Inside the rise and fall of the iconic Reebok Pump on its 30th birthday

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BOSTON -- Dee Brown took four dribbles and put the basketball down by his feet.

It was Feb. 9, 1991, and the Celtics rookie guard was standing near midcourt at Charlotte Coliseum, preparing for his first dunk of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. On his feet were a special pair of hometown shoes: black Reebok Omni Zone Pumps with an orange ball covering the pump atop the tongue.

The Pump had been on the market for nearly 15 months.

Brown wanted to make sure he was close enough to the judges -- Julius Erving, George Gervin, Bobby Jones, Maurice Lucas and Dan Roundfield -- so they could see what he was doing while still being in view of the fans.

As soon as Brown put the ball on the court, he bent down and started pumping the shoes. The more he pumped, the louder the fans got, the more the players sitting courtside cheered.

"I could see in the corner of my eye that they're like, 'Oh, what? Oh, look what he's doing, like this is crazy, this is different,'" Brown said. "And the fans got excited about it and the players."

During the flight from Boston to Charlotte, Joanne Borzakian Ouellette, who was Reebok's director of global marketing for the NBA at the time, went through a list of things that Brown could potentially do to help raise awareness for the shoe. Wear Pump socks. Wear a Pump hat. And one idea was to pump up the shoes. But Brown was half listening. He was too in awe of where he was about to go and too nervous to fully be in the moment on the plane. He spent most of the flight thinking about the dunks in his repertoire.

Neither Borzakian nor anyone else at Reebok knew to what lengths Brown was about to go.

The dunk

For Brown's first dunk, he lobbed the ball to himself, double clutched in midair and threw down a reverse dunk. Then he bent down and let the air out of the shoe.

The crowd went nuts. Brown, unbeknownst to him or anyone in The Hive, had ignited a new era of the dunk contest.

Before each of his next six dunks, Brown repeated the same process. Pump. Dunk. Pump. Dunk.

Brown flew his way into the finals against Seattle SuperSonics high flier Shawn Kemp. Before the contest, Brown was sitting next to Kemp in the stands when a fan came over to them and asked about Kemp's haircut. Coincidentally, Brown had a haircut that was almost identical to Kemp's. The fan looked at Kemp and asked if the guy sitting next to him was his little brother. Kemp laughed. Brown didn't think it was so funny.

"I was like, 'No, I'm not his little brother. I'm in the contest,'" Brown remembered. "[The fan said] 'Oh, you're Dee Brown.' That right there was kind of the extra little fuel I needed to get going."

Pumping his shoes wasn't the only marketing ploy Brown wanted to unveil that night. The plan for his final dunk was for him to wear a Reebok Pump hat, dunk it and then dunk the ball with his other hand. But right before his turn, the NBA informed Brown that he couldn't wear the hat because it had a logo on it and therefore was considered a prop.

He had a backup dunk, but he didn't think it was unique enough.

"Deep in my heart, I knew I had to think of something different, more signature, more Michael Jordan free-throw-line-ish, Dominique windmill type of dunk that's iconic," Brown said. "Like, you see that dunk, or that type of dunk, you know exactly where it came from, it was the first one ever done."

As Brown started running toward the basket, he decided to close his eyes. As he was in midair, he realized nobody would know he had his eyes closed, so he decided to put his hand over them, but his momentum kept carrying his arm forward, eventually moving his forearm over his eyes.

"That was the first time I ever did it," Brown said. "I never practiced it before. Either I was going to make it and we're talking about it 30 years later, like we're doing now, or I was gonna miss it and we're going to talk about it 30 years later, remember that dude who tried to dunk without looking and hit the side of the backboard.

"I'm glad I made it."

That dunk sealed Brown's win over Kemp.

And that night changed everything for Reebok.

On the Monday morning after the dunk contest, Reebok took out a full-page ad in USA Today with a photo of Brown's no-look dunk. It went viral before going viral was a thing. The Pump joined a rare list of shoes referred to by name: Jordans, Dunks, Air Force Ones.


And it happened overnight. Thirty years later, although it's all but disappeared from shelves, the Pump still holds its place as one of the most iconic sneakers of all time.

All thanks to Dee Brown.

The origin of The Pump

The first Pump felt like a "brick," said Chris Walsh, the former Reebok vice president of operations. John Morgan, the former director of basketball at Reebok, who signed Brown to an endorsement deal, said it was 30% heavier than most other shoes on the market. But it served a practical purpose. Some players, like Brown and Steve Smith, wore it because it helped support their ankles.

"I hated my ankles taped ever since I started getting them taped in college," said Smith, a former 16-year NBA veteran who's now an analyst for Turner Sports. "So, this was me being able to say, to the team, the Miami Heat at the time, I don't need my ankles taped because I had the Reebok Pump."

