Every year, hundreds of basketball sneakers are produced, issued, sold and played in on the hardwood worldwide. And at least one star NBA player has a special season at peak of his career, and a signature shoe shares his glory. That’s what Sneak Peak is about—highlighting players and their sneakers from the past 25 years who shared the spotlight with iconic play and iconic style.
by Sandy Dover
For a number of reasons, ‘94-95 was a big season for the NBA.
The Houston Rockets were defending their title in the West after the Chicago Bulls assumed championship series control for the first few years of the 1990s; Michael Jordan came back from his somewhat-capricious retirement; and the NBA’s new version of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was setting up residence in Central Florida—that tandem was the duo we know as Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and “Shaq Diesel.”
While Shaq was “Attaq”-ing the basket, everyone and their mother was growing to love the young man from Memphis with the No. 1 jersey. Hardaway was breaking out right before everyone’s eyes and his sneakers were making a huge impression on the masses—and they weren’t any of the signature “Pennys.”
While Anfernee had comparably better seasons, the man whose grandma named him Penny enjoyed a sophomore season that ended up being his best overall season from an individual and team perspective. Starting at point guard but getting spot duty at small forward at 6-7 and 195 pounds, Penny played and started 77 games in ’94-95, averaging 7.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds, while scoring 20.6 ppg with a .512 field goal percentage. He brought fans to life with his array of drives to the basket for fast, crisp dunks and evasive layups around big men in the paint.
While he didn’t excel from the three-point line like his backcourt mates Nick Anderson and Dennis “3-D” Scott, Penny had one of his strongest seasons from behind the three with a .349 percentage. In short, Hardaway was a bad boy, as his combination of size, quickness, court vision and ball-handling enabled him to earn his first All-Star appearance (in Phoenix) and a berth on the All-NBA First Team, while simultaneously leading the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals. Not to be outdone, Penny had a pair of fresh new signature sneakers that made huge impressions in the basketball world, so much so that a legend would even wear his shoes as a form of flattery.
The Nike Air Flight One was Penny’s premier shoe and the first that introduced Nike’s early version of its patented Zoom Air into high-performance basketball footwear. Released in late 1994, the Air Flight One was visually marked by its dual foam pods on the sides of the shoe, a Nike LunarLite-like midsole and a durable Nubuck synthetic leather that added class and low-maintenance style to its black/black-white colorway. A rear plastic jewel heel tab in the shape of the number 1 and a black neoprene/spandex tongue with white pinstripes gave the shoe a visual share to his Magic uniform.
While relatively unknown at the time, Nike inserted a full-length Air unit, which was then known as Tensile Air, that drastically cut the weight of the shoe and made it a speedy set to play in; the performance test was successful and Nike renamed it Zoom Air. It played the host-cushioning role in the Nike Air Jordan XII, the first Jordan to implement the Zoom Air setup. Above all, the Black Cat himself played in the Air Flight One against Hardaway in Game One of the ’95 Eastern Conference Semifinals, before he made his stunning debut in the monumentally known Nike Air Jordan XI (“The Spats”).
(I bought the Air Flight One in a white/white-black colorway as an overly excited 12-year-old in 1996 as a sixth-grader. The shoe was on sale for practically nothing in a hometown sporting goods store in southwest Ohio. As soon as I tried on the shoe, it was like heaven on my feet. The shoe literally weighed next to nothing, and I played on that shoe until the rubber stripped off and the Air unit in the forefoot blew out—literally. I’ve mourned that shoe ever since…)
Though he and his series of Nike Air Pennys went on to enjoy success in future years of his career, No. 1 wasn’t able to exceed or even duplicate the on-court spoils that he enjoyed in ’95. It was a bad sign that his caricatured puppet and his corresponding shoes started to outdo his ability to play the game of basketball.
While kids of all ages and sexes and grown men alike enjoyed the wise cracks that Chris Rock employed in front of the camera and the flashy bright blue shoes and dinosauric Air Max heel units that became standard for the Penny look, the man himself eventually struggled to even put a full season together. His later Orlando teams failed to stay together and play at an elite level, as Shaq got jealous of his point guard, Anderson became depressed by a haunting Finals performance, 3-D became a deranged lunatic at a youth basketball camp, and Horace Grant left to eventually win a post-three-peat title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2001.
A devastating knee injury left Penny semi-crippled for the duration of his career on the court and after tiring of being bored as a point guard, he demanded a position change to off-guard (which won his team fewer games), and he was eventually traded to Phoenix for a failed “Heaven Cent” backcourt with Jason Kidd. New York and Miami proved unkind to him as well, as he shrunk into the background (reportedly hanging around the University of Memphis in the ‘08-09 season, tutoring Tyreke Evans off and on). His memory is sadly found in the retro releases of his Air Penny shoe line.
It’s just too bad they won’t revive the Air Flight Ones. He never enjoyed a healthier and more successful season in anything else.