When it comes to the shoes worn by National Basketball Association (NBA) players through the years, it’s easy to think about style and comfort being paramount requisites. From the canvas shoes of old to the high cut, hulking, neon shoes of recent times, a pair of basketball shoes has gone a long way from prepping a baller’s feet for the game to improving performance and making a statement.
Whether you’re a basketball fan or not, there’s no denying that the NBA’s shoe history is as fascinating as the game itself. Below is a rundown of the most notable pairs through the years:
1. Converse Basketball Shoes Reigned For Decades (1920s-1960s)
This brand was founded in 1908, more than a decade before basketball’s first-ever game in the 1920s. It’s pretty hard to imagine how the Chuck Taylors and All-Stars dominated the hardcourt since its inception. But these predominantly canvas shoes with thick rubber soles were donned by not only the most famous NBA players of their time but almost anyone who plays the game. Perhaps one of the main upsides in wearing a pair was its high-top design, which provides ankle protection from jumping.
Attempts at toppling the All-Stars remained unsuccessful for several decades. The brand reportedly sold as high as 600 million pairs during its heyday. And that’s way before buying basketball shoes online was the norm.
2. Battle Of The Brands (1970s)
From canvas shoes, leather sneakers entered the market beginning in the 1960s. While Converse was still ahead of the pack, its popularity has waned following the release of leather sneakers from other brands such as Nike and Puma.
The 1970s saw a steady rise of fashion-forward basketball shoes. Nike released its first basketball shoes named ‘Blazer’ in 1973 and was worn by then NBA dunk king George Gervin.
Meanwhile, another rival brand Puma released its ‘Clyde’ low-cut basketball shoes. Outfitting the feet of New York Knicks luminary Clyde Frazier, the pair sported the brand’s logo on the side with the golden-hued ‘Clyde’ scrolled underneath it. This partnership sparked the trend of customizing a pair for a basketball player.
3. The Colorful Rule Breakers (1980s-1990s)
As other brands challenged Converse’s popularity, the sneaker pioneer released a new model aptly called ‘Weapons,’ earning them a worthy place in everyone’s gym bag. Considered one of the most iconic basketball shoes, it was released in 1986 and came in the most vibrant-hued shoes. Rather than choosing white or black as a predominant color, ‘Weapons’ was available in various colorways to go with any player’s uniform, making it a crowd favorite.
Other brands eventually made partnerships with other NBA stars. For instance, breakout brand AND1 signed NBA player Stephon Marbury as its first signature athlete in 1996. Adidas and Patrick Ewing released a pair called ‘The Ewings,’ with the late Kobe Bryant to launch the ‘Crazy 8’ in 1997. Rebook Answer 1 counted Allen Iverson as brand ambassador in the same year.
This era also saw the rise of then-rookie Michael Jordan, whose partnership with sneaker giant Nike paved the way for the release of his eponymous line. In the 1990s, Jordan was reportedly fined USD$5,000 for every game he wore his pair of banned sneakers, which the NBA found to violate league rules that a sneaker must be predominantly white and represent the team’s jersey hues.
Either way, some consider this as the golden era for basketball shoes where different models bearing different technologies were churned out for the hungry basketball sneaker market to devour.
4. Fashion-Forward Preferences (2000-present)
The coming of a new century saw the former fantastic sneaker models come to life. Retro styles dominated the industry. But the quest for better technology shoes was revived, especially after the Shox BB4 that made Vince Carter’s high hoops jump possible in the 2000 Olympics.
Bringing this together, most pairs were either an upgraded version of their ancestors or sporting a new technology altogether. Air Jordans continued to re-releasing their sneakers in limited quantities. In 2010, then NBA star player Kobe Bryant dropped Adidas for Nike, and the partnership led to the release of ultra-lightweight yet stylish ‘Kobe V.’
The period also saw the release of NBA stalwart LeBron James’ shoe line, kicking off in 2003 with the Air Zoom Generation and ending with the Lebron 18 for now. Sneaker brands also branched out their partnerships with other artists outside the hardcourt, the most notable being Adidas working with Kanye West to release the ‘Yeezy BSKTBL’ sneakers.
Perhaps one of the more technologically advanced offerings came with the Adapt BB. By using the app, one can put the kicks on, change the colors, adjust the fit for each shoe, and a few other things. Released in 2019, NBA stars Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic each modeled the pair.
From the classic to the trendy and technology-driven, it remains to be seen how the NBA sneaker evolution will shape the players and the market. But as the basketball culture is very much alive and ensconced in individuals—whether belonging to the fanbase or not—it’ll continue to influence peoples’ lifestyles, too.