Winthrop shot-blocking machine Duby Okeke’s game is predicated on explosion, the ability to rise off the court in a flash. He wears low-top basketball shoes, bucking a historical trend that saw big men traditionally wear sneakers that climbed up to their shins in some cases.
Okeke is part of a wider basketball trend. He’s one of 10 Winthrop players wearing low-top basketball shoes this season, a complete shift in the program’s footwear history.
The trend is not unique to the Eagles; after a 40-year dormancy low-tops reemerged in the NBA about five years ago and have steadily trickled down through all levels of the game.
“We’re seeing a lot of teams requesting lows,” said Nelson Welch, Winthrop’s adidas sales representative and a former All-American placekicker at Clemson in the early 1990s. “Probably more trendy than anything. About every three or four years it seems like trends change, but we’re seeing that trend right now in a low.”
Click on the dots to see each player’s shoe choice and a video of them explaining their preferences:
Low-tops in basketball
Low-tops’ first era of basketball dominance dawned in the late 1950s when the premier shoe of the day, the Converse All-Star, introduced a low-top version. Low-tops were the preeminent shoes for about 20 years, long enough to spawn the shoe endorsement wars and for college basketball and the NBA to begin to grow into cultural forces in the late 1970s.
High-top basketball shoes were the center of the basketball footwear universe for the last 35 to 40 years, a reign that coincided with Nike’s rise to power.
It wasn’t until 2010 that low-tops crept back on to the feet of an NBA player.
Superstar Kobe Bryant made it happen. He grew up in Italy where his father played professional basketball and he remembered the feel and mobility of soccer cleats. Bryant wanted a similar-style basketball shoe, which he got with the Nike Kobe V. The shoe weighed 10.6 ounces compared to other shoes of the same time that weighed around 15 or 16 ounces.
“Kobe was totally inspired by soccer cleats,” said Sean Williams, a sneaker historian and producer of the online talk show “Obsessive Sneaker Disorder.” “Kobe wanted the influence of being lightweight and being a little quicker on your feet. He never had ankle problems so he didn’t really feel the high-top was an issue of concern.”
Other NBA leading names followed suit. Kevin Durant released a very popular Nike low-top basketball shoe in 2013, the KD6. And adidas released low-tops in the last few years for budding stars Damian Lillard and Andrew Wiggins, the shoes that many of the Winthrop players wear.
Explaining the trend
When asked why they wear low-tops, most of the Winthrop players said the feel and perceived increased mobility were key factors in their choice. None of them said “because they look cool,” or “because Damian Lillard wears them.”
Superstar influence might not have played into the Eagles’ players’ decisions, but it is in part responsible for the spread of the low-top trend.
While definitely one of basketball’s most polarizing figures, Kobe Bryant is also one of the best players ever. Bryant’s ability coupled with a cosmopolitan upbringing makes him a style icon in the basketball world. He had the social clout to spawn the latest low-top trend.
Like any sport, basketball style trickles down from the top.
Winthrop players Adam Pickett and Mitch Hill both began wearing lows their first year of high school; Australian sophomore Xavier Cooks said he first wore them as a 9-year old. As younger generations enter the college hoops ranks, they ask their coaches in charge of shoes purchases - assistant Marty McGillan in Winthrop’s case - for low-tops when preseason orders are made with shoe companies.
Welch represents 14 colleges in the southeast.
“This year, definitely lows have been the more dominant shoe,” he said. “Last year I had, maybe a team of 15, I had three. This year, I’ve got probably everybody on the team wearing a low, even the big guys.”
Winthrop players’ shoe choices:
Health (ankle) concerns
A common belief surrounding high-top basketball shoes isthey offer more ankle support. Studies have somewhat debunked this belief, but it holds steady all the same.
With well over half of Winthrop’s players wearing low-tops, are the Eagles experiencing more ankle problems this season? No, says the team’s longtime athletic trainer, Jeff Lahr.
A few Winthrop players have had any issues since October. Two of them - top scorers Keon Johnson and Jimmy Gavin - wear low-tops; the third, Freddy Poole, sprained his ankle during warm-ups ahead of the Gardner-Webb game on Jan. 20. Poole was wearing high-tops.
DNA plays a factor; a player with inherently weak ankles could suffer an injury at any time.
Psychology is important too. Lahr said players derive mental encouragement from having their ankles taped. When taping an ankle, Lahr goes around a player’s foot two times - covering the ankle bone, the lateral malleolus, each trip - and in some cases will wrap a third layer of an even stronger, moisture-wicking tape.
