by Sandy Dover / @SandmanSeven

Every year, hundreds of basketball sneakers are produced, issued, sold and played in on the hardwood worldwide, and for every year in the NBA, at least one star player has a special, peak season of his career–and the signature shoe that shares in his glory. That’s what Sneak Peak (pun intended) is all about–highlighting players and their sneakers from the past 25 years who shared the spotlight with iconic play and iconic style.

For the time being, the Sneak Peak series will focus on the golden era of the top sig shoes, players, and their best overall seasons, which was approximately between 1994-1997 (the period itself being the literal peak of performance basketball shoes), which I have dubbed “The Wonder Years.”

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The ‘97-98 season was another winning season for Gary Payton. The Seattle SuperSonics were the top team in the Western Conference with a 61-21 record. The team had added All-Star power forward Vin Baker to increase its likelihood of winning a championship, and “The Glove” was in his prime. Two seasons off of the SuperSonics’ trip to the NBA Finals with the Chicago Bulls, Payton was looking to do some special things. As a mNike Air Zoom Flight '98ajor endorser of Nike and wearing some of the best shoes of his day, it was only right that he had a shoe that embodied his namesake and his game.

GP earned The Glove moniker from opposing players and announcers who said that he played defense so tight, that it was as if he was as close to them on the ball as a glove, and the name stuck. Though he slowly came into his own after being drafted as the second overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, Payton eventually made himself into a perennial All-Star player. With his star shining brightly, the Swoosh factory created for Payton the Nike Air Zoom Flight ’98, which was nicknamed the “Air Flight Glove” before Nike eventually bestowed that name upon a later model of signature GP sneakers. A unique shoe that hadn’t been seen before, the AZF98 was a mid-cut shoe that was entirely covered by either synthetic leather or full Lycra-Spandex and zipped down the front of the shoe to reveal a bare-bones internal construction that featured the “monkey paw” ankle inversion plates on the side of the ankles. With a curved-cut, medial-side Nubuck rand on the toes and Zoom Air in the heel and forefoot, the AZF98 was one of the premier shoes of the late ’90s and was one of the most creative envisionings of a player in sneaker forms.

With one of the strongest and most talented teams in SuperSonics history, GP and the gang rolled high for much of the season while in pursuit to win a title. With many of the SuperSonics on their last legs to seriously challenge for a serious run, losing in the second round of the Playoffs to the L.A. Lakers was especially dissatisfying and the team later disbanded, along with then-head coach George Karl. Payton himself stayed for 4 1/2 more seasons before being traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, then signing with the Lakers, getting traded to the Boston Celtics (and to the Atlanta Hawks, before being waived and immediately re-signed by Boston), before finishing his NBA career with the Miami Heat.

My personal memories of the Air Zoom Flight ’98 were probably grander than the overall reception that the shoe received. One reason for this was that the AZF98 was priced at $120 and was released with a whole gaggle of elite Nike basketball shoes that were comparable in price and more flashy. Secondly, unless you were a tech fanatic about sneaker cushioning and materials, the shoe was very plain to look at, coming in standard black/white and white/black colorways; for me, the thrill of the shoe was not so much the colors, but literally being able to peel the shoe’s covering back to reveal “another shoe” beneath. It was probably one of the most underrated shoes made in the late-‘90s, at least to me. Thirdly, soon after the Air Zoom Flight ’98 was worn by GP, Nike started issuing more signature and non-signature shoes for him to wear, soSLAM 26 the AZF98 quickly fell away from memory (in fact, the best shoe I ever wore was his Air Hawk Flight shoe, that was released back in 1997–easily the lightest and best performing shoe I’ve played ball in–please retro these, Nike!)…but in June 1998, Payton wore the pre-Gloves on the cover of Issue 26, with his in-game scowl on display.

At this point, though, count on a retro sometime in the unforeseen future. Slickly, the Air Zoom Flight ’98 got some love as a hybrid sneaker in the Nike Zoom Flight Club–a premium basketball shoe made for the 2009 NBA Playoffs; and check the specs of the shoe out–the zipper and silhouette is very, very similar to the AZF98, which was one sly fox of a shoe.

And they fit like a glove.

(A special thanks goes to Zach Schlemmer at Kicks on Cards for the featured Gary Payton card–get frequent Twitter updates from the overweight Reignman at @FatShawnKemp.)

Sandy Dover is a novelist/writer, artist and fitness enthusiast, as well as an unyielding Prince fan (for real). You can find Sandy frequently here at SLAMonline, as well as at Facebook, Associated Content and Twitter.