Ranking Nike’s 20 Iconic Sneaker Designs Of The Last 20 Years

I grew up with basketball shoes on the brain. When the catalogs arrived in the mail, it was to the hoops section I turned first. It was never a brand thing, as I played in Nikes, Reeboks and adidas. One season I even kicked it around in New Balance (I was once a skeptic at first, too). But in many ways, Nike has driven the basketball sneaker dialogue in my lifetime, which isn’t a whole lot longer than its recent countdown of its 20 most iconic designs of the past 20 years. Why this time frame when Air Jordan 1s were released in 1985? Because the original Dream Team came in 1992, and helped push not only sneakers to a wider audience, but globalized basketball’s visibility. Of those 20, from the Air Force 180 Low to Hyperdunk+, here are our rankings for the most iconic of the bunch.

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The military-boot inspiration never took hold with me as a player who prefers the lighter, less restrictive offerings. There were clearly reasons to see this as a Humvee of a shoe for LeBron James, durable and agile, with protection around the ankle but not the kind that would take it into high-top territory. If you wanted to be secure in the shoe and needed to go as fast as possible as LeBron does, it was a natural place to look in ’03.

It was part of a run of sneakers that used switchable accesories like the Nike Air Modify Force, also in 1996. There wasn’t enough “there” there to see it as anything more than a solid, durable, beat-you-up-and-down-the-floor style of sneaker. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It locked you in with the removable strap and the reinforced lace eyes symbolized the rigor the shoe was meant to be put through.

18. NIKE ZOOM KOBE IV (2008)
The KobeSystem got a start with the soccer-boot inspired sneaker. He wanted a featherlight shoe and he got it. It would go higher but up ahead, one shoe came before it that did this concept one better (it just didn’t have a superstar endorsement).

The originator of the Hyperfuse technology of a unibody frame composed of layers working together as one is a mile marker along the road for Nike’s shoe tech. It fits the Nike mantra of many pieces synced together instead of a rigid, one-size fits all approach to basketball. While I’m personally a fan of what this shoe begat, the Zoom Hyperfuse 2011, this deserves a mention of being the first of style and technology Nike is still perfecting.

Clean. Hardly has a derivative sneaker, modeled after the 1992 model, looked so good in its own right. The circle at the top allowed for flexibility, and that flying wing of an upper around the ankle gave a model for the Hyperdunk four years later. The tech was fairly par for the course (if par is an eagle compared to the competition), but say this about the shoe if you’re going to say anything: it was gorgeous.

15. NIKE AIR FORCE 180 LOW (1992)
The Air Jordans in the mid-80s were gorgeous shoes that you wanted to wear out as much as to play in. This shoe, however, would only have fit in at the construction site outside of the gym — and that’s a compliment. The pressurized air in the midsole was a leap for tech at the time that shouldn’t be overlooked by its jagged design lines and strapped in laces. It wasn’t Charles Barkley‘s official shoe but it was his own brand of no-nonsense basketball that propelled it into the spotlight during Barcelona. And the red, white, blue and gold coloway? As classic as the once-lost “Monaco” Dream Team practice tape.

What an interesting hybrid this was, combining a track shoe’s full airbag for the big man. Instead of 180 Low-type shoes that Barkley brought into fashion, never had being a heavy post player looked as light as this. It looks like a cross trainer on steroids. That weaving of track style into the court was, according to Nike’s brief, incredible difficult. More weight meant finding new ways to support that within the Air. We need to give it a tribute for its underlying R&D brought us the LeBron 7, too, with its full-length airbag.

13. NIKE AIR MAX2 CB4 (1994)
Sir Charles, in charge. Barkley’s first signature shoe was meant, as designer Tinker Hatfield says, as an expression of his personality. OK, nothing new there, right? Well, Charles never cared what he looked like or how you thought his game looked, other than uncompromising. So Nike gave him a shoe with the distinctive holes and a two-level, wave-like outsole at the ball of the foot, exactly where a rebounder would need it.

12. NIKE AIR RAID (1992)
We’ve seen tie-down straps in here before and you’ll see more later but this was, and is, a high point. I believe in the X’s practical purpose, but it’s more likely this was just a shoe designed with attitude in mind and the X looked rebellion given life in two pieces of cloth. It works. I think of the brash, early 90s Nike ads when I see these kicks.

One of my favorite basketball players at this time was Oregon’s Luke Jackson, and when he rocked this with a yellow, clear bottom seemingly in every game, I took notice immediately. It was light but strong with the Hyperflight claw structure first found in the Zoom Ultraflight. Maybe it was an extension of a former trend setter, but it still made the design its own with the subtle changes to the TPU lower and its candy colorings.

10. Nike ZOOM KD IV (2011)
This may be the best-looking shoe on this entire list, colorway for colorway. The outsole is cool with the tip of the hat to Kevin Durant‘s most cherished people and places in its ridiculous detail. The strap, however, is what makes this one of the very best. Ten, then, you ask? It’s not a knock against this field. Look it’s still one of the most incredible designs I think I’ve ever seen, whether in Olympic gold, or Nerf-inspired hues. It combines the inspiration of a Penny, who needed padding and low-profile feel for his game, while wrapping it in a bow and the huge swoosh. A favorite.

