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Sneakers Of Brotherly Love: What Sneaker Best Represents Philadelphia Sneaker Culture?

Philadelphia, PA. has been slept on in the streetwear and footwear discussion for far too long.

Philly has history and it deserves more respect. I want to share the history of sneaker culture in our great city. When people usually think of popular sneaker cities in the United States, the first cities that come to mind are New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago. I want to highlight our culture and add us to the conversation.

After spending hours researching Philadelphia’s cultural icons in sports, music, and fashion, I narrowed my search down to four sneakers that have stood the test of time and have become staple shoes in the city.

Nike Air Force 1 (1982)

Nike Air Force 1 Mid ‘07

Sneaker connoisseurs up and down the East Coast can dispute what city the Air Force 1 stands for, but the birthplace of the legendary Nike silhouette’s popularity was in Philadelphia. It started in 1982, when Nike shoe designer Bruce Kilgore designed the very first Nike basketball shoe to feature “Air” technology. Before this shoe, professional basketball players were playing in canvas shoes that feature very minimal cushioning for athletes that are running up and down the hardwood floors in a basketball game. When Nike released the Air Force 1, they selected six players to wear the shoe on court, which earned them the nickname of the ‘Original Six’. Calvin Natt and Mychal Thompson of the Portland Trailblazers; Jamal Wilkes and Michael Cooper of the Los Angeles Lakers; Michael Cooper and Moses Malone of the Philadelphia 76ers.

In 1982, Moses Malone started his first year as a Philadelphia 76er after spending six years with the Houston Rockets. The Sixers needed one extra piece to complete their championship aspirations. Julius Erving had led the team to the NBA Finals twice (1977 and 1980) and came up one game short of the championship title each time. When Moses came to Philadelphia, he brought that extra star power to contend with the Los Angeles Lakers, and new kicks for the youth in Philadelphia to rock. When Moses Malone and Julius Erving led the Philadelphia 76ers to victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals, the Nike Air Force 1 became the basketball sneaker of choice for a lot of Philadelphians.

“In 1982 Bruce Kilgore came up with the Nike Air Force 1 and blessed Moses Malone with that shoe. And in turn, he blessed the city with a championship in 1983. So that shoe means a lot to this city...”

-Anthony Gilbert-, Air Force 1: Anatomy of An Urban Legend, 2010

In 1984, Nike discontinued the Air Force 1 to focus on the next basketball shoe. A group of sneaker store owners in Baltimore requested Nike to bring them back because the demand for the shoes was so high among customers. After this meeting Nike returned the AF1 to retail stores in 1986. It was not until 1995 when the Nike Air Force 1 made its impactful return to the NBA hardwood floor.

Philadelphia native Rasheed Wallace started his NBA career in 1995 after he was drafted by the Washington Bullets with the fourth overall pick. He was a 6’11 defensive menace on the court, and he played basketball with that aggressiveness that us Philly natives all have. Since his first NBA game, he stayed true and loyal to Air Force 1s. During his 16-year career he laced up the Air Force 1’s every single game. He is the only player with a player exclusive AF1, which features the “SHEED” logo of his legendary fade away jumper. He won an NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004.

Other East coast cities like Baltimore and New York think they can claim the legendary Nike Air Force 1 sneakers in the streets, but Philadelphia is the only city that can claim the Air Force 1 on the NBA court and in the championship circle.

Reebok Question (1996)

Reebok Question Mid Double Cross

The year is 1996, and the Philadelphia 76ers stink! They have not been to the playoffs in five seasons. They are coming off an 18 –win season and they have the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. This team is in desperate need of some type of star player after Charles Barkley left the team in 1992. The suspected number one pick in the draft was the 6-foot, 165-pound point guard coming out of Georgetown University, by the way of Hampton, VA., named Allen Iverson. The Sixers was a historically bad team, and Allen was the answer to solve their problems.

Allen Iverson was a hit with Philadelphia fans as soon as he stepped on the court and so were his sneakers. He came into the league with a sneaker deal already lined up with Boston- based company, Reebok. The name of his first signature sneaker model was titled “The Question.” Reebok’s Basketball Business Unit Manager at the time Que Gaskins gave a little backstory to the reasoning for the title.

