Nike Basketball 20 for 20
Celebrating their past 20 years in the game, Nike Basketball will be looking back at its catalog of releases in the past two decades and highlighting the 20 basketball shoes that they've seen as the most iconic coming from the Swoosh.
Everyday beginning July 23, Nike will count down the 20 most influential basketball shoes and open up its vault telling the story behind each shoe.
"We're always trying to evolve platforms and technologies -- can we make it more responsive, lighter, more natural motion? There is no finish line." -- Eric Avar
A lot can change in four years. As the biggest global stage for sports is set up again in a new location, it’s time for the Nike Hyperdunk to make another statement. The landmark innovations of 2008 -- Nike Flywire and Lunarlon Technology -- have evolved significantly for basketball use, perfecting the formula for a breathable, responsive, durable, locked-down performance. Now, under the hood, a new technology emerges that will change the way Nike links physical sport to digital services: Nike+ Basketball.
Advanced Nike Flywire uses high-strength cables that are loose when at rest and dynamic when the foot is in motion, tensing to stabilize the foot on the footbed. This advanced lock-down support was born in 2008 but has truly revolutionized basketball shoe design with its progression.
Lunarlon foam cushioning takes over as the primary cushioning system for the first time in a Nike Basketball shoe, as a new foam is tuned to the demands of basketball. The result is a soft, yet responsive, foundation.
Nike Basketball creative director Tracy Teague believes that now's the time to implement these technologies across a basketball shoe. "There's light for lightweight's sake and then there's the light that's right."
The Nike Hyperdunk+ 2012 was designed by a collection of Nike Basketball’s best designers -- Eric Avar, Leo Chang and Tracy Teague, among others; a true team effort that resulted in the fully-loaded version of Nike's top innovations and the ultimate team shoe. In addition to Advanced Nike Flywire and Lunarlon foam cushioning, the Nike Hyperdunk+ 2012 features include Hyperfuse construction for light weight, a unique collar wrap that increases flex and stability, a 3D-shaped midfoot shank that improves torsion and an outrigger that enhances balance during cuts.
The element that truly changes the game forever is a new Nike+ Pressure Sensor built into each shoe. This technology collects information about the user’s movement and then wirelessly transmits data to his or her phone.
Now any baller can measure jump height, hustle and quickness to give him or her access to the kind of feedback that only coaches and trainers could provide before.
This is basketball footwear that senses the wearer -- it literally comes alive. Most importantly, it inspires a baller to do more. "Just Do It" has leapt off the magazine pages and computer screens and into shoes. Now that's progress.
Zoom KD IV
"It's about simply communicating the features of the shoe -- everything has a purpose." -- Leo Chang
The signature shoe needs to reflect the athlete's personality as well as his or her needs. Kevin Durant's KD line has to encapsulate his remarkable versatility as well as his humble nature -- confident without cockiness -- resulting in designs made for all-around play and a complete range of motion. The Nike Zoom KD IV’s lead designer Leo Chang has worked with Durant since the start and sums up this shoe as "A shoe that's stripped down to his essence -- nothing more, nothing less."
Nike is keeping pace with Kevin's career with an evolving range of shoes that cater to him as he becomes increasingly more powerful and adds new skills to his arsenal. The Nike Zoom KD IV coincided with Durant's new achievements and MVP status. Kevin's main needs are simple, though. In an exchange with Leo, Durant exclaimed, "I want it light and I want it tight to my foot. That's the key thing. Light and tight!"
As part of a silhouette that's lower than before to give Kevin some extra freedom, versatile lockdown is embodied in the Nike Zoom KD IV's key feature, the Adaptive Fit strap. Despite Durant's request to go strap-free for this shoe, one glimpse at Leo's design elicited a positive response. Functionally, the Adaptive Fit strap conforms to the arch, an area where KD has asked for added support because his arch is flatter.
