SELECT Vintage: Karl Malone’s LA Gear Catapult
It doesn’t get any better than the early-90s when it comes to iconic sneaker designs. More universally beloved models have come out of that era than any other, but for all the timeless classics that have stood the test of time and remained relevant, there are still tons of great blasts from the past that have slipped through the cracks and will most likely never be seen or heard from again.
At the core of the fruitful early 1990s sneaker boom were two underlying dynamics that drove the sneaker industry into some bold and glorious new territory and provided some of the wackiest concepts and innovations ever seen on a shoe. The first was a sense of parity among the brands. At the time, Nike had not yet run away with their giant chunk of the market and the sense of what brands were deemed cool had a far broader interpretation.
Individuality in the way you dressed was a paramount concern at the time and if you asked five kids in sneakers what their favorite brand was, you might have received five different answers. As a result, a wide variety of brands were considered viable and worthy
of your sneaker dollars and the dog-eat-dog competition between them had every footwear company working overtime trying to outdo the next guys.
Sometimes that resulted in blatant ripoffs, but the rivalry also sparked designers’ imaginations and led directly to the second driving force of the era – the rise of the gimmicky technologies. That’s not to say that they were all gimmicks though – Nike’s AIR cushioning units and the Reebok Pump line were not only legit in terms of their performance capabilities, but were also revolutionary approaches to improving and evolving a sneaker.
What came in their aftermath was an industry-wide decision by just about every brand that they needed to have their own crazy technology with a catchy name and all sorts of lofty performance promises. A few of the offerings that came forward were actually pretty cool and occasionally even effective, but more times than not, these “innovation” hooks were borderline useless, and sometimes flat-out ludicrous.
A few may come to mind, but it’s tough to recall a more preposterous example of this phenomenon than LA Gear’s Catapult technology and the Karl Malone shoe that it’s best remembered for. Billed as “The Machine” in the original 1991 commercial, the Catapults came fully equipped with the “Power Feedback System”, and a heel mechanism designed to absorb
the shock of your foot’s impact and redirect the energy back upwards to help spring it back off the ground. Not only did it claim to help your liftoff, but also intended to lessen the stress to other parts of the body by concentrating the impact into its complicated heel contraption.
It’s safe to say that they probably didn’t help anyone jump higher, but the Catapults helped LA Gear to break into the performance basketball category that was getting so huge at the time. Prior to their introduction, the brand was raking in the dollars, but mostly off of their hugely popular womens styles. Once Michael Jackson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came on board, LA Gear was just starting to crack the male demographic, and at one point, they even managed to rise to number three on the list of top-selling sneaker brands
behind Nike and Reebok. LA Gear finally broke through the gender barrier on a mass scale in 1990 with the launch of their Regulator models – a flagrant lower-priced ripoff of the Pump that they were eventually successfully sued by Reebok over. Before they were forced to pull them from the line, countless Regulators were sold and nicely set the stage for them to make a bigger push into the basketball market.
With Kareem at the end of his career, LA Gear signed two bona fide NBA superstars in Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon and made it clear they’d be making a serious effort at trying to hang with the big boys in the b-ball category, and it didn’t hurt to have guy like Malone, who was known as one of the meanest and toughest players in the league, to further distance themselves from the feminine connotations that had previously surrounded the brand.
They even went so far as to throw a not so subtle jab at Nike in the Catapult commercial with Malone’s declaration that “Everything else is just hot air.” Substantial resources and ad dollars went into developing and launching the Catapult, and while consumers were intrigued by its perceived benefits and the co-sign of The Mailman, the novelty quickly faded and they never quite “took off” the way LA Gear had intended.
Despite being sued once again, this time by Nike, for infringing on patented technologies, the LA Gear Catapult went on with a few more iterations for Malone and Hakeem and eventually some running/training models as well. Believe it or not, the Catapult line was even resurrected in 2003 and endorsed by then LA Laker, Luke Walton.
We hope you enjoyed this look back at one of the ’90s most notorious shoes, and make sure to stay tuned for more SELECT Vintage installments coming soon. A huge thanks to Ewing Athletics president, Dave Goldberg, for letting us shoot his pair and helping to fill in some of the forgotten gaps in re-telling its story.