No look back at the many great sneakers released in 1996 could be complete without a story on one of the most important basketball teams—to both NBA and sneaker history—of all time. If we’re talking about a legendary basketball team from 1996, we of course refer to the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who finished out a historic 72-win season with the first championship of their second Three-Peat during their 1990s dynasty. The ‘96 Bulls are a topic that’s more timely than ever at this moment, considering that it’s not only the 20th anniversary of that championship but also the year that the Golden State Warriors broke the regular season win record and now begin their own NBA Finals tonight.
There are all kinds of debates and comparisons going around about whether the 1996 Bulls or 2016 Warriors are the better team, but when it comes to sneakers, almost nobody will argue against Michael Jordan and company taking the W in that category. In this edition of Flashback to ‘96, we’ll take a look back at the iconic sneakers worn by Chicago’s big three of Michael, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, and learn that they weren’t only one of the most dominant trios ever on the court that year, but that they also ruled the sneaker game.
Road Back to the Finals: The Rebuild
During Michael Jordan’s retirement and stint in baseball, the Bulls and their dominant reign that began with their first Three-Peat in ‘91, ‘92, and ‘93 had to hit the reset button for a couple of rebuilding years. After the loss of key players from those championship runs like Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong, and John Paxson, the Bulls had to find a new set of role players to back up Michael and Scottie. Along with the increasing talent of Toni Kukoc at small forward for the Bulls and the additions of Steve Kerr and Ron Harper, the team acquired the biggest key to their return to dominance in the off-season before the ’95-96 season: the wild and often controversial yet extremely hardworking Dennis Rodman. Although a non-factor on offense, Rodman’s uncanny ability to rebound and versatile defensive skill proved to be the perfect complement to Michael and Scottie, and the recipe for a record-breaking season that led the Bulls back to the Finals to face the Seattle Supersonics led by the dynamic duo of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.
Nike Air Shake NDESTRUKT worn by Dennis Rodman
As the world’s most colorful player—figuratively and literally—Dennis Rodman had to have a bold sneaker to match, right? For the 1995-96 season, Dennis just so happened to have what most consider his best shoe of all time, the Nike Air Shake NDESTRUKT. An unofficial signature model for Rodman, the Air Shake was a member of the mid-90s NDESTRUKT line by Nike of extra-durable sneakers designed for indoor/outdoor use. The most famous of all the “indestructible” models of the short-lived line, the Air Shake featured a unique asymmetrical upper with a wrap-around panel on the upper and a velcro strap and the laces on the medial sides. For most of the regular season, Rodman grabbed his rebounds in the white, red, and black Bulls colorway of the Shake, but when the Bulls switched to black shoes for the playoffs, he sported the simple yet totally tough looking all-black pair with white Swooshes all the way to the Finals victory.
Nike Air More Uptempo Worn by Scottie Pippen
Of the Bulls’ big three, Scottie Pippen was the more reserved and less flashy of the group, letting his game do most of the talking…until it came to his sneakers that year. Somehow even beating out Rodman in the bold sneaker category, Pip’s 1996 postseason was spent wearing one of the loudest hoops shoes ever, the Nike Air More Uptempo with its blatant “AIR” branding across the upper and full-length visible Air in the midsole. Whether you love the Air More Uptempo or think it’s hideous, it’s easy to see why the design has become one of the most memorable sneakers ever and a certified classic in Nike Basketball’s 1990s catalog. After winning his fourth ring in the More Uptempo, Scottie would go on to wear the shoe in the popular “Olympic” colorway while winning a gold medal with the 1996 Dream Team, further cementing the audacious sneaker’s important place in sneaker history.
Air Jordan XI worn by Michael Jordan
It seems that the stars of the basketball and sneaker galaxies aligned in 1996. Illustrated by the amazing assemblage of sneakers on court for the ‘96 All-Star game, the year saw a huge number of models from multiple brands now considered all-time classics hit the court throughout the year. The beginning of the 1996-97 season saw its share of great models also, but the year’s sneaker history reached its peak at the 1996 NBA Finals, when Dennis, Scottie and Michael displayed their “big three” of sneakers on the court. In case you don’t already know what MJ was wearing to complete the trio, it was the Air Jordan XI in the Black/True Red colorway. Also known as “Bred”, the iconic colorway will forever be linked to the Bulls’ epic run that year as the shoe that Michael wore to seal the deal for his fourth NBA title. Its history on the court aside, the Air Jordan XI is one of the most celebrated basketball shoes of all time based on its look alone (in any original colorway), so just like MJ on that historic Bulls team, the black and red XI leads the way for the legendary sneakers of the 1996 NBA Finals.
In Game 1 of the Finals, Michael wore a PE low-top version of the Air Jordan XI. He wore the standard mid-top for the rest of the series.