5-on-5: Which player deserves a signature shoe?
We’re counting down the greatest basketball sneakers of all time on ESPN.com, #NBArank-style. But before we reveal our list, a few of our resident sneakerheads weigh in on their favorite kicks of all time.
Which shoes make their top five? Which are the most underrated? And which superstars should be next in line for their own signature sneaker? Our expert panel breaks it down.
1. What are your top five signature sneakers of all time?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: I can probably go five-deep on Jordans alone, but for the sake of diversity, I’ll limit myself with just two: the 11s and the 4s. I definitely have to throw the Puma Clydes on the list as the first signature shoe post-Chuck Taylor. Give me the Grant Hill 2s from FILA, the first signature shoe I ever owned, and add to them the Iverson Questions.
Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com: Jordan 1 and III. Puma Clydes. Reebok Questions. Any sneaker Nike put Charles Barkley‘s name or initials on.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com: 1. Air Jordan XI (Concords) 2. Air Jordan XII (Playoffs) 3. Nike Zoom Kobe V 4. Reebok Question 5. Nike Air Zoom Generation.
Adam Reisinger, ESPN.com: In chronological order, the Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star, the Nike Air Force 1, the Air Jordan III, the Air Jordan XI and the Nike Air Foamposite One. You can’t go wrong with any of these on your feet even today, which is remarkable considering that the most recent of these was first released almost 20 years ago.
Jesse Washington, The Undefeated: In reverse order of greatness, I’m going with: The Reebok Question, not because it was a great-looking or great-feeling shoe, but because Iverson’s mystique and swag were so powerful, he made it classic. The Puma Clyde, because of its enormous cultural impact as one of the foundational pieces of hip-hop culture. Same for the Adidas Superstar, which was officially Kareem’s shoe, but really belonged to Run-DMC and catapulted the sneaker industry into a global fashion juggernaut. Runner-up is the Nike Air Foamposite One, because it was so futuristic, stylishly arresting and also great to hoop in. Finally, No. 1 without a doubt is the Air Jordan 1. This shoe — and this player — forever changed the game.
2. Which all-time kick is the most underrated?
Elhassan: I’ve always had a soft spot for the David Robinson-worn (although not necessarily exclusively signature) Air Max Uptempo shoes. I also respect the creativity that went into the design of the Gary Payton Gloves and the Dennis Rodman Worms. Both tied into the unique personalities of the players who endorsed them.
Jackson: Probably the Converse Pro Leather, the shoe Dr. J made iconic. The Converse Weapon came in after that and kind of took over the league. But Julius Erving literally set the stage for what is now considered the “signature” market with his association and connection to that shoe. The entire market shifted and changed because of that. It’s a shame that they didn’t just brand the shoe as the “Dr. J.”
McMenamin: Nike Air Max Uptempo (1995). Outside of the Concords, it’s my favorite shoe. It’s flawless. The full-length air from heel to toe, the stripped-down black and white initial design (like the Concords) making them work with literally any uniform from the Lakers’ purple and gold (Derek Fisher wore them for years) to the Timberwolves’ blue and green (the shoe is most known for Kevin Garnett wearing them as a rookie) to, naturally, the Bulls’ black and red (Scottie Pippen wore them before his signature line was started by Nike). I don’t see it brought up enough.
Reisinger: The Nike Air Zoom Generation, the first signature sneaker for LeBron James (though it didn’t carry his name). Because the LeBron line has yet to get the Jordan-style retro treatment, you don’t see too many people wearing these — walking around in actual 13-year-old sneakers can be rough — but when LeBron broke out a pair for practice at last year’s Finals, it created some serious buzz among sneakerheads.
Washington: Nike Air Max Uptempo. The remakes are poorly made, but the original had an incredible combination of cushion, comfort and stability. It looked great with the air bubbles all the way around the sole. I was going hard on the NYC playgrounds when they came out; all the Air Maxness was fantastic on concrete. You could even completely remove the laces when rocking it for style, because the elastic bands over the tongue held it on your foot. I’d wear Crocs to a Drake concert to get an original pair of these joints again.
