Look Book: The Golden Era of Basketball Sneakers

Ah, the mid-90's. Hip-hop was cresting, logos on clothing were de rigueur, and athletic shoes–specifically basketball–were in their golden age. Nike, of course, was the driving force and major player, but Converse and Reebok also contributed some leading designs, too. Adidas wouldn't really enter until Kobe Bryant's first shoe in 1998, but there were a lot of smaller players contributing: And1, Ewings, and even Fila (with Grant Hill's signature shoe). Here are a collection, in chronological order, of 9 favorites.

Converse Aero-Jam (1993)

The colorways for Larry Johnson's shoe looks dated now, but the black and teal was on-point for the times. One of the first full lace-strap covers, and the use of a translucent midsole on the heel would be a sign of a coming trend.

Nike Air Diamond Turf (1993)

A training/turf shoe created for Deion Sanders (the tongue had a logo that included his baseball and football uniform numbers).

A particularly distinctive shoe because of the unusual usage of Nike's marks. Note the absence of a swoosh from the side which, aside from Jordan's, Nike hadn't done at all (and is still rare).

This was also around the time Nike was really pushing the swoosh as its own logo mark, without the "Nike" text attached. Thus, the swoosh shows up here on the extra-wide spat strap (another new, for the era, device).

Nike Unlimited (1994)

A groundbreaking shoe in three ways. First, Nike’s swoosh, which previously had been a large design element on the side of a shoe, was made into a small, complementary graphic. Second, the shoe, being a close cousin to Nike’s Huarache line of shoes, is stripped of excess material and features visible windows with criss-crossing lace straps, giving the shoe more of a custom fit. Third, the use of a nylon inner bootie, which on the Unlimited goes fairly far up the ankle, was unheard of. Of course, the shoe–worn by Michigan in all black with baggy shorts–looked really cool, too.

Nike Air Penny 1 (1995)

My personal favorite athletic shoe, ever. The forward-flinging white outsole, contrasted with the black upper, gives the shoe a really dynamic aesthetic. The clear acrylic swoosh is a unique design element, something that would make a few more appearances in other Nike shoes. Before this time, the swoosh was always stitched or glued onto the shoe. The full Air window in the heel wasn’t unheard of, but was still unique. A shoe that really stands out when in action.

Air Jordan XI (1995)

Jordan's most popular shoe, really took athletic shoe design to the next level–particularly the patent leather upper and translucent outsole. Additionally, the customized font on the shoe, barely legible but very cool, helped launch a true push into Jordan's Jumpman clothing line.

Reebok Question (1996)

Allen Iverson's first shoe, and the most popular basketball sneaker in Reebok's history. Was the first Reebok to have windows showcasing Reebok's Hexagon material cushioning system. A great balance of white and color, too. Began a trend with Reebok where most of the shoes featured translucent outsole , so much so that they may have begun to overdo it. Has never gone out of production.

Nike Air Uptempo (1996)

A basketball shoe created for Scottie Pippen, notable for heel-to-toe air pockets, and for the austentatiousness of making letterforms part of a shoe's design. Also, the shoe doesn't say Nike anywhere on the outside, instead having an oversized swoosh, slightly offset, on the heel of the upper.

Air Jordan XIV (1998)

The shoe Jordan wore when he hit "The Shot". The 14 takes design cues from his Lamborghini Ferrari 550M, resulting in a great looking toe box and a unique use of treaded rubber on the heel's upper. Overall a great silhouette, and very light, too.

Nike Lebron IV (2006)

Nike seems to release new Lebrons every week, but the three prior were heavy and plodding, taking design cues from James' Hummer. I’m a big fan of shoes with black uppers and white midsoles–they just look so smooth–and this cleanly designed shoe features a black foamposite upper and white midsole. Cutouts reveal the shoe's structure and a strap around the tounge to secure a snug fit.

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  1. Excellent review...but a correction. The Jordan X1Vs were modeled after his Ferrari 550M.

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