The Nike Dunk Low: A Basketball Shoe Turned Skate Icon

The Nike Dunk Low: A Basketball Shoe Turned Skate Icon

The Nike Dunk Low is one of the most collectible shoe silhouettes on the market today. A basketball shoe turned skateboarding icon, the Nike Dunk Low has transcended its original purpose to become a staple of various sneaker subcultures: sneaker tourism, skateboarding, streetwear, art, fashion, punk rock, and hip-hop.

It’s a versatile shoe that functions well anywhere, whether on a dance floor, basketball court, skate park, or runway.

Like other Nike icons that helped inspire it (the Air Force 1s and Jordan 1s), the Nike Dunk Low has come a long way from its hardwood origins to become something more than just another basketball shoe—it’s a cultural symbol, something with which people can identify and update to make entirely their own.

Be True to Your School

The Nike Dunk Low has a complex history spanning four decades and four different life cycles.

The Nike Dunk debuted in August 1985 and was the second most popular shoe that year behind the Air Jordan 1. Created by the same designer who designed the Air Jordan 1s, Peter Moore, the Nike Dunk was conceived as an alternative to the Jordan 1s and a natural evolution of the Air Force 1s.

The Dunks are a Frankenstein’s monster of a shoe, as they are an amalgam of design elements from four other Nike shoes: the Air Force 1s, the Air Jordan 1s, the Legend, and the Terminator. While the design elements of this shoe may have been seen before, the shoe’s primary purpose was something wholly unique.

The Dunk’s target audience was not the NBA but rather the NCAA. In 1985, the biggest college sporting event by far was the NCAA March Madness Tournament. The 1985 Final Four—featuring the Villanova Wildcats, the Georgetown Hoyas, the Memphis State Tigers, and the St. John’s Redmen—was a monumental moment for the budding Nike brand because it was the first time in the company’s history that all four schools wore Nike shoes.

Nike executives attending the event noticed the electric atmosphere generated by young college students. They were keenly aware of how fervent fans repped their team’s colors, painted their faces, and exhibited raucous pride for their schools. Nike wanted to find a way to use that team mentality in their sneakers to provide fans and teams with a shoe that could symbolize their unwavering loyalty.

Nike took what was happening in college arenas and combined it with the technology they were using in their shoes.

The result was profound: the Nike Dunks were born.

Most of the basketball shoes at the time were simplistic, mainly all-white affairs with very little if any coloring. The Dunk was one of the first shoes to use color blocking—taking large panels of the shoe and adding blocks of the signature colors of the colleges and teams it represented.

Seven high-profile college basketball teams were chosen as part of Nike’s successful “Be True To Your School” campaign to wear the Nike Dunks, each receiving a specialized pair in their school colors. The University of Kentucky, the University of Michigan, the University of Iowa, Villanova, Syracuse, St. John’s, and UNLV all wore the Dunks for their 1985-1986 seasons.

The team aspect of the Dunks helped grow their popularity. By sponsoring college teams, Nike got fans on board who wanted to buy the same sneakers that their favorite teams and players were wearing. The Dunk was a way for people to feel like they were a part of the team; they could use footwear to connect with the athletes on the floor. Nike harnessed the team mentality they were seeking and brought it to sneakers. The Dunks became a statement of support and team pride.

However, the Nike Dunk never got the full justice it deserved. Thanks to “His Airness,” Nike had a blockbuster on their hands in the Air Jordan 1, which totally eclipsed the Dunks. With the Jordan 1s dominating the market like they did, the Dunks quickly faded from relevancy and disappeared.


Skate Culture Revives The Dunks

There are many similarities between what basketball players need and what skateboarders need: flatter sole, grip, and ankle support. In the 1990s, the Dunk had a re-birth in the form of a skateboarding shoe.

The Dunks met all the criteria that skateboarders wanted in a shoe. They provided lateral support, cushioning, and exceptional traction for quick pivots and grip. Plus, they were thin enough to feel your board beneath your feet, and they were also cheap, made with premium leather, and looked like Jordans.

In the 1990s, places like New York City and Los Angeles saw a convergence of different subcultures that all wore the Nike Dunks. Outsiders on the periphery of society who found community with each other made the Dunks a part of their culture. The Dunks were a canvas that different subcultures could all use in a different way to highlight what made their culture unique.

In the mid-1990s, as skateboarding’s popularity grew and skateboarding companies like DC, Etnies, and Emerica started to grow by mimicking the Dunk’s design, Nike saw an opportunity to capitalize on the Dunk’s success amongst skateboarders by creating skate specific shoes. In 1996, Nike released designated skate shoes such as the Choad, Snak, and Schimp. They even enlisted Bam Margera to become Nike’s first team rider.

