BEFORE AIR JORDANS – The first signature shoes in the NBA

BEFORE AIR JORDANS – The first signature shoes in the NBA

Almost two decades since his last NBA game, Michael Jordan still makes more money than any other NBA player. The Jordan Brand generated $3.1 billion in sales in Nike’s 2019 fiscal year, which ended last May. That total accounted for about eight percent of the apparel giant’s overall sales. According to Forbes, has earned $1.3 billion from his Nike deal since 1984, including $130 million last year alone. The contract he signed came with a few benchmarks.

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Air Jordans revolutionized the concept of an athlete having their signature shoe. Nike proved they were more than a track and field company and became the giant we know today. But, they weren’t the first company to give an NBA player his signature shoe. 

PF Flyers Bob Cousy All-American Basketball Shoe (1958)

“The Houdini of the Hardwood,” or “Cooz” for OG Celtics fans, Bob Cousy promoted a lot of products to make an extra buck or two. It was a basic canvas shoe with a special Cousy patch on. Cutting edge at the time, the shoe boasted more sole contact with the floor. Playing in crowded arenas with no AC in the 50s, the main target was not to slip all over the floor.

Adidas Jabbar (1971)

Kareem arrived in the NBA with three NCAA titles and three NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards. The greatest college basketball player ever didn’t disappoint in the NBA either. The Bucks went from 27–55 to a 56–26 record with the Rookie of the Year, leading them with 28.8. PPG (2nd) and 14.5 RPG (3rd). After Kareem dropped 51 on the SuperSonic in his first year, everyone knew the NBA had its new superstar.

Adidas didn’t wait and gave Kareem $25.000 a year to endorse their basketball shoes. It involved putting Kareem’s face on the tongue of a shoe and using his famous skyhook as a secondary logo. 

Puma Clyde (1973)

Puma was founded in 1948 by Rudolf Dassler as a result of a family feud. A quarter of a century earlier, in 1914, Rudolf and his brother Adolf (that name hasn’t aged well) formed the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory). Their relationship deteriorated to the point of no return, so Rudolf formed Puma, while his brother Adolf formed Adidas (Adi Dasler). 

Soon after his brother’s company signed Kareem, Puma got NBA’s coolest player – Walt “Clyde” Fraizer. It didn’t hurt he had just won an NBA title with the Knicks (yes, there was a time where the Knicks won playoff games…this was their last title). Clyde got $5000 and free shoes. But, he didn’t like their leather shoe and told them, “Even if you paid me, I wouldn’t wear that shoe.

Fraizer participated in creating a kind of shoe, and consistent with his style, the Puma Suede shoe was born. The only thing letting you know it was a signature shoe was the “Clyde” stitched under the logo. The suede made it challenging to play in, but great to walk around NYC in. We got our first basketball shoe that was a more significant success off than on the court. 

Converse Dr. J Pro Leather (1976)

Chuck Taylors were the original basketball shoes and, Converse was NBA’s no1 brand. After Adidas and Puma signed Kareem and Clyde, they needed to strike back. No better person for than The Doctor. The Dr. J Pro Leather was “the shoe that ushered in the modern era of basketball footwear.” A simple high-top design with Dr. J stitched in gold next to the Converse star; this was the shoe to have on the basketball court. 

Grosby Bill Ray Bates “Black Superman” (1983)

Despite being only 26 years old and a prolific scorer, Billy Ray Bates left the NBA in 1983. As did a lot of players in the 80s, Bates struggled with drug addiction and couldn’t get a contract, so he moved to the Philipines. Bates played in the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association), where he averaged 46 ppg (yes, forty-six) and was nicknamed “Black Superman.”

An Australian shoe company  Grosby released the “Black Superman” shoes later that year and sold every single pair. The shoe is still popular in the Philipines and was re-released a few years ago. Yet another proof that the Philippines are at the top of basketball-loving countries in the world.

Honorable mention – Nike Iceman Blazers

Nike Blazer was the third sneaker that Nike ever released in 1973. Technologically. it was probably the best basketball shoe on the market but that wasn’t enough for a company that just got started. That’s why Nike signed George “Iceman” Gervin to wear the Blazers. Gervin developed his own personal version of the Blazers, with his nickname on the back. Unfortunately, the shoes were never sold to the general public.


Air Jordan’s and signature shoes are an integral part of the modern NBA experience. But, if Delores Jordan hadn’t made her son take a flight and visit the Nike campus, history could’ve been a lot different. We see from numerous examples in the past (and future) that Nike and MJ started something special in 1984. Something an entire industry has been chasing ever since and is yet to catch up.