Ever since NBA players first participated in the Olympic Games nearly 30 years ago, the global stage has not only helped to grow the game of basketball, it has also served as a launchpad for some of the industry’s most iconic sneakers and technologies.
Once Michael Jordan draped an American flag over his right shoulder to obstruct the logo on the team’s Reebok warmups during the 1992 gold medal ceremony, the stage was set for an ongoing branding battle that’s operated both behind the scenes and in the Summer Games’ biggest moments.
While Team USA’s jerseys and warmup brand outfitters have shifted at times from Champion to Reebok, to Adidas and back to Reebok during the first four Olympics to incorporate NBA players, Nike took things over for good in 2008 and has never looked back.
Since the “Redeem Team” in Beijing, the Swoosh has featured marquee sneakers such as the Hyperdunk across nearly full rosters of players, launching everything from Lunar Foam to Flywire in 2008 to “smart shoes” with a short-lived integrated Nike+ computer chip seen at the 2012 London Games.
Also in 2008, Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K himself, blocked the Adidas sneakers of Dwight Howard, the lone non-Nike athlete on the team. In 2016, the official team portrait yet again blocked out the competitor brand sneakers of three players.
At the same time, Nike aggressively looked to disrupt the Summer Games on an even grander scale, at one point looking to challenge the red, white and navy hues of USA Basketball with mock-ups of an “amplified” uniform set made up of a black and volt green color scheme. The uniforms never came to be, with the team sticking to its traditional colors, although a series of bright volt sneakers from the Nike Sportswear category was released in 2012.
In the eight Olympic Games that have featured NBA players, beginning with the “Dream Team” in Barcelona, Nike sneakers have been worn by 61 players taking up the 96 available roster spots. That number balloons to 77 players when expanding to players lacing up the Nike Inc. “family” of brands that also includes the company’s subsidiaries Jordan Brand and Converse.
From full-length Air to springy Shox, lightweight Hyperdunks and countless signature shoes in between, the most recent Team USA roster kept the tradition going in Tokyo, adding a seventh gold medal in style.
1992: The Dream Team
After the Chicago Bulls defeated the Portland Trailblazers in the 1992 NBA Finals, Jordan sat in the locker room during the championship celebration with his feet kicked up in a pair of the original black, charcoal and red colorway of his Air Jordan 7s.
“When are you putting on the USAB sneakers?” Jordan was asked in a moment depicted in 2020’s The Last Dance docuseries.
Six weeks after claiming his second-straight NBA title, Jordan competed with the “Dream Team” at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain. There, he debuted a white, blue and red colorway of the Air Jordan 7, accented in metallic silver and gold, with a notable swap of his NBA jersey No. 23 for his Olympic jersey No. 9 on the heel of each shoe.
In 1992, for the first time, Team USA featured a roster of NBA players instead of amateurs. And Jordan, laced up in his “Olympic” 7s, headlined a star-studded lineup of players wearing patriotic editions of sneakers, including Charles Barkley in the Nike Air Force 180, David Robinson and John Stockton in the Nike Air Ballistic Force, Scottie Pippen and Chris Mullin in the Nike Air Flight Lite, Patrick Ewing in the Ewing Eclipse from his own namesake brand and Larry Bird in the Converse Bird.
Similar to the Dream Team’s claim as the greatest basketball squad ever assembled, it’s hard to argue against the Air Jordan 7 as the most iconic Olympic-themed sneaker of all time.
– Aaron Dodson
Michael Jordan – Nike Air Jordan 7
Charles Barkley – Nike Air Force 180
David Robinson and John Stockton – Nike Air Ballistic Force
Scottie Pippen and Chris Mullin – Nike Air Flight Lite
Larry Bird – Converse Bird
Patrick Ewing – Ewing Eclipse
Christian Laettner – Nike Air Flight Huarache
1996: Dream Team II
Following the Dream Team was no small task. But not only did the ’96 roster collect gold at the Atlanta Games, the team also featured its own share of starpower in special edition sneakers.
