20 Years Of Nike Basketball Design: Air Max Penny (1995)
Today’s chapter in the Nike Basketball history book is a discussion of one of many models that makes 1995-96 arguably the best season on record, but this story has its nexus somewhere between the 1992 Air Raid and Air Max2 CB ’94 posts that preceded it. Draft Day ’93 introduced the entire world to Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway, a brilliant oversized point guard from the then-relatively unheralded University of Memphis. It was on June 30th of that year that the Orlando Magic traded the rights to #1 pick Chris Webber of Michigan Fab Five (and Air Flight Huarache) fame, cementing Penny’s return from a gunshot that just two years earlier had jeopardized his entire career.
Webber went on to win that season’s Rookie of the Year award, but in Hardaway, Orlando had a once-a-generation talent who would become the face of the franchise and arguably the most successful Nike signature athlete of the mid-to-late ’90s not named ‘Michael Jordan’. After a couple of playoff appearances including the 1995 NBA Finals run and a rocking bunch of notable styles like the Air Flight One, Air Go LWP and Air Up, Eric Avar laced Penny with a groundbreaking design that foreshadowed changes to come in the Beaverton B-Ball division.
The Nike Air Max Penny (1) debuted around the start of the ’95-96 season with a style that defied the Flight and Force conventions, foreshadowed Foamposite with its prominent, wavy midsole and helped to launch the Uptempo line for a new generation of explosive perimeter players. The Air Max Penny also furthered Hardaway’s connection to the then ‘Tensile Air’ that first appeared on the AF One, paving the way for the explosion of Zoom Air that’s still one of the Swoosh’s premier cushioning platforms. Introducing the Chris Rock-voiced Lil Penny marionette along with the unveiling of Penny’s ‘1c’ logo pushed this design over the top, and made for another memorable classic that has us excited to see what will be the next chapter on Monday?
“What was great about Penny was that he was always expressive and always willing to push the limits in terms of aesthetics and expression.”-Eric Avar
How do you cater to the player who can’t be defined by an existing category? You create a new lane.
Penny Hardaway’s personal expression and mode of play set a standard for the shoes of the future. Incredibly quick, but explosive and strong, Penny’s strength and athleticism preempted a contemporary style — so much so that his debut Nike signature model birthed the Uptempo line. The Nike Air Penny’s lead designer, Eric Avar, recalls, “We had Flight and Force and we were looking at trying to dimensionalize the basketball line around this notion of versatility and that’s kind of what Uptempo was.”
Speed and strength couldn’t be pinned down to a solitary technology, so Penny got a pair of performance aids — a Max Air bag for impact protection and the newly developed Tensile Air, later renamed Zoom Air, for court feel. The former at the rear and the latter at the front delivered the best of both worlds for a proven combination that’s echoed in contemporary Nike Basketball designs.
In terms of aesthetics, Avar just had to find a way to reflect the wearer’s limitless approach. “I studied Penny’s style, his game and the product just took shape from there.”
That shape helped shift the silhouette of the basketball shoe in a new direction for good, with style and game perfectly imbued in each element of the Nike Air Penny. That 1Cent logo and crystal swoosh exuded confidence, hinting that this was just the start of a relationship rooted in expression and experimentation.