There's personal stories told in the Nike Zoom KD IV, too. The detailing commemorates Kevin's relationship with his family, his first coach, Big Chucky, D.C. and his home city, Seat Pleasant, Md. The Nike Zoom KD IV is a shoe that matches the identity of its namesake -- perhaps it's slightly unassuming, but it has earned the right to be mentioned along the game's greats.
"It makes you think differently about everything you associate with breathability and durability." -- Leo Chang
What instigates a game-changing innovation? A visit to China by Innovation Kitchen Designer Shane Kohatsu sowed some creative seeds for a new way of looking at sport footwear altogether. Seeing games played on the unforgiving blacktop in China in mesh running shoes and even hiking boots inspired a quest to create a balance of supportive, breathable and anti-abrasion elements that would unlock design entirely. The Nike Zoom Hyperfuse was a definitive solution -- a durable composite material composed of three layers: a base layer that contains the foot, mesh that offers breathability and a skin that protects.
All three layers are fused together using heat and pressure to create a level of precision unattainable via traditional cut-and-sew methods. The unibody design results in lightweight, breathable footwear and minimizes seams that can wear on an athlete's foot.
For lead designer Leo Chang, it meant a shoe needed to be designed in a whole new way. "You have to draw everything, from the inside out -- all the lines you don't see are X-rayed now." That new approach is a liberation as well. "You can create shapes that you could only dream of with a conventional stitch and turn or overlay a top stitch."
Leo noticed a resemblance to an older mode of dressing for battle, too. "There was something cool about this almost chainmail look -- this open, aggressive mesh that you could see through."
To showcase the purity of the Nike Zoom Hyperfuse's construction was to showcase the innovation itself. It took to colors in a way that leather just couldn't -- stacking layers and translucent materials meant a richer look than ever before, and the end of the white or black with a team pop color formula entirely.
This was an entirely new design language and one that’s still evolving. The material palette is still being unlocked and it's getting lighter, tougher, more supple and a little more dynamic season after season. The Nike Zoom Hyperfuse changed everything for Nike Basketball.
Zoom Kobe IV
"I sat down with Kobe and he was very clear -- 'I want the lowest, lightest weight basketball shoe we can make.'" -- Eric Avar
Somewhere down the line, someone assumed that excess height and plenty of padding was the only way to protect players from themselves. That assumption became a certainty, until the myth was shattered. The Nike Zoom Kobe IV proved that a low-cut profile and superior support could work in unison -- even for one of the most versatile players in basketball history.
Kobe, a fan of the "beautiful game," global football, noticed how athletes in a sport that stopped and started as abruptly as basketball weren't asking for high top shoes. In fact, some of the world's greatest goal scorers opt for the most minimal boots that can be designed.
Kobe went into a meeting with Avar with this on the mind. When it was over, any murmurs about feasibility were moot. "Kobe was adamant. From a functional standpoint, he wanted to prove that you can create a high-performance, low-top basketball shoe."
Emboldened by the breakthrough Nike Hyperdunk, Eric and the team realized that Nike Flywire's secure fit could assist this light, low and responsive design to deliver on Kobe's hefty request for less. Bryant's open mind was especially helpful. "Kobe is probably one of, if not THE, most progressive players I've ever worked with in terms of wanting to push technology and performance technology in design."
Once the low-cut silhouette, Nike Flywire and outrigger began testing out with Kobe, it was time to develop the visual identity of the shoe. Around this time, Kobe's Black Mamba persona was becoming a central source of inspiration, so Avar finished off the design with a little comic book villain menace.
"To me the Nike Kobe IV was the start of fully defining the signature formula that works for Kobe. We succeeded in combining his performance needs with his style in a way that challenged conventions, which had always been the goal."
"We were looking to do it in an expressive way -- let's reduce everything else around it and let the Nike Flywire come to life." -- Eric Avar
Nike Flywire gave the notion of "Flight" some extra might. The Nike Air Hyperdunk went over the head of its opponents by borrowing a concept from one of the modern world's most impressive architectural feats -- suspension bridges. By applying super-strong nylon filaments for precise support akin to the cables of a bridge, the Nike Air Hyperdunk was able to radically reduce weight by providing support material only where it's needed.
