The history of basketball shoes is often considered a niche topic. For those are into it, it’s a time-consuming interest. From scrolling through Instagram for hours to mining for deadstock kicks online, it takes a lot.
For those who are a bit outside of the bubble, it can feel confusing. The fascination that basketball shoe collectors feel often looks feverish and overstated. They’re just old shoes people used to play basketball in, right?
As it turns out, that’s wrong. They’re more than that, much more. Basketball shoes mirror the advancement of the sneaker scene as a whole. Much of what is considered a standard in sneaker design today is rooted in the history of basketball shoes. Think of some of the most popular lifestyle sneakers of all time.
Jordan heads seem to be growing in numbers every year. The Air Force 1, released over three decades ago, maintains pockets of popularity to this day.
In light of this, an exploration of the history of these sport-specific designs is in order. From the very early days to an intriguing future, we take a brief but holistic tour.
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History of Basketball Shoes Timeline
In the efforts to understand this story a bit more, we broke things down a bit. The entirety of the history of these shoes is exhaustive. The sport has been around a long time, so the shoes have an impressive history as well.
To keep it all digestible, we’ve gone ahead and divided the story into three sections. First, we’ll go over some of the earliest basketball shoe designs. Then, we’ll move on to discuss the contributions of two massive names in the game.
Evolution of Basketball Shoes
We cannot have this conversation without talking about the earlier days in the history of basketball shoes. If you’re a hooper, you can already guess where we’re going with this – Converse.
As an important disclaimer, it’s important to note that Converse was never the very first name to introduce the original basketball. However, they did cement their place history as such. In 1917, the brand drops the Chuck Taylor All Star, made for a basketball player of the same name.
It was as simply constructed as the Chucks you see everywhere today. A lightweight canvas upper sat on a vulcanized rubber sole. Throw on some laces and that’s it. Chuck Taylor All Stars were early pioneers in functional sneaker design. Basketball players didn’t need a whole lot from their footwear at the time. They just needed them to be modeled specifically for the game as it was played at the time.
Back in those days – think Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain – guys weren’t exactly flying toward the rim. The game’s earliest days were less about athleticism and more about directional speed and angles. As such, traction was at a premium. The vulcanized rubber sole alone was enough to sell most players on this concept.
As a sample of how widely they were adopted in the sport, consider these two milestones. In 1936, the USA Olympic Basketball team was decked out in Chucks. Three years later, the first ever NCAA Basketball tournament saw a multitude of teams officially rocking their Chuck Taylor All Stars.
Over the next thirty years, the Chucks were essentially the best sneaker a basketball player could hope to own. And then, other brands threw their names into the picture. Consequently, the industry as we know it today started to take shape.
History of adidas Basketball Shoes
The Three Stripes have been a mainstay in contemporary basketball for decades. They’ve found their way out of serious downturn to reclaim a respectable portion of the basketball shoe market. But, their roots remain important. Despite the Boost-craze they find themselves in, adidas traces their basketball beginnings back to when the hoops shoe arms race was just kicking off.
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
Having gotten through the early days of Converse, hoopers became a bit more sophisticated. A generation of players had gone through the canvas and rubber models and learned a bit about what worked. They also more deeply understood what they needed while playing. It came down to two things: swapping the canvas upper out with something more supportive and beefing up the soles for more grip on the court.
In 1968, Puma dropped the first huge answer to these demands in the history of basketball shoes. Twenty years after the brand was founded, they released the Puma Clyde. It was endorsed and worn by the New York Knicks’ Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier. This was the first time a brand had gone through the efforts of securing an athletic endorsement deal. Frankly, they could’ve done a whole lot worse.
Frazier was in his prime as a basketball player. He was a key part of a Knicks team that included names such as Willis Reed and Phil Jackson. As the team’s point guard, he was key to all of their championship aspirations. Beyond that, Frazier was also a cultural icon off the court. His lavish fashion sense earned him a reputation among socialites and media members alike. Everyone knew who he was. Those that didn’t were likely going to see him on a billboard or magazine cover.
