Before there could be Kobes, LeBrons, or Air Jordans, there was the Air Force 1. Designed by Bruce Kilgore and released in 1982, the Air Force 1 is the biggest-selling shoe in the history of Nike.
It immediately became a favorite with NBA players upon its release, as it contained several features never before seen on a shoe that directly benefited the players’ games. Now entering its 31st year of existence, the Air Force 1 still occasionally pops up on an NBA court.
With so many solid players having worn the shoe before, there have been several standout games played that can be directly attributed to the features of this legendary sneaker. These are The 10 Best Performances in the Air Force 1s.
No. 10 - Calvin Natt, Denver Nuggets
Stats: 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block
Game: 4/28/1985 vs. San Antonio Spurs
The Nuggets’ power forward brought his A-game to his team’s best-of-five first round playoff series against the Spurs, doing a little bit of everything down on the block as he helped his team take the deciding Game 5. Tasked with protecting the paint against prolific scorer George Gervin, Natt utilized the protection provided by the high-top leather upper to keep his feet and ankles locked in while he patrolled underneath the basket. The Nuggets held the legendary Ice Man to just 12 points while Natt dominated at the rim on both ends of the floor, leading all players in rebounding and scoring the second-most points.
No. 9 - Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics
Stats: 19 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists
Game: 5/27/1985 vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The bitter Celtics-Lakers rivalry took center stage once again in the 1985 NBA Finals, and provocateur Danny Ainge was right in the middle of the action. Despite being significantly less-heralded than his Hall-of-Fame teammates, the shooting guard proved instrumental in the Celtics’ Game 1 blowout win. Settling into a groove thanks to the comfortable cupsole design of his Air Force 1s, Ainge buried nine of his 15 shots from the field while getting to just about any spot he wanted. The mesh side panels on the upper also ensured that the hot-shooting Ainge would remain cool even as he ran his defender all over the floor to get to those shooting spots.
No. 8 - Jamaal Wilkes, Los Angeles Lakers
Stats: 20 points, 6 rebound 3 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks
Game: 5/29/1983 vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Down 2-0 in the 1983 NBA Finals and desperately needing a win at home, the Los Angeles Lakers turned to Jamaal Wilkes to help rescue them from what would have been an insurmountable deficit. Wilkes did a little bit of everything in this game thanks in part to the versatility of his Air Force 1s. The durable leather upper kept Wilkes’ feet supported as he grinded through 43 minutes on the court, and the Air Max heel cushion kept his feet comfortable as he was forced to defend 76ers stars Julius Erving and Moses Malone. Unfortunately for Wilkes, the Lakers struggled on both ends of the floor despite his stat-sheet filling night and lost the game (and later, the series).
No. 7 - Rasheed Wallace, Detroit Pistons
Stats: 26 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks
Game: 6/13/2004 vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Even though Air Force 1s are no longer a common sight in the NBA, they do have one standard bearer: Rasheed Wallace. The versatile power forward has worn these sneakers throughout his career, as the blend of the durable upper for battling in the post and Air Max cushioning for easy elevation and landing on outside shots is the perfect combination for Wallace’s versatile game. On this night in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Sheed gave the Pistons a commanding 3-1 series lead with a tremendous all-around performance in his Air Force 1s as he dominated the paint on defense against the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone while also stretching the floor on offense.
No. 6 - Bobby Jones, Philadelphia 76ers
Stats: 13 points (6-of-7 shooting), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks in 25 minutes
Game: 5/31/1983 vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Not many people have heard of Jones, but he was a vital part of the 76ers’ 1982-83 championship squad who thrived as an offensive sparkplug as well as a lockdown defender. His Air Force 1s were perfect for this role, as the ultra-durable high-cut leather upper allowed the forward to harass his man without having to worry about his shoes being able to handle the high intensity of his play. Jones absolutely terrorized the Lakers on both ends in the deciding Game 4 of the finals; thanks in large part to his control of the paint, Philadelphia forced 20 Laker turnovers (nine from Magic Johnson and six from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) en route to a championship-clinching victory.
No. 5 - Michael Cooper, Los Angeles Lakers
Stats: 22 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal
Game: 5/30/1985 vs. Boston Celtics
An unsung hero of the Showtime Lakers, Michael Cooper was renowned for his defense and tremendous work ethic, with Larry Bird saying that he was the best defender he ever faced. In the 1985 NBA Finals against the hated Celtics, Cooper put on a clinic in Game 5 on both ends of the floor. Remaining relaxed and composed on the floor due to the comfort provided by the cupsole design and Air Max heel cushion in his Air Force 1s, the Lakers’ versatile small forward shot 8-of-9 from the field on offense and forced Boston’s two biggest weapons (Bird and Dennis Johnson ) into a combined 15-for-39 shooting night as the Lakers shocked the Celtics at the Boston Garden.
No. 4 - Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Stats: 15 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists
Game: 11/24/2002 vs. Milwaukee Bucks
The 2002-03 season saw Kobe Bryant play without a shoe deal, which meant he was free to experiment with playing in whatever kicks he wanted. One night in November 2002, he went with the Air Force 1s for a game against the Bucks. Considering he promptly went out and recorded a triple-double, it’s fair to call his decision an unequivocal success. The Air Max heel cushion was ideal for the explosive Bryant as he crashed the boards and slashed to the rim for easy baskets, while the breathable mesh side panels in the leather upper allowed him to stay cool while playing a game-high 44 minutes and distributing to his teammates around the perimeter.
No. 3 - Charles Barkley, Philadelphia 76ers
Stats: 29 points, 18 rebounds
Game: 2/22/1985 vs. Detroit Pistons
The “Round Mound of Rebound” wore Air Force 1s throughout his rookie season, and on this night showed why he was destined for greatness. Utilizing the special design of the “pivot point” outsole, Barkley dominated in the paint against the bruising defense of Bill Laimbeer as he shot an amazingly efficient 12-of-14 from the field using a variety of moves to get around his larger defender. The Pistons simply had no answer for Barkley, as the stout power forward was seemingly invincible thanks in part to the sturdy, durable upper of his Air Force 1s.
No. 2 - Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers
Stats: 28 points, 19 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals
Game: 5/29/1983 vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Big time players come ready to play in big time games, and that’s exactly what Moses Malone did while wearing his Air Force 1s for Game 3 of the 1983 NBA Finals. The future Hall-of-Famer tortured the Lakers all night, getting nice and comfortable on the block due to the durable leather upper that protected his ankles and the cupsole design that gave his feet a nice cushion as he repeatedly put home shots from point blank range. Malone cleaned up on the offensive glass, too, elevating for eight offensive rebounds over the monstrous Kareem Abdul-Jabbar thanks to the Air Max cushion in his heels.
No. 1 - Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers
Stats: 51 points, 17 rebounds
Game: 11/14/1984 vs. Detroit Pistons
There was simply nothing Detroit could do to slow down Moses on this night, as the 76ers’ center scored a career-best 51 points in an overtime loss to the Pistons. Patrolling the paint with ease thanks to the “pivot point” outsole of his Air Force 1s, Malone absolutely owned the area around the basket as Detroit resorted to hacking the 76ers’ center so much that he ended up attempting 18 foul shots. It didn’t matter much, though, as Malone still ended up rising over the defense time and again thanks to the Air Max heel cushioning as he managed to take 32 shots over the course of the game.