Dunk History: A Nike sneaker that went from hoops to hype


If there was one shoe whose retro models really had sneakerheads scrambling for every release over the past year, it had to be the Nike Dunk. 

Ranging from mild to wild, from school colors to ice cream-themed, Thanksgiving-inspired, encrusted with crystals and more, the Dunk enjoyed an incredible renaissance in 2020.

Jaw-dropping collaborations with Ben & Jerry’s, Boston boutique Concepts, skateboard artist Sean Cliver, Cactus Plant Flea Market and, of course, Houston rapper Travis Scott have the humble Dunk’s popularity at all-time highs.

But despite what some might assume if they’re new to the sneaker game, the Nike Dunk has a long and storied history. Let’s take a dive in, shall we?

The year 1985 was a big one for the Swoosh, and we all know why. It’s the year the Nike Air Jordan 1 hit shelves, and basketball shoes were never the same.

But the AJ1 wasn’t the only sneaker designed for hoops that arrived on the scene that year, not by a long shot. It was a time when the line between sports and street style were beginning to blur, and footwear built for on-court performance was starting to become fashionable in lifestyle applications as well.

Nike designer Peter Moore, who already had a hoops hit on his hands with the Air Jordan 1, took inspiration from three existing models when he put together the initial sketches of what would become the Dunk High.

Elements from the AJ1, the Nike Terminator and the Air Force 1, then just three years old itself, are all present in the Nike Dunk High, which was originally called the College Color High.

During a period in time where athletic shoes were predominantly white with small hits of color, Nike saw the plentiful panels in the Dunk High upper to offer a range of colorways matching the uniform hues of college sports teams.

The Dunk’s first marketing campaign, “Be True To Your School,” rode the wave of rising popularity of NCAA men’s basketball as cable TV beamed it into living rooms nationwide. Nike selected the colors of 12 schools and rolled out the Dunks as part of the College Colors Program, allowing fans to rock their university’s gear from head to toe.

From hardwood to halfpipe

But it wasn’t just team sports whose players preferred Nike footwear.

When the Air Jordan 1 arrived, its bold color scheme was like nothing the basketball world, or the sneaker-buying public at large, had really ever seen before. And even though they sell out almost immediately in 2020, that wasn’t the case back in the 1980s. Jordans, incredibly, sat on shelves long enough to be sent to sale racks.

That’s where they were picked up by skateboarders, who back then weren’t the X-Games celebrities you see on TV now. Skateboarding was a counterculture pursuit, seen as less of a sport than a novelty, and there sure wasn’t much money in it, even for professionals. So those discount Jordans made for the perfect skate shoes, with their sticky outsoles and leather uppers that stood up to the wear and tear of sandpaper-like grip tape.

Given their design similarities, the Nike Dunk was just as popular with skaters, and Nike recognized an opportunity to enter the skateboarding category. Its early attempts were met with everything from disinterest to derision from skateboarders — not particularly surprising given the sport’s counterculture roots and the footwear giant’s Big Corporate image — but under the guidance of Swoosh legend Sandy Bodecker, Nike SB got off the ground in 2001.

Bodecker’s strategy for Nike SB was built around listening to the skateboarding community and having the brand bring value to skaters. On that wishlist was the return of the Dunk. The low-top models had always been popular, and that fueled the arrival of the skate-specific Nike Dunk SB in 2002, featuring design and construction elements tailored to skateboarders.

“Bringing back the Dunk was a direct result of these conversations, and the collaborations and storytelling that emerged were fuelled by these discussions,” Bodecker told Sneaker Freaker magazine in 2018. “The introduction of the ‘collector’ to the skate shops in the beginning definitely helped some core retailers survive challenging times.”

It didn’t take long for the popularity of the Nike Dunk SB to spread, and highly sought-after collaborations with legendary New York City skate shop Supreme and industry brands like Zoo York and Chocolate appeared soon after.

The Dunk SB’s panels and design, once deemed to be just the right shoe to be adorned with college uniform colors, became the perfect canvas for creative storytelling and collaboration. The brand released these hot, non-general-release pairs in a range of colored boxes that now define different eras in the Nike SB product.

There was no specific strategy in place around ‘Box Color Eras’ – it was really the community and beyond who started and propelled the concept,” former Nike SB senior footwear designer James Arizumi told High Snobiety in 2019. “That was the beauty of Nike SB back then, we really ‘JUST DID IT.’”

The wild collabs, combined with limited availability thanks to SB’s policy of distributing through local skate shops, became high-hype targets for sneakerheads around the world. One such release, the Nike Dunk SB Low Staple NYC Pigeon, caused a literal riot outside Jeff Staple’s Reed Space store in downtown Manhattan

The popularity of some of these Dunk releases is such that streetwear designer Warren Lotas, who infamously dropped several colorways of a shoe that was, for all intents and purposes, a Dunk without a Swoosh, sold millions of dollars’ worth of what amount to replicas. And yes, Nike took him to court.

The hunger for Dunks may have spiked heavily in 2020, led by none other than the February release of Travis Scott’s SB Dunk Low, but make no mistake: the big-hype pairs of 2020 are not the first Dunk colorways to whip sneakerheads into a frenzy.

Danny Supas. Rayguns. Heinekens. Purple, green, yellow and blue Lobsters. Pigeons. Tiffany. Paris. Freddy Kreuger. Skunk. The list goes on, and on, and on. Many of these pairs command enormous prices on the secondary market, a testament to just how highly coveted the releases of the so-called golden era of Nike Dunk SB are.

Of course, 2020 can’t be denied. We saw more Dunks in team colors in both low- and high-top silhouettes, as well as absolutely bananas drops on the SB side from ranging from collaborations with Ben & Jerry’s, skateboard artist Sean Cliver and Grateful Dead to classic Nike representation with ACG, Infrared, “Griffey” and Laser Orange versions. Even Nike’s Sustainability program got on board, so to speak, with the SB Dunk Low Crater, made from recyclable materials.

Some pairs on the Dunk slate for 2021 have already been revealed, indicating that the model shows no signs of slowing down in the new year. Stay tuned to see what the Swoosh has in store for the other 1985 classic.