Meet the 6th Player on the Basketball Court: The Shoes!

Low section portrait of contemporary African-American man tying sports shoes in basketball court outdoors, copy space background

Everyone knows there are five players on a basketball team. However, there is one important member of the team that spends more time on the court than even the starting star. You could call this player the “sixth player” on the court that nobody notices but would be sorely missed if not there — the basketball shoe.

The terms “basketball shoes,” “tennis shoes,” and “sneakers” have become almost interchangeable to refer to casual and/or athletic footwear with rubber soles. In this article, “basketball shoes” will be used to refer to a piece of athletic equipment specially designed to help improve basketball players’ performance, agility, and footwork. The shoe also helps to prevent injuries.

Basketball shoes have been synonymous with NBA greats since the 1970s. These shoes have changed a lot over the years, as has the sport itself.

While the new technology embedded in the modern basketball shoe will probably not land you a multi-million dollar contract with the NBA, it will help you play your best on the local basketball court when you get together with your pals for a friendly pickup game.

There are myriad brands out there, all claiming to be the ultimate choice and touting their many outstanding features. How do you pick one from this all-you-can-eat buffet of options?

Glad you asked. Here’s how:

What Are Basketball Shoes?

Basketball shoes are sneakers designed to enhance your playing skills, provide ankle stability, and allow flexibility to seamlessly move across the floor. Scientists at the University of Utah point out that “basketball players switch direction every two seconds and run 105 short sprints every game.” In short, players depend on their feet and their feet need all the support they can get.

Basketball shoes are specifically designed for optimal movement on basketball courts and no other sport or playing field. If you were to wear them during a volleyball game or soccer match, it might negatively impact your performance.

Basketball shoes are bulkier than running shoes, so don’t try running a marathon in a pair (unless you’re a real glutton for punishment).

A History of Basketball Shoes

In the early days of basketball, professional athletes didn’t have the luxury of fancy footwear. They wore a wide range of shoes, including leather high-tops and rubber-soled Keds.

In 1917, the Converse Rubber Shoe Company released the “Non-Skids,” which were a precursor to the Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

Just six years later, the Chuck Taylor All-Stars dominated basketball due to a vulcanized rubber sole that provided improved traction and ankle support.

The online website notes 90 percent of all college and professional basketball players wore Converse in 1960. This changed in 1969 when Adidas’s Superstar sneakers challenged the original footwear giant’s reign with its herringbone traction and cool design.

In 1973, another great shoe came onto the scene: Puma’s “Clyde,” a stylish sneaker popularized by Walt “Clyde” Frazier. This was followed by Nike’s Blazer and Bruin, marking the company’s entry into the world of basketball shoes. In 1982, the Nike Air Force 1 model was released and cemented Nike’s position atop the basketball shoe game.

There are many successful basketball shoe manufacturers. Converse still survives but under the Nike corporate umbrella. With technology rapidly evolving, there’s no telling what the future of basketball shoes might hold.

A group of men play 3 v 3 basketball at an indoor court

Before You Buy

It’s always a good idea to have a few loose guidelines to follow before you begin your quest for the perfect basketball shoes.

Performance and style issues are no-brainers, but what do you specifically want?

How the shoe supports its wearer is a very important consideration. Make sure the shoe is sturdy enough to hold your weight throughout the game. Try them on and walk around the store to see if they’re durable and feel good for you.

You probably don’t want to try a fast break on aisle three — faking out a few stocking clerks along the way — but just about anything else is fair game to make sure you are happy with your purchase.

Traction is another characteristic of a good shoe to help you improve your game. No matter what position you play on the team, you need shoes that grip so you don’t slip but also allow you to seamlessly move around the court and pivot on a dime — and give you a nickel in change.

When you see players wipe their shoes with their hands, they’re removing dust and dirt to improve traction. Wetting your soles improves their gripping ability.

Comfort is probably the most overlooked characteristic in basketball shoes, but is still a necessity.

There are 48 minutes of play in an NBA game, 40 minutes in a college contest, and 32 in a high school matchup. This may not seem like a long time, but you want to make sure your feet stay comfortable throughout the entire game. When your feet are comfortable, you can concentrate on your game and focus on making great plays.

You might say the right shoe on your feet will improve your athletic feats. However, you can expect a well-deserved groan and eye-roll if you do.

Another thing to keep in mind while shopping for basketball shoes is the type of court. Most basketball shoes are designed for indoor play, usually on hardwood floors or similar materials. Outdoor courts of concrete, asphalt, or other surfaces are less forgiving.

