Schooled: A History of the First Signature Sneaker

  • Air Jordan 1
    Michael Jordan

    Air Jordan I

    To say the first Air Jordan changed the game is the understatement of the year. It openly defied the NBA. It made Michael Jordan an immediate icon. It created jealously among older NBA players. Everything you know, love, and hate about the current sneaker culture in 2015? Yeah, this sneaker basically birthed all of that.

    The shoe used six or so months of momentum in Jordan’s rookie year to push it to rarefied air. By the time it finally released in the spring of that season, dropping with two classic colorways (Banned and Chicago) on the same day, the hype was real. Sneaker fiends were freaking out before there even were sneaker fiends.

    “Back then it had never been seen before,” sneakerhead @JumpmanBostic once told me. “When the commercials came on everyone was going crazy.”

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  • Penny Hardaway

    Nike Air Max Penny 1

    Before the release of his first official sneaker in 1995, Penny had turned a few Nike basketball shoes into classics. The Nike Air Flight One. The Air Lambaste. And even the Nike Air Up, a shoe that acted as a sort of trial run for the Hardaway line. But once these joints dropped, it was a wrap. One of the most beautiful silhouettes ever made, this shoe aged better than just about anything from the 1990s and it’s unique ability to toe the line between on-court and off-court style turned it into a classic just as much as Lil’ Penny did.

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  • LeBron James

    Nike Air Zoom Generation

    For a guy with 12 signature sneakers and counting, LeBron James has actually gone through quite the transformation in his kicks. The line struggled to find common threads throughout the first six signature editions and it wasn’t until designer Jason Petrie came aboard did the shoe really take off. (The LeBron 8 “South Beach” colorway has to be one of the three or four most influential sneakers of this generation.)

    But the first shoe was definitive in one way: It showed ‘Bron was ready to become the new Michael Jordan. It wasn’t called the LeBron 1 simply because Nike wanted to test it out during the King’s rookie year to see how it would sell. James not only met expectations. He soared past them, setting the stage for a career where both himself and his sneakers would consistently outperform predictions.

    As our Bryan Horowitz once wrote on the shoe: “The basic, classic look was in its own way perfect: You wouldn’t have wanted such an important sneaker to be too busy.”

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  • Nike Zoom Kobe 1
    Kobe Bryant

    Nike Zoom Kobe 1

    Because of various issues, Bryant had a 3-4 year gap between signatures with adidas and Nike. During that period, the Mamba wore a number of dope shoes, as well as some incredible Jordan Brand PEs, but his sneaker legacy was very much up in the air before the release of the ZK1. This shoe wasn’t revolutionary the way later Bryant shoes would be. It didn’t break the mold by going low-top. It didn’t feature an upper made of all-new material. It didn’t bend trends and go SUPER high along the ankle. It was just a dope sneaker with some spectacular designs and materials. What the sneaker did come to signify, however, was Kobe’s penchant for making history. He scored 81 points against Toronto while wearing these shoes.

    Bryant says the focus of this shoe was to make it feel “hand-made,” a theme that would go to the next level with his later shoes where everything was meticulously tested, twisted, and improved to create the “perfect” shoe.

    I still remember seeing the 81-point game during my freshman year of college. When the initial Kobe 1 dropped online, there wasn’t any question. I ordered immediately. It was history.

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  • Reebok Question
    Allen Iverson

    Reebok Question

    This sneaker will forever be one of the most comfortable basketball kicks I’ve ever played in. Allen Iverson donned them for his rookie season in Philadelphia after coming to the NBA from Georgetown, where he often rocked the Concord Air Jordan XI. (The Question’s ghillie lacing system and the toe cap overlay were direct callbacks to some of the XI’s most cherished features.) This shoe set the tone for Iverson’s long partnership with Reebok. It was a shoe that focused on performance more than anything else, a necessity considering the player wearing them was basically 5-10 and 150 pounds and had absolutely no fear whatsoever when it came to getting into the lane.

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  • Nike Air Griffey Max I
    Ken Griffey Jr.

    Nike Air Griffey Max 1

    The most stylish baseball player ever was one of the few athletes that defined my childhood. There was nothing better than waking up early before school just to read the box scores in the newspaper (people still did it back then!) and listen to Kenny Mayne and Stuart Scott (RIP) yell “YAHTZEE!” as the Kid blasted one gorgeous home run after another. As for his kicks, the first pair set the tone with big branding and bold looks, a trainer with the traditional Max Air tooling. This line faded out rather quickly, at least compared to others on this list, but will always get props from sneakerheads simply because it did the impossible: It made a baseball player cool.

