In 1992, Shaquille O’Neal was taken by the Orlando Magic with the top pick in the NBA Draft as he took his first steps towards a Hall of Fame career. The precocious 20-year old star wasn’t only making his debut as an NBA player, he was also making his debut as an endorser at a national level.
O’Neal’s first shoe deal came with Reebok, who signed the star with the hopes that Shaq could bring the company into the NBA signature shoe world. It was a risk, being that it was rare for a big man to be the face of a product, and creating a signature shoe for someone that wore a size 20 at the time brought extra challenges for making a shoe that could also work for the public.
The Shaq Attaq, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary with a retro release, would become his first signature shoe. Reebok designer Judy Close was tasked with the challenge of creating a unique shoe both in look, as Reebok wanted its first NBA signature shoe to stand out, and function to handle the wear-and-tear it would receive from O’Neal’s play.
Reebok turned to its running shoe department for inspiration, introducing the first ever graphite carbon fiber plate through the forefoot of the Shaq Attaq, which provided stability and strength to handle O’Neal’s size while also allowing Close to keep the shoe light. That plate, along with the Reebok Pump, gave the Shaq Attaq a great deal of comfort to go along with the unique design.
“The key to this shoe in terms of functional was the great fit and comfort, that’s why the two corporate technologies were included, being the Pump bladder that was also used in other basketball shoes and the newly created graphite shank that was originally in running shoes and now was through the forefoot,” Close said. “That allowed us to remove more foam in the midsole and open up making the shoe lighter weight, knowing the graphite would allow someone like Shaquille to play in the shoe and not have it collapse. So we certainly had to consider all of his movement, side-to-side, forward, in addition to the aesthetic parameters.”
With the shoe’s weight, stability and comfort around the foot figured out, the next question for Close with regards to do with the shoe’s functionality was trying to ensure O’Neal had enough support on the ankles. On Reebok’s trip to Texas to visit with O’Neal and his family, Close brought multiple designs with her, featuring different elements to get Shaq’s feedback on what he needed and didn’t from the shoe.
“We sat with him in his living room and shared the drawings that we had — I think 2 or 3 designs we were showing him,” Close said. “One had straps on it, one didn’t because we thought since he was a big guy, maybe he needs additional support around the ankle area. But he was like, ‘you know, I get my ankles taped anyways, so I don’t feel like that would be a key attribute to the shoe.’ So we ended up going in the direction of the design that you currently know of.”
O’Neal’s input into the shoe was important to Reebok, both to make him comfortable on the court but also happy as the face of the brand. Shaq, however, knew early on in his career that the best thing he could do for success in business off the court was to not be over-involved and attempt to step too far into situations where he didn’t have expertise.
“Process and business is easy,” O’Neal told UPROXX. “The first rule of a CEO is you let people do what they do, not be a micro-manager. I’m not a designer, so [they show me options] and I say, ‘I like this, I like this and I like this.’ I’m never the one to say, ‘oh, change this.’ They brought me options, I said I liked this one and let’s do it. It was easy. I wanted something that looked different. I wanted something that people would always remember.”
While O’Neal was happy to simply pick and choose from the options presented by Close, the trip still provided meaningful background and inspiration for Close to complete the design. The face-to-face meeting and getting to see O’Neal in his comfort zone gave Close an opportunity to better understand the rising star’s personality, which would influence the design’s aesthetics to match personality and playing style with the shoe’s look.
“Obviously he wasn’t an NBA player yet,” Close says, “but he had a big, warm personality and he was really interested in who we were and what we wanted to show him for that day. And he was so open and offering … It wasn’t just about the shoe, it was about his personality and how large and nice and friendly he was. I think we tried emulating that with his boldness in the shoe, and to this day I think he’s kept true to that.
He has that superhero mentality,” Close adds. “You could feed on that energy, which was really nice.”
O’Neal’s personality made for a perfect match for what Reebok needed, which was to have someone that could carry the brand into the NBA and be the face of the company. Reebok wanted a shoe that could be instantly recognizable, and O’Neal’s bold personality and physically dominant style on the court fit that need naturally.
“He’s a bold, charismatic guy, and it was our first time launching a shoe, I believe, in the NBA,” said Close. “So we want the shoe to be visible from the bleacher seats and recognizable from far away. Not have minute details that are hard to see. So a bold, simple silhouette, but he’s an aggressive player, so we wanted that to be a dominant feature too. We did that in part with he black design element that wrapped around on the shoe and the bottom and then wrapped around to the other side. As well as the big blue elements in the back, so from afar you really could recognize the distinctive look. It really didn’t look like anything else on the market at the time. So from a functional and a visible place we were very different [from other shoes].”
Once the final design decisions had been made, the final process was choosing materials for the shoe. Like the inclusion of the graphite carbon fiber shank and the efforts to give the shoe a unique look, Reebok wanted the materials of the shoe to be something different as well. For that inspiration, Close looked to the 1992 Olympic swim team for the metallic blue on the back to provide a bold contrast to the flatness of the black leather.
“Everything had texture and color and feel,” Close says, “all those little details were picked for that value as well as their performance benefits. One of the things that was ahead of its time was there’s that metallic pew in the collar. Nowadays I think you see that more frequently with films or maybe it’s just more accepted [than it was then]. We chose that as it was reminiscent of the swimsuits they were wearing in the Olympics. We felt it was relevant in terms of trends.”
With the shoe completed, the final task was to market it. Where he was cautious to overstep his bounds and abilities in the designing of the shoe, Shaq, even at age 20, wanted to be very involved in the marketing of the shoe. O’Neal knew he could sell, despite the doubters that a big man could be the face of a product, and he wanted to have a prominent voice in how his personal brand and image was cultivated.
“I wanted to make it a point – to myself and to everybody – that big guys can sell,” Shaq says. “So when I first did my deal with Reebok, it was an overall shoe deal, I told them, ‘OK, you’re going to give me $5 million and how about you give me $4 [million] and then give me $1 million to make three commercials that I want to create. So I created the first commercial, but I was smart, I knew how I wanted people to see me. That was the commercial where you had the special effects, don’t fake the funk. We did that one and then I shot one with the little kid for Pepsi.
“I wanted people to say hey, this guy’s big and giant, but he’s friendly,” O’Neal continues. “Big friendly giant. A BFG. I wanted everybody to say this guy’s a BFG.”
O’Neal’s star was born at LSU, but the Shaq Attaq and the marketing campaign around it brought his personality to the masses in a way that had never been shown before. The Shaq Attaq became one of the most popular basketball shoes at the time, helping propel Reebok into the NBA sneaker market and also helped launch Shaq’s career as one of the premier sports pitchmen of all time.