Coming off a then-record 72-10 season, Pippen was one of the headliners of the loaded American roster. Typically reserved, his sneakers shouted “A-I-R” across the upper and touted Nike’s newest technology along the way.
“This was a bold shoe – this was a statement shoe,” he said of the Air More Uptempo. “I think Nike did a great job of really making a statement with this shoe. At the time when I started wearing this shoe, I was playing some great basketball – MVP-style basketball. I was pretty confident, and I felt like the shoe complemented it well.”
Pippen’s navy and white pair, with his Olympic jersey No. 8 stitched into the heel in gold, was a statement to be sure. Charles Barkley wore a more subtle white edition, while Gary Payton and Reggie Miller’s white and navy pairs of the Air Much Uptempo spotlighted the Air More’s lower-priced edition.
Much like the ’92 team, the ’96 team also featured a variety of brands worn by its players, with Shaquille O’Neal breaking out his Hexalite-boasting Reebok Preacher, and Grant Hill donning two different colorways of his classic Fila GH2s in navy hues. While the Air More Uptempo may have been the most memorable pair of the bunch, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway’s short-lived time breaking away from his Air Penny signature shoes to wear the Zoom Flight 96, with his jersey No. 6 stitched into the heel in gold, has long made it a cult classic among collectors.
– Nick DePaula
Scottie Pippen – Air More Uptempo (Navy / White / Red)
Charles Barkley – Air More Uptempo (White)
Penny Hardaway – Zoom Flight 96
Shaquille O’Neal – Reebok Preacher
Grant Hill – Fila GH 2
Gary Payton and Reggie Miller – Nike Air Much Uptempo
Mitch Richmond – Nike Air Flight 96
2000: The dunk of death
It is the most memorable play in USA Basketball history, yet Vince Carter almost didn’t lace up the futuristic white and navy Nike Shox BB4 he was wearing when he leapfrogged Frenchman Frederic Weis at the Sydney Games. He had taken his official Team USA portrait in a white and red pair of the AND1 Tai Chi, the same shoe he wore while winning the 2000 Dunk Contest.
After a painful ending to the contract for his signature Puma deal after only two seasons, Carter bounced around between wearing Adidas and AND1 sneakers to close out the regular season, while also considering an offer from Nike to headline its upcoming Shox cushioning.
“Getting the opportunity to debut a new technology was a no-brainer to me,” he said. “It made sense with how I played.”
Nike couldn’t have asked for a better debut, with Carter exploding off the hardwood every night throughout Team USA’s gold-medal run in the brand’s new four-pillar heel cushioning platform.
While Kevin Garnett broke out a surprise navy and gold edition of the Flightposite 2 for the gold medal game, and Jordan endorsers Ray Allen and Vin Baker went retro in special edition Air Jordan VIs, it was Carter who left his mark, making an impact out of the gate with his newly inked Nike deal.
“The success of the dunk started the legend of the shoes. But I myself went to another level with them, too. I became a star player in the BB4,” Carter said.
– Nick DePaula
Vince Carter / Jason Kidd / Tim Hardaway / Allan Houston / Antonio McDyess – Nike Shox BB4
Kevin Garnett – Nike Flightposite 2
Gary Payton – Nike Zoom GP 2
Ray Allen and Vin Baker – Air Jordan VI
Alonzo Mourning – Air Force Authority
2004: Olympic letdown
The 2004 Summer Games in Athens marked the Olympic debuts of three up-and-coming hoopers who have since built impressive legacies in both basketball and footwear. After all being selected in the top 5 of the 2003 NBA draft, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade followed up their rookie campaigns by joining Team USA at the Olympics.
In Athens, James debuted his second signature sneaker, the Nike Zoom LeBron 2, while donning Jordan’s No. 9 Olympic jersey. Anthony, a Jordan Brand athlete, also paid homage to the Dream Team legend with a player exclusive (PE) version of the “Olympic” Air Jordan 7, featuring “MELO” stitched on the side. Anthony’s Olympic PEs also included special editions of his first signature sneaker, the Jordan Melo 1.5, as well as the Air Jordan 2.