Nike Flywire was originally conceived for featherweight track spikes by Jay Meschter in Nike's Innovation Kitchen. Excited by the idea of removing significant weight out of a basketball upper, the team worked with the Nike Sports Research Lab to begin analyzing whether these fibers could withstand the lateral forces of side-to-side cutting in basketball.
The NSRL recruited one of their favorite big-framed test subjects, "Jake the Destroyer." Jake's habit of punishing early samples was well known, and high-speed video capture of his foot during hard cuts would be the first test.
Making believers out of some of the skeptics on the team, the video showed the early version of Nike Flywire successfully holding the foot on the footbed of the shoe during the testing.
Lead designer Eric Avar remembers the discussions. "This was one of those projects that created a lot of debate among the team early on."
Once the Nike Flywire proved its mettle in testing, Avar and the team's approach was to create a design that allowed most of the shoe to fall away into the background in order to make the Flywire in the midfoot the focal point. Another new Nike innovation, Nike Lunarlon, would also make its first appearance in a basketball shoe as a key performance element of a design that borrowed elements from a shoe that, at the time, was only the stuff of legend, the Nike Mag.
The Nike Hyperdunk seized the global stage when some of the USA Basketball athletes took to the courts of Beijing looking to recapture glory. This was a seminal moment for both American hoops and the future of basketball footwear design.
Air Max 360 Basketball
"You learn from every project that you do, but I can't think of many other projects where we learned so much." -- Tracy Teague
While the game of basketball was certainly evolving into a faster, up-and-down game, there was still a player who earned his paycheck with his back to the basket and under the boards. Max Air was always the platform for those athletes who appreciated some assistance on their return to terra firma. In basketball, footwear has to accommodate a 200-plus pound athlete with upwards of 2,000 pounds of force on his feet upon landing. That's some serious force.
Dating back to the first glimpse of Visible Air in 1988's Nike Air Revolution, ballers would peer through the bigger and bigger windows all the way through the Uptempo line's evolution. And over the years, hundreds of different Air Sole units were created for maximum impact protection for the big guys.
Nike Air is the most researched and studied innovation in Nike's history. It was, and still is, the benchmark. But the one limitation for designers is that Nike Air always needs to be encapsulated in foam because the upper needs to be attached to the air bag somehow.
With the advent of the Nike Air Max 360 Air Sole, it was finally possible to create a shoe without foam, thus letting a player ball entirely on air. Utilizing thermoforming technology (versus blow-molding), Nike engineers created a smoother surface at the top of the Air Sole unit to attach it more securely to the upper. While foam has the benefit of an added cushioning tool, foam also compresses over time. So its removal meant longer-lasting consistent cushioning.
"In some ways, the Nike Air Max 360 was really our first Air Max shoe," said Tom Hartge, Creative Director for Advanced Initiatives.
While it was 25 years in the making, the original Nike Air Max 360 Air Sole was created for the running category. Behind the scenes, a brief to apply a variation of the Nike Air Max 360's running bag to a basketball shoe created multiple challenges. Engineers scrutinized the cage to evolve it from linear movement to the lateral movement demands of basketball. Pillar placement necessitated extra alterations as well in order to ensure support where it mattered.
Where the 360 project really excelled was in instigating even more specific basketball-centric innovation along similar lines. The Nike LeBron 7's carefully-honed Max application, free of obstructions, was created on the 360 assignment's learnings to reinforce Nike Basketball's dominance.
Air Zoom Huarache 2K4
"The idea was to bring back classic basketball design principles in a very modern way." -- Eric Avar
To understand how far Nike had pushed the language of basketball shoe design, by 2004 experimentation had almost become a norm, meaning a clean, classic look looked downright subversive.
The Nike Air Zoom Huarache emerged from conversations with lead designer Eric Avar and the rest of the team regarding the nature of bold and expressive shoes of the prior decade. "It was very good for the athletes and for the marketplace, but we questioned whether we were being bold and crazy for the sake of it. How could we return to more purposeful and 'grounded' product?"
Balancing modern and classic was the Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4's purpose and Eric and the team had a new kind of player in mind, operating in a zone that was neither Force, Flight nor Uptempo. "From a functional standpoint, thinking forward to the emergence of players like Kobe and his versatility -- that was the driving functional inspiration behind the product."
Studying the original Nike Air Flight Huarache's innovation, insights and exoskeleton fit, plus the Air Force 1 from a classic aesthetic standpoint, the Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 made a statement on its own terms, yet was rooted in earlier masterpieces. Having seen tiny swooshes, reverse swooshes and vast swooshes on recent shoes, Eric was keen to return to Nike's roots. "For the 2K4 we were doing a big, old-school quarter panel swoosh to make it loud and proud and bring that back."
The lightweight Phylon sole, low-to-the court Nike Zoom responsiveness, form-fitting leather/suede upper and evolved, integrated version of the ankle strap all added up to a new performance standard for Nike Basketball: a shoe built for explosiveness and quickness with a great ride.
As a further nod to its original predecessor, the Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 debuted on the courts of college basketball in March during the height of hype and basketball fervor. Sound familiar? This time young athletes took advantage of modern technology, adding personal words of inspiration to the shoes through NIKEiD.com.
Moving from spring to summer, the Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 would enjoy time on the feet of basketball athletes.
There's a reason it took several years for another shoe to earn the right of the Huarache moniker. With a sleek silhouette that shifted the prevailing mindset, as well as an influence that can be seen still today on Nike Basketball shoes, the Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 sent basketball design down yet another exciting new path.
"Design can put a dream on paper, so to speak, but it's development and manufacturing that turn the dreams into reality." -- Aaron Cooper
After breaking new ground with the 2001 Nike Zoom Hyperflight, the objective was to maintain an innate sense of speed while building on a need for support. Continuing the Zoom lineage of the basketball shoe as an object of beauty, the Nike Zoom Ultraflight was the byproduct of absolute performance and total reduction.
New approaches need new processes, and the Nike Zoom Ultraflight's designer Aaron Cooper concedes that, "From a manufacturing perspective that was not easy to do." Half tradition, half amazing, this was one shoe with two distinct styles -- an expected, premium leather side and a defiantly tech side. The development team managed to skillfully merge TPU, mesh and traditional fabrics seamlessly.
The Nike Zoom Ultraflight was informed by multiple inspirations: from a clear Nike track spike that was never produced, to a transparent deck lay on a performance car, to Cooper and Eric Avar's visit to a New York City sporting goods store. "We were amazed by this translucent snow helmet where you could see the structure of the foam underneath."
With every element visible in the Nike Zoom Ultraflight, even the inner comfort mesh had to look as good as it performed. The end result was a responsive feel and traction that changed the game again. Through pure experimentation and a conviction to manufacture the seemingly impossible, the shoe became a reality.
Twinned with a perfect balance of the "huh?" factor and classicism, Nike Basketball created its own challenge -- beat that.
"We will design you the most comfortable basketball shoe you have ever worn." -- Aaron Cooper
How do you go about equipping a warrior for court warfare and building a lasting relationship between a brand and player?
The Nike Zoom Generation had to deliver. It represented the start of a relationship with a young phenomenon named LeBron James. The Nike Zoom Generation's lead designer, Aaron Cooper, was one of the first Nike employees to be in contact with LeBron. After being shown some of Cooper's earlier works, LeBron was asked what he was looking for beyond the looks. Without missing a beat James responded, "Comfort."
For a designer, this gave the brief a fresh perspective. As Cooper recalls, "I was actually really excited to focus and build a signature product around comfort. I told him right after, 'We will design you the most comfortable basketball shoe you have ever worn. Period.'"
Further conversations defined the Nike Zoom Generation's visual direction and infusion of LeBron James' personality. This was a player who transcended Force, Flight or Uptempo. The big idea that surfaced was that LeBron was a modern soldier, a remarkable player who immediately turned heads with his freakish athleticism. His combination of size and speed was unlike anything the world had seen.