Despite these efforts, Nike’s first official foray into skateboarding was a massive flop. Skaters were wary of a corporation infiltrating their subculture. They didn’t trust that Nike had their best interests in mind and thought they just wanted to make a buck off of them. Not to mention, the products Nike put out ended up being overbuilt, stiff, and clunky. They were hard to ride in and failed to capture the magic that made the Dunks such a great skate shoe. While talking about Nike in an interview, Bam Margera said that he couldn’t even skate in Nike’s shoes and instead would paste a Nike Swoosh onto another company’s shoe so he could ride.

Skateboarders shied away from Nike, claiming that the corporation didn’t get them and was only interested in financial gain. After that failed attempt, the sport of skateboarding went dark for years at Nike.


The Dunk Pro B

The Nike Dunk Pro B is a precursor to the Nike Dunk SB. On the West Coast, a Footaction retail store requested to make patent leather Dunks. The manager for Dunks on the West Coast listened to Footaction, and eventually, he started making Dunks in colors other than the originals. They were running rogue with the Dunk brand by releasing crazy colorways using different fabrics.

The Nike Dunk Pro B and Nike Dunk Co.JP (the Japanese version of the Dunks) were born.

The creativity, customization, and self-expression on display tied directly into the nature of skateboarding. The Pro Bs were thicker, so they had more padding and a fatter tongue. The shoe saw an emergence on the West Coast and in Japan. The unique colorways and fabrics made each pair of the Dunk Pro Bs special, a collector’s item that showcased a skater’s individuality. Skaters prided themselves on their distinct personalities and skate styles, and now they could find a pair of Dunk Pro Bs that were an extension of themselves.

At the beginning of 2001, the Nike Dunk continued to cement its legacy as a skate shoe with The Alphanumeric Dunk Low Pro B. The Alphanumeric Dunk remains one of the most in-demand Dunks ever made. Created by streetwear pioneer Alyasha Owerka-Moore, the Alphanumeric Dunk featured a fatter tongue, Air Zoom insole, and a raised embroidered logo.

Right around this time, a footwear tester at Nike named Sandy Bodecker discovered the popularity the Dunks had gained on their own within the skate community. He went around to skate retailers, collecting feedback and gaining as much knowledge of the skate community as possible. He did a great job of listening to skateboarders and understanding what they liked and wanted out of their skate shoes.

Sandy was pivotal in launching Nike Skateboarding. Sandy gave skateboarding and skaters a voice at Nike. He helped mold the Nike SB brand into what it is today. Nearly everything from the team of skaters to how Nike designs skateboarding shoes can be attributed to Sandy’s prowess and understanding. Finally, Nike understood the culture they were trying to break into.

And it was all possible because Sandy found out that skateboarders really liked the Dunks; so he figured, “Why don’t we just give them more of those?”


Nike Dunk SB

The first Nike Dunk Low Pro SBs released were the “Colors By” series in 2002. Nike enlisted four highly respected skaters to build signature SBs: Danny Supa, Reese Forbes, Gino Iannucci, and Richard Muller.

The Low SB Dunk no longer looked like a basketball shoe. It featured a fat tongue, a Zoom Air Bag in the heel, a re-engineered sole for grip tape traction, and a cushioned sockliner. It also came in a variety of crazy colorways. Additional cushioning and padding were some of the main features to help provide support for the impact skateboarding has on the body.

Nike’s long history of shoe innovation and technology helped them build a skate shoe that other companies couldn’t match in terms of comfort, support, and ride experience.

The Nike Dunk Low Pro SB essentially launched the Nike skateboarding brand.

To help sell the Dunk SB, Nike built relationships with local skate shops. The focal point of their community and culture was the skate shop for skateboarders. It was the place to hang out, meet up, learn how to skate, and discuss what was happening in the world of skateboarding.

It was all about skate shops for Nike: skate shops were the only places the Dunk Low Pro SBs would be sold. Nike was selective about which shops could carry the Dunk SB. It came down to the simple principle of how a skate shop supported the local skate scene. The shop had to be authentic, and skaters had to trust them if they were allowed to sell Dunks.

At the time, skateboarding as an industry was growing in popularity and being exploited by companies looking to cash in on skaters. Having learned from their past mistakes, Nike wanted to use the Dunk to help skateboarding get back to its roots. For Nike, it wasn’t about manipulating the skate industry. They were trying to create a shoe that honored skate culture while adding a new element to it.

