A History of Christmas Day Sneakers in the NBA

In 2014, it isn’t Christmas Day in the NBA without new sneaker colorways. In fact, the hype for them, the anticipation, might be even bigger than the games themselves. Yes, there are 10 teams scheduled to play on December 25, all of them viable playoff and potentially championship contenders outside of the Knicks and the Lakers — how much does that say about 36-year-old Kobe Bryant‘s marketability? And yes, the action will be incredible, with Oklahoma City returning to face off with the team that knocked them out of the Western Conference Playoffs last year (the defending champion Spurs); LeBron James returning to Miami; and a Warriors/Clippers nightcap that might break YouTube. But still, the sneakers are going to be just as fabulous.

This year we have two monster collections from Nike and adidas, featuring seven different shoes. Nike is taking inspiration from holiday topics like egg nog, a stocking, and even a birch tree for the Nike LeBron 12. Then adidas revealed the “Bad Dreams” collection for all of their signature athletes, from names like Derrick Rose and John Wall, who will both have new explosive colorways of their signature sneakers, to someone like Iman Shumpert, who will undoubtedly keep with tradition and rock this year’s adidas Crazy 2. There’s also Jordan Brand‘s lineup, taking inspiration from Christmas Day in 1992 when Michael Jordan dropped 42 points in the Air Jordan VII.

While adidas is still maintaining their reversed “dreams” storyline, the overall concept of Christmas colorways isn’t a longstanding tradition simply because brands weren’t smart enough before to capitalize. It probably had more to do with NBA rules regarding uniforms and colors. In past generations, players were fined for wearing sneakers with colors that didn’t match their uniforms and teammates. It wasn’t until Michael Jordan and Nike broke out a new sneaker called the Air Jordan I that things changed.

NBA commissioner David Stern fined them $5,000 for every game during Jordan’s rookie year that he wore his signature sneaker. By resisting creativity and Nike’s aggressive individualism, Stern indirectly became the source of its explosion. By banning the shoes from the NBA, he consequently made them cool.

“Some controversies have actually helped to build the sneaker culture,” Jordan Brand president Larry Miller once said. “David has been a great part of that. What he was doing at the NBA directly impacted us in terms of making sneakers cool.”

That was nearly 30 years ago. By now, everything is different, including Christmas Day in the NBA.

By 2009, Michael Jordan was long retired and yet more retros came out every year. In turn, other brands followed, bringing back classics that either resonated with this generation’s childhood or represented something hip because of its nostalgia.

That same year saw some of the first Christmas-themed colorways. At the time, the Lakers and Cavs were on a collision course for the NBA Finals, and the debate over which player was better — LeBron or Kobe? — had never been louder. With the NBA’s two biggest stars pitted against each other, Nike laced them with two new colorways of the Nike Air Max LeBron VII and the Nike Kobe V. However, outside of an all-red Christmas-colored upper for the LeBron VII, neither sneaker dove deep into the holiday spirit. That would quickly change.

Nike Kobe VI

The following year, LeBron was again given a holiday colorway for his LeBron VIII — an all-red upper with splashes of white and green laces — while Kobe wore sneakers inspired by the Grinch. These would go on to become one of Nike’s most hyped basketball sneakers of the past five years. That also marked the year that Nike branched out, giving Kevin Durant his own Christmas sneaker, while allowing some of their other players to wear a red-based Nike Hyperdunk.

In the following years, Nike continued to adorn their best players with holiday sneakers while starting to take inspiration from more and more obscure details. Everything from Durant’s mother’s cooking to gingerbread cookies to even video games were used during the design process. Other brands like PEAK, Li-Ning, Under Armour, Jordan Brand, and the aforementioned adidas have followed along. (And the last two years have even seen the release of specific color-coordinated socks.)

Interestingly, while eccentric players like Russell Westbrook have generally stayed tame with their color choices, Shumpert, as well as Dwyane Wade and his signature sneaker line have taken as many risks as any of them over the past few years. The Miami All-Star’s Li-Ning Way Of Wade 2 from last season featured a paint-splashed upper doused in green, with colored laces. Shumpert, on the other hand, wore the glow-in-the-dark adidas Crazy 8 “Nightmare Before Christmas” last year, a purple shoe that nearly outshone his flattop. Even the normally reserved Chris Paul wore a pair of his Jordan CP3.VII in a hot lime and orange makeover.

Then there was Stephen Curry. Last year he debuted two sneakers on the same day…and one of them he only wore during warmups. (Yeah and that same sneaker had fur lining and laser perforations.) It’s safe to say the game is changing. Quickly.

In just a few short years, the industry has both accepted and embraced this new culture of sneakers. And it’s become a competition around the league, not just among players for signature sneaker deals and contracts but also to have the hottest exclusive colorways and PEs on the biggest regular season day of the year. The history of the Christmas Day colorway doesn’t go back very far, but it’s gained steam very, very quickly. Expect this year’s lineup to be the best one yet.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney