Blake Griffin and the History of Big Men and Sneakers

  • Nike Air Force 1 best big man basketball sneakers
    The Origins

    We’ve all seen the black and white footage. Everyone on the court, from guards to centers, wore Converse Chuck Taylors during the early years of the game, canvas and rubber. The playing field was even, and if you sprained an ankle, had plantar fasciitis, or broke a toe, it was on you. But by the time the ’70s came around, the use of materials like nylon, suede, leather, and polyurethane from brands like adidas and Nike changed things. (Darryl Dawkins, one of the flashiest stars of the time, actually wore Pony.) When Nike created the Bruin and Blazer, the two models gave athletes a lighter, more supportive option on the court, which in turn gave way to the advent of Nike Air.

    What the upstart company in the Portland suburbs managed to do was insert a pocket of air between the ground and those who wore the shoe. This provided players like the late Moses Malone with the cushioning they yearned for without adding weight to the shoe. The Dynasty was the first real model for bigs, but the Air Force 1 would be Nike’s flagship sneaker, and with a future Hall of Famer in Malone wearing the model, the line would take off both on the court and in the streets.

    The Air Force 1 continues to be a staple in streetwear–just this year, Nike added materials like Flyknit to the upper for a totally new silhouette. “Forces” are the bread and butter of Nike Basketball.

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the greatest basketball players ever and achieved more than his fair share of “firsts” in NBA history. But he also contributed the first player-endorsed basketball sneaker with the Kareem in 1971. Up to that point, adidas had outfitted the giant in the adidas Superstar, but the creation of his own signature–with his smiling face on it–started a new day in the NBA.

    That continued into the 1980s where players like Patrick Ewing with adidas, Robert Parish with Avia, and James Worthy with New Balance brought the heat.

    By the time the ’80s faded and the ’90s slid onto the scene, the world of basketball was dominated by some guard from Chicago. Michael Jordan was coming into his own as the greatest player ever, and his line of sneakers were as popular as they were expensive. Reebok was making headway with the Pump branding, and Converse had struck gold with the Weapon. The league was being taken over by swingmen and crafty guards, and while Georgetown pumped out center and center, the paradigm would shift somewhat once a boisterous and dominant center from LSU named Shaquille O’Neal stepped on the scene.

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  • Reebok Kamikaze 1 best big man basketball sneakers

    Reebok Classics

    The Golden Era

    By 1994, the NBA was–for lack of a better term–centered around the big man.

    There was Patrick Ewing leading the Knicks, Alonzo Mourning buzzing in Charlotte, Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston, Shaq down in Orlando, David Robinson in San Antonio, and Shawn Kemp in a Seattle SuperSonics uniform in the northwest. While Michael Jordan would dominate the league for six years out of the decade, it was clear that many teams felt that having a big man controlling the block would lead them to glory. In fact, in the two years that Jordan left the game, Houston’s titles were guided home by Olajuwon, who won MVP in the ’93-94 season while sporting the traditionally running-focused brand, Etonic. That same season saw David Robinson lead the league in scoring. Shaq succeeded the Admiral as scoring champion the following season.

    Tech was at an all-time high. Shaq and Kemp were postering people in various Reebok models. The Kamikaze, Shaqnosis, and Shaq Attaq lines were nearly as popular as any Jordan at the time on the streets, and have even seen their fair share of reissues over the years. Alonzo Mourning would have a deal and signature shoe with Nike called the “Air Zo.” It highlighted his time in Miami as a defensive monster and future Hall of Famer.

    Ewing had the Ewing 33 HI, one of the most underrated signature shoes in NBA history, and an impressive run throughout the decade with his own Ewing Athletics.

    Charles Barkley, in a way, was the precursor to LeBron’s line in that everything he wore felt like a straightjacket, most notably the Air Max2 CB. That shoe is still considered one of the very best of the entire decade. In fact, Barkley’s line with Nike is regularly touted as one of the best of all time.

    Larry Johnson with Converse and Dikembe Mutombo with adidas also had their moments.

    David Robinson might’ve had the best heat of them all, though. Starting with the Air Command Force, Robinson would be the face of the NBA center, even while owning a smaller man’s skill-set. It also didn’t hurt that the Air Command Force would appear in the basketball classic White Men Can’t Jump as Woody Harrelson’s character Billy Hoyle would fictitiously light up basketball courts all over Southern California. The Command Force’s super high-top profile and neon accents, combined with the Pump that was included in the box for added air pressure, meant that big men now had a Cadillac for kicks on their feet. Robinson would also be seen in a plethora of innovative kicks through the years, notably, the Air 2 Strong, Air Force 180 Pump, and the Air Force V.

    By the end of the decade, the old guard was fading, and fresh faces began appearing. Not as rigid as their predecessors, these players possessed skills that included being able to knock down 18-footers, guarding smaller players, and even switching on the wing if necessary. They were more versatile versions of the big men that came before them.

    In Minnesota, a wiry, energetic, and often brash kid from Chicago,who skipped college and went to the pros turned a perennially losing expansion franchise into a threat in the Western Conference.