3. What’s your favorite memory about a pair of kicks in your collection, past or present?
Elhassan: The 10s were the first Jordans I ever wore, and I remember marveling at all the accolades listed on the bottom. It’s kind of nuts to think about it now; he’s basically added another career’s worth of accolades after the fact.
Jackson: Either the Yeezy 2s or the bespoke Air Force 1s. The bespoke 1s because of the experience. I designed the shoe with my sons and Mau and Tan of NikeLab. It took over two hours and is a memory I’ll hold on to forever — very special. And the Yeezy 2s, because I actually got them before Kanye.
McMenamin: There was an annual student versus faculty basketball game at my middle school between the eighth-graders and the teachers. When I was in fifth grade, one of my teachers, Ms. Malinchak, was playing in it. I was into art back then, so I made a poster for the game with a detailed drawing of my Air Jordan 7 Bordeauxs — the only Js I ever owned as a kid — with big bubble letters “Malinchak Attack!!!” above it. She ended up hanging up the poster in her classrooms for years. When the Bordeauxs retro’d in 2011, naturally, I had to get them.
Reisinger: The Air Jordan XII will always have a special place in my heart, because it was the first pair of Jordans — or high-end sneakers in general — that I actually owned. I was one of those kids who grew up wearing Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Spaldings from Wal-Mart, so the day I spotted those white/red Jordan XIIs on a clearance rack at Sports Authority was a cause for celebration. That particular pair is sadly long gone, and I’ve missed out on the past couple of re-releases of that specific colorway, but I’ve been lucky enough to add a few other XIIs to my collection over the years.
Washington: I was working at Vibe magazine in ’98, and someone for some reason sent me a pair of the first Foamposites before they came out. The shoes were royal blue, and the Nike swoosh was super tiny — not like the big-swoosh retros. Wearing them around New York City, nobody had a clue what they were. They were such a radical departure from any previous sneaker. I was literally stopping traffic. On the subway one day, a kid asked if I played for the Knicks. (“If I played for the Knicks, you think I’d be on the subway?” I responded.) Then, late one night in my bulletproof Chinese food spot in Brooklyn, a couple of hustlers were admiring my Foams from afar when I overheard one say, “Wait, they look like something DTs might wear.” DT meaning detective. At least I didn’t get robbed.
4. Which NBA player(s) without his own sneaker line has the best kick game?
Elhassan: There is no competition when it comes to this: Phoenix’s P.J. Tucker is the premier sneakerhead in the NBA.
Jackson: DeMar DeRozan and J.R. Smith. DeRozan leans heavily on rocking Kobes, but the Kobes he comes with are sick! And Smith? Nike blesses him with stuff that not even LeBron has! Keep in mind, I’m keeping this on-court. To go off-court and into which player has the best collection/closet, I can’t call it. I don’t want to get too depressed looking into their personal collections by comparing theirs to mine.
McMenamin: I guess Nick Young has his own shoe with Adidas now, but when I covered him in L.A., he wore all sorts of stuff. Just something unique every night, and when Kobe was injured, he actually became Nike’s model to debut the new Kobes that were coming out. Jared Cunningham, who is playing in China now, had an amazing collection last season when he played for the Cavs. I always notice P.J. Tucker with Phoenix with some sauce on his feet. Currently on the Cavs, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert will catch your attention from time to time.
Reisinger: There are so many players who bring heat every night, but I have to pay some respect here to the Grizzlies’ Jarell Martin, who broke out the Air Jordan IIs in the preseason and has been frequently seen wearing the Air Jordan X Rio, which is a nice color match for the Grizzlies’ uniforms. That’s some creative thinking for a player who might not be able to score his own PE, much less a signature sneaker.
Washington: I don’t sweat young bucks about their sneakers. I’m 47, fam. I have a teenage son. What I look like wearing what they wear? I’ma be original and wear something nobody else in the room, gym or stadium has on. My son told me, “That’s because nobody else wants those shoes you’re wearing.” But still.
5. WHICH YOUNG NBA PLAYER DESERVES THE NEXT SIGNATURE SNEAKER
Elhassan: I’m writing this answer at the Staples Center on the heels of Kristaps Porzingis‘ 26-point, 12-rebound, 7-block performance, so Adidas had better rush those Porzingis 1s into production.
