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August/September 2010

Basketball shoes:

The shoes are the stars

Basketball shoes
The history of basketball is full of iconic stars that have carved their names in the books. Made famous by the likes of Michael Jordan and Chuck Taylor, these shoes still have many glossy-eyed fans around the world — some after quite a few years have already passed, reports CARIN HARDISTY

Shoes named after players have written themselves into history. Mention Chucks, Jordans, etc. and people know you are talking about the shoe and even what brand designed them. “These [player] names create the aspirational element and talking points that are associated with endorsements,” says Shannon Bouwer, PR and Communications Manager for Reebok. Some of these shoe models are as popular today as they were when they were first launched, with brands relaunching the models in new colours and styles following their initial success. As a result, these shoes have become collectors’ items among their devout fans.

“There are people who aspire to being like the stars that play the sport and want to dress like them and then there are also just the fashion followers who have to have them as they are now fashion styles,” says Scott Pringle, Puma SA’s sales manager for lifestyle.

While basketball barely features as a sport in SA (see box p14), GfK Marketing Services South Africa reports that basketball shoes have the sixth biggest market share in terms of retail sales — behind leisure/fashion, running, outdoor, football and multisport footwear — with about 100 000 pairs sold last year.

Not bad for a sport category that does not have very strong participation figures!

So if it’s not the players who are buying basketball shoes, it must be consumers who wear them for their looks. Where does this idea of wearing sportshoes for fashion come from?

Where it all started

Originally basketball shoes were not the fashionable foot accessories of today, but they were some of the earliest sport shoes.

In 1908, less than 20 years after the invention of basketball, Converse introduced the first rubber-soled canvas uppers sneaker worn for basketball. They launched their All Star, the first performance shoe specifically designed for basketball, in 1917. The following year Charles Hollis ‘Chuck’ Taylor, who was still a high school basketball player, bought his first pair of All Star shoes.

Taylor loved the shoes so much that he joined Converse’s sales team in 1921 as America’s first player endorser and spent the following two years promoting All Stars to basketball enthusiasts across the US. While he was working for Converse, he contributed to the shoe’s success by suggesting certain changes: to make the sole non-slip and changing the fabric of the shoe to be more flexible, yet at the same time providing better support. He also suggested including a patch to protect the ankle.

By 1923 Converse decided to add Taylor’s signature to the ankle patch. The Converse Chuck Taylor All Star (aka Chucks) were born. Chucks offered a canvas, high topped upper that was designed to protect and support players’ ankles as they jumped and ran on the court as well as a gripping rubber sole.

To start with, the All Stars were only available in black. As the popularity of the shoe grew, just about every basketball team in the US started playing in the shoes. However, the brand was put under increased pressure from the teams to add more colours to the range.

Basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936. This same year the US basketball team won gold wearing Chucks. In 1947 Converse released a white version of their Chucks for the following year’s Olympics. Nineteen years later, in 1966, Converse started releasing Chucks in different coloured styles.

During its 40 year reign as #1 court footwear choice, Chucks graced the feet of many a basketball star — including Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, and Magic Johnson, as well as Wilt Chamberlain who set the NBA scoring record in 1962 in Chucks.

It was only in the 70s, when basketball sneakers started featuring leather, that the rubber-soled canvas Chucks started to see a decline in popularity.

The early 70’s saw Puma and Nike entering the basketball sneaker market. Nike entered with their leather Blazer in 1972 and Puma with a shoe that is now known as the Puma Clyde. Originally it was launched as a suede shoe, but it was made famous by Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier who wore it to play basketball in. The style is still popular among consumers today.

Frazier asked Puma whether they had a wider fitting version of their suede shoe and he ended up signing with Puma as an endorsed athlete. Soon Frazier’s name was imprinted on the shoe in gold block embossing.

Frazier was given the nickname Clyde because of his snappy dressing style, similar to the style adopted by the legendary bankrobbers Bonnie and Clyde, as well as his ability to steal the ball on the court.

“Walt played with a mixture of bravado, athleticism, intensity and a calculated lack of emotion that encapsulated the very essence of being cool. Indeed, playing it cool as a cucumber became his trademark. And, as the street hustlers, hip-hoppers, wee pappa rappers, breakers, b-boys and graff kids picked up on the shoe, Clyde’s personal style seemed to effortlessly rub off on an entire city.” (The legend of Clyde! Sneaker Freaker. Issue 7)

1983 saw the launch of Nike’s Air Force One — the first of their air soled basketball shoes. This air technology propelled Nike to become the industry leader. The classic design of the shoe makes it a popular choice and remains a best-seller till today.

The following year, Michael Jordan burst onto the basketball scene in his own signature warm-ups, Nike Air Jordan. With their bold black and red colours they immediately stood out on the court leading the NBA to ban the shoes, because they were ‘too colourful’ and did not conform to his team colours. Jordan was fined up to $5 000 each time he wore them. Nike exploited this publicity and added a big ‘X’ together with the word ‘banned’ across the shoes on advertisements.

