Since NBA players first competed in the Olympics nearly 30 years ago, the global stage has not only helped propel the sport of basketball, but has also served as a launch pad for some of the most iconic sneakers and technology in the industry.
When Michael Jordan draped an American flag over his right shoulder during the 1992 Gold Medal Ceremony to interfere with the logo on the team’s Reebok warm-ups, the stage was set for an ongoing brand war, both behind the scenes and the is also played in the greatest moments of the Summer Games.
While Team USA’s jerseys and kit suppliers intermittently switched from Champion to Reebok, to Adidas and back to Reebok during the first four Olympics to integrate NBA players, Nike took things over for good in 2008 and has never looked back .
Since the “Redeem Team” in Beijing, the Swoosh has presented almost all player lists with brand-typical sneakers such as the Hyperdunk, from Lunar Foam to Flywire in 2008 to “intelligent shoes” with a short-lived integrated Nike computer chip brought everything to market at the London Games 2012.
Also in 2008, Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K himself, blocked the Adidas sneakers from Dwight Howard, the only non-Nike athlete on the team. Again in 2016, the official team portrait masked the rival brand’s sneakers from three players.
At the same time, Nike was aggressively trying to disrupt the Summer Games on an even bigger scale, eventually attempting to challenge the red, white and navy tones of USA basketball with mock-ups of a “reinforced” jersey set consisting of a black and volt green color scheme. The uniforms never came about, the team stuck to their traditional colors, although a line of bright Volt sneakers from the Nike Sportswear category were released in 2012.
At the eight Olympic Games in which NBA players took part, starting with the “Dream Team” in Barcelona, Nike trainers were worn by 61 players who occupied the 96 available squad seats. That number rises to 77 players if you expand to include players who make up the Nike Inc. family of brands, which also includes the company’s Jordan Brand and Converse subsidiaries.
From long airs to bouncy shox, lightweight hyperdunks and tons of signature shoes in between, Team USA’s newest roster kept the tradition alive in Tokyo and stylishly added a seventh gold medal.
After the Chicago Bulls defeated the Portland Trailblazers in the 1992 NBA Finals, Jordan sat in the locker room with his feet up in a pair of the original black, charcoal and red colorways of his Air Jordan 7s during the championship celebration.
“When do you put on those USAB trainers?” Jordan was asked at a moment featured in The Last Dance documentaries of 2020.
Stepping six weeks after his second straight NBA title Jordan with the “Dream Team” at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain. There he debuted a white-blue-red colorway of the Air Jordan 7, with accents in metallic silver and gold, with a remarkable swap of his NBA jersey No. 23 for his Olympic jersey No. 9 on the heel of each shoe.
In 1992, Team USA first presented a list of NBA players instead of amateurs. And Jordan, laced in his “Olympic” 7s, was the headline of a high profile lineup of players wearing patriotic sneakers, including Charles Barkley in the Nike Air Force 180, David Robinson and John Stockton in the Nike Air Ballistic Force, Scottie Pippen and Chris Mullin in the Nike Air Flight Lite, Patrick Ewing in the Ewing Eclipse from his own brand of the same name and Larry Bird in the Converse Bird.
Much like the Dream Team’s claim to be the greatest basketball roster of all time, it’s hard to argue against the Air Jordan 7 as the most iconic Olympic sneaker of all time.
Following the Dream Team was not an easy task. But not only did the 96 squad collect gold at the Atlanta Games, the team also showed its own share of star power in special edition sneakers.
After a record season of 72-10 at the time, Pippen was one of the headliners of the invited American squad. Typically cautious, his sneakers shouted “A-I-R” over the upper and also praised Nike’s latest technology.
“That was a brave shoe – that was a statement shoe,” he said of the Air More Uptempo. “I think Nike did a great job with this shoe to really make a statement. When I started wearing this shoe, I was playing great basketball – MVP style basketball. I was pretty self-confident and had the feeling that the shoe complemented that well. ”
Pippen’s dark blue and white pair, with his Olympic jersey no. 8 sewn into the heel in gold, was sure to be a statement. Charles Barkley wore a more subtle white edition, while Gary Payton and Reggie Miller’s white and navy pairs of the Air Much Uptempo centered on the cheaper edition of the Air More.
