Remembering Nike’s College Basketball Boom in the ’80s

As the Final Four winds down, I’m reminded of some of my first memories of really noticing basketball sneakers. I’ve written previously about the influence the Air Jordan 1 had on my kicks addiction, but it was the cousin of that shoe that really got me started.

In 1985, several universities wore colorful shoes produced by Nike. But unlike the mostly boring white pairs with school color accents worn in the past, the Dunk model was loud and amazing. Its bold two tone color blocking seemingly broke all the rules.

Some of the top squads at the time now had game shoes matching their uniforms. Michigan’s blue and gold. Iowa’s black and gold. Kentucky’s white and blue. St. John’s red and white. Syracuse’s orange and white. UNLV’s red and grey. Georgetown’s navy and grey. Villanova’s navy and white.

Nike’s own describes the shoe this way:

“Originally sketched by designer Peter Moore and called the College Color High, the Nike Dunk was an artistic mash-up of different shoes, a common design practice at Nike for ‘80s basketball shoes. The Dunk’s outsole resembled the same traction design of the Air Jordan I, which launched just months before.  The Dunk’s upper took cues from the Air Jordan I and the Nike Terminator; interestingly, the three shoes were all developed by the same design minds. The Dunk drew its eventual name from the shoe last on which it was created – the same last used to make the Nike Legend, considered the best fitting basketball last at that time.”



The Nike Terminator is another shoe I remember distinctly. The rise of Georgetown basketball coincided with the arrival of the great Patrick Ewing and the advent of college coaches signing deals with sneaker brands. If the Big East was the center of the basketball universe, Ewing was the sun. The Hoyas’ grey sneakers with navy accents really stood out against other schools’ traditional white kicks.

(In addition to the sneakers, the heather grey t-shirt under the jersey is another trend from Ewing’s Georgetown tenure. Before I knew it, the local middle and high school players were wearing t-shirts under their game jersey along with their colorful Nikes, so of course the younger kids like me had to do it, too.)

Looking back now, I don’t think I had considered what a pivotal time it was for sneakers. Today we are conditioned to expect the wildest of colorways and materials, and take for granted that schools have shoes and uniforms with a swoosh or three stripes.

We all know how the Dunk and Jordan 1 had a revival with skaters. Prior to the Dunk though, basketball sneakers were pretty boring. By 1986, brands like Converse were releasing the Weapon in team colors for the pros, but in my opinion it was Nike’s groundbreaking trio of the Jordan 1, Terminator and Dunk that had already changed the game and set the tone for years and decades to come.

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