While the on-court action could be described as the heart of the game, the ‘sole’ belongs to the sneaker culture that has been part of the fabric of the sport ever since Converse debuted their All Star basketball shoe way back in 1917.
As the All Star’s took off in the 1920s and 30s, Chuck Taylor would help catapult the brand into public consciousness, which provided the impetus for the likes of Adidas to be founded.
Fast forward to 1984 and the colliding of two aspirational figures in their respective fields changed the game forever. Nike and Chicago Bulls’ rookie shooting guard, Michael Jordan.
‘84 was also former NBA commissioner David Stern’s first year in office, as he ushered in a new commercial wave of player-centric focus which proved pivotal to Jordan’s take over.
The Air Jordan I’s were born into controversy as the infamous black and red colourway — now known as the ‘banned’ colourway among sneakerheads — was against NBA regulation, and Jordan was fined five thousand dollars every time he stepped on court wearing them.
Even in his rookie season publications like The New York Times and Sports Illustrated were already crowning Jordan as the next great of the game. But his fast-growing fame led to player backlash, and the so-called ‘freeze-out’, when players stopped passing to the Bulls’ man.
The brand’s progressiveness was almost halted in its tracks as Stern found the flashiness of this new-fangled fashion statement ‘too flamboyant’. But he couldn’t halt the wave of change, as the Air Jordan line expanded to new heights which now spans across 35 years and counting, with the latest AJ XXXV in 2020.
Adidas and Reebok would take advantage of this new wave of individualism sweeping the sport in the 1990s and 2000s. LA Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal signed a multi-year deal with Reebok in ‘92, launching his popular Shaq Attaq’s and Shaqnosis line.
Allen Iverson’s Reebok Answer IV OG’s debuted in his historic 2000-01 MVP campaign. It was really the synergy between basketball and hip-hop in the mid noughties – which Iverson fronted – that catapulted sneaker culture to a whole new level. Not forgetting three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade’s Converse and later Air Jordan brand deals.
This individualism is also firmly embedded in NBA 2K22 itself, particularly through the Shoe Creator modification.
Whether it’s the colour palette, a rubber sole, the laces or even as specific as the heel logo, customise your own unique brand of sneakers based off real-life shoes worn by players in the NBA, to make your in-game player look and feel the part.
Kobe Bryant’s Nike-branded Zoom Kobe 1’s first debuted in 2006 against the Toronto Raptors. And while they may not have the pull power of the Air Jordan’s, Kobe’s Nike collaboration represented a different type of energy – you could call it the ‘Mamba mentality’. To this day, Kobe 6 Grinch’s are still worn by players in the league.
But it was 2003 rookie LeBron James that would attempt to take the baton from Michael Jordan, both on and off the court. James signed a $90 million contract with Nike even before playing a single NBA game. It would have another transformative effect on the league and sneaker culture, just like the Chicago Bulls great in ’84.
His first signature shoe, the LeBron Air Zoom Generation, landed in 2003. 18 years on and 26 releases later, he lands the Nike LeBron 18s in 2020 and retros of the LeBron 8s in 2021.
James’ star rose to exponential levels over this period and has garnered a fan base far beyond his exploits on the court. While his sneaker empire shows no sign of slowing down, there’s been a host of new icons to grace the shoe game.
Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry is now widely-regarded as one of, if not the, best three-point shooter the NBA has ever seen. His signature collection with Under Armour began in 2015 as he rocked the Curry 1’s en route to his first NBA championship.
And this brings us to the latest in the line of college superstars, who’s play on court has transcended the sport already in his nascent NBA career. One of GiveMeSport’s top 10 players to watch , New Orleans Pelicans’ Zion Williamson is the first Gen-Z player to design his own shoe with Jordan Brand.
Sneaker culture has permeated basketball culture to such a degree that players are creating sneaker collections inside of NBA 2K22.
Head on over to the Promenade aboard the Cancha del Mar cruise ship within 2K22 to have a good look at all of the different signature sneakers from brands, including Nike, Adidas, Jordan and New Balance, from the players mentioned above as well as others including Damian Lillard, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and James Harden.
Jordan himself has endorsed Williamson’s partnership: “Zion’s incredible determination, character, and play are inspiring,” he said in a statement. “He’s an essential part of the new talent that will help lead the brand into the future. He told us he would ‘shock the world,’ and asked us to believe him. We do.”
It passes the torch to yet another generation of up-and-coming talent, which only serves to further exemplify just how embedded sneaker culture is across the NBA.