The Clyde introduced a combination of a suede upper and a sole that had a more aggressive traction pattern. The suede, to its credit, was clearly more supportive than the canvas of years gone by. It was a shrewd move by Puma. However, it also sent a signal to a rival brand in adidas.
By 1968, Rudolph and Adolph Dassler were well into their family feud. They both worked together for quite a while as owners of a footwear company called Gebruder-Dassler Schufabrik. After they’d fallen over some differences, Adolph founded adidas while Rudolph created Puma.
It’s easy to imagine that the other Dassler brother wasn’t too thrilled to see a direct rival enter the professional basketball shoe category. So, just a year later, adidas would release the iconic Superstar. It was then released as the Supergrip, directly marketing towards a specific set of performance needs. The leather upper was even more durable and supportive than that of the Clyde. And, equally as important, the sole boasted one of the first truly aggressive examples of a herringbone pattern.
These rival releases kicked off something a race into the basketball sneaker market. Names like PRO-Keds and even Nike were jumping in with their own offerings. Going into the 70s, Nike debuts one of their first efforts at a hoops shoe, the Blazer.
There’s a lot to be said about this era in the history of basketball shoes. In particular, adidas played a pivotal role in its development, albeit undervalued to this day.
In 1997, the Three Stripes brand releases the first shoe endorsed by Kobe Bryant, the Kobe 1. Considered the first ‘Space Shoe’ in the industry’s history, it was a tank of a sneaker. Today, we spend quite some time mocking what adidas had produced while Kobe was under their wing.
Part of that is justified, of course. Imagine having a young, exciting player like Kobe Bryant endorsing your basketball shoe? It’s a stroke of absolute luck to have that sort of name associated with you early on. Unfortunately, they weren’t quite able to hang on to him as the Mamba eventually signed with Nike.
And yet, adidas can’t completely be faulted for their design process at that point. In the 90s, the game was changing rapidly. The grounded, lumbering big men of the 60s were all but extinct. Instead, professional basketball was witnessing an athletic evolution. There was more dunking, more high-flying blocks, more blindingly fast changes in direction. The emphasis throughout the league diverted towards cushioning. And so, adidas tried its best to beef up all of their shoes to meet that need.
What followed were years and years of being left in the dust of Nike’s domination (which we’ll get to in just a bit). Still, adidas has made significant strides along the way.
Turning Things Around
Sure, Nike crushes the market. In fact, we’re at a point where much of the history of basketball shoes is discussed via the Swoosh’s achievements. But, adidas sits at a position that feels comparable to Nike at the moment. Nike still holds the larger market share, of course, but the Three Stripes are no longer a laughing matter when it comes to hoops. From its little brother state to its current reputation, adidas has had some critical moments in its brand history.
Though they number in the dozens, we can think of them as two major developments.The first time adidas really swipes up major attention is on the release of the first Crazy Light model. This happens in 2011, which makes it special for a specific reason.
In 2008, Nike started to change what basketball players were looking for. Similar to the 90s, the NBA was undergoing a bit of a transformation talent. It was still a high-flying style of professional hoops, but it was getting even faster and even springier. Now, when this happened in the 90s, it called for some more cushion. In 2008, it was more about the shoe’s weight. The Hyperdunk drops, just in time for the Olympics that year, and wows the industry and consumers alike.
This, in turn, started a competition to see which brand could create the lightest shoe on the market. When it was adidas’s turn in 2011, the Crazy Light was the response. They released it with a virtual onslaught of marketing. The brand was readily and loudly claiming that this was the lightest basketball shoe ever – 15% lighter than the next most featherweight model.
The next huge development was the use of Boost in basketball models. Having tested the technology for years in their running category, adidas felt good about debuting it on the court. Derrick Rose’s signature, along with those of James Harden, started featuring the Boost cushion heavily. In addition, standard models such as the Crazy Light Boost started generating some of the most exciting hype in the Three Stripes history of basketball shoes.