During the middle 80s adidas and Patrick Ewing got together to release the adidas Ewing Rivalry, however Ewing later went on the produce his own range, The EWINGS.

In 1988, rumours started to fly that Jordan wanted to part ways with Nike. Nike reacted immediately by designing the Air Jordan III, impressing Jordan so much with the shoe that he decided to stay with the brand.

The late 80s saw Reebok entering the basketball scene. Soon the market saw a heated jostling between Nike and Reebok for the market share leader position. Reebok reacted to the success of Nike’s Air by releasing The Pump with its innovative technology, which allows air to be pumped into the shoe by ‘pumping’ a certain part of the shoe. The air-war continued with Nike in turn launching their The Air Pressure shoe, but this failed to make much of an impact.

However, Nike’s Air Jordans still dominated the scene. Between 1990 and 93, all you saw or heard from were Air Jordans.

“Everyone wanted the latest pair as they represented the pinnacle of basketball shoes. From the black shoe hysteria of the '89 Bulls Playoff run; to the clear soles and reflective tongue V's; to Mars Blackman's DoYouKnowDoYouKnowDoYouKnow and It's Gota Be Da Shoes; to Bugs Bunny; the sneaker scene was all about the Air Jordan. The mystique behind the legend and the icon not only conquered market share but also went global after the Barcelona games.” (Kicksology — Timeline of Basketball Shoes: Basketball Shoes History. See

In 1993 Charles Barkley’s signature shoes — the Nike Charles Barkley range — surpassed the Air Jordans in terms of price, technology, design, functionality and popularity. October of the same year Jordan announced what turned out to be the first of his retirements, first citing a loss of desire to play the game then saying the murder of his farther earlier the year shaped his decision. Some speculate that the real reason Jordan retired was that his shoe was no longer the best seller or the most sought after footwear product.

In 1994, Fila and Grant Hill signed. The result was The Hill, one of Fila’s fastest selling ranges. It is during this same year that Nike released the first two Jordans to be retro’ed. Teaming with Nike, Anfernee Deon "Penny" Hardaway’s signature line of Little Penny sneakers launched in 1995. Foamposite One — the beginning of a new type of shoe that bordered on Sci-Fi — was the peak of the Little Penny line’s popularity.

There was such interest around the dates when new styles hit the stores that in the late 90s, Nike changed the release date of new Air Jordan models to Saturdays, because kids were skipping school in order to be among the first to own the sneakers. Shoes had become collectors’ items.

1997 saw the release of the Nike Air Pippen, a collaboration between Nike and Scottie Pippen. The Air Pippen was not the first Nike that Pippen was associated with, but it was the first to be named after him. In 1993 Pippen had worked with Nike on the Dynamic Flight.

The Nike Air Alonzo (named after Alonzo Mourning) and Nike Air Garnett (Kevin Garnett’s signature shoe) were also released in 1997.

In 1998 adidas signed Kobe Bryant and released the Kobe ‘Feet Your Wear’ shoe, which led to the creation of the Audi TT inspired The Kobe.

The same year Nike released the Air Zoom Flight The Glove, named after Gary Payton aka The Glove.

Having returned to basketball in 1996, Jordan retired for the second time four years later in January 1999. At the same time there was a shake up with several names retiring from the game. This caused a decline in interest in the NBA and consumers started looking back at the good old days instead of being interested in the new styles launched by the brands, with retro styles ruling the roost.

In 1999, Nike remade the Air Jordan IV — and launched the retro craze that caused a landslide of classic style remakes. The Air Jordan line alone re-released ten styles (I-III V-VIII, IX, and XI-XII).

Round about this time, Avia and British Knights started to make basketball shoes again as well.

Adidas released the first laceless basketball shoe, the T-Mac, in 2004. The T-Mac was named after the endorser, Tracy McGrady who is known as T-Mac. McGrady is a seven-time All-Star and a seven-time All-NBA Team member.

In 2009 Lebron James released his seventh version of Nikes — the Air Max Lebron VII.

September this year saw the launch of the return of the Puma Suede, part of the Clyde family.

What happens today

Today, basketball shoes are mostly made of leather, rather than canvas, and have soles that are specially cushioned to give maximum support, bounce and style. However, the same high-topped style of the early basketball shoes is still popular among most basketball shoe styles seen today.

While basketball stars wear leather shoes, those who wear them for fashion’s sake wear canvas.

“Consumers buy basketball footwear as it is associated with the hip hop culture and with it comes the baggy jeans, oversized T-shirts, bling accessories and basketball footwear,” says Bouwer.

“There is definitely a person that likes that high top look as a fashion shoe and would search for that style and then buy into the brand or the style that he/she likes,” says Pringle. “High tops is a style that is fashionable at the moment and therefore the styles have had more focus from a fashion perspective than before.”

Look out for the Reebok ZigTech Slash, says Bouwer. “Reebok’s newest athlete, NBA #1 Draft Pick John Wall, wears it.”

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