From Chuck Taylor to LeBron X: Year-by-Year Evolution of NBA Sneakers
From canvas high tops to foam composites and everything in between, this year-by-year evolution of basketball sneakers provides a look back at some of the most influential shoes in NBA history.
The 20 sneakers pictured below include some of my favorite designs of all time.
There are a couple shoes—like the George Mikan Pro Keds from 1952—that emerged after the "Chuck Taylors" and before Nike's first basketball shoe, but those pictures didn't really do Mikan's shoe justice.
For the most part, though, it was Converse's "Chuck Taylor" that dominated the sneaker game until Nike arrived on the basketball sneaker scene in 1972.
After that, the shoe industry exploded.
The sneakers highlighted below were selected to illustrate the evolution of basketball sneakers in words and pictures based on the influence they had on sneaker culture at the time.
I couldn't include every classic sneaker, but I hope you enjoy this look back through basketball history as much as I did.
1917: Chuck Taylor All Star
Converse first came to the market with a version of the "Chuck Taylor All Star" before the Great Depression.
After making a series of tweaks and style changes over the next few decades, this canvas shoe with a rubber sole would remain the most popular basketball sneaker of its time through much of the 1960s.
While they're not rocked on the NBA court these days, this shoe has since transitioned into a casual sneaker that's stood the test of time.
1972: Nike Bruin
Nike would release its first ever basketball shoe in 1972, when it came out with the Nike Bruin. As opposed to canvas, this shoe was constructed with leather and suede.
While I'm not sure why they named it "Bruin" exactly, I've always thought maybe the name was inspired by the UCLA dynasty led by John Wooden around the same time.
What I do know for sure, though, is that the pair of shoes I now cut my grass in look a lot like the Bruin first did. The evolution of Nike's basketball shoe would be drastic following its first release.
1973: Puma Clyde
Puma customized this basketball shoe for New York Knicks legend Clyde Frazier in 1973.
Underneath the Puma logo on the side of this sneaker is "Clyde" written in gold script. It is considered to be the first signature sneaker in basketball history.
While the design never gained much traction in the NBA community specifically, the "Clydes" served as an influence for many walking shoes still worn to this day.
1976: Dr. J's Pro Leather
In gold text, scribbled on the side of this shoe, Julius "Dr. J." Erving's nickname is proudly featured.
Much more than the Chuck Taylors did before it, the "Dr. J. Pro Leather" closely resembles today's style of basketball shoe.
In 2011, Hypebeast.com summarized this sneaker's impact by calling it "the shoe that ushered in the modern era of basketball footwear."
My dad claims he had a pair of "Dr. J. Pro Leathers" back in the day, which makes him markedly cooler than I gave him credit for being back when I was a kid.
1978: Nike Blazer
The Nike Blazer is considered to be a forefather to iconic sneaker lines like Air Force 1s and Jordans.
Worn by one of the smoothest players of his generation, George "Iceman" Gervin popularized this high-top shoe during the late '70s while starring for the San Antonio Spurs.
A version of this shoe was later re-released by Nike in 2008, but nothing beats the original.
1982: Air Force 1
Long before Nelly was stomping around in his "Air Force Ones," Hall of Famer Moses Malone was hitting the NBA hardwood laced up in a pair of these classics.
This shoe by Nike obviously went on to be wildly successful and is still an integral part of basketball culture today.
Just don't think Nelly started all that, as it was actually Malone, along with help from the other five members of Nike's "Original Six."
1985: Air Jordan I
Nike dropped the "Air Jordan I" in 1985, and the sneaker game has never been the same since.
Arguably the most iconic basketball shoe in sneaker history, there isn't a true shoe collection in the world that doesn't feature the first pair of kicks made famous by Michael Jordan.
These Jordans will forever be in that special wing of the basketball sneaker hall of fame.
1988: Air Jordan III
The third installment in the "Air Jordan" series was the first to feature the Jumpman symbol on the sneaker.
That caricature of a dunking Michael Jordan has since become the logo of Jordan Brand. The gray and black design above the sole helps makes this shoe one of the best looking Jordans of all time.
During the 1988 dunk contest, Jordan is wearing this shoe in his epic battle with Dominique Wilkins for the slam dunk title.
1989: Ewings 33 Hi
The "Ewings 33 Hi" by Patrick Ewing is one of my favorite pairs of all time.
