Playground hoops has been a staple in the fabric of every basketball player’s life. It dates back to Saturday and Sunday day-long pick up games, and then every day when you were off from school in the summer.

Books like “The City Game” by Pete Axthelm and “Heaven is a Playground” by Rick Telander have been written while fabled hoops and sneaker historian (and all around renaissance man) Bobbito Garcia recently completely his “Doin’ it in the Park” documentary spotlighting the playground game¬†and the legends which were born from it.

  • Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault
  • ‘Pee Wee’ Kirkland
  • ‘Fly’ Williams
  • Joe ‘The Destroyer’ Hammond

 

Some playground legends whose status rose beyond the asphalt to NBA stardom include

  • Julius Erving
  • Lew Alcindor
  • Earl Monroe
  • Wilt Chamberlain

Over the course of the last decade plus, the playground game or “Street Ball” as it’s become to be known as, gained great popularity with the AND1 Mix Tape Tour and other such barnstorming groups. We all were fans because at some point in our lives, we all started there.

Maybe your court was asphalt, maybe yours was covered with the acrylic/silica paint like mine was. Either way, you spent many hot days when the court was 130 degrees and you sweated through shirt after shirt, HOPING you’d get a game when you got to play skins. You also spent those days shoveling the court yourself and shooting¬†in frozen, soaking wet hands (I finally wised up once and bought a left and right handed golf glove and shot with those. Form fitting, offered some protection, and kept much moisture off your hands).

Either way the playground was your second home if you were head to toe hoops.

The biggest fault I always had were my sneakers. Hour after hour on the court did significant damage to the soft outsoles of the shoes I wore at the Catasauqua Park. And why wouldn’t they? They were made for an indoor court. The softer outsole allowed for a better grip and ride to traditional indoor basketball courts.

One thing about my basketball shoes is that when I find a silhouette I like, I stick with it. My current rotation has me in 3 different colorways of Air Tempo Low, a shoe from 2005, but pairs which still offer me the comfort and support I want. I haven’t needed to update even though I could have.

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I can remember the summer after my Sophomore year of high school going through 3 different pairs of Air Flight 89 lows because of how soft that outsole was. I tore through 2 different pairs of Air Jordan IVs as well. The summer before my Senior year of college I went through 2 pairs of Air Lambastes. Again, because of the incredibly soft outsole.

My playing days are few and far between now. Only one Summer League, a very competitive Over 35 league which features many former college players local to my area and some players who have experience playing professionally over seas. I know I’ll never have the same problems again.

I worked at Foot Locker for 6 years starting the Summer before my Sophomore year. It was the best job I ever had. I worked in my passion. I knew everything inside and out. I was a student of the field and of the industry.

One thing which helped me greatly at my job was that I was an athlete. I could make recommendations based on personal experiences, successes and failures. I sold a lot of running shoes and basketball shoes and I could talk at length about each of those. My personal study of everything else filled in the gaps.

Part of how I looked at how I sold basketball shoes was “What was going to be the primary use?” For me, I usually got at least 2 pairs of game shoes per season, and they always worked out to be the previous year’s Jordan, followed by the All Star release. When I got my game shoes, they never touched anything except the gym floor until the season was over. Then they became shoes to stunt, then my first Summer league shoes.

But, hell, I knew everyone didn’t have such a routine as me.

I had recreationally played tennis for a couple of summers during high school as well. Nothing competitive, just me and a few friends who really got into it for a while and we were able to hold our own. What did I wear? Air Tech Challenge I & IIs.

One thing I found about those two shoes was that the soles NEVER wore out.

But why? The tennis courts were covered in the same acrylic/silica mix paint as the basketball courts. I was still making all of the same lateral cuts on the tennis court as I did on the basketball court.

Nike Tennis used an in-house material on its performance shoes called Durathane. It was a harder rubber than what was used on all of its other soles. Nike identified that there was a need for a more durable sole for outdoor tennis. So why didn’t they recognize the same for outdoor basketball.

I sold hundreds of people on the use of Air Tech Challenges for Summer league basketball simply on the fact of the durability of the sole. Plus they were a mid cut shoe so people who liked the support of high tops also had that.

So that got me to thinking. Why had Nike never created its own “Summertime Series” (that was the name I created when I pitched it to my Foot Locker District Manager). They already have successful silhouettes in place from the regular basketball season, why not just release the same with Durathane outsoles? Maybe in some more vibrant, seasonal non team based colors. But something to maintain for more than a month full of runs. I would have definitely bought Air Flight 89 lows with Durathane outsoles for Summer hoops.

This was a totally new concept. Nobody was doing it… until 1991. When Reebok created the “Blacktop” series using a harder rubber outsole and tougher leather uppers. They were hideous looking shoes. Heavy. Bulky. Like tanks on your feet.

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At the time of the “Blacktop” release, Nike said it have absolutely no plans to try to gain share of the outdoor basketball market. That is until 1994 when they released the Air Raid. It was a Tinker Hatfield design, not nearly as bulky as its Reebok predecessor, but still heavy. They didn’t need to be. The templates were already made, the outsole material didn’t have to be reinvented. Nothing had to be bulky.

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Nike came back with another answer in the Air Check, trying to reinvent the wheel with an entirely different silhouette for the outside game.

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The outdoor basketball shoe premise eventually fizzled out until they were reissued as retros for the lifestyle market, after only having a brief moment in the sun.

Oh, the missed opportunity Nike had. It was all set up for them. They had everything in place. All they needed was the 16 year old part timer from Foot Locker in the Whitehall Mall…

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