Sell Your Sole: The Rise of the NBA Shoe Commercial
In June 2001, I went to New York City with my church youth group. My friends and I were in an obsessive basketball phase that inexplicably drew us to NBA centers who just had something indescribably funny about them, and although Dikembe Mutombo was our primary fascination due to the ongoing NBA Finals, imagine our reaction when we found a pair of Ewing sneakers of unbelievable size (19? one-size-fits-tall?) in a trash can in Brooklyn. Patrick Ewing had left the New York Knicks the previous summer, but we missed the trash can metaphor, focusing rather on the sheer magnitude of our discovery.
It’s typical of my generation to overemphasize shoes. NBA teams have to think about uniform design, and individual players might catch heat for questionable fashion choices off the court, but for playground ballers like you and I, the defining mark is the shoe.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nike and others played the vanguard in a revolution that transformed the basketball shoe market from utilitarian white sneakers to hundreds of models of flashy, colorful kicks with price tags familiar only to US defense contractors. Naturally, the vanguard swayed the people with massive propaganda campaigns, often featuring NBA stars. A comprehensive list would take years of our lives (not a bad thing), but I’m going to try to just hit the highlights.
Still, pardon me for creating the longest and most media-heavy post in the short history of HoopTherapy, but I think it’s worth your time. You may want to get close to your volume control, because the sound level varies quite a bit between these clips…
Let’s start with the chronological leader, a slow-rap from the 1986-1987 season that reminds me of the Super Bowl Shuffle. Remember being in project groups in school when somebody comes up with the brilliant idea of making a rap video, and the lyrics are promising but the execution teaches you that it actually takes some skill? Here’s an example:
Larry Bird just looks like a goofball, MVP or not. And Kevin McHale? There isn’t much else to say about that one – it just felt like a good reference point to show how much things would change in the next decade or so. Let’s jump first to 1991, where Mars Blackmon is demonstrating some serious hang time:
Time after time, I’ve been surprised by how skinny Michael Jordan used to be (a friend of mine recently pointed out the same thing, without knowing I’d be writing about it). Young Jordan doesn’t have quite the bulk that he did in the second run with the Bulls, and let’s just not talk about his stint with the Wizards. I don’t have much to say about his shoes, other than Air Jordans are the all-time best-selling and most easily identifiable basketball shoe across the world, thanks in no small part to Jordan’s status as a global icon.
In retrospect, 20 years after its first broadcast, this clip works as a character portrait not just of Jordan the basketball player, but of Jordan the merciless, compulsive dominator. Dunking on Mars Blackmon?? We saw it in his Hall of Fame induction acceptance speech – at a time and place normally reserved for grateful, humble speeches, Jordan belittled former opponents, proving that even a GPS might not help him take the high road. Jordan may forever be the symbol of the game, but he’ll never have the tact to serve as its ambassador.
If the NBA ever did choose an ambassador, however, the top choice would have to be The Admiral, career-long San Antonio Spur and Naval Academy graduate David Robinson.
The Mr. Robinson series of ads, of which I had no recollection before a quick Youtube search, were generally slow and could have been a bit more engaging, had they not been modeled after the general anesthetic known as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I think this commercial is the best of the series, though, because it includes rookie Gary Payton, a rare view of the player before he became forever linked with Shawn Kemp and the almost-good-enough Sonics. This commercial is Payton’s playing style summarized off the court – he’s versatile, thorough, hardworking, and just a bit indignant.
And David Robinson? Let’s just say he’s well-cast as a parallel Mr. Rogers.
The following spot isn’t for a particular shoe, but it’s for Nike, so it counts. It’s the most socially conscious of the clips on this list, and because the Youtube page says it appeared in 1992, it might be connected to something like the Rodney King incident and the post-acquittal riots. With that in mind, I give you the most Cool Runnings of the NBA shoe commercials:
Why is it the most Cool Runnings?
- Loud colors! Okay, so this wasn’t just Cool Runnings or just Jamaica – everything was colored like this in 1992. But it’s awesome. There’s no khaki in Spike’s house.
