For decades, basketball sneakers weren’t like other sneakers. Take Reebok’s “The Question,” Allen Iverson’s signature shoe: truly ridiculous, enormous moon-boot type high-tops with a whopping four visible bubbles of Reebok’s “Hexalite” shock absorption technology in each shoe. That look—elaborate, bulky high-tops—has quietly begun its exit from the upper echelons of the basketball world, and the reason why reveals a lot not just about sneaker culture but about the changing way professional basketball is played, and how the dramatic move away from the late ’90s, early ’00s culture of maximalism affects even the bombastic world of professional sports.
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For the first time, a generation of players is playing in low-tops. The signature shoes of many of the NBA’s superstars—James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant—are minimalist low-tops. Today’s highest-tech, most forward-thinking basketball sneakers don’t look like basketball sneakers. And the sneakerheads who love the rich history of the high-top basketball silhouette have had to look beyond the basketball court for inspiration.
Professional basketball players haven’t always played in high-tops—as a matter of fact, they haven’t always even had sneakers specifically designed for basketball—but since the 1960s, high-tops have been the norm. Starting with high-top Keds and moving to Chuck Taylors, leather Nikes, Air Jordans, and those Reeboks, the height of a shoe’s upper has long been what makes it a basketball sneaker.
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There are exceptions. “People have been playing in low tops as long as there has been basketball, to a degree,” says Russ Bengston, a senior editor at Complex who has spent two decades writing about basketball sneakers and sneaker culture. But starting in the late 1970s with the Adidas Top Ten, players, trainers, and sneaker makers all began to assume that a high-top was an essential tool of high-level basketball, primarily for reasons of ankle support. Basketball requires a great deal of lateral and up-and-down movement, which can strain the tendons and bones of the foot and ankle. Basketball players aren’t just at risk of turning, spraining, or breaking their ankles—it’s practically guaranteed. And there are only so many times you can avoid landing on another player’s foot. “Ankle injuries are probably the most common bone and joint injuries that basketball players suffer,” says Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert who works extensively with basketball players.
The Adidas Top Ten Courtesy Adidas
The theory is pretty simple: A high upper, pulled nice and tight, straps the ankle into place, giving that joint more support and preventing it from twisting dangerously. Makes sense! Except. There has never been a single study that proves or even solidly indicates that a high-top sneaker prevents ankle injuries compared with a low-top. “There’s no science out there, that we have at least, that proves that a high-top shoe is more effective at reducing ankle injuries than anything else,” says Kevin Dodson, Nike’s senior design director for basketball footwear. The past six years—we can date it pretty precisely—have stripped the classic basketball shoe of all the extras it doesn’t need. A truly great basketball sneaker doesn’t really need visible air bubbles or diamond-shaped Hexalite or reinforced Velcro straps or, especially, a high upper that hugs the ankle.
Nike likes to tell the story of how it changed the basketball sneaker forever in a moment of near-mythical superstar insight. In 2008, Kobe Bryant, already in the league 12 years, decided for the fourth shoe in his Nike Zoom Kobe line, he wanted something different. “We got around to his next shoe, just talking future ideas and concepts, and he point-blank said, ‘I want the lowest, lightest-weight basketball shoe ever,'” said Eric Avar, one of Nike’s superstar sneaker designers, in a video interview. “‘I want to prove to people that you can wear a low-top basketball shoe.'”
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The official story, which feels sort of like a calm monologue in an ad, is that Kobe, though he attended high school just outside of Philadelphia, was mostly raised in Italy, and was passionate about soccer. Kobe noticed that soccer players, aside from the jumping unique to basketball, play in a fairly similar way to basketball players: lots of quick changes in direction, a lot of cutting, variation between sprinting and slower speeds, a need to suddenly spring in one direction or another. And when was the last time you saw a high-top soccer cleat? Is it possible that high-tops aren’t necessary for basketball, either?
Streeter Lecka; Shoe courtesy NikeGetty Images
The fact that Kobe was already established as the league’s leading superstar, and that he had already released several well-received namesake shoes, made it much easier for people to give his crazy-looking Zoom Kobe IV, released in 2008, a chance. “I think Kobe to a certain extent normalized it, and said ‘OK, we can develop something that’s going to work really well as a low specifically,’ and not, ‘We’re going to cut down this high top,'” says Bengston. And the Kobe IV turned out to be a legitimately great shoe: People loved the feeling of freedom, the lightness and newness of a low-top basketball shoe that performed just as well as a high-top. Other sneaker-makers followed, and by now about half of Nike’s entire basketball lineup consists of low-tops. “I think a lot of people took it on faith,” says Bengston. “And once you had that first group wearing it, and more specifically Kobe wearing it, I think people took to it in droves.”
There’s a reason for the players’ embrace of the minimalist low-top. The research backs up that Kobe’s crazy new shoes, and the many lows that would follow it, might actually be better for basketball players than the enormous boots it aimed to replace.