It’s not the Foamposite One, but it did one-up its predecessor in one way, with the lacing system surrounded by a zipper. Has Nike checked to see if this design hasn’t been used as a template for alien feet in movies? Might be some royalties in that. To me, it looked like the philosophical message it was trying to send: no weaknesses to exploit. In some ways it’s like this groundbreaking design was the answer to Achilles’ legend.

Flywire is becoming almost ubiquitous now, but in 2008, with the Beijing Olympics upcoming, the introduction of the suspension-bridge inspired strength was a new high. My favorite part was the incorporation of Lunarlon, which to that time I’d only seen on the volt-colored track racing trainers at the Olympic Track & Field Trials. Once the hoops came on and it was clear the same tech was being used to support a 6-9, 270-pound forwards as much as a 5-8, 150-pound miler, my mind was made up about this shoe’s place. When you wear it, it will only confirm that the first time you lace it up.

7. NIKE AIR PENNY (1995)
I’m admittedly more of a Penny II man myself — true story: a good friend of mine in elementary school actually would dust off my Penny II’s on the playground because he didn’t want them to get dirty — but this was the start of Penny’s nice, if short-lived, personal line. The key design change was that the first-ever combination of a Zoom Air pad in the forefoot and an air bag in the heel would be forever known as Uptempo. It was the first of its kind and spurred the later collaborations between different types of shoe technology you’d see in one sneaker.

Nike’s best attempt at a low-top engineered to prohibit the rolled ankle was the Hyperflight, whose claw structure on the inside and outside of the foot were tines holding your ankle in place like the most fashionable vice you’d ever seen. Not only did the structure’s looks match its function step for step, but the upper came in shinier coats than normal to bring the eye in and really, kind of changed how Nike has put limits on its colorways. It changed the game for a low-profile shoe more than the Zoom Kobe IV as the first high-tech minimalist sneaker that still holds up in its own right.

5. NIKE SHOX BB4 (2000)
Game changers as far as I am concerned. Shox technology was intriguing twofold: it was the next step for any player dreaming of the encore to a full-length Air chamber and also for its comfort. And that was just for the consumer’s feelings, who didn’t have to wait the agonizing 20 years Nike says the design was shelved until the right foam was able to be constructed. The angles of the upper went against the grain of the Foams and Flightposites, whose designs looked like they were carved by liquid like rock in a river’s path. It made the BB4 look more robotic and serious, like it might attack the weak spots of your game even without feet in it. The patent leather shone when the lights hit it.

Let’s not forget the most important thing of all: This is the shoe Vince Carter leapt over Frederic Weis in in the greatest in-game dunk, ever. Suddenly, BB4’s were everywhere. Did the Shox actually make you leap higher? After VC’s facial, everyone wanted to try.

Sometimes when you talk about technology in a shoe, you lose people halfway through a conversation. Low-profile Nike Zoom? Huh? This shoe has changed that by adding actual, quantifiable tech inside a sneaker. Measuring your vertical, your speed and steps, is something anyone can relate to and incorporates competition you can rank. It all goes against how we treat our iPods and other tech gadgets. Instead of offering a screen cover, Nike is asking us to no, no, please, beat up this shoe to get its full benefit. My question is, will this be remembered as an Air Jordan 1, the beginning of a whole new era? Or does the design match the boldness of the technology enough?

The newer Huarache, the Air Zoom 2K4, is easier on the eyes but the original’s creativity, with its upper architecture exoskeleton atop neoprene and leather, has always drawn me in like Bowerman to a waffle iron. Its most genius move was removing the Swoosh from the side. Just like that, a shoe that drew second looks made you look closer, too, to ask, who made that? The comfort of the power-oriented shoes, such as the Air Force 180 Low, was still found in a bolder yet wholly different design.

2. NIKE AIR FOAMPOSITE ONE (1997) Some say foams came back because of the DMV, and it could be true. The real question should be how they ever went away. I understand some can find fault with its design but maybe they just weren’t ready for the name’s -posite suffix to be embodied in a composite shoe that was unlike anything else from a visual perspective. This began a breakpoint of the sewn-together sneaker and all the limitations it had come with. I just remember seeing players in middle and high school wear Foams that were completely different colors than their teams’ because they were the only Foams they could get their hands on. They were that popular and eye-catching.

Nike leads into its debriefing of this sneaker from its designer, Wilson Smith, thusly: “I think generally the mid-90s were just a bigger-than-life time.” It’s perfect. This was the sneaker you got the feeling Nike designers had locked in a vault since the excess of the 1980s but hadn’t found the right time of the relatively austere ’90s to unleash. What would be better timing than the year “Space Jam” debuted? A cartoonish design came out the same year as a literal cartoon NBA movie a season after we watched the NBA’s most cartoon-good team, the 1995-96 Bulls. Everything about this shoe changed how basketball shoes could be viewed, from how fun it was (the white-on-white colorway was like a cumulus cloud, fully realized) to its functionality. Scottie Pippen even vouched for it.

What do you think?

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