“With tape too that gives (the ankle) a lot of extra support,” said senior Jimmy Gavin, who first wore Kobe Bryant’s low-tops about five years ago. “I’ve never had a problem that I felt a high-top would have solved.”
Any science behind footwear supporting ankles?
There hasn’t been definitive documentation of shoes having any real impact on ankle health. A 1993 study published by faculty members from the University of Oklahoma in the American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at more than 600 intramural basketball players from colleges across the country. The study sample produced 15 ankle injuries from more than 39,000 minutes of basketball played; seven were suffered by players wearing high-tops, four were from players wearing low-tops, and four were from players wearing high-tops with inflatable air chambers in the soles. The study’s conclusion was “no strong relationship between shoe type and ankle sprains.”
That said, Lahr isn’t a big fan of low-tops. An ankle injury can happen regardless of the footwear, but Winthrop’s longtime trainer says high-tops can limit the damage.
“Whatever you can do to prevent an injury, or prevent the severity of the injury, that’s the way to go about it,” Lahr said. “That’s one of our roles as athletic trainers is to prevent injuries from happening.”
Even after turning his ankle, Freddy Poole said he would always wear high-top shoes.
“Mentally, I just think it’s a little bit better for my head,” he said. “I can trust, know that I can come down and I wouldn’t twist my ankle as much as I would. I feel like low-tops are running shoes, not basketball shoes.”
Mental comfort, perception the biggest factors in shoe choice
In the absence of real medical/scientific data, mental comfort seems to be the biggest influence on basketball players’ footwear choices.
“Really, it’s all about a competitive edge, being a little quicker than the next guy,” Williams said. “And if a low-top shoe is what gets it done, then that’s what a lot of guys think is a mental edge right now. The perception is a high-top shoe is big and bulky that slows you down.”
The NBA stars didn’t seem to have much influence on the Winthrop players’ choices. Gavin calls himself a conscious consumer and a competitor that would never wear another players’ signature shoe just because of who endorsed it. Zach Price, a fifth-year senior like Gavin, said he could care less about style. Shoe selection is all about comfort for him.
But star endorsements - which play a bigger role on younger basketball players - may determine how long the low-top trend lasts.
“The high-top versus low-top thing now is just gonna be a matter of appeal based on whoever the signature artist, signature athlete is,” said Williams.
Another indicator of the importance of style is the palate of adidas shoe colors Winthrop players are wearing this year. Hill’s low-tops have an American flag pattern, Okeke’s are Army-inspired, and Gavin wears low-tops as bright as highlighter markers.
Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said he’s not concerned about his players all wearing the same shoe; it’s a way they can express themselves and feel comfortable, and really that explains the low-top trend more than anything.
As museum curator Elizabeth Semmelhack said in a New York Times story, “sneaker design is where men are willing to take their biggest fashion risk.”
Bret McCormick: 803-329-4032, @BretJust1T
History of low-tops in basketball
Low-top basketball shoes have a long history.
1917 basketball’s first signature shoes were the Converse All-Stars, canvas shoes that still endure to this day. They’re better known as Chuck Taylors, for the pro basketball player who wore and touted the shoes nationwide during the 1920s.
1957 Converse releases a low-top version of the Chuck Taylor, which instantly becomes popular among basketball players.
1971 the adidas Superstar was a big hit when it was released, worn by NBA, well, superstars, such as Pete Maravich, Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Sneaker historian Sean Williams says the Superstar sparked the sneaker wars between big brands scrapping for pro athletes’ endorsements that have raged ever since.
1971, 1973 Abdul-Jabbar and Walt “Clyde” Frazier soon had signature shoes from adidas and Puma. Frazier was a dapper-dressing standout for the New York Knicks, an embodiment of 1970s urban style. Puma played up Frazier’s personality with slogans such as , “Clyde wears Puma to play. And to play,” or “Clydes: the essence of cool.” Puma’s marketing of Frazier set a trend that continues even now.
1977 High-tops began to re-emerge on the shoe scene, beginning with Julius Erving’s Converse Dr. J’s, while Nike began to assert itself with its Bruin high-top. High ankle support and increased padding in the soles remained the standard for the next 30 years. Style became more of a driver than advancing thetechnology and comfort of the shoes.
2010 Kobe Bryant reinvents the low-top with his Kobe V shoe by Nike. Other NBA stars such as Kevin Durant, Andrew Wiggins and Damian Lillard have followed suit.