In 1984, Nike released the “Air Jordan” sneakers, worn by Chicago Bulls rookie guard Michael Jordan. NBA Commissioner David Stern tried to bar Jordan from wearing the red-and-black shoes, but that only helped their popularity. But while the Air Jordan line revolutionized the athletic shoe business, it was not the first time an NBA player endorsed a sneaker.
In the 1950 and ‘60s, most NBA players wore shoes made of canvas and rubber: either the Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars or the Pro-Keds Royals. And all but one team wore them in white. When Red Auerbach took over the Boston Celtics in 1950, he switched the team’s shoes to black and they became as much a part of Celtics’ lore as dead spots in the parquet floor of the Boston Garden or freezing locker rooms for visiting teams.
In 1971, Milwaukee Bucks center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became the first NBA player to endorse a particular brand of basketball shoe as, just months after leading his Bucks to the NBA ttle and changing his name from Lew Alcindor, Abdul-Jabbar signed a contract with adidas. The Jabbar, as the shoes were popularly known, included a small graphic of Abdul-Jabbar’s face and copy of his signature on the tongue, and – of course -- adidas’ signature three-lined look on the sides. Unlike the Chuck Taylor All-Stars or the Royals, the Jabbars were white leather with navy lines and a cream-colored sole. It was a big hit for adidas and soon other shoe companies battled to sign big name basketball players.
In the 1970 NBA playoffs, New York Knicks guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier wore white Chuck Taylor All Stars with blue shoelaces on one foot and orange on the other. Even on the court, Frazier made a fashion statement. So it was not a surprise that the Puma shoe company approached Frazier later that year, offering him $5,000 to name their new sneaker the “Clyde” in his honor. Two years later, Puma signed Frazier to a contract guaranteeing him $25,000 annually plus twenty-five cents for each pair of sneakers sold. “The Puma Clyde, just like its namesake, was the perfect mix of style and substance,” one journalist recalled, “the first sneaker also designed to make a fashion statement.” It was a low-cut shoe in suede, at a time when most sneakers were canvas or leather, perfectly matching Frazier’s coolness and cross-over appeal.
Soon kids everywhere were sporting the Clydes, making them the coolest shoe on the market. In many cities, shoes became a form of self-identification and could be personalized (using markers or paint) to create highly individualized looks. “Sneakers were how you defined yourself,” one New York City resident recalled, “how you claimed an identity amidst an overpopulated city full of adversity.” Even NBA players took to personalizing their kicks. Swen Nater wore his wedding ring on his shoes during games and Darnell Hillman, sporting a huge afro hairstyle and out-of-the-gym leaping ability, had “Dunk” inscribed on the back of his sneakers.
The only shoe to rival the suede Clydes for popularity in the mid-seventies was the high-top leather Converse Pro Model, hawked by ABA legend “Dr. J” Julius Erving. In 1976, Converse unveiled their new shoes and the Pros became the shoe of choice for many NBA players – as many as 70-75% of NBA players wore them in the mid-seventies. Capitalizing on their popularity among pro ballers, Converse released color-specific models for each NBA squad.
With the Puma Clydes and Converse Pro Models dominating the NBA sneaker market, rival companies including PONY, adidas, and Nike came up with their own campaigns to break into the field. PONY signed up young stars like David Thompson and Darryl Dawkins to try and appear hip to a younger crowd. Adidas responded by collaborating with All-Star forward Rick Barry. Barry, always the perfectionist, showed up with a list of improvements and ideas designed to make his adidas shoe more comfortable and better able to stand up to the rigors of an NBA season. Later in the decade, adidas released their “Top Ten” sneaker design, intended to be the signature shoe of the ten ‘best’ NBA players at the time: Doug Collins, Marques Johnson, Kermit Washington, Bobby Jones, Billy Knight, Sidney Wicks, Mitch Kupchak, Kevin Grevey, and future Hall of Famers Adrian Dantley and Bob Lanier. While maybe not reflective of the actual ten top players in the league, adidas was clearly all-in on selling sneakers using NBA players as spokesmen. “Players are actually paid to wear certain shoes,” one contemporary journalist remarked. “The motto of the NBA seems to be: If the shoe fits, wear it – if the money’s right.”
Despite the success in the seventies of Puma, Converse, PONY, and adidas, the company which would surpass them all in popularity among both NBA basketball players and the cultural mainstream began in Oregon. In 1970, as the story goes, Bill Bowerman of “Blue Ribbon Sports” created a signature waffle-soled shoe design by stamping rubber in his wife’s waffle iron. The following year, Jeff Johnson renamed the company “Nike” after the Greek winged goddess of victory and Phil Knight commissioned the now-famous “swoosh” design. The Nike Blazer, though not endorsed by a specific player, was a hot shoe among basketball players both in the Association and on the playground. It was, one journalist recalled, “the ‘it’ sneaker of the early ‘70s.” To build off their brand popularity, Nike introduced the Nike Air Tailwind in the late seventies and soon the company became synonymous with physical fitness and exercise.
When Nike released the Air Jordans in 1984, they could not have known that their shoe would revolutionize the industry. But Michael Jordan was not the first professional basketball player to endorse a sneaker. In fact, for more than a decade, players were known by what they wore on their feet – from the Jabbars to the Clydes and the Top Ten.
Adam Criblez is the author of the upcoming book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA.
Click https://goo.gl/mFq3aD to pre-order Tall Tales and Short Shorts.
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 Osborne, Ben, ed. Slamkicks: Basketball Sneakers that Changed the Game (New York: Universal Publishing, 2013). 32.
 Garcia, Bobbito. Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987 (New York: Testify Books, 2013, 52.
 Frazier, Walt with Dan Markowitz. The Game Within The Game. (New York: Hyperion, 2006).
 Slamkicks, 43.
 Osborne, Slamkicks, 43; Freedarko Presents The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), 103.
 Garcia, Where’d You Get Those?, 18.
 Osborne, Slamkicks, 37; Garcia, Where’d You Get Those?, 84.
 Osborne, Slamkicks, 60.
 Osborne, Slamkicks, 60.
 Levy, Paul, “Individual Preferences Decide the Pros Choice of Basketball Shoes,” Basketball Digest, May 1978, pp. 44.
 Osborne, Slamkicks, 56.