Jackson: I already know that Nike is grooming Ben Simmons to replace Kobe in its Elite roster, but even though he’s on the Jordan roster and doesn’t necessarily have the “outgoingness” to sell sneaks, Kawhi Leonard deserves his own shoe.
McMenamin: The two names that come to mind are Devin Booker — the vogue pick as the league’s can’t-miss up-and-coming star — and D’Angelo Russell, as much for his “ice in my veins” swag and overall persona playing on the Lakers’ stage as for his game, which, if he’s lucky, will max out to be an approximation of Mike Conley‘s. Then of course there is Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose ceiling is seemingly infinite, much like how people felt about a young Amare Stoudemire when he got his signature shoe.
Reisinger: Big men don’t usually sell as well as guys who have the ball in their hands all the time (which helps explain why Dwight Howard is now with PEAK rather than Adidas), but Porzingis just signed a big deal with Adidas, he’s located in a major media market, and he’s already proved to be incredibly popular — and this season is putting up the numbers to back it up. It only makes sense for him to have a sneaker to call his own rather than sharing the Crazy Explosive with a bunch of other players.
Washington: Based on performance, Karl-Anthony Towns. KAT’s kicks would need some lion fur trim or something. But can we just give Russell Westbrookhis own shoe already? Him wearing Jordans doesn’t count, and it’s a huge waste of potential. Ain’t nobody really messing with the last decade of flagship Air Jordans, even if they’re worn by the most electrifying player in the world. In terms of actual personal style, Russ is as far from Jordan as L.A. from North Cackalacky. MJ still wears things like four-button blazers over acid-washed jeans. Imagine a shoe that actually reflected Russ’ fashion sense! It would make Yeezys look like Currys. I’m about to wear a FREE RUSS shirt with a Jordan logo to the next OKC game.
Bonus question: Best story to get a pair of sneakers?
Elhassan: At the end of every NBA season, players clean out their lockers, keeping the things they want and leaving behind what is “trash” to them. Steve Nash was the only player in the Suns’ locker room to wear the same size as me, but unfortunately, so did half the staff, so on clear-out day, everyone would find a reason to have business that kept them around the locker room. It was like watching vultures on a nature show!
Jackson: Going to Nike basketball camp in 1994 in a pair of Adidas. I knew they wouldn’t let me walk around the camp in opposition’s sneaks, so I knew once I came there to cover the camp they’d have to give me a pair of Nikes to walk around in. Which they did. But I acquired a pair of Air Ups as they kicked me out of camp during lunch. I was told: “Don’t come back unless you are wearing these shoes!”
McMenamin: A few years back, the Air Jordan XII playoffs colorway retro’d. A player I knew posted on social media about getting them. I texted him my envy. He replied by asking me what size I wore and setting me up with “my guy Ray Ray” to pick up some size 12s for me. In Compton. In a stranger’s driveway. At around 11 p.m. Cash exchange. A little different from a visit to Foot Locker at the mall.
Reisinger: My craziest sneaker-buying story is crazy for how easy it was. Back in 2013, Nike canceled the scheduled December release of the Yeezy 2 Red Octobers and never announced a new on-sale date. Instead, it just randomly dropped them one afternoon in February 2014 with a simple tweet saying they were now available in the online store. I remember seeing the tweet and thinking it was a joke at first, but I clicked, and there they were. The entire buying process took maybe about 60 seconds, and suddenly I was the owner of one of the most sought-after sneakers on the market — though after I saw what they were going for on the resale market, I ended up flipping them. They paid for every sneaker I bought for the rest of that year.
Washington: Freshman year on the basketball team at Yale, 1986. The team wore some wack Reebok 5600s that have thankfully disappeared into the mists of time. But they were free, and had some status around campus. My man Valentino Carlotti, a junior point guard from NYC, put me up on game: Wear the same pair of sneakers to every practice and game all season, but go see the equipment manager every couple of weeks wearing the dogged pair and say, “I need some new shoes!” Stash in dorm room, pause, repeat.