Wade broke out a PE of the Converse Icon Warrior model, featuring a red collar and two-tone, white-and-navy upper. And Allen Iverson, a co-headliner of Team USA in 2004 with fellow former NBA MVP Tim Duncan, also debuted a new signature edition — the Reebok Question 2, a sequel to his breakthrough debut sneaker.
While the footwear may have been impressive, the 2004 Games delivered a forgettable showing for USA Basketball, which failed to win gold for the first time since 1992. The squad’s roster was all over the place, with its young stars James, Anthony and Wade barely playing, and its veterans failing to mesh. Though the Americans only managed bronze, at least they did so with some solid sneakers.
– Aaron Dodson
Allen Iverson – Reebok Question 2
LeBron James – Nike Zoom LeBron 2 and Zoom Generation
Carmelo Anthony – Jordan Melo 1.5, Air Jordan II and Air Jordan VII
Tim Duncan – Adidas D-Cool
Amar’e Stoudemire – Nike Zoom Huarache 2K4, Air Jordan XIX and Air Max Uptempo
Carlos Boozer – Nike Zoom Huarache 2K4
2008: The Redeem Team
The 2008 men’s team had everything. It had the nickname — “Redeem Team” — given to a roster heralded as the best squad since 1992 and tasked with returning Team USA to glory after the disappointment of bronze in 2004.
It had the swag — LeBron James in the Nike Zoom Soldier 2 and, for the first time, the Nike LeBron 6; Carmelo Anthony in the Jordan Melo M5; Chris Paul in the Air Jordan 23; and Dwyane Wade in the Converse Wade Slash. But, most importantly, the 2008 team had Kobe Bryant — the captain. And no sneaker at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing had a greater impact than the one Nike commissioned Bryant with headlining — the Hyperdunk.
“The thing that sold me on it was the technology,” said Bryant in 2008 of the first Nike basketball shoe to feature Flywire and Lunar Foam. “I’m a real technology guy, and there’s not a lot of people who would push that boundary or hop in a shoe that’s so new.”
Bryant led Team USA to a perfect 8-0 record. And, in every game, he laced up the Nike Hyperdunk.
It’s also fitting that the laser-etched, red, white and blue edition of the Hyperdunk that Bryant and his teammates wore throughout the 2008 Games, including in the gold-medal game, is dubbed “United We Rise.” Because that’s exactly what the Redeem Team did.
– Aaron Dodson
Kobe Bryant and others – Nike Hyperdunk
LeBron James – Nike Zoom Soldier 2 + Zoom LeBron 6 debut
Chris Paul – Air Jordan XX3
Dwyane Wade – Converse Wade Slash
Carmelo Anthony – Jordan Melo M5
2012 : Continuing dominance
In Team USA’s first seven games at the 2012 Summer Games in London, LeBron James took the court as the headliner of Nike Basketball’s latest team shoe model: the Lunar Hyperdunk. James wore a PE version in a “USA” colorway of the superlight, 11.9-ounce Hyperdunk, featuring his crown logo on the tongue of each shoe, until the United States’ gold-medal game against Spain.
In a 107-100 win, King James debuted his new signature sneaker, the Nike LeBron 10, to cement an incredible 2012 basketball campaign in which he was named NBA MVP before winning the first NBA championship of his career and another Olympic gold.
Meanwhile, James’ fellow Nike signature athletes also showed out on the world’s stage. Kobe Bryant donned the Nike Zoom Kobe 7 as Team USA’s captain, and Kevin Durant emerged as the squad’s scoring leader, averaging 19.5 points and dropping a gold-medal game-high 30-piece in the Nike Zoom KD 4 (considered to be one of the best models of Durant’s signature line).
After defeating Spain, James, Bryant and Durant posed with gold medals around their necks and “Medal Stage” Nike Air Force 1s on their feet. At the 2012 Games, not only did Team USA prove to have the best players on the planet — Nike proved to have the best signature basketball athletes in the world.
