Timeline: Highlights from a century of signature kicks


The branding relationship between high-profile basketball players and the shoes they wear is nearly as old as the game of basketball itself. Below are highlights from the last century of signature kicks — along with a few other sneakers that changed the game.

1934 | Converse Chuck Taylor All Star

A Converse Chuck Taylor All Star from 1936 — two years after the salesman’s name started appearing on the basketball shoe.

The Converse Rubber Shoe Co.’s basketball-specific All Star silhouette was introduced in 1917, and salesman (and former player for the Akron, Ohio, Firestone Non-Skids) Charles “Chuck” Taylor started organizing basketball clinics for the company in 1922. However, it wasn’t until 1934 that his name was added to the shoe, making him the godfather of basketball signature sneakers.

1958 | PF Flyers Bob Cousy All-American

At left, an early print advertisement for the PF Flyers Bob Cousy All-American. At right, a 1953 file photo of the Boston Celtics point guard and signature shoe namesake in action.
(PF Flyers, left, AP Photo, right)

Boston-based PF Flyers (now owned by New Balance) worked with Boston Celtics point guard Bob Cousy to create this basketball shoe with a canvas upper, vulcanized rubber sole and Cousy’s signature on the insole. Did it bear a striking resemblance to the Chuck Taylor? Absolutely. Did that matter? The 14 million pairs sold that first year would indicate no.

1971 | Adidas Superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

At left, an archival Adidas ad featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At right, the low-top version of the 1971 Adidas Kareem Abdul-Jabbar signature sneaker.

The same year Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. led the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA championship — and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — he inked an endorsement deal that put his signature and smiling visage on the tongue of Adidas’ Superstar sneaker. The silhouette itself had launched in late 1969, but its affiliation with the future Hall of Famer helped make the brand’s iconic trio of stripes familiar to generations of basketball fans.

1972 | Nike Blazer

A Nike Blazer high-top sneaker with green suede uppers from 1973 — the first year the swoosh-emblazoned basketball sneaker was available at retail.

The Nike Blazer silhouette (named in honor of the Portland Traiblazers), which debuted on the feet of players Sidney Wicks and Geoff Petrie in 1972 (and hit retail the following year), isn’t technically a signature shoe, but it merits mention because it marked the brand’s first major move into basketball-specific sneakers, putting the big, bold side swoosh front and center for swish after swish.

1973 | Puma Clyde

An archival ad for Puma’s Clyde sneaker — named in honor of NBA player Walt “Clyde” Frazier.

Puma’s foray into the signature basketball shoe arena came on the feet of the New York Knicks’ Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who collaborated with the brand to create a low-top sneaker that addressed his desire for a lighter shoe with more inside padding. The partnership was so successful that last year, more than four decades after the shoe launched, Puma signaled its reentry into the basketball business by inking a lifetime deal with Frazier.

1985 | Air Jordan I

A page from the first Nike Air Jordan catalog in 1985 showing four of the nine high-top colorways produced the first year.

The original Air Jordan will forever be the signature shoe that all other signature shoes — and sports endorsement deals — will be measured against, just as all marquee players will be compared to Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan himself. The Air Jordan I was released in 1985 and offered in nine high-top colorways and low-top versions. It was the black and red version — worn by Jordan in the 1985 All-Star slam-dunk contest — that caught the world’s attention. Some 34 years later, the Jordan Brand is still garnering attention — and serious dollars — generating $2.86 billion in revenue for parent company Nike in 2018.

1986 | Converse Weapon

The Converse Weapon circa 1986, left, and an archival print ad featuring college coaches Denny Crum and Bobby Cremins.

“Choose your Weapon” was the tagline for this shoe that had two of the biggest names in ’80s basketball — the Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird and the Lakers’ Magic Johnson — facing off against each other on court as well as in print and TV ads while clad in team-colorway versions of the exact same sneaker. The adversarial ad campaign would eventually feature others, but it was the rivalry — and later friendship — between the stars that put the Weapon on the map.

1988 | Air Jordan III

A pair of 1988 Air Jordan III sneakers autographed by Michael Jordan.

What makes this iteration of the Air Jordan notable — apart from it being the first mid-top style in the lineup — was that it replaced the “Wings” logo of the I and II with the Jumpman logo — depicting Jordan in silhouette with wide-stretched legs and arm elevated — that would eventually become instantly recognizable shorthand for the brand.

1991 | Reebok Pump Omni Lite

Dee Williams pumped up the pop-culture profile of the Reebok Pump in 1991.