Nike treated skaters with respect, like they were professional athletes. They listened to skaters to hear their feedback and gain product input. Nike collaborated with skaters to create signature shoe lines, and their effort helped legitimize skateboarding in the public eye.

Nike quickly understood that the future for the Dunk Low SB was through collaborations. The SB was a blank canvas that people wanted to make their own. Nike allowed creators, designers, and shops worldwide the opportunity to create Dunks of their own. The Dunk Low became a symbol of self-expression. It was a shoe that reflected cities, cultures, and individuals.

The Dunk SB’s Impact on Modern Sneaker Culture

By partnering with creatives, artists, shop owners, and people involved in sneaker culture, Nike helped create modern-day sneaker culture with the Dunk SB.

The limited supply of specially designed Dunks created a massive demand for the sneakers. While not mainstream by any means, the Dunk Low SB had a spirited community of users around the world. Because specific models were only available in other countries, a small network of shops worldwide shipped shoes to one another so they could give their customers access to valuable collectible Dunks.

The rise and accessibility of the internet also played a significant role in building the SB Dunk community. Many collectors spent a great deal of their free time scouring NikeTalk trying to find people to trade with and get the latest updates on where they could find rare SB Dunks.


The Fever Dissipates

Despite this monumental growth and revitalization of sneaker culture, the hype couldn’t last forever. By the late 2000s, the fervor surrounding the Dunk dissipated. The shoe found itself entering a long dry spell.

Nike had overproduced the shoe and saturated the market. The Dunk SB was no longer cool. The colorways and designs verged on ridiculous, and the value of the Dunk SB market imploded, making sneakers that used to be worth four figures essentially worthless.

Nike still released versions of the shoe, but the cultural impact wasn’t the same.

The Modern-Day Nike Dunk

Around the mid-2010s, both the original Nike Dunks and collaborative SB pairs were once again starting to gain momentum. In 2015, to celebrate the Dunk’s 30th anniversary, Nike dropped a re-release of colorways from the “Be True to Your School Pack.” Releasing the retro Dunks did not lead to a miraculous overnight comeback for the iconic model, but it did an excellent job of setting the foundation for the Dunk’s future.

The year 2016 saw a new avenue open up for the Dunks as they hit the runway. Rei Kawakubo’s avant-garde fashion brand Comme Des Garçons put their own spin on the Nike Dunk High. This was a turning point for the silhouette at the time because it helped attract a demographic focused on fashion instead of skating.

As the hype around the Dunk began picking up steam, Nike would test the waters with new colorways. Nike enlisted Off-White founder Virgil Abloh to design his version of the silhouette. In 2019, the Nike x Off-White Dunk Low dropped in three vivid colorways, taking direct inspiration from the original “Be True To Your School” sneakers.

The shoes were a huge hit and vital in regenerating interest in the Dunks, with younger sneakerheads scouring the internet for past releases and rare SB collaborations.


The Travis Scott SB

In February 2020, Nike continued to breath new life into the Dunk SB when they collaborated with rapper Travis Scott. The Travis Scott SB helped introduce the Dunk Low Pro SB to a new generation of sneakerheads. This shoe proved the Dunk craze was far from over.

The Travis Scott SB features a khaki-toned upper with navy overlays wrapped in a bandana pattern and mismatched black and pink Swoosh logos. The paisley panels can be torn away to reveal a woodsy-style camo print that has been present in other Travis Scott Nike collabs.

Upon release, Scott’s Dunks were in high demand and helped bring back some of the collectible elements for which the Dunks were known. Currently, pairs of the Travis Scott SB are available on resale for a couple thousand dollars.

The Travis Scott SB showed Nike that the Dunks would continue to have a lasting legacy. It’s a shoe with which any subculture can identify and change to express themselves. It’s a shoe symbolizing community, the world’s outcasts coming together, and building something special.


Where to Buy

Today, grabbing a pair of Nike Dunk Low retail is easier said than done. A young, passionate generation of sneakerheads has welcomed the Dunk Low with open arms, desperately trying to scoop up any new drops that hit the market.

The resale demand is high, making the value of new releases and collectible Dunks skyrocket. If you aren’t lucky enough to get a pair before they’re sold out, you’ll have to pay a premium if you want to rock the iconic sneaker.

New releases of the Nike Dunk Low retail between $100-$115. Nike releases only a limited number of pairs through their SNKRS website.

To buy collectible versions of the Dunk Low, check out StockX, GOAT, Flight Club, and Stadium Goods.

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