Schooled: The Cincinnati Bearcats and Their Amazing Sneaker Legacy

Hang with me for a day (or two) and even if you have no inkling about my childhood you’ll be able to decipher it pretty quickly. I’m a SportsCenter baby. I came up in the era of Stuart Scott (RIP to a legend) and Kenny Mayne and “…not in this game. That’d be a record or something.”

I came up in the White Chocolate era. I came up with N64. I came up with the Air Jordan XV and the WNBA and baggy, tall T-shirts. And I came up in the era of Cincinnati basketball.

In 2015, the Bearcats basketball team is no longer a national title contender. They aren’t consistently sending studs to the NBA, either. Outside of Lance Stephenson, the last player to come from Cincinnati and make an impact on the NBA was Jason Maxiell. But back in the Bob Huggins era, there was no college team more exciting or more stylish. They were the new-age Georgetown Hoyas, never quite as good as their hype but always a must-see for multiple reasons: They had talent and kicks.

The Bearcats owned the late 1990s between star players like No. 1 NBA Draft pick Kenyon Martin, rebounding machine and Sports Illustrated cover boy Danny Fortson, acclaimed high school stud DerMarr Johnson, eventual NBA role players Ruben Patterson and Corie Blount and Nick Van Exel, the beast Kenny Satterfield, and my personal favorite, the Levettator and SportCenter’s “shut ’em down” ace, Melvin Levett, who once threw down one of the greatest dunks of all time in the “Playoff” Air Jordan XII. (We can’t forget about guys like Pete Mickeal and Steve Logan, too.) From ’93 to 2001, they made the NCAA Tournament every year, securing a top-3 seed on six separate occasions.

Their best shot at a title came during the 1999-2000 season. Anchored by the best player in the nation in Martin, who averaged 18.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game, the Bearcats were ranked No. 1 for 12 weeks. They were the best team in the nation, by far, and looked as though they’d finally overcome past struggles in March. However, fate gave a nasty twist when Martin broke his leg three minutes into the opening game of the Conference USA Tournament. Without their leader, the team was upset by Tulsa in the first weekend of the NCAAs.

But as great as the team was, fans of that era will never forget the sneakers. Before switching to adidas in 2007, the Bearcats went from Nike to Jordan Brand a decade earlier, becoming one of the first schools to take the court in Jordans. In the years prior to the late ’90s, they rocked classics like the Air Flight Lite II and the Air Max Uptempo. Yet once they linked with JB, the school went to another level. Routinely wearing the Air Jordan XII and XIII, the school was a perfect fit, considering their rep (rugged and street tough) mixed well with the sneaker community. So did their colors: black-based uniforms with red and white accents.

The team sported just about every conceivable colorway of the XII during the ’96-97 season, from the “Playoffs” to the “Taxis” to the classic “Cherrys.” In the following years, we saw the “Black Toe” XIVs get some love, as well as the XIII. Whether they actually wore them on the court or not, the Jumpman Team 1 also became a part of the team’s identity. It’s regarded nowadays as one of the two or three best Team Jordans ever. You can credit the Bearcats for that. The all-black joints were a staple of late-90s fashion and were actually more highly regarded than many of the Air Jordans to drop in that era, considering Tinker Hatfield was gone and Michael Jordan had retired.

The team was cut so deep with Jordan blood that popular walk-on Alex Meacham, who now owns over 300 pairs of Jordans, was partly responsible for the inspiration behind the “Premio” Air Jordan Bin 23 V retro from 2011.

As the years went by, we saw more retros on court. Many of Nike’s greatest silhouettes from its greatest era of basketball kicks found their way into ‘Nati’s lineup. And while they eventually left the Swoosh for adidas, it’ll always be the late-90s that everyone thinks of when you start talking about the Bearcats’ sneaker legacy.

In the end, because of injuries and just dumb luck, the Bearcats were robbed of their place in history. But despite that fact, we’ll never be able to take away their place within the unofficial sneaker hall of fame.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney