Produced by: Dan Hwang
Written by: Jesse Carr
Recently, ESPN did an in-depth documentary on 5 basketball players who changed the college hoops landscape. In a well-rounded look at this landmark recruiting class, the documentary was the highest rated in the network’s history. The Michigan Fab Five Chris Webber, Ray Jackson, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Jalen Rose arrived in 1991 as some of the most highly touted recruits in the nation. Four of the members were top ten prospects. There weren’t high expectations for these freshman, all of whom eventually started that year, but they managed to arrive at the NCAA championship, defying the odds and bringing a taste of the hood to the national stage. Their game was high-flying, full of trash talk, and uniquely styled. The shoes they wore were as unique and noteworthy as their surprising accomplishments. The Fab Five wore the Air Flight Huarache, our latest RE-Fresh feature model.
The design details of the shoe may be familiar to sneaker fans today, but when the Air Flight Huarache first dropped, many scratched their heads and wondered how the shoe could possibly be suited for the courts. It looked like a futuristic sandal, which, as it turned out, was the goal. During the early 90s, what some consider the golden era for Nike Basketball, most basketball models were built like high top tanks with ultra-reinforced ankle support. Hurling that trend aside, the Air Flight Huarache took out a chunk from the collar and had a flimsy high ankle strap as its only upper stability. Most scoffed at the shoe, and at first only Scottie Pippen had the gusto to wear it as a pro. The Fab Five embraced the model, and the shoe immediately became a classic.
Nike discovered that they had marketing potential that was unlike any seen at the college level with this group of standout ballers. The five wore black socks and their shorts baggy when no one else’s reached the knees. Many traditionalists questioned whether or not this new look and attitude was a danger to the college game, and in the documentary a few players point to racism and a fear of the influence of the streets on the sacrosanct courts of storied campuses as reasons for a media backlash against the freshman. Whatever the underlying source, the country, and later the world, took the Fab Five’s style and began wearing black socks, oversized shorts, and black Air Flight Huaraches.
The legend of the shoe is undeniable intertwined with the impact of Michigan basketball. But the design is noteworthy on its own, as Tinker Hatfield, the mind behind the look of some of the world’s most recognizable shoes, sketched out the plans for a shoe that screamed minimalism in a sneaker market that was making increasingly bulky models. Hatfield said in a Nike Laced film that he “wanted to strip away material and find ways to lighten up the shoe and make it feel more natural.” Hatfield apparently was impressed with the fit of a pair of neoprene booty socks he wore while skiing and started sketching out designs using that inspiration. An early print advertisement for the Air Flight Huarache showed a woven Mayan sandal juxtaposed with the white, blue, purple, black, and gray model that was the first colorway released.
The Michigan players rocked the white models, even though they didn’t quite match their uniforms. It didn’t matter it was their shoe. But once they started their all black everything push, they asked Nike for a black model, and Nike responded. The Michigan colors are maize and blue, but these shoes were all black with hits of lighter blue on the midsole’s cut out window, the inner sock lining, and the plastic reinforcing section of the heel. Soon Foot Lockers started seeing them fly off the shelves, along with long Michigan shorts and jerseys.
They were five black men fresh out of high school. No one thought they would win. In 1992, they had shocked the college basketball world and brought the streets to the courts. Some thought their brash style of play and style would damage the game. Retail stores soon learned that damaged or not, their look was now a marketing juggernaut, and we see the impact on court style today. No one wears tight shorts to ball, and the Air Flight Huarache, which is slated to make an updated comeback for Nike later in the month, has appeared in variations on the hardwood ever since.
Original 1992 deadstock Nike Air Flight Huarache from Dan Hwang’s collection.
Original 2003 deadstock Nike Air Flight Huarache