    Kevin Garnett would have his own line with four different brands through the course of his 21-year career, but it’s this writer’s opinion that his time with the Swoosh were his glory years. The Big Ticket (as he was affectionately known) would start with Air Uptempo models before transitioning to his own signature line. The Garnett series would feature some of Nike’s most innovative tech as the company would make KG the basketball representative for the Alpha Project–the innovative, high end line of product that would push the boundaries of innovation in the sports merchandising world.

    The Garnett III would be the most successful (and reissued) model of the line. Featuring a blue and white gradient on its upper, and a visible Air unit encapsulating the heel, the Garnett III would be worn by KG and ballers across the country, and was suitable as a lifestyle sneaker for fans of Nike and Garnett as well.

    While Minnesota was experiencing a renaissance through this audacious kid with the huge smile and fierce heart, San Antonio won the No.1 pick in the 1997 Draft, and they’d select Tim Duncan, a reserved, seemingly robotic power forward who ripped apart the college ranks at Wake Forest. Duncan’s methodical, unrelenting yet impossibly dull style of play would earn him the title “The Big Fundamental” by rival Shaquille O’Neal. While the adjective perfectly described Tim Duncan, his kicks have been anything but boring throughout his career.

    Duncan would come into the league with a Nike endorsement deal, and one of the first kicks he wore was the Total Air Foamposite Max. The Total Air Foamposite Max would turn into Duncan’s “unofficial” signature shoe, and he would go on to win Rookie of the Year. The Total Air Foamposite Max was another brainchild of the Alpha Project, and they were as unique as the times of the late ’90s. He would wear them alongside David Robinson, and the Foamposite line that was meant for athletic wing players like Penny Hardaway would soon create comfort for the towering centers in the league as well. 

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  • Jordan Super.Fly 4 best big man basketball sneakers

    Jordan Brand

    The Present

    Fast-forward to today’s NBA and here we are. Though we’ve seen players like Amar’e Stoudemire and Yao Ming wearing specific sneakers over the past decade, the game has evolved once again and the wing player and extremely skilled point guard rule the day (again?). With Steph, Kyrie, Dame, John Wall, Chris Paul, and others competing night in and night out at the top of the key, the big man has taken a back seat.

    Sneaker technology has changed as well–sports science has proven that lighter yet stronger materials make a difference. Flyknit, Lunarlon, Boost, and plenty of other innovations are at the disposal of athletes everywhere. Big men now have the same comfort that a guard has with their footwear selection, all without sacrificing the health of their size 18 feet and larger frames.

    One of those big men, L.A. Clippers forward Blake Griffin, celebrates a birthday today. Griffin has been nothing short of phenomenal since entering the league, leaping over Kias, posterizing opponents, and reviving a franchise that was essentially the laughingstock of professional sports.

    That impact extends off the floor, too. Since joining forces with Jordan Brand, Blake has taken his image to the next level (pun intended). Donning the Jordan Super.Fly 4, Griffin experiences an outstanding level of comfort as he has the luxury of playing on one of the lightest shoes a larger player has ever been associated with. With the combination of forefoot Zoom Air and FlightPlate technology (used in the Jordan XX8, XX9, XXX) to maximize responsiveness, the Jordan Super.Fly 4 is one of the most versatile shoes around. (And, of course, it’s available at Champs Sports.)

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  • Nike Air Force 1 best big man basketball sneakers
  • Reebok Kamikaze 1 best big man basketball sneakers
  • Jordan Super.Fly 4 best big man basketball sneakers

If you look back at the NBA’s grainy footage, those pre hi-def basketball games that existed prior to the middle of the 2000s, you’ll find something you might not recognize unless you’re paying attention to the nuances. The focus wasn’t on the advertisers, nor was the emphasis on what players were wearing in the tunnel, either. The game was slower, more brutish. Pick-n-rolls were used to stretch the floor. Games were played from the inside out. The thought of a 6-3 guard with a boyish face and a slight frame darting across the court scoring at will from any spot he so chooses would’ve gotten you laughed out of the building. (Old heads may remember Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.)

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Even from a marketing standpoint, things were different. It’s easier to promote a player that somewhat defies gravity. But a big man who barely jumps when dunking? Let alone…a slow 7-footer with the grace of an aircraft carrier? Nah man. Most of them aren’t selling shoes.

There were outliers, though. There were centers, power forwards, the monoliths of athletes. The men who changed the way the game was played also changed the sneaker culture that we loved so much.

Granted, the great marketing boom of the ’90s saw the NBA turn global, and players from smaller markets like San Antonio, Minneapolis, Charlotte, and Seattle were suddenly thrust into living rooms of basketball fans all across the globe. Yeah, everyone wanted to be like Mike, but no matter how gifted Mike was, he could never physically impose himself on a game the way Shaq could.

[RELATED: Shaq’s sneaker history]

In 2016, seven-footers do more than just avoid three-second violations by occupying the paint. Big men like Blake Griffin can post up or shoot from the top of the key. Kevin Durant moves like a guard and has the range of a sniper from behind the arc. And Dwight Howard? Well, we know a healthy (or younger) Dwight can (could) take over a game with his superhuman athleticism.

[RELATED: 5 things Kevin Durant must do this season to win a title]

This is more than just the history of dominant centers and power forwards, though. This is a history of influence, a discovery of how the big man pushed the sneaker culture forward. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Keep reading for a look at Blake Griffin and the History of Big Men and Sneakers.

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image via Jordan Brand