Fifteen games into the NBA season and Lamelo Ball continues to impress. He leads the Charlotte Hornets in assists, rebounds and steals, and he ranks second in points per game.
What has gotten less attention is his potential impact on sneaker culture.
According to the Undefeated, in the league’s 75-year history, fewer than 85 players have earned the distinction of having a signature sneaker. Ball, last year’s Rookie of the Year, joined that elite group when he opened the 2021 season sporting his new signature shoe — the bright orange-red Puma MB.01.
The shoe is set to drop next month with an official retail price of $125, according to Puma. (Some online sites are asking far more.)
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But will the MB.01 ever earn a spot among the best signature kicks of all times?
We put that question to Darryl Hines, a local sneakerhead.
Hines has witnessed the evolution of sneaker culture since his days growing up in the 1980s. He now owns Velocity Boutique, a former sneaker store in the University area that switched to selling clothing.
Hines said that while he likes the MB.01, he believes that Ball, a 6-foot-7 point guard, must improve as a player before his shoe can reach the Pantheon of sneaker greatness.
“If Melo comes in with a more all-around complete game, stardom is there,” he said.
Here are Hines’ picks for the top 5 signature sneakers of all time:
- Michael Jordan – “Chicago” Air Jordan 1
Believe it or not, the North Carolina guard was once a fan of Adidas and almost didn’t sign with Nike. But after Adidas failed to match Nike’s offer… well, the rest is history.
What makes the Air Jordan so special? In a league where black-and-white shoes were the norm, the Air Jordan featured red, one of the Chicago Bulls’ primary team colors.
“We embrace it because it was weird, and that’s what the streets do — we embrace different,” Hines said.
Now 18 years after Jordan played his last NBA game, his Air Jordan brand has become synonymous with sneaker culture — the greatest of all times.
2. Lebron James – Nike Air Zoom Generation
Lebron James has been heralded as “The Chosen One” since high school because many saw him as the heir apparent to Jordan as NBA’s next marquee player.
Nike saw James’ potential in 2003 and signed him to a seven-year, $90 million contract, the richest NBA rookie sneaker deal. He would get the Nike Air Zoom Generation, his first signature shoe, before playing in his first game.
In his 19 seasons (and counting), James has lived up to the hype, and his shoes are worn both on the court and as casual wear.
Hines, not the biggest Lebron fan, recalled that his son, now 27, idolized the four-time MVP and wore his shoes to school as a kid.
“His shoe was versatile and had a dual-threat [appearance],” Hines said.
3. Penny Hardaway – Nike Air Foamposite 1
Unlike the others on Hine’s list, Penny Hardaway’s signature shoe deal came after he spent a few years sporting other Nikes and the brand decided that he deserved his own.
The 6’7 point guard’s shoes had multiple variations of his signature shoes but the Foamposite quickly became a best seller. The royal blue colorway, released in 1997, costed at least $200, $80 more than the average pair of Jordans at the time.
Hines said while Hardaway’s performance on the court was a factor in sales, the look and comfortable fit of the shoe made it was a must-have cop.
“He was a transcending player with a shoe that also transcended from the court to the streets,” he said.
Hardaway’s shoe re-gained popularity in 2012 –some five years after he retired.
4. Allen Iverson – Reebok Question 1
Allen Iverson brought hip-hop Culture to center stage in the NBA. While other players wore suits and blazers pre-game, Iverson wore baggy clothes, durags and jewelry while sporting his signature cornrows and tattoos.
Despite being challenged by the NBA commissioner and media for his appearance off the court, the 6-foot point guard’s gritty style of play and rebellious attitude made him beloved by fans, leading to more sales to his shoes.
Hines said he and other fans supported Iverson’s shoe because of his underdog status and the way he carried himself on and off the court.
“Impactful player to the court and to the culture, and the shoe did the same thing,” Hines said.
5. Grant Hill – Fila Grant Hill 1
Fila wasn’t as popular as Nike and Reebok, but signing Grant Hill in 1994 boosted sales and brought the brand back to sneaker relevance.
While a series of injuries cut Hill’s career short, his impact to sneaker culture remained strong in the late 1990s.
People wanted to wear the shoes, Hines said, because they looked good both on and off the court. He recalled being unable get a pair despite traveling to numerous stores throughout Maryland.
“When you have that type of sellout, that type of energy for people to try to look for the shoe, you can’t question what that shoe was,” he said.