A Match Made In Basketball Heaven: Rasheed Wallace & The Nike Air Force 1

At the risk of committing basketball blogger blasphemy, I’ve never been a particularly big Rasheed Wallace fan. I don’t have anything in particular against him, but all the referee tantrums and the “both teams play hard” never really did much for me, and when it came to habitual antiheroes, I simply had more of an affinity for Sprewell and Iverson.

What I did admire, however, was ‘Sheed’s choice in footwear: For years, he was the lone carrier of the flame for the legendary Air Force 1.

I’ve long been an AF1 guy, attracted by the sneaker’s heritage, clean look, and relatively inexpensive price point. For collectors with a sense of history, the AF1 was well ahead of its time — nestled between its iconic ankle strap and concentric-circle rubber sole, it was the first Nike basketball sneaker to use its soon ubiquitous Air Sole technology.

Though the AF1 has come down to earth after its early-to-mid ’00s peak of popularity, its influence is obvious. Virtually every model you see on the court now — from the LeBron XI with its full-length Zoom insole, to the recent-vintage Air Jordans and their Flight Plate cushioning system — is a descendant of the Air Force 1. Not to mention, the AF1 remains a tried-and-true summer staple: The all-whites were the No. 2-selling sneaker last month, according to Sports One Source.

Similarly, I would contend Rasheed’s most enduring trademark is having hitched his wagon to the Air Force 1’s star. Long after everyone else had abandoned the Nike Air trailblazer for newer, flashier models, Wallace was still out there jacking up threes with the strap dangling off the back. His sneakers became as much a trademark for him as fallaway jumpers and technical fouls, and I would contend they added more to his cool factor with basketball junkies than anything else he did.

The origin of Rasheed’s affinity for AF1’s, as described in an interview with Complex’s Russ Bengtson last year, is simple: He saw his brother rocking a pair of white on whites on the block in Philly, and he fell in love. When he got to junior high, his mom got him a pair of his own, and in his words, “BOOM … I was in the game.”

Nike Air Force One
Doug Benc/Getty Images

Rasheed changed it up on occasion at UNC — not by choice, he insists — but when he got to the NBA and could pick whatever he wanted to wear, he eventually settled on old faithful, probably because you tend to always come back to the sneakers you loved as a kid. Wearing Uptowns helped him hearken back to the era of Silk Wilkes, Mychal Thompson and fellow Philly institution Moses Malone. And maybe it really is the shoes, but one could definitely picture Wallace playing in the same era with those guys.

I always appreciated that Wallace was the rare player who was legitimately able to bother Tim Duncan at the absolute peak of his considerable powers. The mercurial yin to Duncan’s methodical yang, Rasheed used his 7-4 wingspan (!) to hassle him into 44.6 percent shooting in the playoffs, while routinely taking him outside and shooting over him. Though Duncan’s Spurs won both of their postseason matchups, it was a tantalizing example of just how good Wallace could be when he truly put his pedal to the metal, which was uncommon.

But Rasheed always marched to the beat of his own drummer, which is why I thought his AF1 predilection was so cool. ‘Sheed’s sneakers weren’t even close to top of the line for their era; they were basically 1982-style AF1s with the insole ripped out and replaced by a prescription orthotic. But he wore them because he liked them, and because they simply worked for him. How could one argue with that kind of logic?

The fact is, so many would-be sneaker aficionados primarily chase the models with the most hype. And though there’s something to be said for picking up a coveted pair, it’s far cooler to get something you’re into more than everyone else, for the sole purpose of making it your own. It shows you go after things you like, rather than following the herd.

Though the Air Force 1 is far from its Jay Z and Entourage-fueled heyday — and don’t act like you weren’t down with Entourage, we all know you were — there are still great colorways coming out, like the Peace editions dropping this weekend at Champs Sports. And the fact is, you can never go wrong with a crisp pair of 1s, and unlike the latest pair of Air Jordans, you don’t have to deal with lines around the block or add-to-cart bots to get it.

When it comes down to it, the man who has made himself most synonymous with the AF1 is living proof there’s definitive virtue to going your own way.

“It was already an existing shoe,” Rasheed said. “I guess I just added another chapter on to it.”

And though Wallace has turned the page on his playing career, one gets the sense the story of the Air Force 1 has plenty of volumes left to be written.

Follow Bryan on Twitter at @SportsAngle