A lifelong love affair with hoops shoes, derailed by a life of injury
The year was 2004, and I was a wide-eyed teenager about to try out for my freshman basketball team at Timpview High School. Like many teenagers at the time, my basketball journey was fueled by my heroes on the hardwood: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They weren’t just basketball legends; they were style icons, rocking Converse high-top sneakers that spoke of the era’s superstardom. Inspired by the bright lights behind their charisma and skill, I laced up my first pair of high-top Converse and felt an indescribable sense of invincibility… that is until I turned my ankle for the first time about 30 minutes into my very first try out.
Wanting to be like Mike
Fast forward to 2006. I finally felt I had lived down Michael Jordan downing my hometown Utah Jazz in back-to-back NBA Finals. I was ready to be like Mike, which included wearing the sneakers that bore his name. Air Jordans were more than footwear; they were a symbol of aspiration and excellence. I swapped my trusty Converse for those iconic Air Jordans, eager to emulate the man who redefined basketball — and then I turned my ankle… again.
The rise and fall of the high-top sneaker
It turns out, my experience with high top sneakers and ankle sprains is nothing out of the ordinary. For decades, basketball sneakers were synonymous with high-tops, from Chuck Taylors to Air Jordans. These towering shoes were believed to provide crucial ankle support, a vital consideration for a sport that involves constant movement, quick direction changes, and the ever-present risk of ankle injuries. However, the notion that high-tops were superior in preventing injuries remains to this day largely unproven.
The science behind high-tops
Contrary to popular belief, no conclusive scientific evidence demonstrates that high-top sneakers are more effective at reducing ankle injuries than their low-top counterparts. The concept of ankle support seems straightforward: a high upper, pulled tightly, stabilizes the ankle. But this theory lacks scientific backing. Scientific studies have failed to show significant differences in ankle protection between high-tops and low-tops.
Low-tops: A game-changing innovation
In 2008, Kobe Bryant challenged the status quo by advocating for low-top basketball shoes. Drawing inspiration from soccer players, whose cleats are inherently low, Kobe wanted to prove that basketball didn’t necessitate high-tops. His Zoom Kobe IV revolutionized the industry, offering the freedom of a low-top without compromising performance. This move sparked a trend noticed by modern hoopers as well:
“Growing up in Germany, I noticed soccer players play in a fairly similar way to basketball players: quick changes in direction, side-to-side cutting, and lots of variation between sprinting and slower speeds,” said Franz Wagner, a budding superstar with the Orlando Magic. “And when was the last time you saw a soccer player wearing a big bulky high-top shoe?”
In other words, there’s a reason basketball players like us are embracing the minimalist approach of modern basketball shoes. Today, nearly half of Nike’s basketball lineup consists of low-tops.
Injuries continue to dominate
Despite the performance enhancements of low-top sneakers, there’s still one problem that derails more hoopers’ careers than any other. According to Hashtag Basketball’s database, which tracks the causes of the 4,000-plus times NBA players have missed games since 2010, only one injury has been a more common culprit than “sprained right ankle”: sprained left ankle. Over that time, ankle injuries cost players a cumulative 15 years’ worth of action.
NBA Launchpad: The NBA’s response to ankle injuries
After decades of struggling with ankle injuries, NBA Launchpad emerged in 2022 as the League’s initiative to source, evaluate, and pilot emerging technologies that advance the NBA’s top basketball and business priorities. The goal of the program is to attract talented entrepreneurs and companies that can innovate the NBA ecosystem. In 2022, the league chose a German company called Betterguards to focus on ankle injury prevention and recovery technology.
Advancements in sports technology
Working alongside league officials, the company developed the world’s first and only adaptive ankle brace that works like a seatbelt-like to protect ankles from injuries. Now when NBA players walk, run or cut at a normal speed, the technology allows normal freedom of movement, just like when a passenger slowly unfurls a seat belt to fasten it. But when there is a sharp turn of the ankle, the product’s hydraulic walls close tightly in less than a millisecond to prevent the ankle from rolling over, just as a seat belt restricts a passenger from falling forward during a crash.
Franz Wagner was the first NBA player to adopt the ankle protection technology full-time. According to Franze, “there’s a reason basketball players like us are embracing the minimalist approach of The BetterGuard. It’s actually much better for us to have freedom of movement in an ankle brace vs. wearing the enormous high-top shoes and bulky ankle braces people used to play in before.”
My experience with NBA’s own technology
In the early 90’s I thought I had hung up my basketball shoes for good. Following recurring ankle injuries, I felt father time had caught up to me and I figured it was time to sit in my rocker and reminisce. After struggling with ankle injuries that derailed my own career at a very young age, I finally got a chance to try the only ankle brace developed by the NBA for myself. It was incredibly freeing to be able to walk out on the court wearing a product proven to reduce ankle injuries by up to 80%. As the old guy now on the court, I can’t regain the athleticism I lost when I was younger, but knowing I have a seatbelt around my ankles makes me feel like I still have a few good years left in the tank.
The late ’80s and ’90s saw a fusion of basketball and fashion, with sneakerheads coveting iconic shoes like Air Jordans. However, as the game evolved and sneaker technology improved, the divide between sneakerheads and athletes widened. As the basketball industry continues to innovate, one thing is clear: the era of high-tops as the default choice is behind us. For hoopers today, functionality now trumps aesthetics, leading to the rise of performance-driven footwear.