In 1989, Ewing started his own sneaker brand with Next Sports. To this day, Ewing's foray into the footwear world remains one of the most interesting chapters in sneaker history.
Ewing's brand of shoe would eventually go by the wayside, but the strapping design around the ankle would be heard from again in the years to come.
1991: Reebok Pumps
A shoe made famous during the 1991 NBA Dunk Contest, young ballers all over the world were pumping up the tongues of their high tops just like Dee Brown did on his way to the title.
If they were lucky, those high tops they were pumping up were actually a pair of "Reebok Pumps."
This shoe was designed to inflate for ankle support. Pumping up other kicks on your way in for a layup didn't really do anything.
1994: Nike Force
Charles Barkley's legendary "I'm not a role model" campaign by Nike was put in motion by the release of these "Nike Force" shoes in 1994.
Possibly influenced by the strap design featured by Ewing's 33 Hi design, this shoe had all sorts of security.
I'm not sure anything like this would work out on the court today—as basketball shoes continue to get lighter and lighter—but this model sure was popular when the Chuckster was pitching them.
1995: Air Jordan XI
My favorite Jordans of all time came out when the "Air Jordan XI" hit stores in 1995.
The patent leather black and white looked good with any team's colors—you didn't just need the black and red of the Chicago Bulls to pull them off.
Still relevant today, NBA ballers all over the league can be seen wearing this classic shoe as they take the court.
1995: Air Max Penny "Orlando"
The "Lil Penny" commercials were the best. But for as cool as that talking puppet was as Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway's sidekick, the Air Max Pennys were even cooler.
While some consider the "Foamposites" that dropped two years later to be Penny's premier sneaker, I like to stick with this first version that came out in 1995.
As one of the most underrated players of his era, the Air Max Pennys were just as much of a beast as Hardaway was while teamed up with Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic.
1996: The Question
Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas described Allen Iverson's impact on the sneaker game in a SLAM article I wrote on Thomas last summer, simply saying, "Allen Iverson is a big reason why kids wore Reebok. Everybody wanted to be Allen Iverson."
That movement began when Iverson's first shoe, "The Question," took the sneaker world over for a time starting in 1996.
1997: Adidas Crazy 8
When Kobe Bryant first broke into the NBA, he did so as a headliner for Adidas Basketball.
His first sneaker, the Adidas "Crazy 8," is a mesmerizing twist to the classic shoe design that preceded it.
While Bryant is now a member of Nike Basketball, this collaboration in 1997 still impacts the way sneakers are designed —though it wouldn't be as cool as the shoe he'd eventually drop with Nike years later.
2000: Nike Shox BB4
"Vinsanity" took off of the NBA hardwood in 2000 wearing a pair of Nike "Shox BB4s."
This was the first shoe to include the shox-technology by Nike.
It probably helped Vince Carter leap higher than any NBA player had since Michael Jordan.
2003: Nike Air Zoom Generations
LeBron James set out on his professional basketball journey wearing his first pair of signature Nike sneakers in 2003.
Those shoes would be known as the Nike "Air Zoom Generations" and would give birth to a new shoe every year.
This sneaker would be James' first and is a must-have for sneaker heads everywhere.
2010: Kobe V
This isn't meant as a bias toward Nike, but the "Kobe V" seems to better fit Bryant's persona than the "Crazy 8" did back in '97.
This shoe was crazy light when it dropped. Draped in Lakers colors with a black background, it was a supremely elegant look, too.
Not that I'd expect anything less from the Black Mamba, of course.
I was standing in Dick's Sporting Goods one day, holding a pair of Chuck Taylors in one hand and the Derrick Rose "AdiZero" in another.
Despite the evolution of style changes, the lightweight, thin exterior of the AdiZero reminded me of the same classic design Converse seemed to be originally going for with their canvas high top almost a century earlier.
While technology has certainly made the AdiZero and other modern shoes more supportive, the light-weight high top is back in because it's always worked.
2013: LeBron X
LeBron James has been in the NBA for 10 years now.
Time flies, doesn't it?
As a result of being a decade in, his 10th shoe is the "LeBron X."
Arguably the most popular shoe at the moment, this version of the LeBron sneaker series might be its crowning achievement.
It's only fitting that it dropped following his first NBA title.
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