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 season that is the peak 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.”
They were back together and poised for something special. Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, brothers of the maize and navy variety, coiled together by Nike Air Huaraches, Air Raids, Air Max CBs and twin double helices of Michigan Wolverines and Washington Bullets blood. Nothing like Calbert Cheaney, Rod Strickland and Gheorghe Muresan to make an organization feel optimistic about two talented forwards…that is, until, C-Webb went down with a bum shoulder–guess who stepped up to take his place? Mr. Howard. Already an All-Rookie team performer in the ’94-95 campaign with Webber showing him the NBA ropes, No. 5 was ready to step up, but with his best friend playing his natural power forward position, it didn’t seem like it might be that easy to do as much work. Though fate had it that the man who made the Nike Air Max CWebb a classic (now renamed the Nike Air Max Sensation) was to go down with injury, Juwan made the most of his opportunity and got to wear a current classic sneaker in a colorway reserved for his use.
Juwan Antonio Howard rose to the occasion in his second year in the league. With Mayce Edward Christopher IV going down early in the year, he seized the opportunity to shine as the team’s starting power forward (with a rookie in Rasheed Wallace in tow). Playing in 81 games in 95-96, Howard averaged 22.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists and he soon became a rising star in what became his most important season of his career. Though the Bullets finished 39-43, the former Wolverine had his breakout season and he made it count, while spectators, fans and a certain shoe company took notice.
Scottie Pippen is known as the unofficial endorser of the Air More Uptempo model (and I count it as his first true semi-signature shoe), and his versions were the three main colorways that made people identify with the shoe (the classic black/black-white, the black-black/white/varsity red, and the famous 1996 Olympic model in navy/white/gold-red). The pop of the large “AIR” script that organically moved across the foot and the full-length Air Max unit was enough for many kids’ parents to cough up the $140 that was necessary for ownership (though Nike made a budget version of the More called the Nike Air Much Uptempo, which was also very popular); Pip eventually went on to dominate the competition with the Chicago Bulls in winning a fourth league title in that very same ’96 season. In Juwan’s case, he was able to get the cleanest version that was released in the all-white version of the Air More. With an all-white premium leather upper, a white midsole and corresponding white rubber sole with a neon blue-colored Air Max system, they were copped just as frequently as Scott’s other versions. Toss in the commercial that showed the shoe as Juwan was rising up for a layup in the Bullets’ home unis, and it was a done deal for me.
Soon after, Howard signed a multi-million dollar deal with the Miami Heat that was deemed illegal and he signed back with Washington; Webber came back to the team the next season as the Bullets finally got better to the point that they could compete in the 1997 NBA Playoffs; they played the Bulls tough in the first round and eventually lost. The following year, the Bullets became the Washington Wizards to much dismay and disagreement around the league and the fanbase, after then-owner Abe Pollin wanted to make a statement about gun violence when his friend died overseas in an assassination; Juwan was basically made the team’s scapegoat as trades, his $100 million contract and losing riddled the team and he was traded various times to the Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets, Charlotte Bobcats, and now, the Portland Trail Blazers. (He’s since become Michael Jordan’s buddy and endorser of Brand Jordan’s basketball shoes.) He never did quite re-live the emergent season that let the ‘A know he was the business, but with career averages of nearly 15 points and 6 rebounds, he’s done much work in 16 whole seasons.
The Nike Air More Uptempo has been re-released once since its ’96 debut (as the Nike Air Max Tempo, for some dubious, arbitrary reason), and it returned in the black/black-white colorway with full-grain leather rather than the original nubuck upper. (I’m personally hoping that Nike brings back Juwan’s all-white version. Let us pray.)
Sandy Dover is a novelist/writer, artist and fitness enthusiast, as well as an unrepentant Prince fan (for real). You can find Sandy frequently here at SLAMonline, as well as at Facebook, Associated Content and Twitter.