There is no sport in the world more connected to sneaker culture than basketball. Many of the most iconic silhouettes in sneaker history were born in response to the needs of professional basketball players. Moreover, whether among the pros or college level, this connection is consistently celebrated in the modern game.
Wearing retros is like walking in the past but in the present. —Nate Robinson
In the NBA, we’ve seen a regular occurrence of eye-catching retros worn in-game. During a loss to the Phoenix Suns in January, Toronto Raptors forward James Johnson pulled out a pair of Air Jordan XVIIs. “Varsity Red” from 2002. A favorite of the sneakerhead community, Nick Young showed the depth of his collection when he played against Detroit this season in a pair of “Cool Grey” XIs from 2001.
Considering there are plenty of other examples, one has to wonder why NBA players choose to play retros in the first place. Browse enough sneaker forums and you’re sure to find a handful of people who prefer to play with older kicks than newer models. There’s no doubt that today’s basketball sneakers are more comfortable to put on, but do NBA players really rock them for comfort?
“No, the retro aren’t always comfortable,” says Phoenix Suns small forward PJ Tucker. As well as being a lockdown defender, Tucker is also known for his footwear on the pitch. The 6’5”, 225-pound swingman has used this season to release some of the oldest sneakers around. However, Tucker says the Air Jordan III is quite comfortable. In fact, he used halftime in a January game against the Cavs to trade his ‘Doernbecher’ IX for a pair of retro “Cement” III. That being said, Tucker admits retro Jordans are more likely for stunting than anything else. “Many others [retros] aren’t that comfortable, but I’ll wear them anyway.
This brings us back to the question of why. Well, it turns out Tucker’s reasoning isn’t all that different from ours: He loves sneakers. A self-proclaimed sneakerhead, Tucker has been collecting kicks since he was a kid. Performance and comfort aside, the appeal of retros, at least for Tucker, is in their styling. “In terms of style, some of the retro shoes are still the hottest shoes on the market today,” he said, adding that retros represent a developed style that “some of the hottest shoes recent ones will never have”.
Fellow LA Clippers sneakerhead Nate Robinson echoes the same sentiment, adding that retros “have an energy in them. It’s more about the soul of the shoe. Robinson also sees these reissues as a direct link to the 80s and 90s, when he believes basketball was at its peak. “Wearing retros is like walking in the past but in the present.”
Regarding the more recent past, some of Robinson’s favorite sneakers have come out in his best games. In the first round of the 2013 playoffs, the springy guard scored 34 points for the Bulls en route to a triple overtime win over the Nets. He had started this match with a pair of Air Jordan VII retros. After a lackluster first half, Robinson moved on to the XIII “Playoff”. He then had 29 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. It’s worth mentioning that, according to Robinson, these XIIIs were “super comfortable” to play with. Perhaps most important to Robinson, however, is the excitement he feels when he puts them on his feet. “I feel like a beast when I rock them.”
Where Robinson’s most memorable retro moment on the court involves a performance, Tucker stands out in a different way. Earlier this season, in a November game against Toronto, he showed off the rarely seen Fred Jones PE of the Jordan VIII. “People went crazy over it. colors“, Tucker admitted. “You don’t see black with orange very often. He also wore it as a tribute to a man he considers one of his greatest mentors.” [Jones] is my big brother, my vet, one of the guys who showed me how to be an NBA player. Shortly after, Tucker released a rare Shawn Marion PE of the Jordan V in a home game against the same Raptors.
Part of Tucker’s massive collection also involves a tribute to another NBA great. “Derek Anderson is one of my favorite players,” he said. “I collected Derek Anderson’s EPs for years, ever since I was in college. I probably have more of his shoes than anyone. Tucker was planning to star in Derek Anderson Exclusives this season and when someone posted a photo of one of his pairs on instagram, Anderson took note and responded to Tucker’s tribute. “We ended up getting in touch. He was one of my favorite players. So, it was pretty cool that the shoe ended up connecting us.
In the end, despite the profession, these guys are still sneaker heads. In this sense, one can understand why a professional basketball player would compete with technologically outdated sneakers. In its extended connection to sneaker culture, basketball has seen a growing craze for customization.
Whether they’re wearing old-school gems as an ode to the past or sporty OGs in OT, players just want to look at their sneakers and feel good about what’s on their feet.
As Tucker says, “if your feet are straight, you’ll play well.”
Mohamed Abdihakim is a contributor for Complex. You can follow him on Twitter here.