Nike Dunk versus Nike SB Dunk: Breaking Down the Differences
Nike Dunks and Nike SB Dunks have been occupying a lot of newsfeed space lately, which poses the question: are you seeing double? Yes, and no. Many of you have asked for a guide to distinguish the differences, so here it is.
Indeed, the SB Dunk is the stuff of legend. The contemporary renaissance is supposedly the work of rappers and influencers, but its status was proven back in the early 2000s. Riots and resale went hand-in-hand during some of the biggest releases, while many future classics slipped under the radar. As some of you would have learnt, Dunks have been around since 1985, so the SB craze didn’t just happen overnight…
SB Dunks Before SB Dunks
Like the Air Jordan 1, the Nike Dunk was equally at home on griptape as it was on hardwood. The high-top version offered almost identical ankle protection, grip, and board feel, so skaters took to it like a duck to water.
In 1998, the Dunk was retroed for the first time, with 1999 seeing the release of incredible two-tone colourways as part of Nike’s co.jp program. Also joining the fray was a new variant on the Dunk Low, known as the Dunk Low Pro B. What the B stands for is still hotly debated among sneaker nerds… Nike, please respond.
Aside from the extra words in the name, there were some material changes too. This marked a shift in the Dunk from a high-performing model in the 1980s to becoming much more casual-oriented. Suede featured heavily on iconic Pro B series Dunks, like the 1999 ‘Smurf’ and ‘Putty’. However, the application of 3M-Reflective panels, or mini packs that incorporated grip tape into the uppers (1999 ‘Ross’), proved to be functional upgrades that took well to say… skateboarding!
Another notable feature of many Pro B Dunks was a padded mesh tongue, when regular Dunks from that era featured a thin nylon version like the 1985 originals. Again, this didn’t apply to all Pro Bs, like the 2001 ‘Samba’ or the 2002 ‘Halloween’ (the one with the carbon fibre panels that yellowed at the edges), but as a rule of thumb, the skate-able Pro Bs had that padded mesh tongue.
Just before the first Dunk retros hit the market in the late 90s, Nike was trying their hand in other departments too. They tried (and failed) in 1996 with skate-specific silhouettes like the Choad and Snak, but the Dunk was right there for the taking. Around the same time, Zoom Air had found its zenith in models like the Zoom Spiridon.
In March 2002, Nike tried again and launched their Nike SB arm. The Dunk served as the flagship silhouette, and got a shiny new Dunk Low Pro SB nametag. But, the real changes were beneath the surface.
Nike SB gave the Dunk new insoles that contained a Zoom Air pod at the heel and spongy Poron foam forefoot insole. This significantly increased the comfort and responsive feel of an already great skate shoe. The top of the insole was covered in terry towelling that somewhat wicked away sweat. It was all performance.
On the other hand, regular Dunks have more or less featured a fairly basic foam insole. The textile cover does the job too, but it’s clearly not as elaborate as SB versions.
More Cushion for the Pushin’
The padded tongue came from the Pro B era and was a mainstay during the original golden era, but around 2010 a handful of SB Dunks emerged with unpadded mesh tongues. The following year, Nike rejigged the SB Dunk and did away with the padding, until sense prevailed and the puffy tongue returned a few years later.
Interestingly, the exception to the rule is the SB Dunk High, where most tongues have been unpadded, with some notable exceptions. The 2002 Paul Brown and Wheat, 2003 Supreme set, and 2008 Shoe Goo all feature some very fat tongues.
The padded tongue improved the fit, and elastic strips running underneath the tongue along the arch had two-fold benefits. The dreaded ‘crooked tongues’ effect was non-existent, and laces could be kept loose for additional steez. That said, it didn’t stop many casual wearers snipping these straps for extra tongue pop. SB Dunks actually didn’t have any SB branding on the tongues until 2005.
Regular Dunks simply use unpadded nylon or mesh tongues. Mesh was the default option from the early 2000s onwards, but nylon has returned on this year’s ‘Syracuse’ and ‘Kentucky’ Lows. Hopefully more retros follow the OG specification this year. Another difference is the upper quarter of the tongue, which has a folded section to bend with the ankle, leaving enough space for a rectangular woven label that simply reads ‘Nike’.
One of the beneficial updates to the SB Dunk in 2010–11 was its outsole. The concentric curved tread pattern is great for pivoting movements, so Nike improved it even more by making the rings finer for more flexibility, and extra grip. Some Phylon foam has also been injected inside the midsole for cushioning, as opposed to the solid rubber unit on OG Dunks. However, this isn’t the case for all recent SB Dunks – the Tiffany ‘retro’ used the OG outsole pattern.
SB Dunks have more or less used ovalised, slightly puffy laces. Remember the Dunk Low Pro B? That series also used the same laces. A handful of releases incorporated Kevlar-reinforced aglets, as they are prone to fraying from skate use. As SB Dunks became more thematic and less performance-centric over the years, laces have been switched with other materials to tie down (pardon the pun) the concept, for example, the recent Travis Scott colab.
Non-SB Dunks have used flat laces of varying widths over the years, but there have been deviations for the SB lace. For example, a handful of Euro Exclusive colourways from circa 2003 used that option. To make matters even more confusing, the recent ‘Syracuse’ and ‘Kentucky’ retros shipped in Nike SB lace bags! Nobody knows why.
Structurally, the 2011 update added ‘wings’ at the front two eyelets that could be used to protect the laces like an Ollie pad. While real-world use of this feature seems non-existent, it’s good to know the option is there.
Much Ado About Boxes
It seems like no brand changes its shoeboxes as prolifically as Nike SB. There have been nine official boxes since 2002’s ‘Orange Box’ releases, with dozens of one-off designs scattered in between. As of 2020, Nike SB boxes have been part of the ‘Striped Box’ era, but the rarest and most valuable colourways tend to be part of the Orange to Pink Box period. On the branding front, the SB moniker actually didn’t appear on the lids until the ‘Black Box’ era in 2007.
Regular Dunks have had a couple of box changes too, but only because of the different product umbrellas it’s been a part of. The late 1990s retros were found in the cardboard/black/red box, then brown/orange box in the early 2000s, before a brief sojourn in orange boxes, then brown Nike Sportswear era, and now the GRs are in the current generation red box.
So there it is, a detailed explanation of the differences between two iconic Swoosh silhouettes. Now you have no excuse for getting Dunks and SB Dunks mixed up.