February 6, 2017

Baseline Moves: A History of The Converse Pro Leather

To make history, you don’t just need to be good – you need to be the best. Take basketball for example, Julius Erving’s mind-blowing ‘Baseline Move’ layup in 1980, or Michael Jordan’s tears of joy as he held his first NBA Championship trophy – these are the kind of rare moments that are imprinted in the heart and soul of the game. But before both these superstars made their way into the Hall of Fame, they had another thing in common – the Converse Pro Leather.

Originally released in 1976 as the All Star Professional Basketball Shoe, the Pro Leather quickly rose to dominate the ball market. An early endorsement from superstar Erving earned the shoe an eponymous nickname – it became known as the ‘Dr. J’ Thanks to its technologically superior cupsole it was the lightest, most durable shoe on the court. Where the previous generation of footwear had a slab of rubber attached to the base with a strip around the midsole – all melted together in an oven – the new technology meant that a pre-molded sole unit could be stitched to the bottom of the shoe, cradling the foot for added responsiveness. In a stroke of good fortune, this technological update coincided with the evolution of the game itself – as a new fast-paced style emerged on-court, the Pro Leather proved adept at keeping pace.

Erving's baseline move

Erving's baseline move

As the shoe’s superior sole gained traction in the sport, Converse started producing a white version with neutral coloured Star Chevron branding. This iteration even came with a set of markers that allowed owners to modify their shoes to match their team colours. Perhaps this is the precursor to the home customisation trend that would help define the sneaker scene of the early 2000s? Over the course of the 70s, the Pro Leather experienced a few more evolutions. After its first year on the hardwood, the Chevron was changed from the original tapered design to one with a more uniform thickness, giving it bold branding that was instantly recognisable. Prior to the dawn of the new decade, the padding was removed from the tongue in order to provide more flexibility and less bulk. Later in its life, the silhouette was slimmed down, the ankle was reinforced and Converse began using urethane coated leather to prevent scuffs.

During this period the NBA’s biggest players were dominating in the Pro Leather. In the same championship game as Julius Erving’s baseline move, then-rookie player Magic Johnson led the LA Lakers to victory, winning Finals MVP in the very same shoe. After being drafted by the Celtics – on what was, at the time, the highest paying rookie contract in league history – Larry Bird opted for the canvas version. Nevertheless, his black and white Converse were front and centre. You couldn’t watch a game without seeing the Star Chevron front and centre – the Pro Leather was the basketball shoe of the era. At the same time, a fresh-faced Michael Jordan was laying the foundations for his monumental legacy.

Dr. J flying high

Dr. J flying high

Towards the end of his college career, a young MJ hit the winning shot in the final seconds of North Carolina’s NCAA championship game. In fact, this was the college star’s first televised performance, and he dazzled viewers with his aerial antics while rocking the Pro Leather – earning the shoe a new nickname in the process, the ’buzzer beaters’. When he was drafted to the NBA in 1984, Mike’s feet were firmly planted in Converse. He was even seen wearing the Star Chevron on the podium after he led the US Olympic team to gold during his rookie year. According to sports journalist Jack McCullem in his book Dream Team, Jordan was such a fan of the shoes that he personally wanted to sign with Converse once he joined the big league – but that’s a story for another time.

Michael Jordan in college

Michael Jordan in college

Unfortunately for the Pro Leather, by the mid-80s its days on the court were numbered. Converse had been busy developing the first athletic biomechanics laboratory in the industry. After years of research and development, Converse’s lab started to turn out stunning innovations in midsole cushioning, energy return technology and motion control devices – resulting in shoes like the aptly named StarTech, which released in ‘85. Through the next decade, the game underwent a new wave of progression, and the cupsole of the Pro Leather was no match for the highly engineered tech-boots that began hitting the parquet floors.

Still, even as the Pro Leather gracefully bowed out of the game, its legacy continued to reverberate in the streets. Ever since Dr. J had signed with Converse, kids had scraped together pocket money and begged their parents in the hopes of donning the prestigious kicks. As concentric circles of influences swept the schoolyard like ripples in a pond, the sneaker became the standard for in-the-know ballers, as well as the b-boys and MCs of the burgeoning hip hop movement. The laces were loose and the colours were coveted – in New York, kids hunted for purple Lakers versions that were unique to the West Coast, and it seemed like no one could figure out where the highly sought after suede versions originated from.

The Startech takeover begins

The Startech takeover begins

Juice Crew's Biz Markie getting in tight with Converse, 1990

Juice Crew's Biz Markie getting in tight with Converse, 1990

Less than ten years after its original release, the Converse Pro Leather was a big-ticket item in a new currency of cool. It wasn’t just the hip hop kids who embraced the Star Chevron either, the early skate scene quickly recognised that the shoe could take a heavy on-board beating and still bounce back. Rodney Mullen’s endless flip variations and Mark ‘Gator’ Rogowski’s heavy shredding both went down in the high-cut versions that offered them some serious ankle support. Later, Guy Mariano would sport the low-cut in his seminal video part on Girl’s ’96 release, Mouse, along with the Converse One Star.

By this time the Pro Leather had become a fixture of youth culture – traversing movements and audiences as easily as it once glided around the hardwood. For the coming decades, the Pro Leather would remain a subcultural staple, embraced by those who loved its understated style. That is, until Converse celebrated their centennial year in 2008, bringing back the original ’76 edition to mark the momentous occasion. The stitch-for-stitch retro version took the Chevron back to its original tapered style and rounded out the silhouette to its original form. Nostalgia kicked in and the vintage look took off – the OG Pro Leather was back in the cultural spotlight!

Guy Mariano's Pro Leather in 'Mouse'

Guy Mariano's Pro Leather in 'Mouse'

As the era of collaboration dawned, the model received numerous facelifts. Streetwear heavies like SSUR and Stüssy were creating their own takes on the shoe, while fashion devotees were satiated via a Comme des Garçons version. Nowadays, the collaborative alumni include names such as X-Large, Patta, Mike Giant, Bodega, Footpatrol, CLOT and United Arrows. A diverse segment of the celebrity world has embraced the beloved sneaker as well, with the likes of Jay Z, Jason Segel, Cara Delevingne and Daniel Radcliffe numbering among its fans.

The Converse Pro Leather has dominated the court and redefined style – in the process helping to change the game and allow superstars to shine brighter than ever before. As an entire generation grew up seeing their idols realise their dreams in the shoe, it became inseparable from these manifestations of greatness. Thanks to the attitude and flair of its early adopters, the shoe became synonymous with cool. With its place in the history books definitively inked, it’s time to flip the pages and see what future chapters will entail for this storied sneaker.

The new  Converse Pro Leather ’76 is available now from Converse retailers globally.

ASAP Ferg in the Comme Des Garçons colab

ASAP Ferg in the Comme Des Garçons colab

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