Produced by: Dan Hwang
Written by: Jesse Carr
After detailed investigations of the highly technical Air Foamposite 1 (1997) and the Air Flightposite 2 (2000) in our last two Re-Fresh segments, it’s time to go back to the start of the 90s, the period many still herald as the golden era of sneakers. In 1992, Nike introduced the Air Force 180 basketball model in its low top form, though the construction looks more like a mid in today’s market. The shoe was worn by a man who at the time, and even still today to some extent, was among the most controversial players in the game; a man with a bald head, a vicious scowl, and a mercurial temper Charles Barkley.
Sir Charles, as he would later be deemed, never shied away from controversy. During his highly successful career, he consistently delivered the message that he didn’t want to be considered a role model for children. While PR firms polished the images of many athletes to sell everything from cleats to cereal brands to parents, Charles Barkley became a nationwide hot-button topic with his “I am not a Role Model” campaign. Though the message was clear he didn’t feel that dunking a basketball met the criteria for consideration as a hero the slogan cemented the image of Barkley as an outspoken iconoclast, an image he retains today.
Before he became known as Sir Charles, however, Barkley was known as the “Round Mound of Rebound,” a nickname that poked fun at his portly composition but acknowledged his outsized performance. He was listed at 6 feet 6 inches tall, but he was known to be about 3 inches shorter, which made his style of aggressive paint play all the more impressive. Known for his fierce two-handed tomahawk dunks after full court dribbling displays, Barkley quickly became a fan favorite with his first franchise, the Philadelphia 76ERS. But after being drafted 5th overall by that franchise and spending 8 seasons in the home of the Liberty Bell, he was traded to Phoenix in 1992, and after his first season as a member of the Suns, he received the MVP award after averaging 25.6 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. It was during the 1992 season that he wore our feature model, the Air Force 180. But he didn’t first wear the shoe in October, when the season began. He debuted the 180 during the Summer Olympics in Barcelona as a member of the legendary Dream Team.
One particular Olympic anecdote that sums up Barkley’s characteristic passion happened after the United States lost their first Dream Team practice in their first scrimmage with a team of college All-Americans. Supposedly, Barkley went to the bench during the second scrimmage and said that he would “personally kick anyone and everyone’s ass” that didn’t defend their man. The rest is history, and the legendary Dream Team destroyed opponents on their way to winning the gold by an average of 43.8 points.
Nike knew the world stage would be an ideal venue to feature some patriotic colorways of their signature models. Most famously, the Air Jordan VII was crafted in red, white, blue, silver, and appropriately, gold. The Air Force 180 that Barkley debuted was called a low top in order to separate it from David Robinson’s Air Force 180 high top that came out one year earlier. This model was characterized by it its almost triangular air bubble with 180 Air that added additional cushioning. The midfoot strap boasted the “FORCE” logo and the tongue a bold, gold embroidered “180 Air.” And the color scheme was made more sophisticated by the gradient heel midsole above the air bubble which featured a speckled fade from gold to navy blue, a design feature that would later make a limited edition release of the Air Force 180 from LA’s UNION storefront so ahead of its time.
Nike was in a difficult position marketing a player like Barkley. His first Nike sneaker he was known for wearing was the 1987 release of the Air Force High, and Barkley, along with David Robinson, became the face of the Air Force line shoes designed for the powerful impact and rigor of the game inside the paint. In Sole Provider: 30 Years of Nike Basketball, the section on Barkley’s years with the brand was appropriately titled, “How to Market a Madman.” Nike knew they had a man they could market, and continued making shoes for his no-nonsense style of play. The model’s relevance has endure, as today’s sneaker market still sees releases of the Air Force 180, which has been released in many colorways, the most famous of which is a shoe which many call a game-changer the Union Air Force 180 that was released at UNION.
The Union 180 was part of the Clerks pack which allowed shops like UNDEFEATED, UNION, and Stussy to customize a sneaker. The UNION skate shop chose the Air Force 180 and gave it what became an iconic makeover with a safari print and a bright color palate which included a heel and tongue design in mottled pink, blue, and yellow. The aggressive colorway and limited production of the shoe paved the way for limited edition releases from influential boutiques in the coming years like HUF, True, Foot Patrol, and NORT. Mike Packer of Teaneck, NJ, who graciously lent us this original model for us to photograph, said this is the first release that he remembered that caused a long line and led to a lot of hype. In a way, Barkley’s impact as an aggressive style which made him one of the NBA’s top 50 players, with that, there is an unmistakable boldness and uniqueness in that was unrivaled at that time.