All Pumped Up

by October 18, 2011

Ever since KICKS 3 (summer 2000), each issue of the annual sneaker mag—KICKS 10 not included—has contained two or three new inductions into the KICKS Hall of Fame, where footwear legends past and present are honored. This may not be fresh material for those of you who’ve been copping the mag since before the new millennium hit, but for the younger heads, we’re posting the entire HOF online over the course of the next few weeks. (It’ll be archived under the KICKS tab above.) Enjoy, and don’t forget: KICKS 14 is on sale now! —Ed.

Originally published in KICKS 8

As always, earning a spot in the KICKS Hall of Fame is about the sole, not how often you put the ball in the hole. To that end, Dee Brown’s middling NBA career—which ranks as statistically “similar” to forgettable cats like Kevin Edwards and Reggie Williams—will nonetheless be remembered for an event that had no impact on his career averages or his team’s record.

Heading into the 1991 NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, the skinny, 6-1 Brown was a rookie with the Boston Celtics, having been selected with the 19th pick in the first round out of lightly regarded Jacksonville University in his hometown of Jacksonville, FL. Brown would go on to earn a spot on the all-rookie team for his role as a sparkplug for the Larry Bird-led Celts, but in general, his relatively pedestrian pedigree meant that people were not checking for Brown as the dunk contest got underway, particularly with more known high flyers such as Shawn Kemp and Kenny Smith in the field.

Once things got started, however, Brown drew attention with a showy display of “pumping up” his Reebok Pumps before his dunks. Dee’s athletic attacks on the rim got him to the finals, where he faced the aforementioned Kemp, a beastly dunker who can lay claim to the title of “best dunk contestant to never win one,” and eventually became a Reebok endorsee himself. Before his final dunk, Brown again pumped up, then lifted off for the famous “hide your eyes/peek-a-boo” jam pictured at right. After he completed the crowd- and judge-pleasing dunk and wrapped up the contest in the process, Brown bent over and “deflated” his shoes. Dee was saying quite clearly that it had to have been the shoes. People believed. As Rip Hamilton told when asked about his favorite kicks, “The Pump wasn’t a plain shoe. It gave you a little extra. It gave Dee Brown a little extra in that Dunk Contest.”

Brown was recently quoted as telling Boston sports media analyst John Molori that he had “no plans” to pump until “Larry Bird and Kevin McHale encouraged me leading into the competition. They were telling me what dunks to try (even though) neither of them had dunked in 10 years. After the competition, I was at the hotel with Bird and a group of fans ran past him to get to me. Bird told them, ‘Shoot like me, but dunk like Dee.’”

This story, if true, shatters the long-held view that Brown had been “coached” into that attention-grabbing move by Reebok, which certainly put the exposure to good use. The Reebok Pump had been on the market since ’89, but originally it was a super-high-end shoe (the Pump ERS) aimed only at serious hoopsters. In ’90, Reebok put out some more affordable, accessible styles of the Pump, and Brown was tagged as a solid endorser, though Reebok could never have imagined just how memorable he’d make their shoes.

Brown, who despite his size was not a true PG, never really pumped up his career, averaging just 11.1 ppg and 3.7 apg over 12 seasons with the Celtics, Raptors and Magic, and playing a full 82 only in that action-packed rookie year. Injuries also kept him from defending his Dunk Contest crown in ’92. After he retired as a player in ’02, Brown worked as a coach of the WNBA’s Orlando Miracle and San Antonio Silver Stars, and later in the Magic’s front office, then resurfaced this past spring as the winner of ESPN’s Dream Job.

This year, Reebok launched a new ad campaign to promote the Pump 2.0, a technologically advanced shoe designed to conform to its wearers’ feet, and Allen Iverson’s new line has Pump influences. The science behind the Pump is key, but never sleep on a product’s marketability as the true reason for success. And Dee certainly made the Pumps marketable—to the point that AI, the king of originality, can now be linked to Dee. And, for our purposes, that influence over a brand and a style is what matters. Career-wise, the way things turned out for the original Dee Brown (no disrespect to the Illini version) is beside the point. What we’ll always remember is him pumping his shoes before his contest-winning dunk, and then the TV guys exclaiming,  “Dee Brown in the house!” after he’d completed it.

Yes, Dee was in the house. And so were his shoes.