- Racial tension. When I watched this for the first time, about 15 seconds into it I was wondering how so many white (gravity-bound!) men made it into a commercial featuring and made by Spike Lee. Then I realized what was going on. It was West Germany versus Jamaica, reciting racial generalizations. Did you notice how the white men were labeled “Boston-loving,” probably as a comment on the playing style of the Bird-era Celtics? Nice. Did you also remember that White Men Can’t Jump was released in 1992?
- Teamwork. “If we gonna live together, we gotta play together. The mo’ colors, the mo’ better.” Everyone remembers (I remember) the scene where John Candy tells the Jamaican team…..okay, next video.
Charles Barkley was surely a nontraditional hero, and soon he’ll have a dedicated post here on HT. His instant classic “I am not a role model…parents should be role models” commercial remains famous, although not featured here, and he was generally embraced by fans for being brutally honest, in a way that was often funny.
“It’ll only make you have shoes like me. Period.” Shoe companies generally don’t search for celebrity athlete endorsements who prefer not to embellish their product, but this is pure, distilled Barkley honesty. Imagine Sir Charles sitting in a room of Nike marketing grunts, going over ideas for catchphrases and rejecting every one of them for being too dreamy. I actually think they might not have even bothered, because it never would have worked. I can only picture him sitting there saying something to the effect of “having me in your commercials will only make you sell shoes like me.”
Do you remember the last time an NBA star put on a frumpy dress and a gray wig to promote himself? There’s only been one that I know of, and that’s Larry Johnson, former #1 overall draft pick and 1991-1992 Rookie of the Year.
If you haven’t read my profile page yet, you should. If you have, this is what I mean when I say the NBA creates characters like no other professional sports league. He wasn’t the first to wear a dress – Ricky Williams and Dennis Rodman may never live down their respective wedding dress modeling, but Larry Johnson was the first to attempt the other end of the spectrum, the grandmother dress. He managed to make it funny, earned himself a great nickname, and endeared himself to a generation of fans, all the while reminding us that YOU CAN’T BEAT WHAT YOU CAN’T CATCH.
We move to the final installment, the greatest of all time – L’il Penny. There are several to choose from, and L’il Penny was also featured in some amazing Sprite ads, but we’re talking about shoe commercials today, and here’s my favorite:
Flawless. Chris Rock does the voice of L’il Penny, so the trash talk is perfect, and it leads into the slow motion scenes with ice cream falling off a cone, the balloon popping, and the dog shaking (and L’il Penny shielding himself from the spray). For those who don’t know, this is a near copy of a Michael Jordan ad (same music, same style), but it’s made to be funny, and it works.
I still laugh every time when real Penny takes off for the rim and L’il Penny sends a model rocket up into the sky, and I think the attention to detail pushes the whole commercial to the top. Had I been of working age at the time, I would have loved to sit in on the brainstorming sessions at Nike when they were developing ideas like L’il Penny wearing a signed cast on the sideline.
So what’s the common thread between all of these? There might not be one – each of these commercials shows its characters in true form. David Robinson is calm and charismatic, while Gary Payton is productive but exasperated. Jordan dunks on a helpless man. Barkley speaks the truth, Larry Johnson does something crazy, and Penny Hardaway doesn’t say anything, preferring to let his game do the talking.
I’m going to stretch the point here, and add that there’s a theme of self-depricating humor. White guys rap when they know they shouldn’t, Jordan hangs around with Mars Blackmon, Payton endures the rookie treatment, Barkley lets a kid talk back to him, LJ wears a dress and plays ball as a grandmother, and Penny Hardaway’s commercial shows Tyra Banks bored to death in the last scene.
I can’t imagine comparing that style to more current NBA shoe commercials without falling into trite rant about how things aren’t as good as they used to be. I’ll allow Rick Reilly to write that article, and in the meantime let’s leave present day out of this, agree that 90s NBA shoe commercials were awesome, and finish on a high note:
Bonus video – Grandma’ma on Family Matters: