How much of a basketball shoe's popularity is because of the athletes who wear it and how much is due to the image of the athletes who wear it?
That might be the toughest fact and fiction to separate, this delineation between the person and the perception created by advertising agencies. Just know that every time you buy a pair of sneakers it means you're buying into the story that surrounds it.
We're here to celebrate those tales and pay tribute to the best of the basketball shoe commercials. These are the ads that captured moments and even movements, ads that excelled in storytelling.
They revealed personalities -- or even created entirely new ones. Some of the best ads make minimal reference to either the person or the product but still manage to convey ideas and themes.
That's why these selections tend toward the cultural breakthroughs rather than the product advancements. These are the ads that stuck with us long after the soles of the shoes wore away.
This captures a moment in time, because the music is sooo '80s. So is the fashion ... and that's actually the point. This sneaker commercial was the first to recognize that basketball shoes were becoming fashionable attire. Converse made the staid canvas Chuck Taylors hip by producing them in a variety of bright colors, and sneaker couture was on its way, with Dr. J's, Magic Johnson's and Larry Bird's approval.
The next time you see the outspoken modern version of LeBron James endorse a presidential candidate or clap back at Phil Jackson, think back to his early Nike ads in which he had no speaking lines. What a wasted opportunity. With "The LeBrons" ad campaign, James put his personality -- or personalities -- on full display. A basketball shoe commercial in which the endorser doesn't wear basketball shoes. That's the mark of an athlete becoming a brand. This one's the best of the bunch because of Wise LeBron's mocking of the old heads, Business LeBron's smooth dive and the Kool & The Gang "Summer Madness" soundtrack.
If you're going to appropriate, might as well do it right. This ad owes a tremendous debt to the And1 Mixtape campaign that made streetball so cool, with the common-object percussion from "Stomp" mixed in. Pulling from Nike's stable of NBA stars helped legitimize the movement.
This Nike series captured the black barbershop vibe long before the "Barbershop" movies. We also need to celebrate George Gervin, who never had his own shoe line but kept providing key assists in other shoe campaigns (rather ironically, for a player known more for his scoring than passing). In this ad the Iceman delivers his signature line: "One thing I could do was finger roll."
Chris Rock was brilliant as Penny Hardaway's puppet alter-ego in this series, bringing sizzle to the soft-spoken real Penny's shoe commercials. While there's never been a better closing line than "That was Tyra Banks, fool!" (in response to Penny ruining Lil Penny's stoplight mack to the supermodel by driving off), the apex of these ads was the star-studded spot that ran during the Super Bowl and was immortalized in a Jay Z lyric.
No other shoe commercial launched national debates like this in-your-face manifesto from Charles Barkley. Society freaked out about his proclamation that he was not a role model, conveniently overlooking the part where he said "Parents should be role models." To disagree with his premise is to disagree with the notion that parents should play the most important roles in a child's life. Love the starkness of the black-and-white photography and the aggressiveness. He's throwing elbows at the camera, and thus the viewers. Take that.
How many commercials played a central role in the relationship of two central figures in NBA history? The story goes that after years as rivals, Magic and Bird finally got a chance to spend quality time together while shooting this commercial and realized they made better friends than enemies. But what's the story behind Magic wearing his jersey and the limousine having California plates? Did Magic wake up, put on his uniform and tell the chauffeur to drive from L.A. to Indiana so he could challenge Bird to a game? A final question: how many other sneaker ads inspired a music video set to Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend"?
My favorite of the Mars Blackmon ads because it's the most subversive. At the time NCAA rules prohibited the use of names and images of professional athletes in commercials that ran during the NCAA tournament (wary of acknowledging the fact that it's OK for players to have endorsements, I guess). So Nike got around this hater-based regulation by having Mars shout out his man "Money" -- and everyone knew he was talking about Michael Jordan due to the previous Mike and Mars ad campaigns. This also might be the first documented example of sneakerheadness: look at all of the kicks in the room in the opening shot.
In retrospect it should've been called "Crossroads." This ad marks both the emergence of hip-hop into mainstream culture (even Minnesota-born Kevin McHale had a nice flow in his ad) and the beginning of the fall of Converse. With Dr. J, Bird and Magic, Converse players won seven of 10 Most Valuable Player awards 1981 to 1990, and most of the league's top players still wore the shoe when this ad ran in the 1986-87 season. Erving (who regrettably didn't appear here) retired after the season and within a few years Jordan and Nike dominated the NBA.
This was the culmination of two decades of Michael Jordan and Air Jordan, a testament to their iconic status and to every prior commercial that embedded them in our minds. Jordan dominates the ad even though he only makes a brief appearance at the end. By then the impact's already been made, because at some point you realize that every player in the spot is re-enacting Jordan moves. His motions had become as recognizable as the silhouette. The music crescendos and then tapers off as Jordan smiles his approval at the kid doing The Shrug. The handoff to the next generation is complete. Mission accomplished.