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Nike Presents: 20 Designs That Changed The Game

“Good design is a balance between art and science — bold expression and just enough familiarity.”- Eric Avar, Nike Designer

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Nike Basketball’s releases over the past 20 years represent the definition and redefinition of the hoops shoe. A 20-year work-in-progress. A cycle of delivering the unimaginable, making it better and then doing it all over again.

Nike designers have instigated multiple movements from 1992 to the present day. Of course, Nike has been committed to basketball since the 1970s. But new rules in the early 1990s opened up a global stage for the brand’s elite athletes, changing perceptions of basketball forever.

Branding was minimized, amplified, removed, flipped and then resurrected. Leather gave way to Durabuck, then pioneering poured foams, before uppers were fused. Shorts got longer, colorways went metallic and pearlescent before exploding in a limitless burst of brightness. Then there was Max Air, Nike Zoom, Tuned Air, Nike Shox and Nike Lunarlon — assistants in the sole unit for every type of player.

Nike designed for every movement, every dunk on primetime, every embarrassment in a concrete park somewhere. It matched point for point the new breed of athletes with their multiple modes of play.

Nike’s design continues to create the rules – conquering its own achievements to perfect performance. This standard of excellence accompanied the Dream Team to golden glory in Barcelona in 1992 and Team USA to an encore performance in London 20 years later. There is no doubt that it will continue to inspire and elevate the next wave of basketball icons, whoever, and wherever, they may be.

Nike Air Force 180 Low, 1992

“Technology has always been the thing that drives, motivates and consumes us. The Air 180 is the product of that obsession.”- Phil Knight

Catering to powerful players by redefining Air, the Nike Air Force 180 Low represented a significant evolution and extension of Nike Basketball’s design language. At the time of this shoe’s release, Nike Air was almost 14 years old and Visible Air was five. How do you build on those pressurized foundations? By adding 50% more cushioning. Strapping down the player for superior support, it was clear that the 180 and power basketball went together like Barkley and controversy. When this Force hit the hardwood during the summer of 1992, victory was guaranteed. While the shoe has seen plenty of colors, that red, white and blue with a fade to gold represents an iconic moment in sneaker and sporting history. The Nike Air Force 180 Low is a classic shoe —cushioned to protect, but built to intimidate.

Nike Air Flight Huarache, 1992

“If the shoe fits in with other things that are going on culturally, you get a perfect storm.”- Tinker Hatfield

The Nike Air Flight Huarache’s aesthetic swagger was in what it stripped away. A swoosh? No need for one — it’s not like this shoe could have been made by any other brand. That Dynamic Fit, exoskeleton, leather and neoprene combined to make this one of the purest expressions of performance to date. While a maverick team — led by intuitionist Tinker Hatfield, and assisted by Eric Avar — worked behind the scenes to translate the Huarache running technology to the courts, it took a crew of collegiate game-changers to give the Nike Air Flight Huarache an extra ascent in terms of publicity. That leads to the eternal question: what came first – this rebel shoe like no other, eclipsing a previous decade of bulk, or basketball’s completely new attitude and aesthetic? This shoe would have caused a storm either way, urging those from as far away as the nose bleeds to ask, “What was that?”

Nike Air Raid, 1992

“That X strap was about strapping up to go into battle, because you’re going to get knocked around the frickin’ cage and you need to strap yourself in.”- Tinker Hatfield

Blame the yellow sticky. It took a small paper note to instigate the most hardwearing Nike shoe to date. Delivered from the very top, it was less a request and more of an instruction — make a shoe for outdoor basketball. That meant now. With Tinker Hatfield sketching and fellow designer Mark Smith deployed to New York the following day to capture the look and mood of the city’s concrete battlegrounds, it became clear that this was a completely different game. This was where big league heroes could be humbled by local legends. That ‘X’ arrived at a moment when knowledge of self and roughneck aesthetics united. Through sheer coincidence, movements converged and a bubbling culture spilled into the Nike Air Raid’s DNA almost unconsciously.

Nike Air Max2 CB, 1994

“This became more and more overt as a composition. We wanted to capture Charles’ game and his personality.”- Tinker Hatfield

Charles Barkley had been a Nike athlete since the days of the 1987 Nike Air Force and the low-cut Nike Alpha Force. However, it took a while for him to get that all-important signature model. Maybe it was that on and off court attitude, the team switch or the fact that he’s just “not a role model.” One underlying theme of the shoes Charles endorsed was the need for constant lockdown to tether a force of nature during moments of on-court insanity. The Nike Air Max2 CB incarcerated the foot for its own safety with straitjacket-inspired support straps, reinforced lace locks and teeth-like outriggers.

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