Similar to the team from ’92, the team from ’96 also showcased a variety of shades of brands worn by their players. While the Air More Uptempo were perhaps the most memorable couple in the group, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway briefly broke off his Air Penny signature shoes to wear the Zoom Flight 96, with his # 6 jersey stitched into the heel in gold, has long made it a cult classic among collectors.
It’s the most memorable game in US basketball history, but Vince Carter almost failed to lace up the futuristic white and blue Nike Shox BB4 he was wearing when he overtook Frenchman Frederic Weis at the Sydney Games. He had taken his official Team USA portrait wearing a white and red pair of AND1 Tai Chi, the same shoe he was wearing when he won the 2000 Dunk Contest.
After a painful contract end for his signature Puma deal after just two seasons, Carter hopped back and forth between wearing Adidas and AND1 sneakers to end the regular season while also considering an offer from Nike drew to dub its upcoming Shox downfall.
“Having the opportunity to showcase a new technology came as a matter of course for me,” he said. “It made sense the way I played.”
Nike couldn’t have asked for a better debut as Carter explodes out of the hardwood every night during Team USA’s gold medal run in the brand’s new four-pillar heel cushioning platform.
While Kevin Garnett brought out a surprising Navy and Gold edition of the Flightposite 2 for the gold medal game and Jordan endorsers Ray Allen and Vin Baker went retro in special editions of Air Jordan VIs, it was Carter who left his mark and the gate made an impression with its newly signed Nike deal.
“The success of the dun started the legend of the shoes. But I also went to another level with them. I became a star player in BB4, ”said Carter.
Vince Carter / Jason Kidd / Tim Hardaway / Allan Houston / Antonio McDyess – Nike Shox BB4
The Athens 2004 Summer Games marked the Olympic debuts of three aspiring players Hoopers who have since built an impressive legacy in both basketball and footwear. After LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade were voted into the top 5 of the 2003 NBA Draft, they continued their rookie campaigns and joined Team USA in the Olympics.
In Athens, James debuted his second signature sneaker, the Nike Zoom LeBron 2, while donning Jordan’s No. 9 Olympic jersey. Anthony, a Jordan Brand athlete, also paid homage to the Dream Team legend with a player-exclusive (PE) version of the “Olympic” Air Jordan 7 with the “MELO” embroidery on the side. Anthony’s Olympic PEs also included special editions of his first signature sneaker, the Jordan Melo 1.5, as well as the Air Jordan 2.
Wade has released a PE of the Converse Icon Warrior model, which has a red collar and a two-tone upper in white and Marine exhibits. And Allen Iverson, who co-headlined Team USA in 2004 with former NBA MVP Tim Duncan, also debuted a new signature edition – the Reebok Question 2, a continuation of his groundbreaking debut sneaker.
Even if the footwear may have been impressive, the 2004 Games were a memorable feat for the US basketball game, which has not won gold for the first time since 1992, and its veterans cannot mesh with one another. The Americans only managed bronze, but at least with solid sneakers.
The men’s team from 2008 had it all. It was nicknamed “Redeem Team” – and was bestowed on a squad heralded as the best squad since 1992, tasked with bringing Team USA back to glory after the 2004 bronze disappointment.
It had the swag – LeBron James in the Nike Zoom Soldier 2 and for the first time in the Nike LeBron 6; Carmelo Anthony in the Jordan Melo M5; Chris Paul in the Air Jordan 23; and Dwyane Wade in the Converse Wade Slash. But most importantly, the 2008 team had Kobe Bryant – the captain. And no sneaker at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games had a greater impact than the one Nike Bryant commissioned to headline – the hyperdunk.
“What convinced me about it was the technology,” said Bryant in 2008 of the first Nike basketball shoe with Flywire and Lunar Foam. “I’m a real tech guy and there aren’t a lot of people who would cross that line or jump into a shoe this new.”
Bryant led Team USA to a perfect 8-0 record. And in every game he laced the Nike Hyperdunk.
It is also fitting that the laser-engraved red, white and blue edition of the Hyperdunk that Bryant and his teammates wore during the 2008 Games, including the gold medal game, is called “United We Rise”. Because that’s exactly what the Redeem team did.
In Team USA’s first seven games at the London 2012 Summer Games, LeBron James headlined Nike Basketball’s newest team shoe: the Lunar Hyperdunk. Until the USA gold medal game against Spain, James wore a PE version of the super-light 11.9-ounce Hyperdunk in a “USA” color with his crown logo on the tongue of each shoe.