That led to a unique field boot styling, plus wheel-like eyelets with rugged vehicular inspiration and scope-inspired flash mirror coatings on reflective panels with concealed logos.
LeBron's affinity with lions -- going back to his early school days -- were applied to the sole, inspired by a lion digging its claws into the ground while hunting its prey. In the quest for ultimate comfort, a newly-developed soft foam that formed around the foot and full-length Zoom Air, double stacked at the heel, were honed to perfection.
On being handed the Nike Zoom Generation in his size by Cooper, "LeBron put them on, jumped up about four to five times, stopped and said, 'These are the most comfortable shoes I've ever worn.'"
"So if Bill Bowerman was designing a basketball shoe, what would he do?" -- Eric Avar
The Nike Air Hyperflight might look defiantly futuristic, but it's actually rooted in Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman's tireless quest for less. The Hyperflight's lead designer, Eric Avar, recalls the start of the project. "Bill Bowerman had just passed away, it was a powerful time. Bill was a spiritual icon: a teacher, coach -- and what he means to Nike is indescribable."
On the indoor basketball court on Nike's campus, Avar happened to stumble into a rehearsal screening of a video celebrating Bill's life. "It was the day before the memorial and I wasn't meant to be there watching it," recalled Avar. "I was one of the only people in there and was totally lost in the moment."
It was then that the question of how Bill would design a basketball shoe struck Avar. He'd met with Bowerman a few times over the years. "Anything I showed him he'd ask, 'Can you make it lighter?' He definitely instilled that obsession into Nike design culture and reinforced it in me."
The answer to "What would he do?" became obvious. Avar stripped everything down and created a track spike silhouette for the court. The Nike Air Hyperflight's traditional approach to creating the unconventional was a fitting tribute to a legend.
The Nike Air Hyperflight's colors would also redefine the presentation of the basketball shoe forever, paving the way for an impending colorway assault.
"The objective was for the technology itself to be the focal point -- let it be the hero." -- Eric Avar
Sometimes imagination can be tethered by manufacturing limitation. Nike Shox was already a 20-year-old concept at the time of the BB4's release. The idea was too ahead of the curve, necessitating foam that hadn't been invented yet. It resurfaced at the tail end of the 1990s, piquing the interest of Eric Avar and the design team as a visually expressive technology with a significant performance value.
By letting those newly engineered Nike Shox do the talking, Eric knew that there was no point trying to downplay the sole on a shoe like the BB4. "I believe every shoe should have one bold, iconic expression to it. Sometimes you can get away with two. Any more than that and it gets too busy and you just don't know where to focus, functionally or aesthetically."
The Nike Shox BB4's look was informed by its space age concept: a rocket and booster-like appearance was prepped for blastoff and served to amplify the explosive potential of the columns. The upper was designed for intergalactic exploration, too, as Avar and the others at mission control researched astronaut apparel. "The upper was inspired from some space suits at the time. We kept it simple and understated, but modern with a slight iridescence and reflectivity."
Vince Carter's iconic dunk of death over a seven-footer while wearing a pair secured his legendary status and drove home the power of the Nike Shox system. Off he went into the stadium atmosphere and we had lift-off. You canâ€™t synthesize that kind of moment, but maybe, just maybe, those columns gave him the confidence to pull off the ultimate "posterized" dunk.
"We were setting out to create a seamless extension of your body." -- Eric Avar
Where does the body end and the shoe begin? The Nike Air Flightposite succeeded in surprising the audience with a progressive dose of unfamiliarity that felt comfortable and strangely familiar. Its sleek, biomechanical shape communicated a certain level of humanity.
The Nike Air Flightposite's lead designer, Eric Avar recalls, "There were several concept cars out at the time that had a fluid, organic feel. We built off a similar idea that the shoe should be an extension of your foot versus this mechanical, cold 'thing'."