History of Nike Basketball Shoes
It goes without saying that Nike has played a huge role in the history of basketball shoes. Much of what they’ve developed has become a key inspiration for the lifestyle category.
As noted earlier, Nike’s entry into the earliest battle for basketball supremacy was the Blazer. At that point, every basketball shoe seemed to look more or less the same. Leather uppers, rubber soles, traction patterns. It was all pretty standard. Then, we get into the 1980s. This is when Nike first puts the rest of the industry – and sneaker culture at large – on notice. It pretty much all started with the introduction of the Nike Air Force 1. Designed by the underrated Bruce Kilgore, it was a shoe that presented a lot of firsts in the history of basketball shoes.
The Air Force 1 was the first basketball sneaker to inject air into the soles as the cushion. This alone revolutionized how basketball players saw their footwear. The Air cushioning was, without question, the most advanced piece of midsole technology meant for a basketball court. It would inform much of what the industry would decide when it came to impact protection, to this very day.
Not long after, in 1985, two other big developments take place. The Air Jordan 1 drops towards the end of MJ’s first season an NBA player. It brought with it a slew of good PR thanks to panic around the NBA concerning its colors. As if that wasn’t enough for Nike to keep the ball rolling, their domination in the basketball sneaker market extended even further than that.
Not long after the Air Jordan 1 dropped, the first renditions of the Dunk would release. Designed by Peter Moore, the Dunk was marketed as both a performance design marvel as well as a street style-friendly purchase. It quickly rose to the very top of consumer sneaker trends. Moreover, the Dunk cemented a place in the wider basketball consciousness by becoming the official team shoe of several iconic NCAA teams.
Though the Dunk would eventually take a backseat to the Jordan line, it persisted as a standard in on-court footwear thanks to popularity during college basketball season. In fact, Nike often looks back to their years with the Dunk via retro releases and celebrations. Most of the time, though, those efforts are saved for the legendary Jordan line that took Nike into even more innovative years.
Changing the Game
Two crucial developments are largely responsible for the massive amount of change that Nike’s basketball category would take on. What would follow Nike’s early Jordan successes is a series of key additions to their roster. These additions became a positive challenge for the brand’s designer’s, pushing their boundaries and essentially adding yet another evolution to the history of basketball shoes.
The first name concerning these shifts was Kobe Bryant. The Laker legend spent enough time in the NBA – two decades – for most hoop fans to know who he is. For those of us that are also avid followers of the NBA sneaker landscape, Kobe is especially familiar. He was one of the first athletes to really use his endorsement to leave a mark in basketball design fundamentals. His first few signature models with the Swoosh were fairly standard. Mid-cut with ample traction and solid cushioning brought together by supportive uppers. It’s what came after those initial efforts that changed.
Kobe has always been a pretty big soccer fan. One thing he brought over from that sport was an admiration for the footwear players were running around in. The low-cut models excited Kobe because it meant more mobility without risking lack of support. That’s what went into designing the Kobe 4, the first basketball shoe ever to be a performance model with a low-cut frame. Jordans had toyed with the idea of low-cut versions, but they never quite on as a performance alternative. Kobe’s designs, however, proliferated.
Next up is LeBron. Having signed LBJ shortly before he entered the league, Nike was winning before the young superstar even got started. He was, after all, the most anticipated rookie in the league’s history. But, he was also going to be their trickiest basketball player to design a sneaker for. Putting together a performance shoe for LeBron meant to support, cushion, and lock in perhaps the most physically gifted basketball player ever. The result was a series of shoes that were groundbreaking, bridging gaps between support and weight. LeBron forced that evolution, it wasn’t a matter of choice.
Much of the history of basketball shoes works this way. In between all of the relatively normal superstars comes a set of special players. Each of those players presents a challenge in terms of design. The choices there are for a design team to make an inspired effort, changing the industry as a result, or to fall short and watch an endorsee walk away. So far, fortune has very much favored the bold. There’s no reason to expect that will change in the basketball sneaker industry any time soon.