– Aaron Dodson
Kobe Bryant – Kobe 7
Kevin Durant – KD 4
LeBron James – Lunar Hyperdunk + LeBron 10 debut
Russell Westbrook – Nike Hyperfuse 2012
James Harden and others – Nike Hyperdunk 2011 Low
2016: New innovations ahead
After back-to-back Olympic squads headlined by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the roster rolling into Rio de Janeiro presented a new batch of faces made up of Nike’s top upcoming endorsers.
Kyrie Irving was fresh off what would be the biggest shot of his career, a Game 7 game winner in the NBA Finals in his second signature sneaker. He’d go on to lace up the Kyrie 2 again throughout the Olympics, in simple white and red looks and navy editions.
Paul George had bounced back from his gruesome 2014 leg injury during a USA Basketball exhibition game, and now was the headliner for Nike’s new Hyperdunk Flyknit 2016, a contrasting navy and red sneaker with a daring sock collar silhouette.
Then there was Kevin Durant, fresh off of his heavily debated decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors, who was looking to move on from the tough seven-game series that closed the chapter on his time in Oklahoma City. His new sneaker, the KD 9, featured Flyknit for the first time in his series. The computer-knit material was debuted by Nike at the 2012 Games, with Durant often donning the brand’s Flyknit Racer in neon green around the Olympic Village.
A year later, he noticed Bryant debuting Flyknit in basketball on the Kobe 9. He told his designer, Leo Chang, that he wanted the material in his own line.
“I always challenge Leo to get better than previous years, and they always top it,” Durant said at the time. “This is my favorite one.”
On yet another Nike-heavy squad, Durant led the way in his newly Flyknit-equipped kicks as he and Irving carried the signature torch for the brand at the Olympic Games.
– Nick DePaula
Kevin Durant – Nike KD 9
Paul George – Nike Hyperdunk 2016 Flyknit
Kyrie Irving – Nike Kyrie 2
Kyle Lowry – Adidas Crazylight 2016
Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins – Nike Zoom Clear Out
DeMar DeRozan – Nike Kobe 11
2021: Finishing the job
After a year’s delay and a stars opting out along the way, the latest USA Basketball roster featured several players coming off of some of their best ball, all while headlining a series of signature sneakers and statement level models in Tokyo.
Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard, two of the team’s elder statesmen, were each spotted in both home and away editions of their recent signature models, in white and navy looks and marbled pattern bottoms.
In their first Olympic experiences, Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo wore the newest annual Air Jordan model, now on its 36th edition. Pairs feature their custom logos along the tongue, along with different star accents and detailing along the sloping lines of the upper. Tatum often writes his son’s name “Deuce” along the heel, next to a heart. Adebayo pens “76 Church Lane” on his pairs, a tribute to the rural North Carolina trailer where he grew up with his mom.
After battling it out just weeks earlier in the NBA Finals, Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Kris Middleton arrived in Japan with stashes of their own player exclusive editions of Kobe Bryant’s fifth and sixth editions.
Though the contract between Nike and the Kobe Bryant estate lapsed in April, each player has stuck with the rotation of pairs he received earlier this spring, carrying Bryant’s legacy onto the Olympic stage a decade after he last represented Team USA.
The roster featured a mix of brands, with the Nike Inc. umbrella of Nike, Converse and Jordan all represented, along with three Adidas players. When it came time for each player to receive his gold medal, though, all 12 players were dressed head to toe in Nike’s official “Medal Stand Kit,” a branding flex by the team’s official sponsor that saw Three Stripes endorsers Damian Lillard, Zach LaVine and Jerami Grant each in Swoosh footwear.
“I’m disturbed by them forcing me to wear these Nikes bra back up,” Lillard jokingly wrote on Instagram.
– Nick DePaula
Kevin Durant – Nike KD 14
Damian Lillard – Adidas Dame 7 EXT/PLY
Zach LaVine – Adidas Exhibit A
Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo – Air Jordan 36
Devin Booker – Nike Kobe 5
Draymond Green – Converse Jet BB
Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton – Kobe 6