We can't say for certain that everyone wanted to be like Mike in 1995, but even NBA referees had the chance to thanks to an exclusive Air Jordan XI stripped of red to conform to the strict NBA color policy. These referee-specific all-black Jordans XI IE Lows were available only to NBA officiating staff until Jordan Brand offered up a retro version in 2015. Late sneaker writer Gary Warnett cast some doubt around their exclusive status in a piece that year, but the mystique around them remains. And they're still just as relevant—not much in referee sneakers has changed since 1995. NBA referees must still conform to a tight list of color rules (and by color rules, we mean no color) and they still often struggle to find a footwear option that meets the unique needs of their specific hardwood job.
For the 70 referees that make up the NBA cadre of officials, the three to four miles of running each does per game—that's, on average, 185 miles per season, per referee—means footwear choices first fall within, "Do I choose a basketball shoe or do I choose a running shoe?" For decades, the NBA has required referees' shoes to come sans color—none, not even white in recent years. That rule recently underwent a slight loosening for those wearing Nike, though, as the NBA's uniform deal with Nike extends to the officials, placing the Swoosh on their jersey, black pants, and allowing it in white on a referee's sneaker. Referees in the 1990s were also allowed white on their shoes.
But NBA refs don't have to wear Nike, even though they do get three pairs of their choice per season under the agreement. And many don't select Nike, even if they are restricted from gaining compensation for choosing a specific brand.
Running shoes have a popular hold in NBA officiating, typically an older demographic than the players. Of the 70 referees, 41 have 10 or more years of officiating experience and 28 have 15 or more years of constant hardwood-pounding in the NBA.
For years, New Balance proved a popular choice, both for its highly cushioned styles and that its shoes were more readily available in all-black. The Nike Air Max line, since it too has all-black styles, also has been prevalent. This year, though, one of the most salient models is from up-and-coming French-founded and California-based running shoe brand Hoka One One.
Gretchen Weimer, Hoka One One global vice president of product, says the brand is built on performance "so it comes as no surprise referees are finding themselves in our footwear when their jobs require tremendous attention to detail for long periods of time."
The two most popular models for referees—the Bondi and Clifton—are also the brand's two most accepted maximal-cushion, minimal-weight shoes, Weimer says, both updated this season with a slip-resistant version. The Hoka One One models, especially the Bondi, have a pronounced midsole, a visual representation of the building up of the cushioning.
The basketball referee community extends far beyond the NBA and includes nearly 250,000 referees across the United States alone, with nearly all levels limited to the all-black rules. But still, no major footwear brand caters directly to referees.
A Nike spokesperson says the LeBron Soldier 13 and Air Max 97, both in all-black, have some followings in the NBA referee community. Jordan doesn't have anything specific for referees, save for that exclusive pair from 25 years ago, but knows some choose all-black options from the brand. New Balance, one of the key running brands in the league, wasn't aware what shoes NBA referees were choosing, but the pigskin and mesh New Balance 990v5 seems the key model based on past referee discussions and observation.
The NBA wouldn't allow any referees to be interviewed for this article. But in the past, still-current officials said everyone in the league was scrambling for all-black as they go through up to 10 pairs per season to keep their feet protected. They didn't mind that style takes a back seat to performance, even if they wished more performance options were available in the all-black designation.
With about half the league opting for a basketball-specific model and the other half for a running shoe, the decisions sometimes have referees bouncing back and forth. Some choose the basketball option because they make similar moves to the players, with plenty of cutting and lateral movements (and even a slot position maneuver that requires a crossover motion). But for some, basketball shoes come too rigid, and they opt for a style with either a wider last or more cushioning, such as a Nike Air Max, New Balance, or now Hoka One One.
The lack of referee-specific designs not only makes it tough for NBA referees to find the exact model that works for them, but also means when referee fans—and, yes, they exist—get a special release, such as the Jordan XI IE Low "Referee," they'll need to snap it up. Because the only real referee sneaker style you can expect to find comes in all-black.