Why the Hightop Has One Foot in the Grave

This may not be news to those in the industry, but it is still an interesting article in the wsj today. I thought I would share.

Why the Hightop Has One Foot in the Grave
Nash, Bryant Lead The Lowcut Trend; ‘Better Mobility’

This season’s Western Conference Finals matchup between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers is a meeting of the two most talented guards of this era—Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant.

Between them, these two balletic floor leaders have collected a combined 17 all-star nominations and 19 playoff trips in the past 10 years alone.

But there’s another, less obvious line that ought to be appended to their résumés. These two guys, more than any other pair of players in the NBA, have helped hasten the eventual demise of one of modern basketball’s most celebrated icons: the hightop sneaker.

After playing his whole career in bulky hightop and midtop shoes, the Lakers’ Mr. Bryant asked Nike to make him low tops for the start of last season. The reason: He thought they’d help him move around better. Soon after he started wearing them, teammates Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Shannon Brown and Josh Powell switched too.

Mr. Nash said he has always preferred lowtops, probably because he grew up playing soccer in low-cut cleats. On the rare occasions when he’s worn hightops on the court, he says he wasn’t impressed. “I just felt less mobile,” he said.

Sacramento Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie, who was one of the first NBA players to switch to Nike shoes in the 1970s from the then-popular Converse brand, says the league’s tendencies are simple—if a star does something, other players will follow. “If they started wearing sandals, so would everyone else.”

While the NBA doesn’t release any data on what its players wear on their feet from day to day, players, team officials and shoe companies say hightops peaked about eight years ago and have been losing ground ever since. Podiatrist Richard Hofacker, who’s worked with the Cleveland Cavaliers since the late 1980s, says that back then, 80% of players preferred the bulkier sneakers. Now, he says, the majority like to play “naked from the ankle down.”

At their highest point, according to market-research firm NPD Group, hightops accounted for about 20% of the U.S. market for basketball shoes. Today, that number has sunk to about 8% while lowtops—the kind that Mr. Nash and Mr. Bryant wear—have grown to 29% of the market from just 11% in 2002.

While there’s unlikely to be any elaborate funeral service for these shoes, their fall from grace does mark the end of a certain era in footwear—an era when basketball shoes took hold of American popular culture like few pieces of apparel ever have. After the launch of the 1985 Air Jordans caused pandemonium in malls all over, shoe companies began battling one another by putting air pumps in the tongues of their shoes, attaching flashing lights to the bottoms and making elaborate commercials.

“All of a sudden it became a fashion business,” says Marshal Cohen, an analyst with the NPD market research group. “The Jordans were transcendent. The market went from being virtually zilch to a million-dollar business overnight, and nobody thought it would go back down.”

One of the reasons hightops are going out of vogue, players and injury experts say, is that there’s some research that suggests they aren’t very good at protecting your feet. NBA players missed 64% more games last season because of foot-related injuries than they did twenty years ago, according to NBA statistician Harvey Pollack.

Foot-related injuries are the most common in the league, he says, and the increase in foot injuries is nearly 50% steeper than the jump in games missed because of the next-most-common maladies—back issues and the flu. If this is true, then the average cost per NBA team in missed games because of foot-related injuries last season was about $455,000. “It’s a big issue,” says Greg Campbell, the Memphis Grizzlies’ president of business operations. “As a team, you have to do whatever you can to keep your players on the court.”

A recent study by Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman analyzed the stride and gait of runners and found that they might be better off without sports sneakers altogether. Craig Richards, a researcher at Australia’s University of Newcastle, published a 2008 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that catalogued academic studies in athletics and found no evidence that sneakers limited injuries. His research actually found that hightop basketball sneakers make players run slower and jump lower. Dr. Richards says he thinks the root of the problem is commerce. “These shoe makers are good at selling shoes—science, not so much.”

Chris Webber, a five-time NBA All-Star forward who played for more than 14 seasons, says even “with the best hightops, I’ve still broken my ankle.”

Big basketball sneakers aren’t necessarily to blame for poor foot health, of course. Players have gotten taller and heavier, the pace of the game is faster and the NBA postseason has gotten longer. Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer says he actually switched to bigger shoes as he got older. After college, he switched to full hightops because he thought they’d offer more ankle support.

An NBA spokesman says there’s no evidence that particular styles of shoes do anything to alter performance. A spokesman for Adidas said the company does a lot of testing on its shoes to improve safety and quality. A Nike spokesman said the company values innovation, but learning the science behind foot health is “a new education process.” A Reebok spokesman declined to comment.