“There were just so many fucking questions around him as a player, around his character and around whether or not Reebok could even afford and be in the running for a player of that stature, so we called it The Question.” - Que Gaskins, Reebok Basketball Business Unit Manager, The Rise Of Allen Iverson And Reebok Basketball, Nice Kicks, 2015

The shoes were a success due to Iverson’s play on the court. He led the Sixers in scoring, assists, steals, and he went on to win the Rookie of the Year award for 1996. Allen had a swagger on and off the court, a killer crossover, and he was jumping out the gym and dunking on 7-footers. Everybody loved A.I., so sneaker lovers in Philadelphia just had to get a pair of his Reebok Questions.

“We put them in Philly, New York and DC and that was really it. When we first put them out, I started getting phone calls in the morning that kids were coming in right after school and that the shoes were almost sold out, and that was only one day. We started hearing stories from the store employees that kids were coming from Delaware and Boston, driving 3-4 hours to go to the Philly store to get the shoe. After the second day, it was completely sold out.” - Todd Krinsky, Reebok VP, The Rise Of Allen Iverson And Reebok Basketball, Nice Kicks, 2015

Allen Iverson had a career defining moment in his rookie season that sent shockwaves throughout the league. On March 12, 1997, The Philadelphia 76ers hosted the Chicago Bulls. If you know anything about basketball, you know why this game was a huge deal. Arguably one of the greatest players to ever touch a basketball, Michael Jordan, was squaring off against Allen Iverson. This was Iverson’s chance to show his idol and the world that he belongs in the NBA. Iverson had Michael Jordan guarding him on an isolation play and he wanted to score on his hero. He decided to bring out his best move, the killer crossover dribble and he crossed over Jordan! Then he made the shot afterwards! The Philadelphia crowd went wild and Iverson cemented his status as a star in the league in his first year! He did it all in his Reebok Questions!

Another reason the Question is so near and dear to the city of Philadelphia, is the fact that one of the first commercials for the shoe was shot at local basketball court Starr Garden. The commercial features Philadelphia residents asking questions for Iverson about his shoes and his game. There are also a few highlights of A.I. hooping on the court.

The Reebok Question was highlighted in “Complex Presents: Sneaker Of The Year” book as the sneaker of the year for 1996.

“The model, now almost a quarter-century old, sits near the top of the pantheon of basketball footwear.”

Excerpt From: Complex Media, Inc., Marc Ecko & Joe La Puma. “Complex Presents: Sneaker of the Year.”

Reebok Answer IV (2001)

Reebok Answer IV Finishline Exclusive

We are now in the fifth year of Allen Iverson’s NBA career. He has had a lot of individual success, leading the league in scoring and in minutes once so far, while making his first All-Star appearance. The 2000-01 season was a pivotal season for Iverson. There were rumors swirling that he was going to be traded away from the Sixers due to lack of team success. This season, Iverson elevated his game to another level, and ended up having his greatest season as an NBA professional. He won the All-Star game MVP award, led the league in scoring, led the league in steals, carried the Sixers to the playoffs, and won the NBA MVP award. The world was in the palm of his hands and everyone loved Iverson, which led to the Reebok Answer IV becoming one of the most popular shoes in the league.

The 2000-2001 season was the first time the Philadelphia 76ers had reached the finals since they won the championship in 1983. The Sixers were the clear underdog, as they were matched up against the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers featuring superstars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Iverson still did not back down. In Game 1 of the series, Iverson put on one of the greatest performances by a single player in NBA Finals history scoring 48 points. During this game, Iverson created another career defining moment that is cemented forever in basketball fans' memories. In the final minutes of overtime in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, Iverson has the ball on the right wing and Laker’s guard, Ty Lue is defending him. Iverson sized-up Ty Lue with a few triple-threat jab moves, he did his signature crossover dribble move, into a step-back corner three pointer: ALL NET! Ty Lue lost his footing and fell to the floor. Allen Iverson looked down at the defeated defender and stepped over him while making his way down the court to get back on defense. This was the dagger shot that would eventually propel the Sixers over the Lakers in Game 1. The entire world observed in amazement, this 6’0 guard carried his Sixers team into LA and stole a game from the unstoppable force that was the 2000-2001 Lakers. The Los Angeles Lakers went on to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in the series, but that series was defined by Allen Iverson’s substantial Game 1 performance.

The Reebok Answer IV featured a shrouded leather upper that was enclosed by a zipper. It also featured Reebok’s DMX cushioning technology. Complex says the Answer IVs were “his most personal model yet...”

