The Essential Guide to Nike Basketball Sneakers

Key Points

  • Nike changed the basketball sneaker game with the launch of the Bruin in 1972, replacing canvas with the support of a leather and suede upper.

  • Nike basketball sneakers continue to dominate both the performance and lifestyle categories.

  • Over 70 percent of NBA players have exclusive deals to wear Nike basketball sneakers.

Whether you wear them to make a fashion statement or maximize your on-court skills, when it comes to basketball sneakers, Nike is the only game in town. The figures defining the company’s dominance in the performance basketball market (serious baller sneakers for real players) and the lifestyle basketball category (sneakers that never see a basketball court) are staggering.

According to a Forbes article by former Senior Editor Kurt Badenhausen, "Nike's share of the performance basketball market, including Jordan Brand sneakers, was 86 percent in 2019." Nike basketball sneakers also have a 96 percent share of the lifestyle basketball market.

Birth of the Bruin

After years of domination by Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Stars, canvas basketball sneakers with a rubber bottom, Nike changed the basketball sneaker game when they came out with the Bruin in 1972. It rocked the basketball world as it offered the support of a leather and suede upper, replacing the less-supportive canvas used by the All-Stars.

The Bruin shoe was also unique in its self-promotion. The distinctive Nike Swoosh, now one of the world's most famous and recognizable corporate logos, was prominently on the Bruin's side. Unlike the small, round logo of the All-Star, the Bruin design shouted Nike to anyone who could see the sneakers and their wearer. In a truly brilliant marketing move, Nike made their logo part of the shoe's design.

Yellow Nike sneakers


Starting from the ground up, the soles of Nike basketball sneakers are usually a combination of foam and rubber. EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) is a soft foam with cushioning air bubbles. The rubber combines natural and synthetic rubber, an artificial elastomer synthesized from petroleum byproducts. Many Nike sneakers use some air system, which is a small sealed chamber (or multiple chambers) of nitrogen for shock absorption and impact protection.

Moving up from the sole, the material varies. Higher quality sneakers have full leather uppers, while some performance sneakers have nylon and other synthetic materials to save weight. The sneaker interior also combines foams and rubbers, sometimes with plastic forms for support and strength. Laces are usually fabric or nylon, and some shoes have Velcro straps or closures.

Care and Feeding

Caring for your Nike basketball sneakers is easy. With essential maintenance, you can keep those kicks looking fresh for years. Given the resale market for some classic styles and limited editions, this is another reason to keep your sneakers looking good. Nike has a relatively simple six-step cleaning process they recommend for most sneakers. The process uses basic household products (dish soap, baking soda, vinegar) and a brush, with all the components costing under $20. There are also specialized sneaker cleaning products (Jason Markk brand products are currently the hottest with sneakerheads) you can buy in stores or from Amazon

Another care alternative is to find a good shoe repair store, as many of them can professionally clean sneakers. Sneakerhead culture is so popular that chains of sneaker-cleaning shops are popping up around the country and the world. Sole Fresh in Jersey City, NJ, is a well-respected sneaker cleaner and restorer that offers mail-in service.

Purple Nike kicks


Although it is possible to customize and personalize your Nike basketball sneakers, the brand has done well in staying ahead of trends and doing the customization itself. The constant flow and drops of new models and collaborations means new colors and styles are always available to set you apart from other sneaker wearers.

Nike also allows you to customize and design your sneakers with its Nike By You program. The bespoke offering allows aspiring shoe designers to customize their kicks online, not unlike spec-ing a new car. The Nike design studio on their website allows you 3D views of the sneakers, which you can rotate and see from all angles.

For example, you can order a Nike Air Force 1 High, hand-built just for you ($165). Start with the iconic Nike Swoosh. The Swooshes on your pair of sneakers don't even have to match. You can do a metallic finish or virtually any color. You can speckle the midsole area and make each outside sole different colors. Then you can add metal or clear accents to the sneakers, like putting clear or colored lenses on your car’s tail lights. Finally, for the ultimate personalization, you can add up to 11 characters of text or numbers on the strap.

Another alternative is to order blank, single-color sneakers and have your favorite artist do their work on them. Many tattoo and graffiti or street artists can use your shoes as their canvas. You can also purchase (expensive) custom sneakers from famous artists like Mr. Cartoon or Mr. Brainwash. Sites like Etsy also showcase artists who do sneaker designs, and Drippy has a great selection of unique, one-of-a-kind customized kicks. There is a whole world of artists whose only work is customizing sneakers, some of whom are getting quite famous. Some do one-of-a-kind creations, and some collaborate with Nike for limited-edition runs and drops.

Blue Nike sneakers

Weight-Wise, How Low Can You Go?

Performance technology is driving down the weight of Nike basketball sneakers, and their Precision 5 low-top is currently the lightweight leader at 9.9 ounces. The sneaker boasts a modern yet minimalist design focusing on performance. The kicks are so light, some players feel like they are playing in their bare feet. The Precision 5’s are suitable for indoor and outdoor play but lack Zoom Air or other impact protection technology. Serious ballers may want to trade some weight savings for a shoe with more cushioning, like the Nike KD 15. Kevin Durant’s signature sneaker has a Zoom Air Strobel unit and only weighs a few ounces more (12.6).

Nike Basketball Sneaker Hall of Fame

Since 1972, there have been some epic models and styles of Nike basketball sneakers, some of which are now considered legendary. First on the legendary list has to be the Bruin, the shoe that started it all. This sneaker made Nike an iconic disruptor in the footwear world. Moreover, true to its legend (and classic design), 51 years later, you still look cool rocking a pair of OG Bruins.

