The Russ Report: Remembering What It Was Like When the NBA Finals Made the Sneaker

The NBA Finals used to define what made a signature sneaker. Now it's the other way around.

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Twenty-four years ago today, Michael Jordan won his first NBA championship. He played all five games in the same makeup of the same shoe—the Black/Infrared Air Jordan VI—that he’d worn throughout the playoffs and that had already been made available at retail. Back in 1991, the shoe came first, the accomplishments came after. This carried over throughout Jordan’s first three titles, as well as the 1992 Olympics. There were no championship commemorative shoes, no gold medal pair. But you could buy the same ones Jordan himself wore.

Why spend upwards of $250 on a shoe your favorite player might wear once?

That was enough. Heck, that was the entire point.

This is not how it works anymore. LeBron James wears a different PE nearly every night, only some of which are recreatable on NikeID, and there is no designated “playoff” LeBron model at all (outside of the LeBron Elites, which he has worn only sporadically). Instead, there will be a championship version released after the fact (er, if the Cavaliers win) and even if it includes a makeup that LeBron wore, it obviously won’t be available at retail until after the Finals are over.

As for the two other signature level athletes in these Finals, Kyrie Irving is, of course, injured, and Steph Curry has worn two different versions of his Curry One, yellow at home and black on the road. Neither is available at retail. This does not seem ideal.


Where did things change? One could argue that it was in 1995, when Michael Jordan debuted the “Space Jam” Air Jordan XI against the Orlando Magic. The Bulls lost that series, which means we’ll likely never know what he would have worn in the Finals. Then, in his final Finals, in 1998, Jordan similarly debuted the Air Jordan XIV equally far in advance of its retail launch. But neither of those were intentional leaks on Nike’s part — Mike just did more or less whatever he wanted.

The true beginnings of this can more easily be traced to 2009, and Kobe Bryant’s return trip to the Finals when he wore multiple versions of the Kobe IV against the Orlando Magic. The tagged-up versions became known as the “Finals MVP” Kobe IVs, since by the time they released he had already won (and the shoes themselves gained MVP branding on the tongue). Countless Kobe IVs were released, not to mention iD options, with the MVPs just being the penultimate makeup.

Since then releases have only increased exponentially. Signature sneakers were once just home and road, All-Star and playoffs, maybe a “lifestyle” version. Now there are countless colorways of each, made to celebrate occasions both significant (scoring titles) and insignificant (say, original team who said player never even suited up for). There are Independence Day shoes, Christmas shoes, Black History Month shoes and Easter shoes—each release tending to water down the whole. Why spend upwards of $250 on a shoe your favorite player might wear once?

I don’t expect things to go back the way they were, but I do occasionally reminisce fondly over those days, when even a superstar would wear the same shoe for an entire series.

Back when the the accomplishments were made in the sneaker, not the other way around. 

Russ Bengtson is a senior editor at Complex. 'The Russ Report' appears every Friday and you can read previous columns here.​​​