How The Adidas Superstar Turned Basketball (And Hip-Hop) On Its Head

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How The Adidas Superstar Turned Basketball (And Hip-Hop) On Its Head

Words by Mr Jim Merrett

20 August 2020

It is no overstatement to call the adidas Superstar a game-changer. Launched 50 years ago, the sneaker had an instant impact on the basketball court, sweeping aside the all-conquering Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, the high-top canvas shoe that had dominated the sport for decades. And, much like the shoe it supplanted, the Superstar has since gone on to transcend sport itself. It has become a cultural artefact, joining the Chuck in that rarefied top tier of sneakers we endow with the title of “icon”.

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It was there in the early days of hip-hop, the signature shoe of the local New York musical and artistic movement that became a global concern. And its best days are far from behind it; as recently as 2017, the shoe was holding down its place in the top-five best-selling sneakers of the year, long after its final appearance in the NBA. If today you were asked to picture an adidas shoe, there’s a good chance that the shell-toed Superstar would be it.

Despite the bombastic moniker of the sneaker, however, adidas’ initial ascendancy within the American basketball market was far from a given. “It was a German company,” says Ms Elizabeth Semmelhack, creative director and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. “This is not the centre of basketball. And what did a low-top have to offer? It was made of leather… there were so many aspects of the Superstar that were potential marks against it.”

But everything that was apparently wrong with the Superstar was what very quickly turned the basketball shoe itself on its head. To quote Mr Michael Jordan, seemingly channelling Mr Sun Tzu: “If you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.” 

By the 1960s, adidas had the track and field market sewn up – 75 per cent of the running shoes worn at the 1960 Olympics in Rome bore the brand’s trademarked three stripes. But to be taken seriously in the US, it had to adapt to one of the sports the country held closest to its heart. “Given how important basketball was already in American culture, I think that adidas saw an opportunity,” says Ms Semmelhack.

Back then, Ms Semmelhack says, the Chuck Taylor was “the basketball shoe”, and had been since its own introduction 50 years earlier, in 1917. The Converse was not just the way things were done when it came to the sport, it was the American way. For one thing, “the use of canvas was kind of iconic,” says Ms Semmelhack. But the lightweight leather that adidas pulled in from its expertise elsewhere offered players better protection.

The starting point for the Superstar’s architecture was a training shoe called the Olympiade, originally released for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which was entirely rebuilt with the particular stresses of basketball in mind. “An oversized heel counter stopped the foot sliding around and reduced the risk of sprained ankles,” notes Ms Sandra Trapp, a historian for the adidas Archive, in Superstar: How An Icon Was Born. “A padded tongue stopped tight laces cutting off blood circulation; and a wedge in the heel stopped the shoe collapsing when the players landed.”

“I always felt that I did not have enough grip on the floor in my Converse,” Mr Chris Severn, one of adidas’ US distributors, who was tasked with developing the brand’s basketball range, has said. “We created the sole in a herringbone pattern to provide more traction and made it out of grippy Morvan rubber. It was revolutionary at the time.”

The rubber shell on the toe added further protection and durability. But perhaps more than this, it was a striking point of difference in terms of design. Certainly, the shoe stood out when adidas’ first forays into basketball found their way onto the feet of the San Diego Rockets, a new franchise making its NBA debut in 1967. When key players in the Boston Celtics’ 1969 NBA Finals team were seen sporting adidas shoes – the high-top Pro Model and the Superstar’s immediate precursor, the Supergrip – people took notice. By 1973, it is thought that three-quarters of players in the NBA were wearing adidas shoes. The brand would go on to sponsor the league’s biggest star, Mr Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in 1976.

Design nous and savvy marketing tactics aside, timing was a key factor in the Superstar’s success. The shoe had arrived on the basketball court at exactly the right moment: during the 1970s, the game itself was changing. “With the introduction of the television set into the majority of American households, the focus of the NBA shifted to players who played streetball,” says Ms Semmelhack. “It’s more athletic, more aggressive, more entertaining to watch on a small screen.” The sport was now playing the Superstar’s game.

Perhaps the biggest revelation for modern-day viewers of The Last Dance, Netflix’s recent documentary series on the Chicago Bulls, was that the leading sportswear brand Mr Michael Jordan wanted to sign for when he went pro in 1984 wasn’t Nike, which was then yet to make a name for itself in basketball, but adidas. Indeed, the spirit of innovation that the German company ushered into the sport was to be the Superstar’s downfall. Where the Superstar has only seen one major revision in its lifetime – the introduction of the Superstar II in the 1990s – Nike had developed a new business model, with an Air Jordan shoe, effectively an entirely new product, landing each season.

One of the Superstar’s key attributes, however, was its agility, and this was the moment that the shoe pivoted from the basketball court to the street. Its skillset lent the shoe to breakdancing, or b-boying, the dynamic dancing style that, along with DJing, MCing (eventually rapping) and graffiti, became known as the foundational elements of hip-hop.

“It was not easily available to people in the early years, you had to prove you were playing basketball to a school level to get a pair”

In New York, the Superstar’s role in basketball only added to its appeal. “It was not easily available to people in the early years,” Ms Semmelhack says. “You had to prove you were playing basketball to a school level to get a pair.”

And as the line between athletic clothing and streetwear began to blur, the three stripes became ubiquitous across the city. But it took a band by the name of Run-DMC to turn these localised trends into a worldwide phenomenon.

“There was no blueprint for hip-hop fashion before them,” Mr Shad Kabango, presenter of the Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution, told MR PORTER. Previously, rap groups such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five or Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force had emulated the template of the funk, disco, R&B and even rock artists that had come before them. “Run-DMC gave hip-hop its own look by dressing not like stars, but the community that the music came from,” says Mr Kabango.

Superstars, worn without laces, became a signature of the band, and their 1986 single “My Adidas” a manifesto of sorts. And a concert in July that year at New York’s Madison Square Garden earned them something then unheard of outside of sport – a sponsorship deal with the brand.

Invited to the show by Run-DMC’s manager, and future head of record label Def Jam, Mr Lyor Cohen, adidas executive Mr Angelo Anastasio was there to witness a sold-out crowd holding their Superstars aloft as the band played their homage to the sportswear brand. He offered the band a deal, reportedly worth $1m, which “cemented the Superstar, and hip-hop, to the global audience,” says Ms Semmelhack.

“The relationship with adidas legitimised our culture,” Mr Darryl Matthews McDaniels, aka DMC, reportedly said later. “It took us from the streets to mainstream white America.”

The shoe itself has hardly changed, yet new uses continue to be found for it. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Superstar developed a cult following among skaters when a stream of professionals including Messrs Kareem Campbell, Drake Jones and Carlos Kenner adopted the shoe; adidas went as far as engineering a special edition of the model, the Superstar ADV, redesigned for skateboarding. The instantly recognisable silhouette has also lent itself to countless collaborations with bands and brands ranging from Star Wars to A Bathing Ape via Neighborhood and Ms Missy Elliott, with more high-profile team-ups in the pipeline.

“Only some shoes achieve that iconic status,” Ms Semmelhack says of the Superstar, listing it alongside the Chuck Taylor and Jack Purcell, both shoes with many more miles on the clock. And if you can forgive anyone for feeling anxious around a milestone birthday, at 50, the adidas sneaker remains as relevant today. “It still looks fresh,” she adds.  

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