How the Greatest Basketball Shoes of the '90s Were Designed

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2013

The Reebok Pumps revolutionized the basketball sneaker game in the early 1990s.
The Reebok Pumps revolutionized the basketball sneaker game in the early 1990s.Thos Robinson/Getty Images

For sneakerheads, the 1990s were a golden era of basketball shoes.

The kicks culture started gaining ground with the launch of the Air Jordans in the mid-1980s. By the early '90s, the success of the Air Jordan brand inspired countless imitations from other NBA stars in pursuit of their own shoe fortunes.

With Nike, Reebok and Adidas battling for sneaker glory, Allen Iverson, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Kobe Bryant and a number of others brought their brands to the hardwood.

So many iconic sneakers came out during the final decade of the 20th century that Complex had enough material to create a "90 Greatest Sneakers of the '90s" slideshow.

There's no one right way to narrow down the top basketball shoes of the 1990s, and a seemingly never-ending plethora of must-own sneakers that came out within that span.

Let's look at how five of those legendary pairs of kicks came into existence, organized chronologically based on when they were first released.

Reebok Pumps

First released: 1989

Anyone who grew up in the early '90s likely owned a pair of Reebok Pumps at some point.

The shoes, designed by Paul Litchfield, were the first with a fully adjustable fit, according to CounterKicks.com. The wearer could tighten the upper part of the sneaker by pushing the patented Pump, which looked like a basketball, on the shoe's tongue.

Litchfield, who now serves as Reebok's Vice President of Advanced Concepts, told CounterKicks.com in 2009 that he sought input on the design of the Pumps from Reebok's top NBA stars at the time. Dominique Wilkins became the face of the original Pump shoe, while Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Dee Brown and Doc Rivers all chipped in on later designs, too.

Here, Litchfield discusses the design process:

The original Pumps came out back in late 1989, although a production error late in the process nearly subverted the entire line. The shoe factory producing the original Pumps used a sewing machine to test the functionality, Litchfield told SneakerFreaker.com in 2009, but damaged the Pump mechanism by doing so. 

Litchfield and a handful of other Reebok employees had to take the stitches out of every single shoe (roughly 7,000 pairs in total), replace the Pump mechanism and sew it back together. "I don't think we slept for days, seriously," he told CounterKicks.com.

After the success of the original line, Reebok produced roughly 15 additional styles of Pumps throughout the next half-decade. The brand expanded far beyond basketball shoes, tapping into tennis, runners and even casual walkers.

While a number of NBA stars strapped on the Pumps during the early '90s, the most infamous Pump moment occurred during the 1991 Slam Dunk Contest. Dee Brown bent over, pumped up his kicks a few times, then uncorked a vicious blind lefty jam.

Litchfield later told ComplexKicks.com that when Brown went to pump the shoes, "it was a pretty proud moment for a lot of people at Reebok, certainly for me."

FILA Grant Hills

First released: 1995

Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, Nike, Adidas and Reebok comprised the three big companies battling for supremacy in the sneaker market. FILA quickly added its name to that list by signing Grant Hill, the No. 3 pick in the 1994 NBA draft.

Hill made a name for himself by averaging 19.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and five assists per game as a rookie, leading him to split the 1995 Rookie of the Year award with Jason Kidd. FILA took advantage of his on-court success by dropping his first signature shoe, the FILA Grant Hill 1, in 1995.

While the GH1 featured certain similarities to the Air Jordan IX, it came with a lower price point, according to Aaron Kr. of SneakerNews.com. That made it a "more affordable, yet still enticing alternative to consumers who wanted to rep the shoes of one of their favorite players," said Kr.  

The sneaker, which came in either white-and-navy or all-black models, featured an extra-large FILA logo on the side of the midsole and on the tongue. NiceKicks.com described the GH1 as "a sneaker for the counter culture" and "the voice of the next generation."

The GH1 sold more pairs (1.5 million) than any debut signature shoe since the Air Jordan 1, according to the Baltimore Sun. After the success of the debut Hill sneaker, FILA rolled out a handful of "Change the Game" commercials over the next few years, starring Hill and Detroit Pistons legend Bill Laimbeer.

FILA next rolled out the iconic GH2 model, which sold even more pairs than the GH1, according to the Sun. Tupac Shakur only helped the popularity of that particular line by sporting a pair on the cover of his debut album with Death Row Records, All Eyez On Me.

The GH2s went on "to be known as one of the most recognized basketball sneakers of all time," says KicksOnFire.com.

Things started to go downhill for FILA and the Grant Hill brand from there. The GH3s failed to replicate the success of the earlier models, and FILA's stock suffered as a result.

Hill's career also began to take a turn for the worse once he headed to the Orlando Magic in 2000. Injuries derailed his time with the Magic, limiting him to only play 47 total games in his first three seasons with Orlando.

Those injuries didn't appear to negatively impact the popularity of his signature kicks, however. Two retro versions of the GH2 have already been released, and a retro GH1 (now known as the FILA 95) is scheduled to be released later this year.

