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  • Writer's pictureOmar Pusey

How New Balance is Relevant in Basketball Again

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

Photo by shyam mishra

After seeing Jack Harlow wearing a pair of New Balance 650s in the new White Men Can’t Jump, it is official: New Balance is back and better than ever. Ten years ago you wouldn’t think of most younger people wearing New Balance sneakers, but now the “Dad” shoe brand has emerged as one of the popular options of the decade. Recently I bought one of my first pairs of new balances, the New Balance 550. Particularly these sneakers have taken the retro shoe market by storm, not bad for a shoe that wasn’t very popular back in 1989. If these shoes are so popular now as “retro” sneakers, then why weren’t they as popular when they were released back in 1989? Time to look back on the history of New Balance, specifically within the world of Basketball.

Beginning of New Balance Basketball: The 480

Most people may currently think of the New Balance 550, though several models came before. Steven Smith was responsible for the majority of the basketball sneakers New Balance released in the 1980s. This sneaker is often forgotten because it became obsolete when the New Balance 550 came into the picture.New Balance was looking into an alternative design to the 740 for high school and college athletes. In 1989, New Balance released the 550, a low top alternative to the 650 with a similar resemblance to the 480s. Made with a smooth leather and perforated side panel, the 550’s dissolved the issues that plagued the 490.

If you are looking for the full history of New Balance, check out New Balance: Brand History, Philosophy, and Iconic Products

Nike Air Bubble: The end of the New Balance in Basketball

In the 1980s, there was a lot of competition for basketball sneakers from Reebok, Converse, Fila and Adidas; the basketball sneaker market was saturated. New Balance was among the shoe brands fighting for dominance in the market. However, in 1989 came a relatively unknown sneaker with aspirations of crushing the rest of the name of Nike. Nike introduced the Nike Air bubble unit in 1989 in their Nike Air Flight model and took shoe technology to another level, dwarfing any competition that was released simultaneously. Unfortunately for New Balance and most other basketball shoes, there was no performance tech in the sneakers at all. Designed by legendary shoe designer Steve Smith, the 550 acted as an alternative to the high-top 650s.

The New Balance 550 suffered the same gloomy fate as other non-Nike basketball sneakers. Unfortunately for New Balance, The 550 debuted in 1989 when shoe companies released low-top sneaker variations. As stated in SneakerFreaker, the 550 was essentially an anomaly; low-top sneakers were not normal in the 80s. The model was geared toward performance, even if it looks like a casual shoe now. The only issue for most basketball shoes back in the 80s was a lack of proper impact support and overall cushion, a determining factor in how Nike dominated with the Nike Air bubble. The timeline for New Balance was relatively short, but the disaster of the 80s brought inspiration in 2018.

New Balance Basketball Re-imagined.

New Balance is currently re-establishing its presence in the basketball world, with new brand campaigns dating back to 2018 with signing Kawhi Leonard as the flagship athlete for the division but the most notable signing was Darius Bazley. Bazley, a former college recruit, foregone college to sign a 1 million dollar internship with Boston-based sneaker company in 2018. Bazley became the first athlete signed to help promote the company's re-entry into the basketball market.

New Balance started their basketball refresh officially in 2019 with the debut of the New Balance Omn1.New Balance even went as far as releasing Tee shirts with phrases about kawhi Leonard like "Board man gets paid" and "Fun Guy.". New Balance took advantage and made significant bank off the statements that were once poised as memes. The campaign even convinced me to buy a pair of new balances at my local retailer (they were half off but nonetheless very comfy). Fast forward a few months and New Balance releases Kawhi's first signature shoe, the OMNI 1s. This is a big achievement for an organization that held no significant basketball endorsement since James Worthy.

Photo by Terrance Barksdale

What does New Balance aim to Achieve with Basketball Sneakers?

New Balance isn't looking to become the biggest basketball brand in the world, they want to become the best and most unique brand they can offer to their customers. It’s possible Massachusetts-based company won't feature a significant list of high-profile athletes on their roster, but I wouldn't be surprised that a group of basketball players fit within their brand. With a deeper look at what they currently have, these athletes all add value to the branding of New Balance in some capacity.

  • Kawhi Leonard

  • Jamal Murray

  • Darius Bazley

  • Zach Lavine

After the shoes went to sneaker heaven, no one wore New Balance basketball shoes other than Matt Bonner, who sported his dad’s secret collection of zips until they were not left. Though in typical New Balance fashion, the 550s came back organically, they weren’t pushed to market by New Balance. The founder of Aime Dore, Teddy Santis found the chubby unicorns in some old Japanese magazine collection. Now you can find the 550s everywhere. New Balance is constantly releasing new colourways of the “iconic” shoe, with no plans to stop producing the hot sneaker anytime soon. In an era of trends where Brands seem to emerge and vanish within what feels like seconds, New Balance’s Basketball shoes are constantly defying the odds.

Honestly, it’s interesting how a shoe tossed into the vault emerged organically and with minimal marketing. The sneaker isn't at the level of the Nike Air Force 1 but that is a hard goal to accomplish. The Air Force 1 has been a staple in the sneakerhead community and is supposedly the sneaker that inspired sneakerhead collecting in general. Anyways, this blog post isn't about Nike but the re-emergence of New Balance in Basketball. Currently, New Balance utilizes a small but mighty team of athletes such as Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, and Dejounte Murray. The company focuses on more than market share within the industry. It is to provide quality products to its customers, evident in the athletes on their roster. New Balance has taken strides by endorsing figures that FIT their brand, not draw the most media exposure. Remember that New Balance is the only big company to produce more than 4 million pairs a year in the United States. Not too bad for a dad shoe. I'm ambitious about what the future will bring for New Balance Basketball.

Coffee Consumed: 48 OZ and 16 OZ Masala Chai


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