The Nike Dunk has lived a lot of lives for a sneaker. It’s gone from basketball shoe in the ‘80s to forgotten throughout most of the ‘90s, then disregarded when it first retroed, to existing as a skate shoe, a hype shoe, back to a forgotten shoe, and now an adored sneaker once again.
The story of the Nike SB Dunk officially starts in 2002, where it was chosen as the best sneaker of that year in Complex’s new book, Sneaker of the Year: The Best Since '85, but the brand’s journey in skateboarding starts in the ‘90s.
During the late ‘90s, Nike launched ill-fated skate shoes such as the Choad and had signed skaters like Bam Margera to promote its products.
The sneakers lacked authenticity in skateboarding. There could have been nothing uncooler than a tech-focused Nike skateboarding. With that said, they all failed and Nike shuttered the program.
To finally establish itself in skateboarding, Nike signed real-deal skaters to the first SB skate team, such as Reese Forbes, Richard Mulder, Gino Ianucci, and Danny Supa. That seems like a fail-proof idea, but even the skaters themselves were hesitant to sign to Nike, given skateboarding’s rejection of big sportswear bands in favor of core, true-to-the-roots companies.
In a chapter of the book written by Justin Tejada, Forbes reflects on his feelings of signing to Nike SB.
“I had concerns, and I was somewhat vocal about them,” says Forbes. “I was nervous about a couple of things. One is how Nike could come back into skating and screw it up again. Then I was nervous about everybody’s reputation. What would it mean to Richard and myself and Gino if we went and rode for Nike and it was a flop?”
The Dunk was revolutionary in skateboarding, too, even if it was just a near-20-year-old shoe at the time with a puffed up tongue and added Zoom Air in the heel. It was a departure from the big and bulky skate shoes of the late ‘90s and early 2000s (think the Osiris D3 or Eric Koston’s second shoe with eS).
“They were the exact opposite of the bread loaf shoe,” says Mulder.
It also gave skaters something that they could wear after skating, erasing the need for the extra pair of “chilling shoes” that they’d often carry in a backpack to wear after a session.
“Back then it was like, if I don’t like what I’m wearing or riding, I’d probably go home,” says Forbes.
The Nike Dunk SB is now 18 years old and in the midst of a revival, thanks to the likes of Travis Scott and of-the-moment collaborations with Ben & Jerry’s, but it has its roots in skateboarding, and most importantly function, just like all other great sneakers before it. But some may not know that the skaters behind the team were hesitant to wear the product.
This design breakdown of the Nike SB Dunk draws from Sneaker of the Year, Complex's new book that releases on Oct. 20. In it, we break down the best sneaker from every year from 1985 to now. The book is available for preorder here.