RE-Fresh: Nike Penetrator (1984)

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Produced by: Dan Hwang
Written by: Jesse Carr

We started this RE-Fresh segment with the Nike Blazer, the first Nike Basketball sneaker. Made in 1973, the Blazer offered a simple silhouette and a bold swoosh through the midfoot, a design feature has become one of the most recognized logos on the planet. There were many successors to the Blazer's simple design as a result of the buzz that shoe generated and the simple colorblocking it offered to teams, and because there was no need to switch gears and re-imagine their successful approach, Nike kept cranking out similarly-styled models for over a decade. One such model is the Nike Penetrator, which hit stores in 1984.

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Models with names derived from hoops parlance, like the Franchise, the Gamebreaker, the 3-pointer, and the Dynasty took their places on shelves next to the more popular Nike Legend, whose silhouette is strikingly similar to that of the Penetrator. The high top version has a taller profile than the Air Force 1, which came out a bit earlier in 1983. The collar is padded in a style similar to the Blazer, and the midfoot is sleek and plain, with only a subtle tonal box stitched in monochromatic thread. But what made this model stick out from the other white models with bisecting swooshes was its sleek toebox, an increasing area of focus for sneaker companies, including Nike's main rival, adidas.

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In order to properly contextualize these models, it's important to trace the on-court genesis of these sneakers as well as their cultural impacts, and in 1984, hip-hop was gaining steam as the cultural phenomenon in New York city and beond. B-boys and graffiti artists were in the vanguard of urban style, and they were increasingly rocking the adidas Superstar with a bold rubber toe. Nike wasn't slow to respond, as the Blazer also offered a sleek toebox with no perforations or stitches, as did the All Court in 1975, which is probably the closest sibling the Penetrator.

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The 1984 version of the Penetrator was followed in 1986 with a few variations to the model, the most important of which was the addition of suede on both high and low top black models. With a growing trend towards adding pop and flavor to the mostly drab white palate of sneakers, 1986 was landmark year for Nike, and the Penetrator was among the models that went dark. The high and low top suede versions had a vibrant blue swoosh, and according to Sole Provider: 30 Years of Nike Basketball, the first black-on-black basketball shoe Nike ever released was the 1986 incarnation of the Penetrator.

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Aside from the birth of the Blazer in 1973 and the Air Force 1 in '83, arguably the next waterhed moment for Nike basketball happened in 1986, which saw the release of 5 different Nike Penetrator models as well as the release of the first Air Jordan. What has now become an internationally-recognizable Jumpman silhouette began as a high top basketball sneaker with a ton of style. We don't need to describe it you've seen it and can sketch it from memory if you have the artistic know-how. But the Air Jordan 1 and the AJKO that came out in 1986 shared something in common with the Penetrator, a bold push towards injecting some funk and swagger into a court-ready high top basketball sneaker.

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Original 1984 deadstock Nike Penetrator