More than any other sport, basketball has a special relationship with footwear. No one associates baseball or football stars with their respective cleats. Hockey players don’t even wear shoes. Yet basketball players are almost synonymous with their choice of footwear. And for many years, basketball players opted for high-top sneakers. But times may be changing.
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During the early 1900s, basketball gained in popularity across the United States, with the game flourishing at the high school and collegiate levels. Many players of the era sported high-top shoes like the Chuck Taylor All-Stars from Converse. Named for and endorsed by basketball player Chuck Taylor, the legendary high-top athletic shoes became standard issue for the 1936 U.S. Olympians and for American troops during World War II.
Unlike a traditional running shoe, high-tops have extra support around the ankle. The rear of the shoe extends up above the ankle bone, with the extra lacing helping to keep the ankle joint stable. Basketball requires almost constant running and jumping. Players must also make sudden cuts and sharp changes in direction. These high-impact movements, always conducted on hardwood floors, place tremendous pressure on the ankle. Without proper support, a basketball player’s ankles may wobble and become unstable, resulting in a variety of injuries, among them severe sprains. Basketball players tend to be large, heavy men, and their weight places even more stress on their vulnerable ankle joints.
While high-tops remain the shoe of choice for the vast majority of players, professional basketball players are beginning to wear low-cut shoes that don’t have any additional ankle support. Because they lack the extra material, low-cut shoes are much lighter than high-tops, helping improve speed and agility on the court. More importantly, several trainers, including Danny McLarty of Flex Personal Training, contend that low-cut shoes actually serve to strengthen ankles, forcing the muscles to stabilize the ankle joint on their own without any exterior support.
In 2008, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers sent shock waves throughout the basketball world when he endorsed a low-cut basketball shoe from Nike. Bryant showed no fear about switching to low-cut shoes, and actually instructed Nike to design his signature shoes to mirror those worn in soccer, one of his other passions. More and more players, especially the smaller guards, have been following Bryant’s lead, making low-cut basketball shoes a viable alternative to high-tops. Other proponents of low-tops include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Steve Nash.