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The birth of the basketball shoe

Investigating the humble origins of the game and the associated shoe, and considers how this footwear proved to be so popular in the street.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Diamond Dogs |

According to urban history, the internationally-popular sport of basketball – and its ultimate need for a dedicated style of footwear – was born due to bad weather. It is generally accepted that the driving force behind the game of basketball was James Naismith, a Canadian professor of physical education and instructor at the International Young Men’s Christian Association Training School located in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA.

In December 1891, Naismith’s gym class faced a period of outdoor inactivity due to rain. Wanting to keep his students occupied during the long New England winters, he considered existing sports but rejected them as either too rough or poorly suited to walled-in gymnasiums. Therefore, he decided to create a vigorous indoor game to encourage the proper level of fitness. His invention would see players passing a round ball to teammates and attempting to score points by throwing the ball into a wall-mounted basket.

Naismith wrote the basic rules and fixed a peach basket in an elevated position on one wall. The peach basket originally had its bottom in place, so it was necessary to manually retrieve the ball after each point was scored. It did not take long for players to complaint that this was too tedious, so the bottom of the basket was removed – although the balls still needed to be poked out with a long stick. After a few more revisions and the logical name of the new sport – involving a basket and a ball – being chosen, the first official game was played in the YMCA gymnasium in Albany, New York, on January 20th 1892, with nine players in each team. 

What to wear on their feet?

It quickly became obvious that basketball players needed non-slip shoes. There was a selection already available, as from the mid-19th century, canvas uppers were being bonded to rubber soles to make comfortable, nonslip shoes – including for such sports as tennis and croquet. In the US, these were often called ‘sneakers’ – a nickname they received from as early as 1887 when the Boston Journal used the term to describe how quiet the rubber soles were on the ground, in contrast to noisy hard leather-soled dress shoes.

Then in 1917, the Converse Rubber Shoe Company – founded in 1908 in Malden, Massachusetts (a subsidiary of Nike since 2003) – released the first shoe specifically aimed at basketball players, under the name ‘Non-Skid’. This high-top footwear comprised a canvas upper and a rubber sole, with a cushioned insole, arch and heel support. It also featured the now-iconic diamond tread pattern which was designed to provide increased grip on the surface of the floor.

North Carolina State University

Chuck Taylor in 1921

Four years later, a semi-professional basketball player named Charles ‘Chuck’ Taylor started working for Converse as a salesman. As a player, he had a good idea of how the Non-Skid shoe could be improved – for instance, by changing the flexibility of the sole while also providing increased support for the ankle.

This led to a redesigned in 1922 and, after the company added Taylor’s signature to the ankle patch, they became known as ‘Chuck Taylor All Stars’. In order to market the new shoe, Taylor held basketball clinics in high schools, colleges and YMCAs across the US, and in the mid-twenties, he also acted as player-manager of the company-sponsored ‘Converse All Stars’ touring basketball team, set up to promote sales of All Star shoes.

Soon, many professional basketball players were wearing Converse All Stars. By 1936, when the sport first officially debuted at the Berlin Summer Olympic Games, All Stars were prominently featured on the feet of basketball players from all nations. The footwear was selected as the official shoe of the Summer Olympics from that year until 1968 and, during World War II, it was the official athletic training shoes of the US armed forces. The National Basketball Association (NBA) was founded in the US in 1949 – one of a number of official bodies established to represent the sport around the world.

By the sixties, the company is said to have cornered some 80 per cent of the basketball shoe market, and it is claimed that in the first year of that decade, around nine out of every ten college and professional basketball players wore Converse shoes. While it is perhaps surprising that it took so long for a serious challenge to arise to the All Star’s preeminent position, that challenge did come. In the 1970s and 80s, footwear manufacturers such as adidas, Ewing, Nike, PUMA and Reebok took advantage of new technologies and scientific innovations to produce ‘cutting edge’ designs specifically for basketball players in order to reduce fatigue and improve their game.

Until the 1960s, Converse basketball shoes were only available in black or white, and the company attempted to counteract a decline in sales to professional players during the seventies by adding more colour options, as well as updating the rubber sole. Nevertheless, the considerable choice suddenly available to the pros (as well as lucrative endorsement deals on offer) brought an end to Converse’s long-standing position as number one within the sport.

However, as one door closed, another – perhaps even more valuable – opened for Chuck Taylor All Stars. Although no longer worn by professional basketball players, the shoe enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s as retro-style casual footwear, which continues today. The current range consists of an impressive variety of colourways in canvas, denim and leather.

Liudmila Chernetska |

Sneakers and similar basketball-style shoes are popular purchases

Putting shoes on the stars

Many basketball players signed on the previously-mentioned endorsement deals. For example, adidas released the first player-endorsed shoe in 1971, which featured Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s face on the tongue. In the same year, PUMA worked with New York Knicks star player Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier to design and release the ‘PUMA Clyde’. He reportedly wanted a low style in which to play as well as a new colourway for each game. To achieve this, the shoe was made from suede leather, so that it was easier to dye. Nike partnered with Michael Jordan in 1985 when it released the first ‘Air Jordan’. The second version of the shoe, the ‘Air Jordan 111’, was released three years later. Kobe Bryant emerged as a new star in the NBA and endorsed the adidas ‘Crazy 8’, and Lebron James wore the Nike ‘Air Zoom Generations’ when the shoe was introduced in 2003.

With the biggest market naturally being the shoe-buying public, brand owners began releasing special editions often linked to current events, fads or historical events. For example, Nike launched special editions to mark ‘Black History Month’. Since the start of the 21st century, the ‘sneaker culture’ has grown significantly, with a dedicated fandom full of ‘sneakerhead’ collectors. Special editions of basketball shoes often sell out within minutes of their release. However, sneaker culture has also gone mainstream and the design and history of sneakers have been the subject of specially-organised exhibitions held at several influential museums.

Looking back over the past 132 years, it is amazing to consider how a multi-billion dollar sector grew from a game James Naismith thought up using a basket and a ball simply to keep kids occupied when they were stuck indoors.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 34 of the March 2023 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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