By Drew Hammell
In March of 1997, a young, scrappy team from Arizona was simultaneously taking the college basketball and sneaker worlds by storm. Their high energy and flashy footwear were causing defenders and sneakerheads alike to do double takes. The Wildcats of Arizona truly had everyone’s attention.
Cincinnati, Kansas and Wake Forest were the preseason favorites to win the championship in ‘97, with Arizona not even in the top 20. Led by veteran coach Lute Olson, the Wildcats had plenty of talent but weren’t expected to contend for a national title for at least another year.
The Cats would experience a rollercoaster season, with junior guard Miles Simon missing the first eleven games due to academic ineligibility. But freshman Mike Bibby, one of the top high school recruits in the country, was playing like a pro and helped the team gel despite some tough challenges.
With a regular season record of just 19-9, and two straight losses heading into the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats earned a fourth seed and a nearly impossible road ahead in the postseason. They would barely survive the first two games, narrowly defeating South Alabama and then the College of Charleston.
But then, the upsets started coming. The young Cats would upend three of basketball’s winningest programs – first Kansas, then North Carolina, and finally Kentucky to win the national championship. These victories were no small feat, and the fact that they did it in style made it even cooler. Their jerseys were undeniably some of the most eye-catching in all of college basketball, with the bold CATS lettering on one side of their shorts.
By ’97, every college team had adopted Michigan’s Fab 5 mentality – baggy shorts and flashy sneakers were all the rage. But Arizona took things a step further, wearing the newest Nikes –some that hadn’t even released yet.
Most sneakerheads vividly remember when Mike Bibby wore the Nike Air Foamposites in the championship game versus Kentucky. However, several other players were also donning Foams during that game. In fact, some of the players had the Foamposites on their feet as far back as the Sweet Sixteen game against Kansas. A total of three Arizona Wildcats wore the never-before-seen sneaker during that game versus the Jayhawks: Mike Bibby, forward Donnell Harris, and redshirt freshman Quynn Tebbs.
“I remember Nike being at the hotel, and I remember opening the box. Some of the guys weren’t huge fans of them. They had a larger pair that Donnell Harris took, then Bibby took a pair. There was another size 12 that I took,” recalled Tebbs, who is now a father of three children and runs an insurance company in Salt Lake City.
The Foamposites were a tough shoe to pull off. For one thing, they didn’t match the Arizona navy blue uniforms. They were a shiny royal blue that stood out even on the blurriest low-definition TV screen. In fact, they weren’t even designed for the Arizona program. Nike created them with the Orlando Magic’s Penny Hardaway in mind. “We wore them before Penny,” said Tebbs. “He called Nike and was not happy.”
Nike invited the Wildcats up to their World Headquarters in Oregon earlier in the season, and routinely sent the team prototypes for the players to try out. Forward Bennett Davison recalled how Nike was known for having college athletes try out new technologies and styles. “I remember them showing us the royal blue Foamposites and the pearl white pair. We were like the guinea pigs, but we ended up getting the benefits of the new technologies,” said Davison, also a father of three in Dallas and founder of the online international basketball community Euro Hoop Life.
The Foamposite was definitely packed with new technology. Labeled “the shoe of the future,” it featured a full-length low-to-the-ground Zoom Air unit. The incredibly light polyurethane upper and midsole surrounded the foot for protection and comfort. And a carbon fiber plate provided stability and flexibility in the midsole. A new generation of sneakers was truly born. Since 1997, Nike has released almost one hundred different colorways of the Foamposite, and countless other models have been inspired by the original design.
The Foamposite wasn’t the perfect sneaker, however. For one thing, the outsoles didn’t provide enough traction. “I remember Mike Bibby saying they were too slippery,” said Davison.
And while college teams were known to wear either the exact same model or very similar models and colors to represent team unity, the Wildcats were all over the colorway map in the tournament. “The Jason Kidd’s were my favorite,” said Davison, referring to the black and purple Air Zoom Flight Five. “I bought two more pairs later.”
Quynn Tebbs loved the Flight Five as well. “I went through seven or eight pairs of the Jason Kidd’s. My wife made me throw them out though,” lamented Tebbs. Though this model didn’t match the navy Arizona jerseys, it was the consensus pick for best sneaker to play in by the players surveyed.
During the Cats’ run, Miles Simon would opt for the Air Max Uptempo in black, and sixth man Jason Terry wore the white Air Maestro, with very thick knee-high tube socks that said CATS on them. When asked how many pairs of socks Terry was wearing, Bennett Davison joked, “Only two. He had bird legs, but he’s not that skinny.”
Back in the ‘90s, sneaker collecting was nothing like the phenomenon it has become today. Most of the sneakers worn in those games are long gone. Quynn Tebbs held onto several pairs from his time with Arizona though, plus he kept his uniform and warmups. The most important pair he saved was the Foamposites. “I put those things away in a box and haven’t seen them for I bet ten years or more. Bibby’s are probably long gone, and same with Donnell’s,” said Tebbs, half joking.
In fact, Donnell Harris confirmed that his Foamposites were stolen. Mike Bibby could not be reached for comment, so the pair that Tebbs still owns is perhaps the only remaining pair left from the first batch worn in public.
This pair is in incredibly great shape, considering it almost didn’t make it after the ’97 season. “The year after the ’97 national championship, I went back to Arizona for my freshman year after my redshirt season. I left the shoes at my house (in Utah) on my shelf. My little bro needed a pair to play in, so my dad tells him to just use those! When I found out, I almost killed both of them,” said Tebbs.
Though Tebbs has held onto the first Foamposites after all these years, he has been tempted to sell them. “You would be surprised how many offers I’ve had for those shoes. At the Final Four open practice (in Indianapolis), I remember people in the stands were offering me $500-$800 for them, even back then. I’ve had people along the way on Instagram offer me money for them.” Tebbs plans on holding onto the pair, and will most likely hand them down to his children.
Last fall, the Wildcats reunited in Arizona to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their historic season. Mike Bibby, the most famous NBA player of the group was there. He has since retired from the NBA, but now plays in the BIG3, a 3-on-3 basketball league with former stars like Allen Iverson and Jermaine O’Neal. Bibby’s son also plays basketball for the University of South Florida. Miles Simon was at the reunion as well. He is currently a commentator for ESPN college basketball. Jason Terry, still playing in the NBA after all these years, was not able to make it.
Most of the players still keep in touch with each other – the bond of that remarkable season linking them together forever. Though the players have grown up and most have started families, the memories of ’97 are still fresh in their minds. The impact the team had on sneaker culture has remained fresh twenty years later as well, with thousands of sneaker lovers still wearing retro models of the shoes the Cats made famous that season.
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