Next on the best Nike basketball sneaker list is the original Air Jordan, known formally as the Nike Air Jordan I. This single sneaker and its relaxed style launched the modern sneakerhead culture and the idea of basketball sneakers as fashion. The shoes were publicly available first in 1985, and various later editions released over the years (they drop a new design every year) are also considered classics.

Nike Blazer

The name of the Nike Blazer, the Oregon company’s third purpose-built basketball sneaker released in 1973, comes from its local NBA team, the Portland Trailblazers. It boasted a leather upper, a nylon tongue, and a rubber midsole. Worn by the legendary NBA baller George "The Iceman" Gervin, the sneaker brand with the oversized Swoosh came to America by seeing the Blazers on the Iceman's feet.

Through unique colors and fabrics, the Blazer continues to be a popular sneaker today. In 2005, Nike dropped the Blazer SB, a version of the basketball Blazer specially made for skateboarding. Now the Blazer SB is the dominant sneaker in the skateboard world for skaters and those who want to rock that style.

Boxes of Nike sneakers

Nike Dunk

The Nike Dunk is also in any list of the best Nike basketball sneakers. The Dunk, initially created for college players in 1985, has become the symbol of the sneaker as a fashion statement. The Dunk has become part of the fashion vocabulary, available in every color and fabric, and with collaborations with brands like Dior, Louis Vuitton, and even artists like Billie Eilish.

Nike Air Flight 1989

The Nike Air Flight 1989 was the first basketball sneaker to feature the Nike Air system, with a visible Air sole unit in the heel. The idea of a cushion of air, which you could feel when wearing them, took shock absorption and impact protection to a new level.

Men's Lifestyle talked to OG sneakerhead and sneaker business expert Dom DeLuca about Nike basketball sneakers and their impact on sports and style. Dom owns Los Angeles's Brooklyn Projects, a store that has been the world headquarters for cool sneakers and streetwear since opening in 2002. Dom has worked directly with Nike on numerous limited editions and custom versions of Nike sneakers. Dom says:

“Nike has always been the dominant brand in basketball, since the signing of Michael Jordan they’ve always been the leader. They’re one of the only footwear brands whose basketball specific shoes were worn off the court as well as on, with a few models, The Dunk and the iconic Air Jordan 1, crossing over into lifestyle. And they’re still to this day being worn by many a sneakerhead to regular Joe. They always mixed the perfect design with the perfect player: Kobe, Jordan, James, Pippen, Barkley to most recently Ja Morant. Their designs and the materials they use are hands down some of the best. Many brands tried to take Nike’s crown in basketball, but they can’t move the needle, both on and off the court”

Watch Out for Fakes

Fakers and counterfeiters are trying to cash in with the rising value of new and classic Nike basketball sneakers. You get the genuine article if you buy directly from Nike, but buying from other websites is risky. Flight Club (new stock) and Stadium Goods (resales) are two reputable Nike sellers recognized by the sneakerhead community.

After recognizing the considerable resale market for sneakers, eBay offers expert verification and an official Authenticity Guarantee for specific Nike models. The seller ships the sneakers that qualify to eBay, where experts inspect and authenticate the kicks before shipping them to the buyer. 

Nike basketball sneakers

NBA Players and Their Nike Shoe Deals

When it comes down to NBA ballers, there are two categories of shoe deals. According to a Sports Illustrated article by Pat Benson, the author of Kobe Bryant's Sneaker History (1996-2020), about 70 percent of NBA players have exclusive Nike deals, which means they get paid only to wear Nike sneakers. High-profile players like LeBron James or Kevin Durant have signature shoe deals with the company. This means you can buy Kevin Durant's "KD15" or LeBron James's "LeBron XX," uniquely designed sneakers they wear on the court. 

Nike has five players with their signature shoes and three more with their Jordan Brand signature kicks. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, and Ja Morant. With its pastel colors, the Nike Ja 1, Ja Morant's signature shoe, is one of the most hotly anticipated sneaker drops of 2023. In 2023, Nike released the Kyrie Irving "Kyrie Low 5" but has announced it has ended its relationship with the now-Mavericks star and canceled the planned 2023 "Kyrie 8" release.

Moreover, some players like LeBron James and KD have very long-term sneakers. The "KD15" became available in 2023 and continues to dominate the market for its performance and excellent style, as it has for 15 years. The iconic "LeBron XX" celebrates the superstar's 20-year connection with Nike and 20 different signature sneakers. 

The Jordan Brand, part of the Nike corporation, has three current NBA hoopers with signature kicks. You can get the Luka Doncic "Luka 1," the Zion Williamson "Zion 2" (available for 2023 in a special Naruto anime edition), or lace up some Russell Westbrook "Why Not .6's." Of course, the OG himself, the true GOAT, Michael Jordan, continues to have his Air Jordan release each year. 2023 sees the drop of the Air Jordan XXXVII Low, the 37th edition of the world's best basketball sneaker.

Wearing Nike sneakers

Just Buy It

Whether you are looking to win basketball games on the court or the hearts and envy of others on the street, Nike has a basketball sneaker to fit your life and lifestyle. From the humble beginnings of the Bruin in 1972 to the latest drop, the LeBron XX, and so many classic Jordans in between, Nike continues to dominate the game.

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