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Nike was already perfectly aware that no research really indicated high-tops are more stable or preventative than low-tops; in fact, Nike makes it a point not to create high-tops that significantly support the ankle, because to do that would mean restricting motion. You can’t stop an ankle from turning if you don’t firmly keep it in place. “We’re not going to construct a shoe to be like an ankle brace or a boot, because athletes will tell us over and over that they don’t want that,” says Dodson. “They don’t want to be restricted to that degree.”
There have been a few different studies over the past decade specifically looking at high-top versus low-top as regards ankle protection. A recent one, from 2014, found no significant differences in most ways between the two: no difference in the maximum angle of ankle inversion, no difference in the velocity or range of motion of ankle inversion. In other words, no evidence that a high-top will have any effect on an action that could potentially sprain an ankle.
There are plenty of options for players who really do want or need that kind of restrictive support. It’s extremely common for players from high school on up to the pros to tape their ankles before games, which certainly does limit motion, but only for a little while, because tape stretches out fairly quickly. Other players with delicate ankles opt for braces. Steph Curry, for example, after dozens of sprains to his ankles, opted to wear Zamst A2-DX ankle braces during every game. He’s rarely had an ankle injury since. Curry also wears high-tops, but he doesn’t need to; his braces, not his sneakers, support his ankles.
But both Dodson and Geier noted that while high-tops haven’t been proven to prevent ankle injuries, there might be something to them. The term we have to understand here is “proprioception,” which is, essentially, a person understanding the position of their body in space. The high upper doesn’t restrict motion, but having a snug bit of fabric around the ankle acts as a trigger to the athlete’s brain—basically, when the athlete feels the sneaker’s upper tug and compress on his or her ankle, the athlete subconsciously is reminded of that ankle and the need to position that ankle in a way as to avoid injury.
It’s the same idea as neoprene sleeves. “We know that’s not really stabilizing the knee at all, it’s just neoprene—but it kind of gives your brain a sense of ‘OK, that’s where my knee is,'” says Geier. These sleeves are proven over and over to not have any effect whatsoever on the athlete physically. Any benefit they have is all in the player’s head, which, weirdly, can have an indirect physical benefit. In other words, both neoprene sleeves and high-top sneakers could create a real effect with an imaginary cause.
In the 1980s and 1990s, with basketball sneakers all looking basically the same—big bulky high-tops—there was a distinct crossover between the basketball world and the fashion world of sneakerheads. “Jordan, as a brand and as a concept, they always tried to shake things up every year,” says Bengston. “And people would buy it every year because they knew, well, this is the new Air Jordan. They might not get what they’re doing with it yet, but they knew they had to get it.” People who wanted to show off their interest in basketball would wear basketball sneakers, and specifically the sneakers worn on the court, by Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Shawn Kemp, and many, many more.
The Jordan line is the most important line in the history of basketball fashion; the shoes are instantly identifiable as expensive, flashy, and desirable. So in the fashion world, the move away from late-20th Century maximalism, of which the Jordans were a part, was a huge shift. “For awhile there was like, if you’re gonna buy a cool shoe and an expensive shoe, especially if you’re in high school, if it has some kind of technology in it, people have to see it,” says Bengston. That’s why we got visible air bubbles, Hexalite, LED lights, velcro, big straps and buckles and air pumps and a thousand colors and patterns and who knows what else.
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This set the stage for the separation between the sneakerhead world and the athletic world that continues today. Sneakerheads want look cool, and if part of that cool is that a star NBA player wears the shoes, that’s great. But it’s secondary to looking cool. For NBA players, the aesthetics come in a distant second to performance. And if they have to choose between what looks cool and what the sports scientists say works best, they’ll go with the sports scientists every time. “As basketball has progressed as a sport, and as the technology in shoes has gotten considerably better, basketball shoes have almost become reserved only for the court, as opposed to on the street,” says Jian Deleon, the editorial director at High Snobiety.
For sneakerheads today, what players wear on the court serves more as an inspiration for street style than as something to directly emulate. The most popular basketball sneakers for casual use today are retros, like this bonkers Air Jordan 7 Sweater. Or they’re riffs on specific moments in basketball history, like the Jordan 12 “Flu Game,” worn my Michael in the 1997 NBA Finals as he put up 38 points while extremely sick. Or the “Badge of Honor” Kyrie 3, based on an incident from Kyrie Irving’s high school days after he bashed his head on the bottom of a hotel pool and had to play the next game in a big bandage. (The insoles are designed to look like a pool and are emblazoned with the words “no diving.”)
For sneakerheads today, what players wear on the court serves more as an inspiration for street style than as something to directly emulate.
These are basketball sneakers, yes, but they’re not designed for the modern-day basketball court. They’re fashion items that nod to basketball. Most sneaker companies even put out modified versions of high-performance basketball sneakers called “lifestyle” lines. If you’re wearing some sneakers on the subway, you don’t need proprioception research and deep impact protection, but you may still want to nod to the players. So Nike, Adidas, and others will strip down the performance-based shoes, pop in standard soles, badge them up with cool colorways and stories, and release them for the public.
The footwear worn by basketball players has long been popular in the fashion world in ways that other sports have never enjoyed; you don’t wear soccer or football cleats, or track shoes, to be fashionable. But the technology and science have caught up, so sneakerheads have figured out ways to wear “basketball sneakers” that shouldn’t really be worn on the court.
