Nike Archives: The Dunk

Nike Archives: The Dunk

We have seen our fair share of various Nike Dunk iterations being released in the last few months with the most recent being the Nike Dunk High Michigan. The dunk has seen a sudden resurgence after various celebrities were seen wearing the silhouette along with a few high level collaborations, most notably Travis Scott. Very few are actually of the opinion that dunks have only recently become popular, but not many know that there has actually been a long history between Nike and the dunk silhouette, similar to that of the Air Jordan 1. This blog will be looking at the history and key and iconic, Nike Dunk silhouettes.

The second most-popular shoe to debut in 1985, after the Jordan 1, the Dunk was never intended as a flagship model. Instead, it was a college-centric basketball shoe. Designed for NCAA athletes, the Dunk was an attempt to capitalize on the collegiate leagues' growing appeal. But, despite playing second fiddle to one of the most successful Nike sneakers of all time, the shoe took on a life all its own, quickly diverging from its intended audience and finding new life in a variety of subcultures. From there, the shoe faded in and out of public consciousness, never quite hitting fever pitch but always making waves.


Designed by former Nike creative director Peter Moore, the Dunk was created as a natural development from the Air Force 1 that debuted three years prior. Bearing a resemblance to both the Jordan I and Nike Terminator, the upper featured subtle tweaks. Though often described as a precursor to the Jordan I, in reality, the Dunk was released slightly after the initial Jordan model, which was personally developed to sway Jordan himself to sign with a swoosh. The Dunk did not particularly stand out from the rest of the Nike line-up.

Originally named the College Color High, the shoe somewhat randomly coincided with the 40th anniversary of the “first” slam dunk, leading to a last-minute name change. In fact, the most memorable aspect of the sneaker was its debut marketing campaign. In anticipation of the shoe’s release, Nike launched the now-iconic “Be True to Your School” collection. As “College Color” implies, the Nike Dunk was designed as a shoe for college basketball teams. Teams like UNLV, Michigan, St. John’s, Syracuse, Iowa and Kentucky (amongst others) all received the “Be True” treatment which turned out to be major success.

Throughout the mid- to late-'80s, the Dunk was a favorite, but given basketball’s explosion in popularity and a renewed focus on technological innovation across the sneaker industry, the Dunk quickly became outdated and no longer suited for the court.

Eventually, the sneaker received a mid-life update and received a nylon tongue. This made the sneaker way more comfortable and was soon adopted by skaters and sneakerheads who just loved the silhouette.

Wu-Tang Clan

In 1999, after 14 years, Nike finally re-released the “Be True to Your School”, adding a number of extra colorways. Of the new releases, by far the most notable was the now infamous “Wu-Tang” Dunk. In reality just a special edition Iowa Dunk with an embroidered “Wu W” on the heel, Nike repurposed the design and created 36 pairs—an ode to the groups essential album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—which were gifted to Wu-Tang Clan members and associates. Eventually word got out and considering the incredible rarity, a legend was born. Today, the shoes are some of the most valuable and sought-after dunks on the market and sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

The rise of sneaker forums like NikeTalk in the early-2000s perfectly coincided with the Dunk retros. For many of the first “sneakerheads,” their primary focus was collecting not only the “Be True” pack, but regional exclusives as well. While these geographically-limited Dunks had existed for a couple years, before the dawn of forum culture, it was nearly impossible to know about them, let alone buy them, if you lived outside the immediate area. With eager collectors blogging about every single release, however, suddenly buying and trading became a real possibility. Even CO.JP releases were suddenly on the radar. Partly spearheaded by the godfather of Japanese streetwear himself, Hiroshi Fujiwara, the CO.JP exclusives were so enticing that eager fans literally made trips across the globe for an opportunity to score a pair.

Nike SB Dunk

The 2000s rolled around and skate culture had become a growing scene that Nike wanted to be a part of. But skaters did not want to be associated or work with Nike – they were a symbol of corporate America. It didn’t help that at the time, Nike’s line of skateboarding sneakers was not exactly all the rage.

Nike eventually tasked Sandy Bodecker with revamping the ailing department – beginning what would be the greatest era in the history of the Nike Dunk. Sandy noticed that Nike already had a presence in the skate scene. Skaters had begun buying old Air Jordan 1s that had gone on sale – they were cheap, durable, and provided excellent board feel and grip. That’s when it struck him, Nike SB did not need to create a sneaker.

Sandy dug into Nike’s archives and decided to bring back the Nike Dunk. Long forgotten, the sneaker was turned into a low top, given a beefier tongue and additional padding. The end result is a classic sneaker that is customized to the needs of skaters.

But that was not enough. Skaters did not want a mass-produced, widely available sneaker. This led to Nike SB’s successful marketing strategy – producing all colorways in very limited numbers and only made available through selected skate shops. The attention finally arrived.

For the official launch of the SB Dunk Low Pro, the four original Nike SB riders received an exclusive dunk colorway. Referred to as the “Colors By” series, the pack was entirely intended for skaters. Each colorway—supposedly a direct reflection of its respective rider—made its way onto the NikeTalk forums, and Dunk veterans quickly sunk their teeth in. Within a matter of months, serious sneakerheads began frequenting small skate shops to secure limited SB Dunks. Simultaneously, Nike SB dropped collaborative Dunks with both Zoo York and Chocolate—landmark skate brands at the time—and, eventually, Supreme. The first ever non-Jordan sneakers to feature elephant print, the Supreme SB Dunks were the last figurative brick in the wall, and by September, 2002, every Nike collector in the game was after them.

Though mainline dunks largely fell off, throughout the '00s Nike SB Dunks were at the center of sneaker culture. Not only did colorways sell out, but demand was so great that riots ensued, most famously over Jeff Staple’s infamous “Pigeon” SB Dunk lows. Sold out of the designer and creative collaborator's Reed Space retail store in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on the day of the drop thousands of eager shoppers flooded the streets. The hype was so intense, to the point where each successful customer required a police escort to leave the shop safely. More than a landmark moment for the SB Dunk, the "Pigeon Dunk" riot made national news, and is largely cited as the moment sneaker culture went mainstream.

Yet, despite notable releases in the early-2010s, for some reason, the market imploded. Pairs that just a few years prior commanded hefty four figure sums by 2015 were essentially worthless. Be it shifting taste, or the rise of new sneaker lines (like Yeezy), for some inexplicable reason, shoes once considered “grails” were no longer even in the conversation.

History has a tendency of repeating itself. Safe to say, the Nike Dunk did not stay in the archives for long. Early 2019, we began to see the Nike Dunk pop up again. This time, on the feet of Travis Scott, Wale, and many other prominent rappers. Collectively, the rap scene began rocking elusive and rare Dunks from the early 2000s, bringing the sneaker back to the public’s consciousness. Eventually, Travis Scott dropped his very own Nike SB collaboration featuring the celebrated silhouette and the rest is history.

Today, most sneakerheads are aware of the hype and are cashing in. A Dunk cannot stay on the Nike SNKRS site for more than a minute before completely selling out. But instead of just jumping on the bandwagon, at least now, you’re well equipped with the history of the Nike Dunk from its beginnings as Nike’s college hoop sneaker, a skating icon to the sneakerhead grail.

Be sure to check out the Nike Dunk Collection we have available here. We can assure you that it wont be long before we are completely sold out of dunks due to the popularity its gaining as mentioned above, so be sure to grab yours today!