In line with that offbeat appearance, it's unsurprising that the main reference point is equally unexpected -- the figure drawings and anatomy of a 17th-century British artist, reflecting the rich range of physical and engineered influences at work.
In the quest for biomechanic streamlining, even laces were replaced by a zipper to emphasize a seamless fluidity. The wearer, the shoe and even the sole all merged into one for a holistic look and feel like never before. "Ultimately we designed a sock around your foot that would give you the support, security and protection that you would need. Every line mattered."
In the years that followed, the Foam and Flightposite systems would be explored further -- proof of the restless, perfectionist, reductionist minds operating in the Nike Innovation Kitchen.
Air Foamposite One
"There was no brief -- it was pure experimentation." -- Eric Avar
The Nike Air Foamposite One is a shoe that opened minds and assisted a generation of players. What many don't know is that it was inspired by sunglasses protection. Uniting the Advanced group, then known as A.P.E. (Advanced Product Engineering), marketing and the designers at Nike, lead designer Eric Avar recalls the question, "Okay, what could we do? How do we step outside of the norm of the way we look at design and manufacturing shoes?"
During a meeting, a molded sunglasses case on the table became a focal point. Made of EVA foam with a fabric cover, the case was lightweight, but it had structure and form. It inspired Avar and the team. "We were like, 'Wow, wouldn't that be great if we were able to do a shoe like that?' It was one piece, it was seamless design and it just conformed around the object."
That inspiration was just the start of a three-year endeavor to develop and refine manufacturing techniques that could reach that end goal. It was a total team effort of designers, developers and engineers.
A poured PU envelope would create a seamless fluid structure. Add the performance attributes of Nike's best basketball footwear at the time and you had a radical departure in design -- a high-performing shoe with an unorthodox appearance.
The Foamposite now needed its athlete. "We had it and we'd been working with it for some time and were, quite honestly, a little undecided on what to do with it," recalled Avar. On meeting Penny Hardaway to discuss the Nike Air Penny III, Avar brought along an early Foamposite sample. "I wasn't sure I was even going to show that sample to him. We had other ideas we were presenting. But he leaned over, looked into the bag and said, 'What is that?' He reached in, grabbed it and he says, 'This is my next shoe!' I was like, 'Okay! There's the go-to-market strategy!'"
Perhaps subconsciously, Penny was the target all along. Adding iridescent colors to the Foamposite was a logical step in a bold new process, showcasing the dimensions of the shoe and its seamless build. But why blue? Avar feels it was an unconscious decision. "I think that was one of the reasons I picked blue -- I had Penny in mind."
Air More Uptempo
"I think generally the mid-'90s were just a bigger-than-life time..." -- Wilson Smith
Sometimes less isn't more -- logic is restored, and more is more. The Nike Air More Uptempo took branding to new heights to match an unprecedented application of Nike Air that ran from the toe to the heel. The mission for lead designer Wilson Smith was simple, "How can we just let the world know and express it as well as we can?"
Inspired by the oversized objects in pop art, graffiti on the side of trains and an architectural project he had worked on, Wilson worked "AIR" into the upper to drive the point home. In 1996, cars were big, jeans were big, and big was better. The Nike Air More Uptempo was an extension of the environment.
Anti-subtle, but carefully correlated with the sole's technology, Wilson was tactical in his approach. "I knew where the air bag kind of lined up, so I flipped it and on the medial I made the 'AIR' in the other direction."
Ideal for the vertical player who needed the lockdown and abundance of cushioning, the Nike Air More Uptempo became Scottie Pippen's shoe of choice. Accompanied by the lighter Nike Air Much Uptempo, a point guardâ€™s favorite, the shoes were hard to ignore on camera as the bright lights shined on Pippen and the game's elite in Atlanta.
"She was not a girly girl. She was tough and needed her shoe to be agile and responsive, so that is what we designed." -- Marni Gerber
How much more did Sheryl Swoopes need to do to prove she deserved a shoe of her own? Scoring records for days and plenty of double-doubles before she was out of college earmarked her as the finest women's basketball player of her era. As a new league dawned in which she would shine, Sheryl was the first female player to get her own signature model -- the Nike Air Swoopes. That it rhymed with "hoops" was just a convenient coincidence.
