Words by Ian Stonebrook
The battle around outfitting college basketball’s best exploded in the ‘80s but forever changed course in the ‘90s.
Early on, the likes of Converse, Nike and adidas padded the pockets of Dean Smith, John Thompson and Bobby Knight as a way to get their logos on college courts that not only had regional reach but soon massive audiences due to booming national TV contracts.
Then in 1991, everything changed.
The relationship between corporate brands and collegiate ballers became turned upside down in an instant. In that year, Nike fired the godfather of prep product placement, Sonny Vaccaro, and five freshmen found their way to Ann Arbor.
In a moment’s notice, nothing was the same.
For years, execs exalted the Big East. Suddenly, the Fab Five exploded in the Big Ten.
Previously, coaches collected checks by putting their players in matchy models. From Day 1, the Fab Five pushed back on their Nike rep by rocking signature shoes that capitalized on contrast.
In the past, pro athletes were meant to move the needle for footwear in apparel. By the early ‘90s, the Fab Five scratched the entire record when it came to cultural influence.
While the baggy shorts sported by Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King changed the course of history, the sneakers worn closely beneath them beckoned a new era just the same.
Peep the five footwear favorites of the Fab Five era that define their run.
Nike air maestro
The Fab Five did not invent black sneakers.
Dating back to the days of Bob Cousy, black sneakers of the canvas and leather variety have carried everyone from Bill Russell to Michael Jordan when making hardwood history. For decades, black sneakers were a staple in basketball, first for their aesthetic durability and later to symbolize postseason unity.
This was true on the college court even while most schools in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s kept it clean by rocking white tennis. The exception to the norm proved the Fab Five’s spiritual successors - the early ‘90s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels - who wore black leather Nikes in 1991 while defending their national title.
Black shoes in basketball had been around for decades and been rocked right before the Fab Five arrived in Ann Arbor. What Bob Cousy, Michael Jordan and Larry Johnson did not wear was black socks.
“The black socks were initiated by Ray Jackson,” Jalen Rose told ESPN in 2011. “We were in Texas to play against Rice and one of Ray’s good friends brought him socks to rock at home to be fresh. They were grey Nike socks with a blue Swoosh, but we all went to the mall and were on the hunt for black ones. At the time, they didn’t even have five pairs of black Nike socks at the entire mall! So a couple of us had on black Nike socks and a couple of us just had on black dress socks.”
Out of nowhere, a new trend was born.
Matching the black socks were black sneakers. The guards chose the Nike Air Maestro, a performance pair that played to Flight camp fit and Huarache ideals, shedding the bulk of the ‘80s with an exoskeleton upper, snug inner bootie and decidedly ‘90s black Durabuck upper. This Tracy Teague trailblazer became the first of a Maestro trilogy, later led by Scottie Pippen in his alpha dog season in Chicago and eventually spread around the league in its final installment across the Beaverton brand’s brilliant backcourt.
In the beginning, the Fab Five made the Maestro their own as they often did. While the shoes were not strikingly unique compared to that of the market, the pairing of the black shoes with the black socks was. Sworn to secrecy, the starters wore their tearaway pants until tip-off as a surprise unveiling of unity, also foreshadowing sentiments that served as a statement towards their eventual exploitation.
The black-on-black aesthetic spoke volumes. To no surprise, it sold even more sneakers and socks for Nike. While socks were often an afterthought on the basketball court save John Wooden’s blister-free fundamentals, the Ann Arbor anarchists made logo-laden undergarments a must have. In that decade, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein eventually did the same in the boxer brief category to massive sales. However, in the early ‘90s it was the oversold underclassmen changing the guard with grandpa garb that instantly influenced the youth.
nike air huarache
Sneaker history is made when a model matches the moment, when design dons the daring. In the ‘80s lightning struck in Chicago with Michael Jordan as well as New York City with Run-DMC.
Early in the ‘90s, those same cyclones would blow from Beaverton into Ann Arbor.
"If the shoe fits in with other things that are going on culturally, you get a perfect storm,” Tinker Hatfield told Nike.
