ARTICLE BY Ross Dwyer, Gabe Filippa

Six Ballers That Shook Up the Sneakersphere in 2021

Six Ballers That Shook Up the Sneakersphere in 2021

We've got plenty of love for top-tier football boots (or soccer cleats, if you want to say it USA-style), elite running shoes and high-tech skate sneakers, but when it comes to athletic footwear there's nothing quite as impactful as basketball shoes. A lion's share of the most popular lifestyle shoes in the world today like Chuck Taylors, Air Jordan 1s and Superstars started out as hoop shoes, and modern-day ballers are still all over the sneaker headlines on a week-to-week basis. Sometimes it's for their on-court exploits, sometimes it's for their sartorial feats and sometimes it's for their crazy collections. But no matter the nature of the news, their influence remains palpable. Here are six ballers that shook up the sneakersphere in bold, unique ways over the course of 2021.

LeBron James in Space Jam
Nike LeBron 19 'Space Jam'
Nike LeBron 8 'South Beach' Retro
LeBron James and Salehe Bembury

LeBron James

Though young stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo are nipping at his heels and contemporaries like Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are constantly vying for his throne, LeBron James is still widely regarded as the king of the NBA – and that holds true in the footwear market as well. LeBron released his 19th signature shoe with Nike this year, a fact that's hard to fathom for sneakerheads who still remember the buzz around the Air Zoom Generation his rookie year. He's by far the longest-tenured signature athlete in the league. And as is par for the course on his signature line, the LeBron 19 pushed the boundaries of what was possible from Nike hoops tech with a wild cushioning setup and futuristic upper. It also served as a collaborative canvas by headlining a huge Space Jam footwear collection, a salute to 'Bron's starring role in Space Jam: A New Legacy.

That wasn't all though. The LeBron 8 was retroed in a bunch of appealing colourways, most notably the 'South Beach', one of the biggest shoes from Nike Basketball's glory days in the early 2010s. 'Bron also got an innovation centre named after him at Nike HQ, which is likely to serve as a proving ground for future high-tech Nike Basketball kicks. We're getting ahead of ourselves here, but we're also more than a little excited for the LeBron 9 to return in 2022!

Anti-Vaxxer and Flat Earth Truther Kyrie Irving
Nike Kyrie 8
Nike Kyrie 8 N7

Kyrie Irving

There’s not many hoopers out there that have the cojones to refer to their own signature shoes as ‘trash’, but hey, Kyrie Irving was never one to stick to the status quo. The mercurial point guard and perpetual ankle-breaker raised plenty of eyebrows in July when he referred to the Nike Kyrie 8 as garbage, saying he had no hand in the design process or the outcome of his eighth signature sneaker.

‘I have nothing to do with the design or marketing of the upcoming #Kyrie8, IMO these are trash! I have Absolutely nothing to do with them! Nike plans to release it without my okay regardless of what I say, so I apologise in advance to all of my sneaker heads and true supporters of the #KAI11 brand,’ Kyrie stated on Instagram.

The social media blow up was surprising given that Kyrie’s signature line is still one of the most popular among NBA players and fans alike. Despite the controversy, the Kyrie 8 was released with a dull roar, Nike obviously treading lightly on marketing after Irving’s comments and his stance on vaccinations.

For better or worse, Kyrie continues to fundamentally alter the shape of basketball, politics, and sneakers in 2021. The latest reports suggest that we’ll also see him suit up for the Brooklyn Nets over the coming weeks!

,J. Cole x PUMA
J. Cole x PUMA RS-Dreamer 2
J. Cole x PUMA RS-Dreamer
J. Cole x PUMA RS-Dreamer

J. Cole

Rappers have wanted to be ballers and ballers have wanted to be rappers for decades. It's not a new phenomenon. However, nobody besides Master P has ever made the crossover look as smooth as J. Cole did in 2021, and P never had his own hoop shoes. Cole has been probing the intersection of basketball and rapping for years, and his merging of the two worlds was completed over the last twelve months.

Cole played high-level high school basketball and made it to the final round of walk-on cuts at St. John's University in 2004, so the game has always had a place in his music. However, in 2021, he had not one but two signature basketball sneakers on the market (the RS-Dreamer and the Dreamer 2), which were worn by PUMA's roster of NBA athletes like Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Marcus Smart. He even played in a couple of professional games for the Rwanda Patriots of the newly-formed Basketball Africa League.

He may not be an NBA star like the rest of the players on this list, but J. Cole can say he's a professional basketball player with a successful signature shoe and a professional rapper with six consecutive #1 albums, something that nobody else in the world can lay claim to.

PJ Tucker Diamond Air Jordan 1s
PJ Tucker x eBay
,PJ Tucker x Dolce & Gabbana
PJ Tucker x Dolce & Gabbana

P.J. Tucker

Lord of the drip! It’s well known among sneakerheads and the NBA fraternity that P.J. Tucker is a self-confessed sneaker addict.

Constantly excavating shoes buried deep in the Nike archives, the 36-year-old hoop nomad is accustomed to constantly moving his mountains of rare grails, exclusive PEs and custom joints, the South Beach veteran pulling up in plenty of fire this year.

Not afraid to compromise his ankles for the flex, Tucker regularly pulls up in throwback Jordans that few others would dare play in, the live wire defender a constant source of amusement for the younger gen (Giannis Antetokounmpo was bewildered when Tucker received the Zoom Freak 3 ahead of him).

Tucker, as always, we salute you.

Trae Young x adidas
adidas Trae 1
Trae Young x adidas Top Ten Hi

Trae Young

Trigger warning Knicks fans.

As New Yorkers collectively try to heal after Trae Young broke their hearts in The Garden last season, the 2020 NBA All-Star has been busy with his inaugural signature sneaker, the adidas Trae 1 landing in October.

One of the fledgling superstars of the NBA competition, the model was one the more high-profile signature shoes in another interrupted year for players and sneaker releases. A flag-bearer for the NBA’s next generation of stars (especially considering Zion Williamson’s continued absence), getting Trae’s ink on adi’s contract was obviously a priority for Team Trefoil.

Now, let’s hope the Hawks can make a surge up the standings so we see more playoff Trae!

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander PEs
,Kelly Oubre Jr.
Kelly Oubre Jr. Converse
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kelly Oubre Jr. x Converse 'Chase the Drip' Pack

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kelly Oubre Jr.

The NBA tunnel walk has almost become a parody of itself in recent years, with players (and their stylists) enmeshed in posturing, preening pre-game competitions to see who can be the most fly. Honestly, it often seems more than a little forced, but two individuals that always make it feel effortless are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kelly Oubre Jr. Most rich athletes seem to be more into the trappings of success – which is to say that they like spending money on clothes – more than the clothes themselves. That's understandable, but Gilgeous-Alexander and Oubre Jr. are actually into the nuances of fashion, not just the dopamine rush of copping new jawns. And from the jump, this was represented in their Converse partnerships, which is why the duo occupies a single spot on this list.

Sure, SGA and Oubre Jr. have each taken to the court in a wealth of PEs. Shai's include a memorable camo iteration, while Oubre Jr. often nods to his self-given 'Tsunami Papi' nickname with his pairs. However, their first signature releases were lifestyle sneakers that saluted their inspirations and sartorial flair. It's an interesting way to spotlight two rising stars who've made waves both on and off the court, and it could set a new standard for what signature athlete footwear could be in the coming years.

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