, Jordan brand branched off from Nike to become its own entity. The sneaker revolution continued through Jordan brand when they began to sign athletes of all sports, including Randy Moss and Derek Jeter. Jordan’s initial success with Nike sparked a boom of players seizing the opportunity to sport their own signature shoe. The likes of Gary Payton, Patrick Ewing, Penny Hardaway, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Shaq, and Kobe all had a signature shoe hit the market and last for decades to come. Over 20 years later, Jordan, Pippen, Kobe, and Penny all saw a colorway of their signature sneaker release in just the month of February of 2017 (sneaker release dates available at kicksonfire.com).
As the 2000s rolled around, the league’s superstars were all seeing shoes using their namesake. While some were extremely successful, like Allen Iverson’s Question and Answers with Reebok, others faltered. Bryant “Big Country” Reeves released a shoe sponsored by Warner Brothers that was an abysmal failure. Glen Rice also signed with Warner Brothers and saw similar results, followed up by a failure of a shoe line sponsored by Nautica. Stephon Marbury took a different approach from the failed Reeves and Rice and created his own signature line titled Starbury. The Starbury 1 sold for an incredible $9.98 per sneaker, while claiming to have the same structural make up as the higher priced sneakers on the market. The shoe was actually brought to Professor Howard Davis, a shoe design professor at Parsons School for Design, who tore apart the Starbury and Air Jordan 1, finding the shoes to have the same structural components.
Flash forward to today and almost every major brand of sporting goods is in on the NBA shoe market:
Nike – Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Paul George
Adidas – James Harden, Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, John Wall, and Andrew Wiggins
Under Armor – Steph Curry
Jordan – Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard
The athletes listed are only the athletes who have a signature shoe deal. Almost every player in the league is sponsored by a brand at this point, despite not having a signature shoe line. Several foreign brands have even emerged in the sneaker madness. Peak, Li Ning and Anta have managed to land some big time NBA names in Klay Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, George Hill, and Dwyane Wade. While the foreign brands are not extremely popular domestically, they do well enough overseas to stay in business.
The basketball sneaker has come a long way since Wilt’s days in the Chuck Ts. The signature shoe has opened up a market for consumers that was untapped before Jordan’s dynamic play on the court and flash on his feet. The selection of shoes in today’s market is unlike we’ve ever seen before and we should all revel in the incredible array of available options.