“the shoe featured a portrait of Iverson on the outsole, prominently displaying his trademark braids and headband. Above it was the phrase “Only the Strong Survive,”

Excerpt From: Complex Media, Inc., Marc Ecko & Joe La Puma. “Complex Presents: Sneaker of the Year.”

“These are special to me because this is the one and only time I went to the Finals,” Iverson said in a 2017 episode of Complex’s Sneaker Shopping.”

Excerpt From: Complex Media, Inc., Marc Ecko & Joe La Puma. “Complex Presents: Sneaker of the Year.”

New Balance 990 (1982)

New Balance 990v4

Sneaker culture’s first luxury sneaker arrived in the form of New Balance’s 990 sneakers. In 1982, the American shoe manufacturing company released the first running sneaker with a price tag of $100. The new sneaker featured revolutionary technology at the time. They highlighted their patented Motion Control Device that cradles the heel for maximum support. That technology is still used today in New Balance’s current shoes.

The New Balance 990 did not have a premier athlete or popular music artists to promote the shoe at the time, but it was still well received by consumers, especially street guys. The $100 price tag made the 990s a status symbol in the streets, starting in Washington D.C. and Baltimore.

Back in the day, New Balance was the first company to sell running shoes for $100! Coming up in D.C., the 990 was the status symbol. Whether they were dope dealers or just people with a bit of money, we looked up to anyone who had them. - June Sanders DTLR product designer, Washington, D.C, DMV To Philly: Exploring The New Balance 990 Obsession, SneakerFreaker, 2017

Guys standing on the block all day “working” needed a shoe that was comfortable, subtle so they would not cause too much attention, and shoes light and comfortable enough to get away from law enforcement. The simple Cool Grey colorway of the New Balance 990’s coordinated well with most outfits because they weren’t too ‘loud’.

New Balance continued to release newer versions of the 990 sneakers, creating a series. They also continued to grow in popularity with sneaker lovers across the east coast. The hype of the shoes eventually made it to Philadelphia.

One story I heard is that cats in North Philly, which is a very rough hood, started wearing 990s because the ‘N’ on the side was supposed to mean ‘North’.- Richie Roxas – Philly-based New Balance collector DMV To Philly: Exploring The New Balance 990 Obsession, SneakerFreaker, 2017

Hip-hop superstars, and North Philly natives, Meek Mill and Lil Uzi Vert have both paid homage to New Balances in past interviews. In an episode of Complex’s Sneaker Shopping, Meek Mill says: “I remember wearing New Balance when I was seven years old,” he said. “We had the cool grey ones. We used to see the dope boys on the corner wear them. It was the guys in my neighborhood who had money. They were trap sneakers.”

Lil Uzi Vert also reminded us of his roots in North Philly and New Balance in another episode of Complex’s Sneaker Shopping. “In North Philly we wear New Balances.” he said. My dad used to buy us New Balances for school, it’s just always been that.”

North Philly is the unofficial hub of New Balances in Philadelphia due to Young’s Sneaker City on Girard Avenue. According to Sneaker Freaker, some of the locals were calling him ‘King of the 990’s” because of his loyalty to the brand. There is a New Balance store in downtown Philadelphia. In 2019, June Sanders and DTLR released a limited amount of exclusive “4 for 4” colorway of the 990v5, that featured the team colors of the four major professional sports teams in Philadelphia. The rear suede panel was green to stand for the Philadelphia Eagles; the blue side panels, represent the Philadelphia 76ers; the red suede lining around the toe box represents the Philadelphia Phillies; and the orange around the shoelaces are for the Philadelphia Flyers.

The New Balance brand has received a huge resurgence in recent years due to the popularity of the “dad shoe” and chunky sneaker trends. Hustlers on the east coast and especially Philadelphia have been rocking with the New Balance 990 with pride for years because of their comfortability and the status that came with the expensive price tag.

The Nike Air Force 1 (1982), New Balance 990 (1982), Reebok Question (1996), and Reebok Answer IV (2001), are all legendary sneakers with a significant history behind them. During the peak of their popularity, you could have seen them on the feet of sneaker lovers and the youth all over Philadelphia.

Which sneaker best represents Philadelphia’s Sneaker Culture?

What sneakers did I miss and can be added to the list?


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