Written by Matt Welty (@matthewjwelty)
All athletes say that winning a championship is the highest peak that they strive to reach during their careers. But there's something—or at least used to be something—that might mean more to them than hoisting and kissing a championship trophy at the end of the season: Getting immortalized with a signature sneaker.
There was a time in professional sports, the NBA in particular, where only a select few players were given their own signature sneaker model. And this was gained through their hard work, dominance on the court, and, ultimately, their marketable personalities. In the early days, only players with flair, such as Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J had their own sneakers that were meant to be an extension of their on-and off-court personae. And their respective Puma, adidas and Converse sneakers have held up to this day, receiving proper retros and exciting sneaker enthusiasts whether they grow up in their era or not.
In the early days, only players with flair, such as Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J had their own sneakers that were meant to be an extension of their on-and off-court personae.
Then, in 1984, the concept of the signature sneaker was completely tilted on its head. Nike signed a rookie from North Carolina, Michael Jordan, and explored and executed the idea of a signature series. "Air Jordan" exploded out of the gate and went on to represent what a signature sneaker would look like moving forward. Kids wanted to "Be Like Mike," not just because he was on his way to winning six NBA championships (although that would eventually be part of it) but because of the connection they felt to Mike's personal brand through his signature sneakers.
Jordan paved the way for a whole new generation of NBA players who were able to further their legend through sneakers with their names on them. Patrick Ewing was able to leave adidas and start an eponymous sneaker brand, Charles Barkley told the public he wasn't a role model as he snatched rebounds in his CB-series sneakers, Reebok had a winner in its line for Shaq and subsequent sneakers for Allen Iverson and Shawn Kemp. Penny Hardaway was able to debut new technology for Nike (the Foamposite), and even Jordan's sidekick, Scottie Pippen, built his own sneaker legacy.
But in the early 2000s, when the previous generation of stars had started to diminish or retired, brands searched (often in vain) for the replacements to perennial All-Stars and NBA champions. Vince Carter was given Shox, Paul Pierce only had his sneakers released in kid's sizes, and Dada put out sneakers for Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell. But Carter might be better known for wearing a sneaker he didn't even properly endorse, the And1 Tai Chi, while Sprewell's Dadas are best not remembered at all.
It led to an awkward time for signature sneakers.
It led to an awkward time for signature sneakers. Jordan had retired, Kobe Bryant had skipped out on adidas, and LeBron James, the pre-determined savior, had just made his way into the league. Signature sneakers were no longer about giving models to guys who would move the hearts of the upcoming generation, they became a slot to fill for these brands—and they were striking out.
Adidas had its share of signature athletes: Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. Tracy McGrady was given six different signature sneakers. And he deserved them: He'd won back-to-back scoring championships. But adidas took away his signature sneaker, and gave him, Duncan, Garnett, and Chauncey Billups "PE" sneakers instead of signature models. Adidas formed a "Brotherhood," and took the importance off of each player having their own specifically designed sneaker.