From that standpoint, the Pump was a success. But did the extra air filling the shoe help players of all levels jump higher?

"Can't tell that secret," Brown said, laughing. "Some things I got to go to my grave with. I'm not telling the secret on that one.

"I'm going to say, yes."

The Pump's first endorser was the Human Highlight Reel, Dominique Wilkins, who wore it in his 1990 Slam Dunk Contest win.

"I think being a high flier and kind of a charismatic guy, it kind of went hand in hand in a sense," Wilkins said. "I think the dunk contest being a part of that really helped elevate it as well. So, it was the right time for me. The timing was perfect."

Soon after Brown made the shoe a household name, Reebok began spreading the technology across a variety of other sports.

Michael Chang, who won 34 singles titles including one Grand Slam, wore the pump to support his ankles, but also for fun. Chang remembered pumping his shoes before a big point, hamming it up for the crowd. Other tennis players took notice. They'd pump his shoes while he was wearing them to see what all the fuss was about.

"A lot of guys would ask. A lot of guys would be jealous," Chang said. "Some guys even ask about it now. Like, 'Where can I get a pair of those?'"

When Greg Norman, the 20-time winner on the PGA Tour who won two majors, started wearing the shoe in the late 1980s, his fellow golfers noticed. And laughed at him.

"Guys made fun of me, of course, and I said, 'Hey, don't knock it until you try it,'" Norman said. "My feet are very comfortable and I don't get sore feet at the end of the day."

Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith said the Pump gave him extra stability and support around his ankles. That feature, combined with the shoe's ability to handle the turf, appealed to Smith. The look of it, however? Not so much.

"The style just hadn't caught up to it and it made it real difficult to have a real sexy-looking football shoe where you have cleats and all that stuff added to it," Smith said.

While Brown's dunk launched the Pump to new levels, it was also the culmination of years of work to help Reebok catch up to Nike in the sneaker wars of the 1990s. Reebok fell behind in market share, popularity and visibility in the late 1980s, with profits stagnant from 1987 to 1990, according to The New York Times. Nike was booming, on the other hand, with its Air technology spreading beyond running shoes, and the release of the Air Jordan and Air Max lines.

The future looked dire for Reebok, which didn't have any promising technology in the pipeline.

That started to change in 1988, when Reebok acquired tennis and ski brand Ellesse. During the meeting to finalize the acquisition, former Reebok CEO and owner Paul Fireman was given all of Ellesse's developmental technology, which included an inflatable tongue in a shoe that was taken out of a ski boot created by Ellesse founder Leonardo Servadio.

After the deal was done, Fireman created a team called Reebok Advanced Concepts, which was led by Paul Litchfield. One of the group's early assignments was to develop a better basketball shoe, and it began working with the Boston engineering firm Continuum. Eric Cohen, an engineer at Continuum at the time, said Reebok's initial partnership with Continuum was to work on their "energy return system" -- what Reebok could have put inside the midsole of the shoe to help people jump higher. When they realized there was nothing that could be added to shoes to help vertical leaps, Fireman gave the team the inflatable bladder from Ellesse.

Reebok had found a bit of success with its first basketball shoes, the BB series, which featured three models -- the 4600, 5600 and 6600 -- that were revolutionary at the time because of their soft, comfortable leather, in contrast to most other basketball shoes on the market that were made with thick leather.

In the fall of 1988, Reebok was setting out to create a shoe that was part ankle support, part tech and part toy. The company wanted to make a shoe that could accommodate a young person's foot through growth of a half or even a full size, an attractive feature to parents.

One of the very early prototypes that was developed between Reebok and Continuum was gluing an inflatable blood pressure cuff inside a basketball sneaker. The prototypes were given to the basketball team at Cohasset High School in Hingham, Massachusetts, about 20 miles southeast of Boston. After wearing it on the court, one of the players said, "These make me feel like I can play harder."

That's all Fireman needed to hear. He gave Litchfield's team and Continuum carte blanche to develop the sneaker.

Making the Pump

But building an inflatable bladder that could withstand the impact of a 200-pound basketball player stopping or cutting on a dime was easier said than done. Reebok and Continuum partnered with a small medical-device manufacturing company, Dialetrics, to work on the inflatable bladder. Together, they created the second-most innovative piece of footwear technology at the time, next to Nike's Air concept. The major difference between Nike's Air and Reebok's Pump technology was location. The Pump initially surrounded the foot with a bladder, which eventually changed into just a tongue bladder -- a major factor in the shoe's high initial price of $170. Nike's Air sat under the heel.

The first two prototypes of the Pump -- the Pro Pump, which was self-inflating, and the Pump Shot, which had a heel pump -- arrived in Massachusetts on Feb. 4, 1989. A day later, Reebok brought the shoe to The Super Show in Atlanta, which at the time was the world's largest sports product show. Reebok unveiled it to much fanfare but discovered at the show that Nike had been working on its own inflatable shoe, the Air Pressure. Litchfield caught a glimpse of the Nike display and one thing went through his mind.