For too long, female players made do with takedowns of men's models, hunting for smaller sizes or falling victim to the industry's shrink and pink afterthought approach to the market. The Nike Air Swoopes was developed with Sheryl's close assistance, ensuring it catered to the female foot and Her Airness' needs. The shoe's lead designer, Marni Gerber, based the design on Swoopes' personality. "It was inspired by Sheryl's tenacity and her desire to be in the face of her competition. I went to Lubbock, Texas to see her life, her family and friends. She was a tough girl with a sweet side."
The design merged great traction with agility, a rugged black Durabuck, a distinctive midfoot stability strap that cradled the foot, a contrasting color blocking strategy for maximum visibility and Nike Air in the heel and forefoot. The result was an uncompromising blend of support, performance and style.
Once the new league tipped off, males desperately hunted for the Nike Air Swoopes in a bigger size -- a glorious moment of role reversal. As the Swoopes series evolved, implementing Zoom and Tuned Air along the way, gender became irrelevant in the desire for these shoes.
"What was great about Penny was that he was always expressive and always willing to push the limits in terms of aesthetics and expression." -- Eric Avar
How do you cater to the player who can't be defined by an existing category? You create a new lane.
Penny Hardaway's personal expression and mode of play set a standard for the shoes of the future. Incredibly quick, but explosive and strong, Penny's strength and athleticism preempted a contemporary style -- so much so that his debut Nike signature model birthed the Uptempo line. The Nike Air Penny's lead designer, Eric Avar, recalls, "We had Flight and Force and we were looking at trying to dimensionalize the basketball line around this notion of versatility and that's kind of what Uptempo was."
Speed and strength couldn't be pinned down to a solitary technology, so Penny got a pair of performance aids -- a Max Air bag for impact protection and the newly developed Tensile Air, later renamed Zoom Air, for court feel. The former at the rear and the latter at the front delivered the best of both worlds for a proven combination that's echoed in contemporary Nike Basketball designs.
In terms of aesthetics, Avar just had to find a way to reflect the wearer's limitless approach. "I studied Penny's style, his game and the product just took shape from there."
That shape helped shift the silhouette of the basketball shoe in a new direction for good, with style and game perfectly imbued in each element of the Nike Air Penny. That 1Cent logo and crystal swoosh exuded confidence, hinting that this was just the start of a relationship rooted in expression and experimentation.
Air Max2 CB
"This became more and more overt as a composition. We wanted to capture Charles' game and his personality." -- Tinker Hatfield
Charles Barkley had been a Nike athlete since the days of the 1987 Nike Air Force and the low-cut Nike Alpha Force. But it took a while for him to get that all-important signature model. Maybe it was that on- and off-court attitude, the team switch or the fact that he's just "not a role model."
He didn't aspire to be a creative either.
Present some idea laden with fancy features and it would get dismissed in the big man's inimitable style. An unofficial policy of "you-don't-tell-me-how-to-play-basketball-and-I-won't-tell-you-how-to-design-shoes" gave Nike's Tracy Teague and the design team a certain freedom. One underlying theme of the shoes Charles endorsed was the need for constant lockdown to tether a force of nature during moments of on-court insanity.
It's in those moments of madness that an idea emerged: Let Charles unconsciously offer his insights through conversations and play, make the shoe shout without applying wild colors and avoid uncharacteristic smoothness. The Nike Air Max2 CB incarcerated the foot for its own safety with straitjacket-inspired support straps, reinforced lace locks and teeth-like outriggers.
The Nike Air Max2 CB was rooted in pure function. But it included a fair depiction of the athlete at work as well, and in the blow-molded application of extra Max Air there was a softness beneath the tough stuff. Whether that softness reflects the man who wore it is debatable, but it hurled the ball to the next generation of Nike shoes and challenged them to match that level of cushioning. Tinker Hatfield summarizes the Barkley projects succinctly: "The outlandishness of Charles' persona and the beauty of the product married up."
