Sneak Peak: adidas Mutombo
A detailed history of the classic Three Stripes sneaker.
by Sandy Dover / @San_Dova
“Nobody ever thought that one day kids in Africa would dream about playing in the NBA. Maybe they dream of coming to America and getting an education and stay in America and having a wonderful job. To see that dream transformed into coming into the NBA—dreaming of being the next Dikembe Mutombo; being a role model; being a leader in the community; being someone who can come back and inspire our people—this has been my dream.”—Dikembe Mutombo
When the adidas Mutombo was released during the ’92-93 NBA season, Dikembe Mutombo (born Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo), playing in just his second season, was already an NBA All-Star (as a rookie), a league leader in blocks, rebounds and games played, and was quickly cementing his reputation as one of the most formidable defensive players in the game.
At the time, the player standing 7-2 from Georgetown University was a bit of an oddity—a standout talent from Africa and a found diamond from the former country of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). And so, Mutombo’s success was another beacon to the world that he was more than an ambassador for his country: He could dominate the game.
In reality, the adidas Mutombo was an opportunity for a major footwear entity to establish itself as the premier brand for a global clientele in a raw market. North American NBA stars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and even good ol’ Chuck Taylor moved units around the world, but never before was there an African transplant who had a signature shoe playing in the best basketball league in the world, and adidas and the Congolese native accomplished that breakthrough with his signature Mutombo sneaker. (Olajuwon’s signature Etonic and Spalding shoes don’t qualify. Sorry, Dream.)
Released for the very first time since 1993, the Mutombo is one of the most coveted shoes in the retro catalog of adidas’ footwear vault. For its time, the Mutombo shoe wasn’t just about capitalizing on Dikembe’s dual ethnic and national heritage, it was actually a strong performer and notable style accessory. Produced before adidas’ famous innovations like the Feet You Wear, adiPRENE and SPRINTFRAME technologies, the Mutombo was, and still is, built tough, relying on good ol’ fashioned synthetic leather and suede, thermoplastic straps (a predecessor to the Equipment and adipower Howard 2 silhouettes) and rubber, all stitched down strong into a semi-cupsole that is playable indoors and outdoors.
As far as appearance, the adidas Mutombo has become a kind of new age relic of the past, an artifact that is a literal sign of the times. As the 1990s came and moved, Afrocentrism became stylistically popular as its own theme through brands like Cross Colours, music artists like A Tribe Called Quest, and accessory trends such as Africa continent-shaped medallions, all of which were all the rage; iconic movies like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and X became culturally definitive aspects of ‘90s pop and African-American culture, which only reinforced the rightful place of the adidas sneaker.
The Mutombo in its debut became an instant footwear emblem, using the core pan-African colors of red, gold, green and black to marry the design together; joined by the centers special “M55” Congolese shield logo and black/white diamond tribal pattern, the Mutombo became simultaneously timeless and nostalgic.
Though the Afrocentric style movement enjoyed its glory and gradually faded as the ‘90s came to exalt other forms of art and fashion seemingly every year after 1994, the Mutombo faded from memory as well. As both the player and the shoe enjoy its initial limelight, the tech era of basketball footwear began and placed a premium on the technical aspect. Dikembe ended up continuing on to play 18 total years in the League, having firmly established himself as one of the most intimidating defensive forces in NBA history, finishing his career as a Houston Rocket (although more famously known as an Atlanta Hawk and Philadelphia 76er).
More importantly, as “Deke” wound down his career, he became much more active in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders, a socially conscious program facilitated by the League to meet the civic needs of third-world countries and continents where basketball can be used to empower children and families that living in significant lack (especially in his war-torn Congo homeland).
The heart of it all, the Mutombo invokes the memory of Dikembe not only as a footwear touchstone athlete, but also as a man who contributed to the zeitgeist of the ‘90s, an elite-level athlete and a willing and able giver to the world and many nations within the continent of Africa.
The adidas Mutombo is a celebration of greatness, in flesh and bone, in rubber and suede.
Sandy Dover has written for SLAM since 2009, and his work has been featured by STACK, CounterKicks, TrueHoop and The Shadow League. You can find Sandy at about.me/SandyDover.