"I'm like, we're screwed," Litchfield said.

Fireman, though, didn't flinch.

Reebok continued on with its version of the Pump, which it believed was inherently better than Nike's for one primary reason: Nike's had a separate hand-held pump. That eventually doomed the Nike shoe.

"Our reaction to it was pretty awful," said Scott Bedbury, who was Nike's worldwide director of advertising at the time both pump-style shoes launched. "We were never good at following. It was Nike following, which we never ever did well. I don't think that shoe lasted more than the season."

After the Atlanta show, Litchfield told the Pump team that he wanted the shoe on shelves by Black Friday that year. That was nine months away and all Reebok had at the time was a prototype. Reebok had enough feedback from testing to know a few design changes were necessary. Sometime in March or April, Litchfield gave the shoe to Paul Brown, Reebok's vice president of design at the time. Brown asked for a week to work on it.

A week later, Brown returned the shoe to Litchfield. He had moved the pump to the tongue and covered it with silicone to look like a basketball. Litchfield asked for one more change: Move the release valve from the heel to the tongue, next to the pump. One of the Pump's signature design elements was the logo on that orange basketball. IIt was designed by Jane Hathaway, an in-house graphic designer for Continuum. She was only given 15 minutes to create a better logo than the one Reebok had initially made, so she ran to her computer, and came up with the logo Reebok still uses today.

"I wanted it to feel bold, contemporary, yet simple," Hathaway said via email.

The Pump as we know it was born. Foot Locker ordered between 5,000 and 7,000 pairs, mostly as a favor to Reebok because of their long-standing relationship. All that the engineers at Continuum had to do was re-engineer the inflation mechanism in about five months.

Everything was running smoothly until the shoes arrived in Reebok's Massachusetts warehouse. About 3,000 pairs weren't inflating. A stitching mistake during production had cut off the air from the release valve. Once it was inflated during testing one last time, that was it. Knowing his job was on the line, Litchfield worked with Reebok's stitching room to rip out the stitching, replace a piece and restitch all the shoes.

The Pump was released on Nov. 24, 1989 at $170, the highest-priced sneaker on the market by about $70, Fireman said. From conception to market, the Pump took a year -- unheard of in the sneaker market at that time -- to create.

Despite the price, the Pump became a hit.

A year later, Reebok re-engineered the Pump yet again, moving the inflatable bladder to just the tongue. It lowered the price significantly. Reebok shipped 75 million pairs of shoes around the world in 1990, according to a 1991 article in The New York Times. Its revenue grew by 18% to $2.2 billion.

The Pump had made Reebok a dominant player in the shoe game. Dee Brown made it a "cultural phenomenon," Hardaway said. Shaq's signature shoe was a Pump. Shawn Kemp wore it. Eventually Allen Iverson's shoe, the Question, was made as a Pump.

Then the Pump slowly faded away.

The fall of the Pump

The basketball shoe has been replaced with the InstaPump Fury, a vastly different iteration that's a stripped-down version of the original idea. It has become popular among collaborators and fashion houses like Chanel and Vetements. Reebok also collaborated with Armani for a men's dress shoe with the Pump technology in 2010. Reebok tried to find different uses for the Pump technology, putting it in soccer shoes, ski gloves, weightlifting belts, hockey skates, inline skates and sideline jackets.

Today, the Pump from the early 1990s has become more of a fashion accessory than a performance product.

So, what happened?

"They would bring back these original models of the Pump, so say let's say Shaq Attack -- so Shaq's shoe. They'll bring that back in the two original colors," said D.J. Senatore, a Pump collector who has about 500 pairs of Pumps. "Then they would do literally like five or more colorways of that shoe and just destroy it. There were pairs I wouldn't order, I didn't want to order at the store or something and I'd end up getting them online, [a pair] that retails at $160 I remember buying pairs for like $25. So, that was the thing and they would do that with every model.

"It just got flooded and then once they're sitting, nobody wants them. It's not cool anymore, and nobody buys them."

Some of the Pump's former endorsers like former NBA players Danny Manning and Sam Perkins think the shoe would be a hit on the retro market. And while it might be, partly because of the desire to have old shoes and the nostalgia it sparks, Senatore, who worked with Reebok during its 25th anniversary of the Pump, thinks the market for Pumps has all but disappeared, ending the run of one of the most iconic basketball shoes of all time -- at least for the time being.

"I think that the thing is it really hits a chord for a lot of younger people," Senatore said. "It's a fad as well as a like a pop culture icon kind of thing.

"The original stuff will still sell for some money, but unfortunately the Reebok resale is just, it's dead."