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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