If you frequently play on an outside court, you should invest in a pair with a thick, durable outsole.

A player ties their basketball shoes while knelt next to a basketball

What About My Position?

The position you play could affect the shoes you should wear. Even if you favor a brand named after an NBA star with the same position, the shoe may not be designed to suit your skillset or body type.

Centers and power forwards are usually the best rebounders on the team and score most of their points from the low post. High-top basketball shoes are ideal for these positions because the shoes provide overall support for a player’s ankles and overall movement.

Guards are the ballhandlers on the team, making quick moves and constantly changing direction. They need to be light on their feet with no restrictions. Low-top basketball shoes fit the bill for this position because they allow for fluid movement and elusiveness.

Small forwards and all-around players need a shoe that allows them to move freely while still providing sufficient support. If you are in this category, you want to find a nice middle ground with a shoe that has flexibility in the material and supports the ankle. Mid-top basketball shoes do precisely that.

Every position should lace their shoes the same before hitting the court. Thread your laces through the eyelets in a crisscrossing “X” pattern and tie the laces in a double-knot. Make sure the shoes are snug, but not tight enough to cut off circulation.

You can always experiment with different methods to see what works best for you.

Anatomy of a Basketball Shoe

The overall anatomy of a basketball shoe is important to your game performance. Every basketball shoe has three parts: the upper, the midsole, and the outsole.

The top portion of the basketball shoe is known as the upper, which gives you the height of the shoe. Each shoe comes in high, mid, or low heights. High-tops wrap around the ankle and give you the best ankle support out of the three. Mid-tops sit at ankle level and give you the best flexibility. Low-tops are built for speed and agility, but they offer the lowest amount of ankle support.

The midsole is where you find the shoe’s cushioning and a wide range of technology, which includes lightweight foam, pressurized air, EVA foam, and polyurethane elements. A good midsole absorbs heavy impact, provides flexibility, and reduces stress on your feet.

The outsole is made from synthetic or rubber material, which gives you great traction. For optimal grip in your shoes, look for outsoles with hexagonal or herringbone patterns. These help with movement control and reduce your chances of sliding on the court. A flat and wide outsole will give you the best balance possible when shooting and maintaining your form or rebounding in the low post.

A person stands on a basketball court with one foot resting on a basketball

Best Basketball Shoes

As previously noted, there are many high-quality basketball shoe brands on the market. Check out a few of the most popular leading models you might want to consider in your shoe search:

The Puma TRC Blaze Court basketball shoes are definitely worth your while and will improve your performance. These shoes feature a trinomic cell structure, which is a unique hexagonal system in the sole designed to provide stable movement. The trinomic technology gives players three perks: cushioning, flexibility, and stability. The nonslip rubber tread is good for traction and durability. The ProFoam+ midsole adds comfort and the lace closure provides a snug fit. These cost $120.

The Li-Ning Way of Wade 10 basketball shoes — named after the Chinese Olympian gymnast — is a great futuristic option. Dwayne Wade’s tenth signature shoe features ultra-responsive cushioning with its BOOM midsole. They also have a full-length carbon fiber plate, which is great for energy return. This is the amount of energy the shoe can return when force is exerted by the player’s stride. The nonslip rubber outsole is engineered to grip the court even in wet conditions. These cost $225.

The Nike Cosmic Unity basketball shoes are made from 25 percent recycled material: One man’s trash could be your treasure. This model features a durable rubber outsole, which is great for traction and quickly changing direction. The full-length Air Zoom Strobel’s unique construction attaches the top part of the shoe to a thin, pliable textile material. This gives the player more flexibility in their movements and extra comfort. These cost $149.99.

Two men play pick-up basketball on a court with palm trees

The Nike Air Zoom G.T. Jump basketball shoes have a gravity-defying silhouette and could help you maximize your performance. They feature a combination of a Zoom Air heel with an Air Zoom Strobel unit, which gives you enhanced cushioning and responsiveness. The flywire cables looped around the laces give you a secure and locked-in feel. These cost $180.

The Under Armour Curry Flow 10 “Iron Sharpens Iron” basketball shoes will have you moving like Steph Curry on the court. These feature UA Flow cushioning, which makes the shoes feel super-light and provides a ridiculous grip. They also have TPE-blend sock liners with low compression set for longevity and energy return. The UUA Warp upper technology also keeps your feet extra secure and gives you enhanced control for dynamic movement. These cost $160.

