Material Matters: The Do's and Don'ts of Basketball Shoes
Basketball has been a driving force behind sneaker technology since the beginning of time – well, almost. It all started with the humble canvas Converse Non-Skid, the forerunner to the ubiquitous All Star. Of course, this kind of posterity is rare when it comes to footwear design. There aren’t really any other basketball shoes that come close to the success of Chuck Taylor’s favourite sneaker, but that doesn’t stop anyone from trying – and there have been some unusual attempts over the years.
Today the parquet court plays host to some of the most advanced technology in the sneaker game. This season LeBron James will step up in Nike’s new LeBron 15, an all-out assault of technological mastery created by Jason Petrie. The design features Nike’s latest version of Flyknit debuting with a mean new name: BattleKnit. The newly constructed upper is the latest and greatest response to one of LeBron’s ongoing requirements from the Swoosh: ‘Lock me down so I can fly.’ The knit’s diamond pattern allows the shoe to hug tightly, but flex and move with the foot for an explosive response.
The new Nike BattleKnit design may be an elegant way of achieving the much sought-after lockdown, but previous attempts weren’t quite so graceful. Nike’s early-90s pump system is one of the more forgettable examples. In a blatant ‘us too!’ response to Reebok’s revered tech, the Swoosh’s attempt straight up lacked sophistication. First off, the Air Pressure (you may remember the retro from 2016) had to be pumped with an external gizmo that looked like some kind of enema device. Needless to say, detachable parts have a tendency to be mislaid so it wasn’t long before the Air Force 180 High did away with the douche and incorporated its own pump. But the ankle-mounted device proved to be so bulky that any advantages offered were quickly nullified.
It was adidas who came out with the next questionable piece of lockdown technology in 2004: the HUG system. Don’t let the name deceive you, this was one dastardly design. The laceless compression closure looked stolen off a ski boot and had a series of wires that could be tightened by a lever and slider in the heel. Isn’t there an old adage that says in order to make something easily functional, you should add more moving parts? You’re right, there’s not. It quickly became evident that mechanical systems and shoes were not friends. Even adidas’ star sponsorship Tracy McGrady didn’t stick with it for long, stepping out of his HUG-equipped T-Mac 4 signature model soon after its release.
React Foam was another weapon introduced to Nike’s arsenal this year. Developed by a mysterious cluster of chemical engineers working by candlelight in a dank Beaverton basement, React allows the wearer to have their cake and eat it too. Sole compounds have traditionally required a trade off, you could make them lightweight, or you could make them durable and springy. The new Nike tech is tough, springy and light, making it the most advanced aerated up rubber on the court.
Anyone with an ear for the obvious will no doubt twig on the crossover here, the strange call-back to one of the most regrettable sole technologies to ever step off the bench – Converse’s React Juice. Larry Johnson advertised his juiced-up Aero-Glide shoes throughout the early 90s by stating that his ‘grandmama could whoop you in ‘em!’ Little did he know, the ill-fated design was one-step closer to retirement than his game-ready gran, when liquid-loaded bladders in the soles and ankles began suffering from incontinence. That’s right, they proved to be a serious liability when players began slipping in puddles of silicone-based goop.
In 2001, shock value was still a priority for major brands. In one of the gaudiest shows of gimmickry that the game can recall, Dada released Latrell Sprewell's Spree's, which had a spinning rim on the side. Yep, the kind you see on dubbed-out Escalades. The soles were fixed with pressure pads that attached to the spinners, and when the wearer impacted the heels the chrome do-hickeys would get to gyrating. It is occasionally suggested that the dazzling design helped overall breathability, but – we’re just going to say it – it was little more than an on-court distraction.
More recently, Jordan Brand came up with the idea of putting a heel on a basketball shoe – sounds genius, right? They called the design Articulated Propulsion Technology, and decided to let it strut its stuff in the Jordan 2009. The soles were inspired by the springy prosthetic blades used by amputee runners (perhaps a predecessor to the shank of the VaporFly) and were supposed to propel the athlete while the built up heels provided cushioning. There was mixed feedback, but ultimately coaches just got sick of their players asking if their butts looked big in their high-heeled Jays and the design disappeared.
In the present-day world of sneaker design, the look of a shoe tends to be dictated by its inner tech. For example, the new Nike KD10 is built with a surprisingly minimal Flyknit upper with just a few small panels and a wide arching lace system. Rather than add elements for aesthetic, designers have utilised the properties of the marled yarn, knit patterns and swooping laces to give the shoe its good looks.
Who can say which of today’s technologies will stand the tests of time? A factor unifying so many forgotten footwear designs is that they were all so complicated – pumps, mechanical parts and inappropriate objet d’art – whereas the survivors have all been so simple. Think about the Chuck and Jordan 1 or newer designs like the Kobe 11 and Hyperdunk 2017 –technology dictates their simplicity and none of them features anything unnecessary. Although the notion of tech informing design isn’t new, it seems as though current technology lends itself to a timeless kind of minimalism – we’re experiencing a movement that is sure to result in more enduring designs and fewer chrome accoutrements.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Hybrids, Fables of The Forgotten and Big Baller Brand.