Sneaker Culture: The Top Basketball Shoes Of The ’90s, Ranked
“Sneaker Culture” Photo: Lisa Werner (Getty).
The game of basketball is unique in that it developed an entirely separate culture from the game itself. In sneaker culture, one rocks a pair of Jordans and may have never in their life stepped onto a basketball court. To some, it’s all about style above skill.
But if you hooped all your life — like yours truly — you may have worn sneakers through several games, from blacktops on playgrounds to hardwood in gyms, and found that some helped you perform better than others. And if they didn’t perform well, at least you got a dope pair to casually wear around school.
One of the greatest eras in sneaker-culture history was during the 1990s. Inspiring designs led to a fashion boom, giving birth to “sneaker heads” who have entrenched themselves in the culture for decades. While Michael Jordan’s lucrative deal with Nike in the ’80s started it all, the ’90s was truly a celebration of shoes for hoops.
What follows is the definitive list ranking the top basketball shoes of the ’90s. Enjoy the nostalgia in remembering or frustration from disagreement. Either way, consume the history.
Sneaker Culture: Top ’90s Basketball Shoes, Ranked
Grant Hill's signature shoes gave Fila a run in the shoe game of the '90s with this release in 1996. Hill came into the league as the next Scottie Pippen, but injuries fizzled him out. Along with him went the popularity of his signature line. Still, the Fila 96s were a popular pair of the era and casually worn on the regular by those wise to the game.
The late '90s blessed us with a truly unique piece of footwear with the Nike Air Zoom GP, a signature shoe worn by Seattle Supersonics point guard Gary "The Glove" Payton. The buckle was the standout piece on this shoe, and it helped secure the foot on this low-top pair, in a time when low-tops weren't all that popular on the courts yet. The Glove had a nice one with these, but they played second fiddle to...
Payton had an even better shoe the year before the Zoom GPs with this pair. Nike Air Zoom Flight The Gloves included a zipper that provided sneaker heads two options -- 1) zipped up and secure, and 2) unzipped and casual. These made for a smooth set for ballers from all walks of life.
Time to accessorize. The Nike Air Adjust Force introduced us to an interchangeable strap that you can put on the shoe. The strap came in several colors, and many high school and college teams wore these, choosing their team colors for the strap. Even without the strap, the shoe was a quality pair to play in.
The shoe God himself, Michael Jordan, blessed us with an abundance of pairs during his playing years and many after. The Air Jordan XIIIs land at No. 14 on this list. In one of his last seasons playing for the Chicago Bulls, M.J. wore these pieces on his way to another three-peat. They've been re-released in retro form a number of times since they first dropped in 1997 (I copped a pair just last month).
Scottie Pippen's line makes its debut on this list with the Nike Air Pippen II. These smooth sneakers were the go-to for anyone who had hoop dreams of being a point-forward (small forward with point guard tendencies), and were light in weight so you can maximize on slashing and cutting to the basket. Pip gave us a good one with these.
Not everything was about Nike. With Shawn Kemp's shoe, Reebok blessed us with the Kamikaze II. The shoe was originally released with the color scheme of Kemp's team, the Seattle Supersonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder), and the high-flying power forward rocked them well during the mid '90s.
Reebok did it again, this time with Allen Iverson's signature shoe. The Answer I was a sleek pair worn by the pride of the Philadelphia 76ers during the '90s. The grip these had on hardwood courts provided its owners with the ability to maximize their crossover potential, much like Iverson crossed up foes back in the day. Good luck trying to do it as well as Iverson, though. I mean, he crossed up Jordan once.
Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway arguably had one of the best lines of sneakers Nike had to offer. The Air Foamposite One looked like they were from space and felt like it, too. The inner linings of the shoe wrapped around the feet better than any shoe at the time and the grip on the soles was outstanding. The blue surrounding the shoe matched that of his team, the Orlando Magic, at the time of the shoe's release.
Legendary point guard and current Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd also had a strong line of Nikes in the 1990s. With the Nike Zoom Flight V, sneaker heads found a pair that worked well casually and provided excellent grip that produced a screech on hardwood so loud it was heard in the next gym. The "owl eye" on the side was a standout fashion statement for this low-top beauty.
