For those uninitiated with sneakers, the Flightposite may elicit a few scrunched up eyebrows. It’s not quite a brand name, so there’s a decent chance the average person won’t know what you’re talking about until you say, “the sneaker with the zipper.” That signature element distinguished it from everything on the market at the time and helped usher it into classic status. Debuting in 1999, it was highly futuristic and didn’t really look like a sneaker at all. Not only were there no shoelaces, there weren’t even holes where the laces could go. A zipper closed the shoe and held the foot firmly in place, and it had more in common visually with chelsea boots than Air Maxes or any of Nike’s basketball shoes out at the time.
Nike made its name by pushing the envelope design-wise, by doing what other companies couldn’t conceive. They dropped classic after classic in the ’90s, but still: You’re only as good as your last hit. What did Nike have left that could stand on the shoulder of their impressive legacy? At first glance, the Flightposite was a strange-looking sneaker. On second glance, however, you could see the potential. The good people in Beaverton had produced another game-changer.
The Flightposite debuted on the precipice of a new millennium. Uncertainty was in the air. Some people even convinced themselves that the world would collapse at the end of the year. These were delirious times. The head designer for the Flightposite, Eric Avar, created a shoe emblematic of this era. His main directive involved eliminating the notion that your foot and the shoe had to operate as separate entities—that they could, in fact, work in unison as one appendage. It sounds like an insomnia-fueled theoretical now, but that’s exactly what he created.
Performance-wise, it was snug to the foot, compartmentalizing the ankle and foot in a sock liner. Additionally, Zoom Air units were embedded into this sock lining, which amped up the comfort level and gave the user unparalleled comfort. The shoe itself had a smooth, shiny gloss to it. Almost regal in its appearance, it cast an intimidating silhouette that shouted out words like “sleek” and “menacing.”
It was a generational jump for footwear and those left on the wrong side of history looked inadequate. Quickly the Flightposite became a sneaker of choice for ballplayers across the country. Compare it to how you feel when you see someone with a flip phone in 2015. Sure, technically it’s mostly sufficient, but it casts the user as either a novelty buff or slow to adapt to the times. Now imagine that perception among athletes and in particular young basketball players, a demographic that tends to stay on the razor’s edge when it comes to trends and technological advancements.
The Flightposite looked like the future where basketball shoes were concerned, and it quickly rose to the top of the heap. The late ’90s and early ’00s was a time when running shoes were leading the charge. Remember, this was before LeBron and Durant were in the League and back when Kobe was still with adidas. Air Jordans were still making waves, but by this time they had already peaked. Reebok had Iverson, but hadn’t come up with anything as good as The Question. The truth was, basketball sneakers weren’t really leading the market anymore. The last one that really wowed people were the Foamposites (also an Avar creation) released two years prior. The Flightposite was the natural progression, taking the best of its predecessor with it.
It was a hit among several NBA players, most notably Kevin Garnett and Allan Houston, but it also worked as a lifestyle look. The shoe’s smooth exterior made for a sophisticated look off the court. It had a feel of superiority that put it on different level than your standard basketball kicks. It also carried a hefty price tag of $170, which was (and honestly, still is) a big number. As is often the case, the price point added to the allure. The exclusivity of the shoe basically self-policed itself against market saturation, since most people weren’t willing to drop that kind of money on a basketball sneaker. This gave the shoe a cult following that resonates to this day. A lot of shoes get retroed nowadays, but notice the reaction when Flightposites are dropped. The response is on a different level, because the shoe remains above our heads.
Khalid Salaam is a former editor at SLAM who now contributes as a Senior Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @MrKhalidS.
Catch up on the entire KICKS Hall of Fame here.