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adidas Mutombo: When Big Men Sold Shoes

August 6, 2013by Aaron Kr.
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When it comes to translating endorser popularity into product sales, the general rule of thumb dictates that big men simply don’t sell shoes. While there’s plenty of evidence to back up the stigma, there was once a time when this wasn’t necessarily the case. In the late 80s and early 90s, the NBA was a dense forest of imposing trees – a golden era of dominant big men with the star power to match their physical stature. It seemed as if All-Star caliber seven-footers towered over the league in nearly every city, and the sneaker contracts were in no short supply.

Back then, if you were an attraction on the court, that’s all it took to warrant a shoe deal and it mattered very little, if at all, what position you played. Stars were stars and that’s all that counted, but some gradual shifts in those dynamics have changed the perceptions of marketability criteria forever. The NBA is now home to a generation who grew up watching Michael Jordan play, and the desire to “Be Like Mike” has not only influenced the nature of play on the court, but also the underlying aesthetics of how the game looks.

MJ made it abundantly clear that a nice pair of basketball sneakers will almost always look cooler on a guard or small forward slashing through the lane than the 7-foot center standing in the paint trying to defend him. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but they seem to be pretty few and far between nowadays.

Players like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal among others, all made their mark on the sneaker world, but longevity proved to be a rare commodity with most bigs when it came to moving units past the first few models. The bulky high-tops once needed to protect these massive frames and feet have fallen out of favor and the prototypical star NBA center of the 80s and 90s is all but extinct in today’s game, whether the brands have good shoes for them or not.

The Dwight Howards of the world are few and far between these days, so the big man signature shoe discussion is almost a moot point, but the current popularity of retro basketball models is proving that good shoes were (and are) good shoes, regardless of the height and position of the player who once endorsed it.

Later this month, adidas Originals will be bringing back another reminder of the departed age of the center, the Mutombo – a truly unique piece of sneaker history and one of the last of its kind. Long overdue for a retro return, the adidas Mutombo will finally make its way back to retail shelves and defiantly wag a finger at the notion that big men can’t sell shoes. A detailed gallery awaits, complete with some videos, vintage advertisements and background info, so dig in and get yourself up to speed before the re-release.


When John Thompson first recruited Dikembe Mutombo to play at Georgetown, the 7’2″ raw talent from the Republic of Congo had designs on becoming a doctor, not a professional basketball player. After seeing what he was capable of on a basketball court, it became clear that the NBA path was inevitable. The Hoyas have had an amazing legacy when it comes to the center position, all dating back to Patrick Ewing. Mutombo filled shoes that were almost impossible to fill at Georgetown before passing the torch to Alonzo Mourning and more recently, Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe and Otto Porter.

Out of all of them, Dikembe ranks second only to Big Pat when it came to the ability to move shoes. Sure, Alonzo was beloved as well, but nothing that Nike ever made for him has had the lasting impact of adidas’s Mutombo shoe. After being selected fourth by the Denver Nuggets in the 1991 NBA Draft, Mutombo played most of his first season in Nikes, just as he had with the Swoosh-outfitted Hoyas in his college days. Recognizing the popularity and potential of a player named to the All-Star Game in his rookie season, adidas swooped in and signed Mutombo and his size 22 feet to the Three Stripes family. His first and most memorable signature shoe, named simply the Mutombo, followed in 1993, complete with one of the boldest designs ever seen on the basketball court.

Inspired by his African heritage, the Mutombo featured bold splashes of color, an eye-catching geometric tribal pattern and a slick shield logo that incorporated the letter M, as well as his number 55. The shoe made a visual statement that was plenty loud, but not too over the top, even by early 90s standards. The Mutombo instantly separated itself from everything else on the market and cemented its place as a veritable sneaker milestone of the era. The “House of Mutombo” ad campaign further played up his on-court persona as an unforgiving wall of shot blocking fury and delivered a memorable tagline that stuck around for the rest of his 18-year NBA career.

Despite its status as a certified classic, for adidas, the timing never seemed quite right to bring the Mutombo back into circulation. Then last July, they did something that more brands might want to take advantage of – they threw a subtle feeler out on Instagram, showing an image of the original shoe as if to say – what do you think? The reaction was overwhelmingly positive and the increasingly rabid consumer thirst for retro basketball relics only sweetened the deal. The 2013 comeback campaign is now officially underway, and while the shoe might not be for everyone, there are plenty of folks out there who’ve been waiting a long time to get their hands on this prized piece of 90s basketball nostalgia.


Dikembe Mutombo had plenty of notable on-court moments in his first signature adidas model, but the shoe’s cult status reached into the world of pop culture as well. Dikembe wasn’t the only rising star to make history in the adidas Mutombo back in 1993. The shoe also appeared on the feet of Raekwon the Chef in a classic photo from the inside cover of the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). As a noted sneaker aficionado, the

co-sign from Raekwon spoke volumes for the street cred of the Mutombo, both then and now. The moment now stands forever immortalized within the album jacket of one of most beloved rap treasures of all time – Raekwon and his Mutombos, standing out from the pack as usual, front and center amongst a sea of official Wu-issued Timberland boots.


2013 appears to be the beginning of big things for adidas and the Mutombo revival. The classic black/white/red colorway is set to hit select adi retailers, as well as adidas.com on August 24th for an enticing price of $105. Look for several other new and original

colorways to follow in the coming months. In addition to the adidas Originals Mutombo retro, also be on the lookout for a new silhouette on the horizon, the Mutombo TR Block which was inspired by an unreleased 1994 prototype.

Bottom image via SoleCollector.