"That X was about strapping up to go into battle, because you're going to get knocked around the frickin' cage and you need to strap yourself in." -- Tinker Hatfield
Blame the yellow sticky. It took a small paper note to instigate the most hard-wearing Nike shoe to date. Delivered from the very top, it was less a request and more of an instruction: Make a shoe for outdoor basketball.
That meant now.
With Tinker Hatfield sketching and fellow designer Mark Smith deployed to New York the following day to capture the look and mood of the city's concrete battlegrounds, it became clear that this was a completely different game. This was where big league heroes could be humbled by local legends.
Rather than resorting to extra bulk, the Nike Air Raid was a shoe that needed to be built from the ground up. The sole stayed flat to ensure total contact with the ground and the quest to strike a balance between resilience and light weight resulted in an expressive and interactive design that worked with an outdoor environment. The heavy-duty lateral bumper was added out of necessity, padding was studied meticulously and Tinker's cross strap design delivered total lockdown through experience. "I was looking at how athletes tape their ankles."
That 'X' arrived at a moment when knowledge of self and roughneck aesthetics united. Through sheer coincidence, movements converged and a bubbling culture spilled into the Nike Air Raid's DNA almost unconsciously. Supported by an equally confrontational ad campaign that helped imprint an 'X' on an entire generation's psyche, caged courts got the shoes it deserved. Twenty years later, it's still one of Tinker's favorite projects. "We felt that in a short space of time, we'd caught the essence of the shoe itself -- a rougher game without officials and referees."
Air Flight Huarache
"If the shoe fits in with other things that are going on culturally, you get a perfect storm." --Tinker Hatfield
The Nike Air Flight Huarache's aesthetic swagger was in what it stripped away. A swoosh? No need for one -- it's not like this shoe could have been made by any other brand. That Dynamic Fit, exoskeleton, leather and neoprene combined to make this one of the purest expressions of performance to date.
While a maverick team -- led by intuitionist Tinker Hatfield, and assisted by Eric Avar -- worked behind the scenes to translate the Huarache running technology to the courts, it took a crew of collegiate game-changers to give the Nike Air Flight Huarache an extra ascent in terms of publicity.
If the sportâ€™s style leaders were dressing from the feet up, the Huarache was an instruction to those shorts to relax a little, because this shoe had it under control.
As the seam length of the shorts lengthened, the Huarache countered with a reductionist school of thought -- "Where can we just trim this baby back a little bit?" Tinker asked, because that minimal upper needed to be complemented by an equally stripped-down sole. That leads to the eternal question: Which came first -- this rebel shoe like no other, eclipsing a previous decade of bulk, or basketball's completely new attitude and aesthetic?
This shoe would have caused a storm either way, urging those from as far away as the nose bleeds to ask, "What was that?"
Air Force 180 Low
From Nike: "Technology has always been the thing that drives, motivates and consumes us. The Air 180 is the product of that obsession." -- Phil Knight
Catering to powerful players, the Nike Air Force 180 Low represented a significant evolution and extension of Nike Basketball's design language. At the time of this shoe's release, Nike Air was almost 14 years old and Visible Air was five. How do you build on those pressurized foundations? By adding 50 percent more cushioning.
1991's towering Nike Air Force 180 applied some pressure to become one of the biggest Nike Basketball releases of all time. But 1992's Nike Air Force 180 Low scaled things down without losing the menacing looks that united each Force release; built for pounding, blocking and intensely physical play. It was lighter than previous shoes, too. Who better to represent the Nike Air Force 180 Low ethos than Charles Barkley?
Strapping down the player for superior support, it was clear that the 180 and power basketball went together like Barkley and controversy. When the Nike Air Force 180 Low hit the hardwood in 1992, it was an iconic moment in sneaker and sporting history.
The Nike Air Force 180 Low is a classic shoe--cushioned to protect, but built to withstand.