How Philly Helped Shaped The Modern Sneaker

Philadelphia has a rich sporting history, packed with tradition.

But did you know that we are the home of one of the most popular sneakers of all time?

The year was 1982, and the Sixers have been beaten three times in the NBA Final in the previous five years. Players such as Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones hadn’t been able to see them over the line in the final against the Lakers, boosted by the prowess of Magic Johnson. All of those players simply competed in canvas trainers, with little bounce or give for the stars of the day.

While the Sixers were experiencing that final pain, a man named Bruce Kilgore was about to change the world. He was hard at work at Nike headquarters, designing a shoe known as Air Force 1.

He had taken his inspiration from the Nike hiking boot, slanting the sole from front to back, supporting the Achilles. It was a design that offered support, but with the addition of the air cushion in the heel, providing additional spring also. Most basketball sneakers had stuck rigidly to a herringbone traction pattern until that point, but Kilgore incorporated a circular outsole pattern, giving more pivotal to players.

Six players were selected to try the new sneaker, and they became known as the original six. Of those players, two were with the Sixers, Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Erving had twice led the Sixers to the Final, only to fall desperately short, while Malone had previously spent six years with the Houston Rockets.

Wearing the new sneakers, the Sixers went one step further in their quest for the NBA crown, becoming something of an NBA super team in the process. Moses Malone was the perfect acquisition, helping fire the team to the Eastern Conference title in emphatic style. With the new sneakers on his feet, he acted as a catalyst for the 4-0 Conference Semifinal win against New York Knicks and the Conference Final win over the Milwaukee Bucks. The Lakers awaited in the Final, with a couple of players of their own sporting the Air Force 1. It didn’t matter – Malone inspired the Sixers to their first NBA title since 1967, with a 4-0 whitewash,

Suddenly, the streets of Philly were awash with people wearing Air Force 1s in homage to their heroes of the court. Even when Nike discontinued the brand in 1984, Philly had a strong role in its rebirth. Rasheed Washington started his NBA career in 1995 with the Washington Bullets, and he wore Air Force 1s, as he did throughout his career. He didn’t step foot on the court in a Philly jersey, but his impact on the shoe was immense; he is the only player to have an exclusive AF1, such was his impact on the brand.

Of course, many have since made the Nike Air shoe their sneaker of choice, with some almost defining the brand. The Air Jordan 1 High OG Pollen serves as a reminder of the impact the sneaker had on Michael Jordan and vice versa; he is a man who has singlehandedly ensured his name is as synonymous with sneakers as it is with NBA. The Nike Durant V dropped in 2012 with Kevin Durant’s branding, whilst the Nike Zoom Kobe IV was the signature sneaker of the late, great Kobe Bryant, born in Philly. As a city, Philly has always had a strong sneaker culture too, with Allan Iversen’s Question Mids almost as famous as the Nike Air brand. Almost, but not quite.

The Sixers have only won the NBA Championship once since the days of Malone and Ervine, but there isn’t a team whose victory has had quite the same cultural impact on the game as a whole.

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