Air Jordan XI

First released: 1995

You can't write about sneaker culture without mentioning Michael Jordan, the king of basketball shoes.

While many of the Air Jordan models hold a special place in the heart of sneakerheads, the Air Jordan XI may trump them all.

Nike's Tinker Hatfield began designing the Jordan XI during M.J.'s first retirement from the NBA, according to a 2012 GQ profile. Hatfield kept telling his Nike colleagues that Jordan's hiatus from professional basketball wouldn't be permanent, although he had a hard time convincing others at first.

"People at Nike gave me a hard time, so I wanted to show those a******* that we could make the best Jordans ever. The XI was the first basketball shoe to have a carbon-fiber plate in the sole and patent leather. By the time I showed Michael, he'd started playing again."

To this day, the carbon-fiber plate and patent leather stand out as the two most distinctive features of the Jordan XIs.

Jordan initially broke out the XIs during the semifinals of the 1995 NBA playoffs, earning a $5,000-per-game fine from the league office since they didn't match the color of his teammates' shoes. M.J. switched to Penny Hardaway's Air Flight One for Game 3 of that series, according to Sneakerpedia.com, before Nike gave him a league-approved pair of XIs for Game 4.

Ever the savvy businessman, Jordan then helped boost the profile of the XIs by wearing them in his 1996 movie, Space Jam.

In the 1995-96 season, Jordan switched between the Space Jam coloring (black, varsity royal and white) and the red-and-black version that mimicked the Chicago Bulls team colors. The Bulls annihilated the rest of the NBA that year, finishing with a league-record 72 wins and M.J.'s fourth championship.

SoleCollector calls it arguably the best Air Jordan of all time. The XIs were so popular that Nike has brought back retro versions of the shoe nearly every year since 2000.

These days, the Jordan brand remains one of the most recognizable in sports. In 2009 it topped $1 billion in annual revenue for the first time, according to then-CNBC's Darren Rovell.

Allen Iverson's Questions/Answers

First released: 1996

No discussion of '90s basketball shoes would be complete without mentioning Allen Iverson's signature lines, Reebok's "Questions" and "Answers."

When A.I. broke into the league as the No. 1 draft pick in 1996, Reebok signed him to a 10-year, $50 million contract, according to NiceKicks.com. A few months later, the company debuted his first signature shoe—the Question—which Iverson wore in his NBA debut that November.

Scott Hewett designed the first Question line, according to Complex, which featured Hexalite windows and a distinct red toecap.

Beyond being a clever play-on-words on A.I.'s nickname ("The Answer"), the Question marked a major resurgence for Reebok, according to Complex. They were the sneakers Iverson wore throughout his rookie season, including during his infamous crossover of Michael Jordan.

Reebok debuted the Answer brand one year later. It was the first basketball shoe to feature DMX technology, according to Complex. The DMX technology "allowed the wearer to run on air with a series of air bladders beneath the shoe that distributed the cushioning from heel to toe," according to SoleCollector.com.

Complex notes that the Answer I was a huge stylistic shift from the Question I, as it was "lighter, slimmer and lower" than the Question. As someone who grew up in Philadelphia, you couldn't go anywhere without seeing someone who had the iconic I3 logo toward the back of their kicks.

Reebok pumped out different versions of the Question and Answer throughout the next decade. Given Iverson's popularity during his NBA career, his shoes became one of Reebok's top yearly draws.


First released: 1997

It's not often that the No. 13 pick in the NBA draft gets his own signature sneaker line within a year of being in the league.

Then again, it's not often that a talent like Kobe Bryant is available with the No. 13 pick in the draft.

Adidas signed Bryant to a six-year, $48 million contract before the start of the 1996-97 season, according to OSneaker.com. One year later, the company came out with the KB8, Bryant's first signature sneaker.

The KB8 featured "Feet You Wear" technology, which, according to Complex, was meant to make the shoe feel like an extension of the foot. Whereas most Adidas shoes feature the company's three-line style prominently, the typical Adidas lines blended seamlessly into the design of the KB8s.

Bryant's contract and the KB8s were both gambles from Adidas, which the company alluded to in a commercial that year.

Following the success of the KB8s, Adidas released KB8 II and KB8 III over the next few years. Neither model of shoe was nearly as beloved as the first KB8s, however.

At the turn of the millennium, Adidas switched gears entirely, debuting the KOBE One during the 2000 NBA playoffs. The all-black sneaker was modeled after Bryant's Audi TT sports car, according to Dime.

One year later, Adidas came out with its final signature Bryant sneakers—the KOBE Two—which Dime called "probably the most divisive of any of Bryant's signature shoes." Even Bryant himself wasn't thrilled with the design, and he switched back to wearing the KOBE One's during the 2002 playoffs.

Bryant jumped ship from Adidas in 2002, but that didn't stop the company from bringing back the KB8s. Adidas busted out a retro version of the 8s in 2005 and simply re-dubbed them the "Adidas Crazy 8s."


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