The Nike Air Max Uptempo in 1995 lacked an athlete who claimed its signature, but the Air Max line had a great one with this shoe. The air bubbles around the bottom stood out and the support around the ankle made it a regularly seen pair at all levels of basketball, from the parks to the pros. One might recall a young Ray Allen wearing them while he played college ball at UConn. Scottie Pippen also played games in these.
Penny is back at No. 8 with the Nike Air Penny IIs. This follow-up to a legendary pair of sneakers (you'll see what I'm talking about soon) were popular during the mid to late '90s. Penny, with a puppet co-star in Lil' Penny (voiced by Chris Rock), was featured in many television ads and those helped this pair of Nikes become a staple for damn near every basketball player at the time.
Allen Iverson's greatest shoe, the Question, is and will likely always be the peak shoe for Reebok (don't talk to me about Pumps). A.I. wore these with the blue tips in one of his legendary moments on the court -- crossing over Michael Jordan on the way to hitting a jumper. Great shoe for a great moment, and one that has been released as retros a number of times since.
As good as Iverson's crossover and shoes were, overall, they don't hold a torch to Jordan's legendary on-the-court prowess and trend-setting footwear. The Jordan XIIs had a shell-like design on most of the body, complimented by a snakeskin-looking side up to the toe. These came out in various colors and worn by "His Airness" during his '96-'97 campaign, but retros of the pair have been released several times since then. Some pairs are so valuable that resellers price them at $1,000. Seriously.
Photo: Jordan Brand
Scottie Pippen's OG signature shoe was the beginning of a short line of his underrated line with Nike. These mid-top sneakers included air bubbles that wrapped around the shoe from arch to arch, with an additional bubble on each side at the ball of the foot. A stylish shoe, it worked well casually. Scottie wore these and defied gravity with his glides to the rim, which is rather surprising because I remember these being as heavy as bricks. Good thing they looked dope with ankle socks.
The Nike Air Flight '95s were without a doubt the best pair Jason Kidd wore during his near 20-year run in the NBA. The three bubbles along the side of the shoes were fashionable and the carbon-fiber look gave them a mean look and speedy presentation. But the grip -- oh, the grip -- on these things was some of the best of any shoe up to that point and since then. Retro releases have come every so often in the last few years, giving this generation a chance to experience one of the best gym shoes Nike has ever developed.
Say what you will about a big "AIR" being written across the side of the Nike Air More Uptempos, but you'll never convince me that it's design is ugly. In fact, it's this characteristic that makes the shoe the most identifiable pair that sneaker culture has had the privilege of wearing. These were worn by Pippen during the 1996 NBA Playoffs when the team all wore black shoes. It was then that this shoe began it's reign as a cultural phenomenon, with retro releases in various colors happening time and time again. It also serves as the inspiration for the new Supreme-Nike collaboration. Personally, I've had three or four pairs of this sneaker, and that number will continue to go up into my elder years.
Penny Hardaway was on his way to being the next Michael Jordan. If injuries hadn't plagued him throughout his NBA career, he would have gone down as one of the greatest of all time. His line of shoes with Nike, however, very much has its place when talking about the GOAT of footwear. The Nike Air Max Penny I was (is) a standout shoe among sneaker heads, and began a line of memorable kicks to wear casually and on the court. They were comfortable, stylish, provided hella good grip on the hardwood, and looked both smooth and mean as hell with the suede complimented by a long foam side. This shoe was the beginning of greatness, and you can still find some in several colors through retro releases today.
This. Shoe. Is. The. GOAT. It's appropriate the greatest of all '90s shoes was worn by the greatest basketball player of all time. The Air Jordan XI came into the picture when Jordan decided to end his retirement from basketball and return to the court in 1995. They carried on into 1996 as one of the hottest shoes on the market, and he wore them for much of the Chicago Bulls' legendary 72-10 season, which began their second string of three consecutive championships. Not only were these great court shoes, they provided off-the-court style with the patent leather surrounding the product. They're so nice that they've been known to convince future brides that their husbands-to-be can wear them on their wedding day. True story because my wife is one of them.