The first version of the Reebok Pump, a sneaker that used internal air chambers to adjust the shoe’s fit, hit the market in late 1989, but it wasn’t until the Boston Celtics’ Dee Brown wore a pair of Reebok Pump Omni Lites during the 1991 NBA All-Star weekend’s slam-dunk contest — stopping to inflate his shoes before delivering a now legendary no-look dunk — that propelled it into basketball — and pop-culture — popularity. Sure, it wasn’t, technically speaking, a signature sneaker for Brown, but his name — and the Reebok Pump’s — will forever be remembered together.

1995 | Nike Air Swoopes

The Nike Air Swoopes, the debut signature shoe named in honor of Sheryl Swoopes, included a midfoot stability strap and a stylized basketball-meets-"S" logo on the tongue.

The year before she had the distinction of being the first player signed to the WNBA, Sheryl Swoopes became the first woman (and just the second athlete after Michael Jordan a decade earlier) to get a Nike signature shoe. Designed in collaboration with Swoopes, the debut Nike Air Swoopes had a midfoot stability strap with structural stitching, a stylized “S” emblazoned on the sole and a basketball-entwined “S” logo on the tongue.

1997 | Adidas KB8

The Adidas KB8, a.k.a. the Crazy 8, was Kobe Bryant’s first signature shoe.

He might have been a “Laker for life,” but before signing with Nike, Kobe Bryant began his shoe-endorsement career with Adidas. The first sneaker to bear Bryant’s name, the KB8 (later known as the Crazy 8), was released in 1997 and featured a synthetic leather upper with a textile lining, a molded EVA insole and Torsion system plate in the midfoot.

2003 | Nike Air Zoom Generation (a.k.a. the LeBron 1)

A prototype of LeBron James’ first signature shoe from the Nike archives shows a hand-drawn swoosh on the side, moved from closer to the heel.

LeBron James is up to 16 signature shoes — and counting — with Nike, and the one that started it all was the the Air Zoom Generation. Designed by Aaron Cooper and Tinker Hatfield, among others, the shoe’s symbolic nods to the player included an outsole with a lion-claw design referencing an animal James has had an affinity for since kindergarten.

2012 | Li-Ning Way of Wade

A look at the Li-Ning Way of Wade 1 the Announcement, the first signature show from Miami Heat player Dwyane Wade and the Chinese company.

Dwyane Wade wasn’t the first NBA player to sign with Chinese footwear brand Li-Ning; others included his Miami Heat teammate Shaquille O’Neal and the Philadelphia 76ers Evan Turner. However, Wade was the first to get his own sub-brand — Way of Wade — that includes apparel alongside performance and lifestyle footwear. He signed with the company in 2012, with his first sneaker hitting the U.S market (in limited quantities) the following year. In 2018, at the same time as his seventh signature shoe was unveiled in Beijing, it was announced that he signed a lifetime endorsement deal.

2015 | Under Armour Curry One

Stephen Curry's Under Armour Curry One makes its in-game debut on Jan. 9, 2015.
Stephen Curry’s Under Armour Curry One makes its in-game debut on Jan. 9, 2015.
(Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

The 2013 deal between Stephen Curry and Baltimore-based Under Armour wasn’t a first for either. The Golden State Warriors standout star previously had an endorsement deal with Nike, and Under Armour had signed its first basketball player, Brandon Jennings, in 2008. However, something about the two clicked, and when Curry stepped onto the court on Jan. 9, 2015, he wasn’t just debuting his first signature shoe, he was kicking off a new era in basketball branding — and proving that the legacy labels didn’t have a lock on the league.

2018 | Nike Adapt BB

1,500 pairs of the Nike Air Mag, left, were sold through an auction in 2011. The $350 Nike Adapt BB, right, is scheduled to hit retail Feb. 17. Both take their inspiration from a shoe that appeared in the 1989 film “Back to the Future Part II.”

If a movie could have a signature shoe, that shoe would be the self-lacing Nikes inspired by the ones Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) puts on in the 1989 film “Back to the Future Part II.” There have actually been three versions to date, the first being the high-top Nike Air Mag (it didn’t do the self-lacing thing, but it did light up), 1,500 pairs of which were auctioned in 2011 to help fund the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s fight against Parkinson’s disease. A sneaker sequel of sorts followed in October 2017 (though with a $720 price tag); the HyperAdapt 1.0 seemed as unattainable to most fans as a time-traveling DeLorean. This January, Nike unveiled the Adapt BB ($350), which finally makes the computer-driven, self-lacing (well, laceless, technically) shoe a reality. The BB in the name — it may come as no surprise — is short for basketball, and the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma were among the hoopsters who have already heightened awareness of the shoes by wearing them on court. It’s set to hit retail Sunday — the same day the NBA All-Star game takes place in Charlotte, N.C.

For more musings on all things fashion and style, follow me at @ARTschorn