On a 107-100 win, King James debuted his new signature sneaker, the Nike LeBron 10, to cement an incredible 2012 basketball campaign in which he was named an NBA MVP before his first NBA championship Career and won another Olympic gold.
In the meantime, James ’other Nike Signature athletes also appeared on the world stage. Kobe Bryant donned the Nike Zoom Kobe 7 to captain Team USA, and Kevin Durant emerged as the team’s top scorer with an average of 19.5 points and lost a gold medal equal to 30 in the Nike Zoom KD 4 (as one of the best Durant Signature Line models).
After the victory over Spain, James, Bryant and Durant posed with gold medals around their necks and “Medal Stage” Nike Air Force 1s on their feet. At the 2012 Games, Team USA not only proved they have the best players in the world – Nike proved they have the best basketball athletes in the world.
Following successive Olympic squads led by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the roster in Rio de Janeiro unveiled a new set of faces made up of Nike’s top endorsers.
Kyrie Irving was fresh from the biggest chance of his career, a Game 7 game winner in the NBA Finals in his second signature sneaker. He would lace the Kyrie 2 again during the Olympics, in simple white and red looks and navy editions.
Recovering from a gruesome leg injury in 2014 during a US basketball exhibition game, Paul George has now headlined Nike’s new 2016 Hyperdunk Flyknit, a contrasting navy and red sneaker with a bold sock collar silhouette.
Then there was Kevin Durant, fresh from his highly controversial decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors, who wanted to continue after the tough seven-game series that closed the chapter of his time in Oklahoma City. Flyknit showed his new sneaker, the KD 9, for the first time in its series. The computer-knitted material was featured by Nike at the 2012 Games, with Durant often wearing the brand’s Flyknit Racer in neon green in the Olympic Village.
A year later, he noticed that Bryant Flyknit was making his basketball debut at Kobe 9. He told his designer Leo Chang that he wanted the material in his own line.
“I always challenge Leo to be better than previous years, and they always do better,” Durant said at the time. “This is my favorite.”
In another Nike-strong roster, Durant led the way in his newly fitted Flyknit kicks as he and Irving carried the brand’s signature torch at the Olympics.
After a year of delay and a star exit along the way, the latest U.S. basketball list featured multiple players dropping some of their best balls while topping a range of signature sneakers and statement models in Tokyo.
Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard, two of the team’s senior statesmen, were spotted in both the home and away versions of their current signature models in white and navy looks and marbled patterns.
For their first Olympic experiences, Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo wore the latest annual Air Jordan model, now in its 36th edition. Couples have their own custom logos along the tongue, as well as various star accents and details along the sloping lines of the upper. Tatum often writes his son’s name “Deuce” next to a heart. Adebayo writes “76 Church Lane” on his couples, a tribute to the rural North Carolina trailer where he grew up with his mother.
After facing each other in the NBA Finals just weeks earlier, Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Kris Middleton came to Japan with supplies of their own exclusive editions of Kobe Bryant’s fifth and sixth editions.
Though the deal between Nike and the Kobe Bryant estate expired in April, each player stuck to the pairs rotation they received earlier this spring and carried Bryant’s legacy a decade after his last stand-in for team USA on the Olympic stage.
The roster consisted of a mix of brands, with the umbrella of Nike Inc. from Nike, Converse and Jordan, along with three Adidas players. When it came time for every player to get their gold medal, however, all 12 players were dressed head to toe in Nike’s official “Medal Stand Kit,” a branding flex from the team’s official sponsor, Damian Lillard, Zach LaVine who saw three strip endorsers and Jerami Grant each in Swoosh shoes.
“I am concerned that they are forcing me to wear that Nike bra again,” Lillard jokingly wrote on Instagram.
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Nick DePaula is a shoe industry and lifestyle writer for The Undefeated. The Sacramento native has lived in Portland, OR, a major hub for sneaker companies, for the past decade. He will often argue that “How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days” is actually an underrated film – especially since it is the only time its Sacramento Kings have made the NBA finals.
Aaron Dodson is Sports and culture journalist for The Undefeated. He mainly writes about sneakers / clothing and moderates the platform’s “Sneaker Box” video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his passion for kicks.