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  • Nike Air Tech Challenge OG Andre Agassi


    Andre Agassi

    Nike Air Tech Challenge

    Speaking of loud, we knew right from the start what Agassi’s line would be like, thanks to his first shoe, the Nike Air Tech Challenge. The shoe featured radical designs, colors, and overlays, and all of it was next level for a sport that wasn’t ready for any of it in 1988. Future Agassi models would build off this mindset of bolder is better.

    This shoe perennially gets overshadowed by its more powerful younger brothers, thanks to the visible Air unit that began popping up in models almost immediately after this first release, but the seeds of the best tennis line ever started right here.

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  • Nike Air Force Max CB
    Charles Barkley

    Nike Air Force Max CB

    Everything about Sir Charles screamed rugged and tough. His shoes did the same thing, essentially owning the mid-90s market for heavyweight basketball performance sneakers. (They’d have to wait until the emergence of LeBron James for a worthy successor.)

    Barkley had been with Nike since the very beginning, holding down the Force line and being the lead NBA pitchmen behind the shoe that the Fab Five made famous. Throughout the line, Nike made sneakers — whether they consciously noticed it or not — that had a straightjacket feel to them. That was epitomized in the classic Air Max2 CB 94, one of the greatest ’90s sneakers ever made, a sneaker that actually WAS inspired by the straightjacket. That all started with Barkley’s first real sig, the Air Force Max CB.

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  • Nike KD 1
    Kevin Durant

    Nike KD I

    Kevin Durant’s signature line isn’t quite at classic status just yet. But in another few years? They’ll be no denying him, especially if he keeps up his current Hall of Fame trajectory.

    As for his first shoe, it began as a lower-priced option, at least compared to Nike’s other top sigs. It’s still lower-priced today, even if the numbers continue to climb. There are also numerous design aspects that have continued to push for sleek performance. The shape and cut of Durant’s sneakers seem to change every year but it’s the performance-heavy tech that is always at the forefront. That started in 2009 with this shoe.

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  • Nike Air Trainer 1

    Sneaker News

    Bo Jackson

    Nike Air Trainer 1

    There’s no way Nike truly believed Bo’s trainers would still be relevant today, even over 20 years after Bo originally retired. But here we are. These shoes were all about supporting a hybrid design that can work anywhere at anytime. That included an iconic mid-foot strap. In the end, this first shoe was so influential it basically created the Nike Training line.

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  • Air Jordan 1
  • Nike Zoom Kobe 1
  • Reebok Question
  • Nike Air Griffey Max I
  • Nike Air Tech Challenge OG Andre Agassi
  • Nike Air Force Max CB
  • Nike KD 1
  • Nike Air Trainer 1

We’re not even two months into 2015 and they’re already calling this the Year of the Signature. Never before have we seen so many colorways from so many different people from so many different brands. You have more shoes than ever dropping from the heavy hitters, even as places like Under Armour and Brandblack make their entrance.

It often feels like everyone in the NBA has their own signature shoe. It’s not true. Not by a long shot. But sometimes it feels that way.

Tomorrow, we’ll see another new colorway for the Nike Kyrie 1 dropping at Champs Sports, a shoe that calls back to his Australian heritage while also creating its own nickname (the Flytrap). The sneaker isn’t so much a hit because of the varying shades of emerald green, nor are the mango splashes going to make this one a classic. The reasons why we’re already falling in love with this Nike shoe aren’t so simple. Instead, we’re falling in love with the architectural inspiration. The logo. The player. The history. All of that.

The first silhouette in a signature line is always important. It sets the tone. It harkens to future success. It introduces a player, a theme, a storyline. It lets everyone know this is who I am, what I was, what I will be. All of the greats had first sneakers that set a tone, that changed the game.

With the release of yet another colorway for Kyrie’s first sneaker, we’re celebrating by looking back at the ingredients that made sneakers like the Air Jordan I, the Reebok Question, and the Nike Air Griffey Max 1 such trendsetters. This is Schooled: A History of the First Signature Sneaker.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney

image via Nike