The Air Jordan 37 basketball shoes give you a classic feel and have the ability to enhance your hops. These feature Formula 23 signature foam stacked in the heel, which allows you to come down without aftershocks. They also have leno-weave fabric, which helps you feel contained and won’t weigh you down. The double-stacked air in the forefoot is great for energy-returning responsiveness. These cost $185.

The New Balance Two Wxy V2 basketball shoes are great for any position you play. They feature FuelCell foam, which gives you a propulsive feel. Then there’s the Abzorb heel cushioning, which provided comfort and additional stability. This model has a data-driven outsole for traction and high-performance energy return. These cost $129.99.

Four people play pick-up basketball on a basketball court

How to Break In Basketball Shoes?

New basketball shoes look good from the second you unbox them, but they need to be properly broken in before you wear them in a game. If you don’t break them in, you run the risk of pain/discomfort, blisters, and possibly even injury.

Here are seven steps to teach your shoes who’s boss and get them ready for the big game:

  1. Make sure your shoes are the right size. A new pair of shoes should be comfortable and there should be room for your big toe. Try them on first. You can’t break in your shoes if they are too big or too small.

  2. Wear a pair of thick socks to help break in your shoes. This protects your feet from blisters and helps to naturally stretch your shoes.

  3. Using your hands can reduce the time it takes to break in your shoes. Hold the bottom of the shoe with one hand and use the other to push the toe area up and down. Do the same for the heel.

  4. Tying your laces extra tight is an old trick to stretch the shoe’s fabric to break it in faster.

  5. Shoe stretchers are probably the quickest way to break in your shoes. If you’re in a pinch (pun intended), a two-way shoe stretcher will expand the width and length in two days. This is perfect for those players with wide feet. This tool will also give your feet some much-needed breathing room.

  6. Before sending the shoes into athletic battle, wear them on a casual basis to help the breaking-in process. You can use them for your routine walk or jog, or as your everyday shoe to wear around the house or on errands.

  7. After wearing your shoes in off-court activities, start wearing them during basketball drills and light practice. Doing lateral movements and running in your shoes will help stretch the material in a variety of ways.

A person ties their shoes while crouched on a basketball court with a basketball in foreground

How to Clean Basketball Shoes?

Cleaning and caring for your basketball shoes will keep them in good condition for years to come.

One of the easiest and most effective ways to clean your shoes is with a mild cleaning solution and a brush. Mix a little bit of dish soap or mild laundry detergent with water. Apply this to a soft-bristled brush and gently scrub the outside of your shoes. Use a soft cloth and dab the shoe until dry. Allow your shoes to air dry at room temperature. This could take up to eight hours if your shoes are very damp.

If you have a pair of white basketball shoes, use a combination of toothpaste, water, and mild detergent and apply with either a washcloth or soft bristle brush. Allow your shoes to air dry.

Another option is a combination of baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and water., a blog for hoop fanatics, recommends using one to two tablespoons of each ingredient. Apply this with a soft bristle brush and allow the paste to dry. Wash it off with a dry sponge and allow it to dry for two to three hours.

You should only throw your shoe in the washing machine if it’s filthy, the dirt is deeply engrained, and none of the methods outlined above are working. Remove the laces and the insoles so your shoes can be thoroughly washed. Make sure you use a mild or gentle laundry detergent, so it doesn’t mess up your kicks. Also, don’t wash your shoes too often or else your shoe’s structure will become weakened over time.

Let the Game Begin

When it comes to playing hoops, you want the best possible shoe to upgrade your game and complement your unique skill set.

One thing to know is the shoe you are buying is not some fortunate accident nor the result of just throwing together a cloth shoe and rubber sole. It is a highly sophisticated piece of sports equipment that includes a lot of scientific know-how and technology in its structure.

There are a lot of elements that go into a shoe’s design and it’s important to know these before buying a pair on a whim.

The game has been around since 1891, but the shoe has gone through numerous evolutions. It’s important to find a shoe with optimal support, traction, and comfort. However, you might want to figure out which shoe will support your specific position and amplify your abilities.

Understanding the anatomy of the basketball shoe can influence your decision as well. The three sections of the upper, midsole, and outsole all impact your play-making in a variety of ways.

Don’t forget to break in your shoes with a shoe stretcher, time or even your hands.

No shoe will turn you into Michael Jordan or replace a solid work ethic, but the right pair of basketball shoes can keep your head — and your feet — in the game.

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