Back in the late ‘90s, back to school was everything. What a time it was. 20 years ago, I was a teenager who spent plenty of summer nights in August flipping through those Eastbay catalogs, thinking about all the shoes I wanted to show off in class. I was not old enough to work yet, so staring at all the sneaker options was both heaven and torture at the same time. I knew how good we had it. I knew how fire every shoe in those catalogs was — I just couldn’t afford anything. Fortunately, as time has passed, the good people at Nike have brought back plenty of the sneakers I could only stare at as a kid.
I didn’t think much about it back then, but over the past few years, I’ve realized how many interesting variations Nike made on classic models that were made just for the youth. Here’s a look back at some of the best back to school” sneakers from the late ‘90s — made just for the young athletes.
Fresh off their incredible 72-10 championship season, the sneakers Chicago wore (and anything that resembled them) were the hot items going back to school that fall. Michael Jordan’s AJ XI had a low-cut version that was available for kids in both black and white. MJ sported the black/red model in the playoffs very briefly, but he never wore the white version in an NBA game.
Additionally, the sneaker Scottie Pippen sported throughout the ‘96 Finals, the Air More Uptempo, also featured a takedown version with a heel Air Sole unit. Gary Payton famously rocked the white Much Uptempo during the ‘96 Summer Olympic Games. Speaking of the Olympics, the Air Zoom Flight was worn by Orlando star Penny Hardaway that summer, and all the kids wanted to be like Penny back then.
You may recognize the Air Jumpman Pro since they are back on shelves in 2019. The Jumpman Pro was a popular takedown version of the Air Jordan XII and was featured in some similar colorways to Jordan’s 12th model. There was also an Air Pippen model for Scottie, and the Total Max Uptempo was worn by stars like Reggie Miller. Both the Pippen and Uptempo featured the biggest visible Air Sole units Nike had ever made.
The Superturf, which was the children’s version of Barry Sanders’ Super Zoom model, was an extremely underrated sneaker in terms of design and style. It featured the new Zoom Air technology for a low-to-the-ground feel for sharper cuts and quicker acceleration on the field. And don’t forget about that Air Hawk Flight, which was made for the Sonics’ Gary “The Glove” Payton.
1998 featured some of the most slept-on sneakers, including the Air Max 98 TL and the Air Pippen II. Neither of these sneakers got much love, which is too bad because they were great designs and ultra comfortable. In this particular picture, there are two Air Max running models shown: the Air Max 98 and Air Max 98 TL. The kids’ models featured different soles than the adults’ (letter “A” is the Air Max 98 with an Air Max 95 sole. Letter “B” is the 98 TL but with an Air Max 97 sole). It would be really cool to see both come back with these soles attached.
The Pippen sneaker was Scottie’s second signature model, and he won his last championship with the Bulls while rocking them. Over the years, they’ve been retroed but without much fanfare. The Air Sunder was a very popular training sneaker back in ‘98 but has fallen under the radar over the years. Anyone who owned a pair loved them and would love to see them return. They came in a ton of different colors and definitely had that wild, crazy late ‘90s vibe going for them.
1999 was an insane year for back to school with two full pages to choose from. Some of the most notable sneakers included the Air Jordan XIV in five classic colors, along with the Air Jordan XIII Lo in the black/chutney colorway that has yet to retro. Also of note was the Nike Youth Air Max, otherwise known as the Air Tuned Max for adults. This model featured an Air Max 97 sole instead of the Tuned Air Max sole, and if Nike brought this exact model back, it would be a huge hit.
For Jordan Team fans, the Jumpman Quick 6 was available for the young guards, as well as the Jordan 3 Percent for the kids who liked to cross train. The 3 Percent was named after Michael Jordan’s body fat percentage, which was incredibly low. One last Jordan model was the Jumpman VINdicate made for power forwards like the Bucks’ Vin Baker.
Overall, Nike was making big statements in footwear fashion and technology, which is why so many kids chose to rock Nikes for back to school. And for those of us who couldn’t have everything back then, we’re slowly trying to cross off everything we wanted on our checklists as Nike and Jordan continue to retro more and more of these classics. It’s like we’re reliving our childhood all over again.