In Ann Arbor, that perfect storm would be formed by two fronts: five freshman friends unnerved by expectations and two talented designers destined to defy convention.
Sporting no sidewall Swoosh - a weight only the signature Air Jordan could carry up to that point - the Nike Air Flight Huarache was everything the market wasn’t. At that time, most basketball shoes looked more like combat boots, donning knee-high white leather in the ‘80s only to transition to tough black Durabuck in the early ‘90s. Conversely, the Flight Huarache was fashioned off a sandal, looking like a mesh marriage of ancient Athenia and modern pop art.
While the seminal shoes of the early ‘90s were defined by words like “Max” and “More,” the always eclectic Tinker Hatfield zagged while the entire industry zigged.
“Where can we just trim this baby back a little bit?” Hatfield asked when designing the Huarache.
Perhaps the answer came from co-creator Eric Avar, the designer who would eventually craft the Swoosh-less Air Foamposite One for Penny Hardaway and the below-ankle Nike Kobe 4, 5 and 6.
The pairing of Hatfield and Avar caught fire like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre, making all contemporary comps appear dated. While a newly ringed Scottie Pippen played in the Flight Huarache on the pro level and the early anointed Christian Laettner led Duke in said silo, the real juice came from that of the Fab Five.
Nike did not see this coming, nor did they originally want it to.
“When you sign a letter of intent, you’re also signing an apparel deal -- you’re just not getting paid for it,” Jalen Rose recalled on his Renaissance Man podcast. “[At Michigan] we’re in the locker room and Coach Fisher tells us that the Nike rep is coming today. The Nike rep comes in and starts dumping shoes out that look like shoes from the 1960s that power forwards or centers would wear. I said, ‘I think we need a different selection.’ The Nike rep said, ‘I got you,’ and we didn’t see him again for a month. [The next time] he returns and starts dumping shoes on the floor - multiple Jordans, Charles Barkleys and Huaraches. We saw the Huaraches and were like, ‘Yo, Jordan has a shoe, Deion’s got a shoe, Charles has a shoe, Bo has a shoe, whose shoe is this? Nobody’s attached to the Huarache, so this is the Fab Five shoe right here.’ Once we took to the floor and rocked the Huaraches we made history.”
Even as underclassmen, the Fab Five had the gumption to apply pressure on their Nike rep to outfit them in something saucier than a team shoe. In turn, the Flight Huarache became synonymous with college kids - not pro players - flipping the ideals of cookie cutter team shoes tailored to alma mater eyes. Before the Fab Five, big brands paid college coaches directly and everyone was expected to fall in line.
After the Fab Five, the kids were running the show and controlling the forecast.
Nike air Force max
Heading into the fall of 1992, Charles Barkley was in his prime.
The previous summer saw Sir Charles star in Spain, leading the monumental Dream Team in scoring and demanding a trade from the sliding Sixers in Philly to the actually sunny Phoenix. After arriving in Arizona, Barkley broke out as the league’s MVP, igniting the Suns to a franchise-record 62 wins and their first NBA Finals appearance since Paul Westphal played for them in 1976.
The Round Mound of Rebound was on top of the mountain when it came to the basketball world and he finally had his own shoe: the Nike Air Force Max, a mid-cut Max Air assisted model that was as tough, aggressive and agile as Barkley himself.
Barkley was at his best and his shoe captured it. Only, it wasn’t really his shoe.
As it turns out, 19-years-olds are often much cooler and on occasion more influential than 29-year-olds. Such proved true when the Fab Five made the Nike Air Force Max their shoe.
Donning the black Barkleys with matching black socks, the brash and boldly branded combination soon became so signature that even the Beaverton company was advertising them as ‘Fab Five Nikes’ at flagship stores in Chicago.
Shortly after the 1992-93 season, Barkley had his footwear moment in the sun when Tracy Teague, Eric Avar and Tinker Hatfield came together for the Nike Air Max CB 94: a signature sneaker for Barkley that was so manic it was modeled after a straight-jacket. Times changed in Ann Arbor, too, as that fall Chris Webber was taking on Charles Barkely as a pro peer, soon joined by Jalen and Juwan the following fall.
