A Brief History of the Nike Air Max Penny 1
Penny Hardaway was one of the NBA's biggest stars in the 1990s. Leading the Orlando Magic, he dazzled NBA fans with his pinpoint passing, explosive athleticism and smooth style of play, which lead Nike to bless him with his first signature shoe – the Air Max Penny 1 – in 1995. 27 years later, the Air Max Penny 1 is enjoying yet another moment in the spotlight thanks to a spotless set of Social Status colabs and, for the first time in over a decade, the return of its OG 'Orlando' colourway. It's as good a time as any to revisit Penny's first signature model, so let's take a walk down memory lane.
Minting the Penny 1
1995 was an incredible year for basketball footwear. Michael Jordan debuted the Air Jordan 11. Shawn Kemp took the court in his second Reebok sneaker, the Kamikaze II. Grant Hill was hooping in his first shoe with FILA, the Grant Hill 1. Nike debuted the Air Max Uptempo, the Air Zoom Flight 95, and, of course, the Air Max Penny 1, Penny Hardaway's inaugural signature sneaker.
A signature shoe for Penny had been a long time in the making. The 6'7 guard out of Memphis immediately established himself as a star in the NBA after being traded from the Warriors to the Magic during the 1993 NBA Draft as part of a monster deal for Chris Webber (who had a pretty great Nike shoe of his own, the Air Max CW, in 1995 as well). In years past, Penny had hooped in obscure Nike models like the Air Swift and Air Prevail, while also taking the court in an Air Jordan 9 PE. Before the Air Max Penny 1 was introduced, he spent the first half of 1995 in the Air Flight 1, but when the Air Max Penny 1 touched down before the start of the 1995-96 season it changed the game – for Nike Basketball and Penny himself.
A New Era for Nike Basketball
Designed by Eric Avar – the man who'd go on to create Kobe Bryant's most notable signature shoes in later years – the Air Max Penny 1 was the first shoe to release as part of Nike's new Uptempo line. Before Penny came around, Nike hoop shoes were split into two categories: Flight, shoes made for nimble, quick and graceful players and Force, which was designed for the bruisers who threw 'bows and drew blood in the post. Penny's 'positionless' style of play didn't fit into either of those categories, so Nike Basketball created a new category: Uptempo.
'We had Flight and Force and we were looking at trying to dimensionalize the basketball line around this notion of versatility and that’s kind of what Uptempo was,' said Avar. It wasn't just the product lines that needed 'dimensionalizing' either – a shoe like the Air Max Penny 1 and a player like Penny needed a whole new cushioning setup. Avar split the Air Max Penny 1 between an Air Max2 unit in the heel for impact protection and a new technology named Tensile Air in the forefoot for a responsive court feel. Tensile Air would later go on to be renamed Zoom Air, and is now one of Nike's most ubiquitous cushioning technologies. Even now, many Nike Basketball shoes use a similar heel Max/forefoot Zoom combo, showing how far ahead of its time the Penny 1 was!
From an aesthetic standpoint, Avar drew his inspiration from the athlete himself. 'I studied Penny’s style, his game and the product just took shape from there,' he said. The Air Max Penny 1 featured a 5/8 cut with a striking grooved Phylon support wing on its lateral side that provided both lightweight support and asymmetrical style. This wing was a precursor to Foamposite technology, which would itself debut on Penny's signature line in 1997 via the Air Foamposite One. The Air Max Penny 1 also introduced Penny's 1 Cent logo on the heel and boasted pinstriped tongues as a nod to the Magic's uniforms. 'What was great about Penny was that he was always expressive and willing to push the limits in terms of aesthetics,' Avar noted. As hard as it may be to believe in today's market, where every NBA player with a signature shoe gets dozens of colourways, the Air Max Penny 1 debuted in three simple styles: the black, blue and white 'Orlando,' the black and blue 'Away' and the white and blue 'Home.'
(Lil') Penny for Your Thoughts?
No matter how great a shoe may be, it can't really be a cultural icon unless it's accompanied by an equally great advertising campaign. Thankfully the Air Max Penny 1 didn't come up short in that department – though its primary pitchman, Lil' Penny was decidedly on the diminutive site of the spectrum.
Penny Hardaway preferred to let his play speak for him – he wasn't a jovial, boisterous personality like Shaquille O'Neal or a razor-tongued iconoclast like Charles Barkley. So Stacy Wall, an advertising veteran who was a creative director at Wieden+Kennedy in 1995, had an idea: why not give him an alter ego? 'We called the alter ego Lil' Penny and I loved it right away, because somebody would be talking trash for me,' Hardaway told Complex in a 2016 oral history of Lil Penny. 'I made sure [Lil Penny] was very comedic,' added Wall. 'He’d be everything Penny was not in terms of his personality: he'd be full of ego, he’d be brash, he’d be funny, he’d be unafraid to say Penny is the best.'
Voiced with aplomb by a young Chris Rock – who was selected after Eddie Murphy, Damon Wayans and Martin Lawrence declined the role – Lil' Penny debuted in the now-famous 'Locker Room' commercial where he peppered Penny with questions before a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, asking Penny to tell Kevin Garnett he said hello and, at the end of the commercial, dropping his famous cackling cry: 'Can ya do that for a brother?' An advertising legend was immediately born.
Ironically enough, the above-mentioned Shaquille O'Neal was Hardaway's teammate on the Magic at the time and signed to Reebok. There were reports of friction between the two teammates, and in one of Shaq's Reebok spots for the Shaqnosis that aired around the same time, he elbowed a puppet that looked a lot like Lil' Penny off a couch.
Although Lil' Penny (rightly) garners most of the headlines, Nike's print ad campaign for the Air Max Penny 1 was one for the history books as well. Part of the 'Phone Ad' series, which included dozens of Nike and Jordan Brand models, the Air Max Penny 1 'Orlando' was displayed on a simple white background with little more than a Swoosh and a 1-800 phone number to call. If an enterprising reader dialed those digits, they'd be treated to a recorded voice message that gave them info about the shoe displayed in the ad.
The Orlando Magic had a great season in 1995-96, finishing second in the Eastern Conference and making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they were swept by the fabled 72-10 Chicago Bulls team led by Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Penny had a fine season, however, playing all 82 games, averaging 21.7 points, 7.1 assists 4.3 rebounds and 2 steals a game on the way to his second consecutive NBA All-Star game start and All-NBA First Team selection, while also finishing third in NBA MVP voting. Through all of that, the Air Max Penny 1 was on his feet, making it a time capsule of a season Magic fans wouldn't soon forget.
Penny's signature line would later progress with (in chronological order) the Air Max Penny 2, Air Foamposite One, Air Max Penny 3, Air Max Penny 4, and the post-career Air Max Penny 5 and Air Max Penny 6 plus fusion models like the Zoom Rookie and Air 1/2 Cent. However, the Air Max Penny 1 holds a special place in the heart of hoop shoe fans and Penny proponents alike: it introduced new technology, gave us one of the best sneaker pitchmen ever and serves as a reminder of a different era, both for Nike Basketball and the NBA as a whole. 17 years after it was released, it's still a fan favourite that, as mentioned at the top of this article, is coming back in its OG colourways, and was the centrepiece of a Social Status colab!