It’s been almost a century since the release of the Converse All-Stars, the first shoes designed specifically for basketball players. The shoes practically owned the sneaker market until 1973—when Nike agreed to send shoes to Mr. Petrie and a handful of other NBA players. These Nikes had more support around the ankle and heel and lasted longer than other basketball shoes, said Mr. Petrie.

Equally important, he said, they looked great. Mr. Cohen, the NPD analyst, says that over time, “performance and safety gave way to fashion.”

In some ways, the shoe argument is irrelevant. Mr. Hofacker, the Cavaliers’ podiatrist, says the use of special-made insoles that protect players’ feet has spread among teams in the past several years. He supplies most of Cleveland’s players with unique biofoam orthotics that cost as much as $600 apiece.

After a game last season, LeBron James tossed his sneakers into the crowd but forgot to take the orthotics out, prompting an announcement over the loudspeaker. “Would the people who caught LeBron’s shoes please come to the scorer’s table.”

[quote]After a game last season, LeBron James tossed his sneakers into the crowd but forgot to take the orthotics out, prompting an announcement over the loudspeaker. “Would the people who caught LeBron’s shoes please come to the scorer’s table.”/quote]

now that’s crazy isnt his shoe suppose to be a “custom” made? why the hell is he inserting orthotics. mr. Jason Petrie please elaborate!?!?!

great post!! those kobe’s r ill. E.A. still making it happen.

not ‘custom made’…maybe custom colors, but for the most part, what he rocks is what is sold. there are few examples of a player model being different from the retail version, one of them being scottie pippen’s air pippen one with zoom air, as opposed to the full length air bag that was made available to us. (can the swoosh please give us the zoom air version? PLEASE!!!)



Orthotics need to be cast and made by a podiatrist, not a shoe factory sample room - no foam insole will ever do the same job as orthotics.

I speak as an orthotics wearer myself.

Looking at a sketch in the footwear section, I was reminded of this study being reported. Is there anything to refute it?

Ankle Injuries and Modern Footwear

In the Australian investigation, the second-best predictor of ankle injury for basketball players turned out to be the presence of air cells in the heels of the shoes worn for practice and competition. In fact, players wearing shoes with air cells were 4.3 times more likely to hurt an ankle, compared to athletes without the cells.

What should we make of this? First of all, it’s quite reasonable to think that mid-sole construction and composition in basketball shoes should play a role in preventing/producing injuries. Basketball-shoe midsoles tend to be quite thick, for one thing. In theory, this exaggerated thickness provides better cushioning, but it also makes the foot and ankle more unstable, compared to a situation in which the foot is closer to the ground. In particular, it makes the foot and ankle more prone to the violent side-to-side tipping motions which produce ankle sprains and other ankle injuries.

If you doubt this, simply stand in your bare feet and try to turn one of your ankles over by rolling it to the outside. You’ll find that this simple action is actually fairly difficult to carry out; your bare foot resists this dangerous motion, and much of your foot’s sole stays in contact with the ground, even as your ankle turns considerably. Now, strap on a pair of basketball shoes and try the same movement. Note how your foot rolls more easily to the side as the bottom of the shoe lifts off the ground, and note that you fairly quickly reach a point at which the shoe tips over suddenly, stretching the ligaments on the outside of your ankle. This is why some experts call modern basketball shoes ‘automatic ankle-spraining devices’.

‘He had no hesitation in agreeing that players with a history of ankle injuries were more likely to be hurt that those with no previous ankle problems’

In a similar vein, if basketball-shoe midsoles contain materials or structures which facilitate or enhance this side-to-side motion, then the risk of ankle injury should increase. Are the air cells just such structures, providing less resistance to ankle-twisting movements than traditional midsole materials? In a March 27 interview with Keith Mulvihill provided by Reuters Health, Dr Mario Lafortune of the Nike Sports Research Laboratory in Beaverton, Oregon, said: ‘I completely disagree with this hypothesis’. Lafortune suggested that the Australian study provided more questions than answers, and that it was difficult to interpret the results. However, he had no hesitation in agreeing that players with a history of ankle injuries were more likely to be hurt than athletes with no previous ankle problems, which was the other key Aussie result.

Full disclosure: I am not a bball player, as a matter of fact, I always sucked at it. I am a soccer player through and through.

So these articles, showing the trend that has been going on for years, basically say hightops were never any good. My question is…is the marketing machine THAT GOOD, that even pros buy into it, even if its proven they dont work very well?

A Nike spokesman said the company values innovation, but learning the science behind foot health is “a new education process.”

Seriously? How long has Nike been making shoes? They market every bell pump and whistle on these things but meanwhile those fancy gel springs are what causes my ankle to roll over in my RUNNING shoes?