Off the court, the sneaker world has exploded into a million splinters of limited-edition colorways, retro rereleases, and modified lines. On the court, the same thing has happened. No longer will a center and a point guard wear the same style of sneaker.
Mostly, a basketball player’s choice in footwear comes down to personal preference, maybe with a dash of proprioception-enhanced superstition thrown in. Dodson told me that he primarily sees shorter, lighter, more agile players—guards and wings—embrace the lowest-tops, while goliath centers still rely on high-tops. He phrased this in a sort of marketing-y way, that “explosive” players look for certain things while “quick” or “fluid” players look for another. I’m not aware of any study that’s forced a player to run timed drills while wearing both high-tops and low-tops to find out which is more effective; the players pretty much just pick whatever feels good and looks cool. James Harden, for example, picked low-top, lightweight shoes to fit his perimeter-or-drive-into-the-opposing-center style of play—and wanted his signature low-top Adidas to be recognizable without having a big logo on them.
Scott Halleran; Shoe courtesy AdidasGetty Images
So what do basketball shoes even need? What makes them different than a running shoe, or a cross-trainer? A basketball shoe “has to have enough shock absorption to protect the foot and ankle and also the knee and the rest of the lower body from the wear and tear of running up and down the court and jumping all the time,” says Geier. You want a molded footbed with good heel support to keep the foot in place; a foot that slides around is a foot that’s vulnerable to sliding into the wrong position. And that’s…pretty much it.
Because the requirements for a basketball shoe are fairly minimal, we end up with a proliferation of choice. Basically anyone can wear any shoe, so the final decision is left up to personal preference, and players have firm ideas about exactly what they want in a sneaker. That’s meant that there isn’t just one basketball sneaker for all basketball players: there are dozens. There are small-forward-sized players who can play center in small-ball lineups (Draymond Green); 7’3″ centers who can, and have, made a case to compete in the three-point contest (Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis); and 6’11” freaks of nature who play point guard (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant). Each of these players will want something slightly different in their sneaker—some particular alignment of support, cushioning, lightness, and freedom of motion. That dovetails with the changing way the NBA is played. There’s no longer one kind of shoe—a big, bulky high-top—because there are so many new types of players.
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Modern performance-based basketball sneakers range from tightly-strapped military-looking boots (the Lebron 10) to indoor-soccer-looking lows with a protruding tongue (the KD 9) to smooth, slipper-like lows (the Harden Vol. 1) to knit lows with sock-like uppers (the Nike React Hyperdunk 2017). All totally different. And all sort of subdued and utilitarian, to be honest. NBA athletes don’t make their fashion splash on the court; they make it as they walk to the locker room or conduct post-game interviews. For the fashion-focused, that’s where the interesting stuff is.
Nike Air Force 1
Nike Air Force 1 Low
The low sneaker was realised in ’83 (a year after the high top) and caught the attention of the sneakerhead community; it was presented as a casual alternative to the original. Production of the Air Force 1 Low ended in ’84 at the end of its year life-cycle, but the demand was so great that Nike eventually caved and brought back the sneaker in ’86. In the late 90s, the sneaker because a symbol of the everyday hustler, admired in equal part for their design and comfort. Idolised by some of the 90s biggest rap artists, the adoption by the Hip-Hop community took the Air Force 1 Low to new heights. It remains the most popular version of the Air Force 1 to date.
Nike Air Force 1 High
The High-top version of the Air Force 1 was the original design that was released in ’82. Released as a performance silo, Nike were targeting the basketball market. The kick was design by Bruce Kilgore, and it was his first attempt at a basketball silo. The design brought several innovations that placed it ahead of typical basketball sneakers: due to the cut of the tread, it provided more flexibility than most, while also introducing the, now quintessential, circular outsole – allowing players to manoeuvre more easily without losing grip. Still used on the courts almost 40 years later, the kick is also now a street essential.
Nike Air Force 1 Suede
The Air Force 1 Suede is the premium reworking of the classic low cut. Replacing the hard leather upper with soft suede leather, it is an essential switch up from the classic look, something that has kept the Air Force 1 relevant for the past 40 years. Utilising tonal colours to create a uniform look, the Air Force 1 Suede retains the iconic encapsulated Air unit to the heel for a spring in every step. Check out the range of colourways.
Nike Air Force 1 Flyknit
Switching up the look and improving on performance, the Air Force 1 Flyknit pushes the sneaker further than ever before. Switching out the classic leather upper for a lightweight and breathable flyknit, the Air Force 1 Flyknit kick shows that the Air Force an essential for performing on the court as well as styling up the streets.
Nike Air Force 1 LV8
The Air Force 1 LV8 takes the iconic sneaker and mixes and matches materials for standout results. The LV8s consist of solid leather uppers with various types of textile detailing to the toes and sidewalls for a contrast look and feel. The textile offers a breathable switch up while retaining all the essential elements of the OG silo. Perfect for keeping your Air Force 1s lively, check them out below.