Charles Barkley’s prime would stretch four seasons in Phoenix. Conversely, the Air Force Max would be tied to the Fab Five forever.
Nike air unlimited
The Nike Air Unlimited is an alt-classic ‘90s posse track, seeing headlining performances from David Robinson in his MVP season and surprise showings from Jason Kidd and Grant Hill as amateurs before they shared NBA co-Rookie of the Year honors. While the aggressive yet avant garde deep cut caught wreck in the heart of Texas and on both coasts, the cypher was stamped by the rebels of the Big Ten.
Worn by Jalen Rose on his journey to lead Michigan to back-to-back-to-back NCAA Championship appearances, the light Air Unlimited carried a weighty task for the junior guard. Going at it again, the elephant in the room was amplified by the loss of Chris Webber as the top pick of the 1993 NBA Draft. Not only was Chris removed from their front court, he was suddenly the frontman for Nike's next generation of hoopers and reinvigorated strategy to monetize college clout.
Wearing the Air Unlimited in a Nike ad for the Foot Locker family, the dearly departed Webber was outfitted in his famous Fab Five jersey and shorts, suddenly sporting a Swoosh. The University of Michigan quickly cashed out on the cache of the Fab Five’s fame as the school and brand made millions while Jalen, Juwan, Jimmy and Ray ran up and down the court for free.
In hindsight, the Air Unlimited on court and in ads comes off both awesome and eery. The snapshot of Webber in the dark mirrors the millions made off the Fab Five and the controversy that surrounds recently repaired relationships. It also illustrates a blockbuster marriage between the biggest brands in athletics, creating an impeccably cool image though forgetting to fully feed the kids.
nike air max2 uptempo
The 1994-95 Michigan Wolverines were one of great transition and growing talent.
At this time, Jalen and Juwan joined C Webb in the NBA ranks while Jimmy and Ray now led the team in scoring and identity. Sporting a Swoosh on not just their shoes but also their shiny jerseys, Michigan - and now Nike - had the recruiting power to not just keep Detroit’s deep talent in state but also the ability to pull players from all around the world.
This prospect pool was deep and it all flowed from the image and intensity of the Fab Five. After Jalen and Chris arrived, Motor City star Maurice Taylor also enrolled in Ann Arbor before taking his talents to the NBA. Around the way, Maceo Baston followed the same Texas to Crisler Arena trail paved by Ray and Jimmy.
These pipelines didn’t just lead to all corners of the country, but also the top talent across the world. Senagalese standout Makhtar N'Diaye wore blue and gold before dipping to Chapel Hill as a hallmark of Dean Smith’s six starter squad. On the media map, 1994 Naismith Prep Player of the Year Jerod Ward willingly chose the Wolverines over an array of suitors, teaming up in Ann Arbor with eventual pro Tariq Abdul-Wahad for the 1995 campaign.
Suddenly, there was a flood of talent but a drought on championships. The 1994-95 Michigan Wolverines did not make it to the NCAA Finals nor did they retain their roster as numerous players peaced out. However, they did produce five NBA signees and lead to later lands like Robert “Tractor” Traylor, Louis Bullock, LaVell Blanchard and Jamal Crawford.
Continuing the legacy of the Fab Five while playing in its shadow, the 1995 squad showcased the Nike Air Max2 Uptempo in somewhat ironic fashion.
In many ways a blend between the Maestro and Air Force Max, the Air Max2 Uptempo created a camp that was all about bounce. Tones, tech and position-less play all appeared intended for Ann Arbor, as they were worn regularly by the Wolverines. However, this time it was Michigan with its thunder stolen.
That same season, a polished program over in Durham was wearing the same shoes even if the black, navy and neon yellow palette proved more fitting for Ann Arbor’s own. Yes, Duke was now a Nike school, widening their range of recruits and length of their shorts.
And just like that, both college basketball and branding had forever changed. You can thank the Fab Five.