The History and Notable Models of the Nike Basketball ‘Uptempo’ Line

Traditionally at Nike Basketball, there have been three distinct lines of design, each specialized for a certain type of player: Flight, Force, and Uptempo. For the quick and lighter guards: Flight. For the powerful and heavy centers and forwards: Force. And for all those players in between: Uptempo.

For a little background on all three lines, it’s worth noting that the Uptempo line—created for players that didn’t quite fit into the mold of a guard or power player—didn’t exist from the beginning of Nike Basketball’s distinction of sneaker styles. Of course, “Force” had been in Nike’s basketball lexicon since the famous Air Force 1 released in 1982, but it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the brand broke down most of their basketball models into two main categories: Force and Flight. Looking back at the game of the time, it made sense to only have these two categories, because most players fit into these two styles of play. A nimble guard like Michael Jordan wore Flight sneakers (the Air Jordan IV from 1989 was among the first models to be branded with the Flight moniker), while bigger guys banging in the post like Charles Barkley and David Robinson wore Force models.

But by the mid 1990’s, the game of basketball began to change, and a new and more dynamic style of player had emerged. Whether it was a new face like the versatile point-forward Penny Hardaway, or the emerging all-around talent of Scottie Pippen who slowly but surely transformed from Air Jordan’s sidekick to a legit superstar in his own right, there was now also a need for more versatile footwear; Models that could provide a light, speedy design, but also offer plenty of cushioning and support. Enter the Uptempo line.

Penny Hardaway, who I mentioned already, is perhaps the perfect example of a player demanding a more all-around shoe. Then the most versatile player since Magic Johnson, Penny seemed to be able to do it all on the court. Consequently, Penny’s Air Penny from 1995 could be considered the first Uptempo signature shoe—even if it wasn’t branded with Uptempo in the name.

The Air Penny was just the beginning, and by the late 90’s there were many now-classic models under the Uptempo division of Nike Basketball. Although since the year 2000—as technologies advanced and the brand began putting out less models each year in need of specific Flight, Force or Uptempo distinction—Nike has mostly abandoned the Uptempo branding. But the idea of versatile, all-around shoes suitable for most players has certainly not disappeared. Just think of LeBron James’ line, which are shoes built for perhaps the most versatile player ever.

While the “Uptempo” name may be gone from the current Nike Basketball line up, it lives on with retro releases of the classic 90’s models, some of which are among the brand’s most celebrated silhouettes ever. Below is my handpicked list for the most notable Uptempo models of all time.

All illustrations courtesy of Al Rodriguez of MisZapas.net

01
of 07

Air Uptempo (1995)

nike-air-uptempo-1995.jpg
MisZapas.net

The first shoe with “Uptempo” in the name was called, simply, the Air Uptempo. Never receiving a retro release and mostly forgotten today, the Air Uptempo was an affordable, all-around model with visible Air in the heel and a forward-moving design.

02
of 07

Air Max2 Uptempo (1995)

nike-air-max2-uptempo-1995.jpg
MisZapas.net

Along with the Air Max2 CB signature for Charles Barkley, the Air Max2 Uptempo was the first basketball shoe to have the then-new Air Max2 technology. This modified edition of the classic Air Max utilized a system of Air chambers with strategically different densities of air pressure for more ideal cushioning. Not seen often on the NBA court, the Air Max2 Uptempo became associated more with college basketball as teams like Duke, UCONN and Michigan all wore the model in 1995.

03
of 07

Air Max Uptempo (1996)

nike-air-max-uptempo-1996.jpg
MisZapas.net
The Air Max Uptempo was the first Nike Basketball shoe to feature a full-length visible Air unit. Though only retroed a handful of times, this model is among the favorite designs of many 90’s Nike Basketball aficionados.
04
of 07

Air More Uptempo (1996)

nike-air-more-uptempo-1996.jpg
MisZapas.net

Early in his career, Scottie Pippen was a poster boy for the Flight series, but as his all-around game progressed he eventually began wearing Uptempo models like the Air Max Uptempo and this shoe that’s closely associated with him, the Air More Uptempo. The bold and shamelessly-branded More Uptempo was not an official signature shoe for Pippen, but thanks to him wearing them on the 1996 Championship run with the Bulls and then in the ‘96 Olympics, the shoe with “AIR” emblazoned across its upper and Scottie will be forever linked.

05
of 07

Air Max Uptempo III (1997)

nike-air-max-uptempo-iii.jpg
MisZapas.net

The Air Max Uptempo line continued with the Uptempo III in 1997. Sometimes also referred to as the “Air Max Uptempo ‘97”, the shoe featured the biggest Air bubble yet on a basketball shoe. Its unique design features a bulky, but supportive midsole with large “teardrop” shapes and wavy lines above. This model is another all-time classic in the opinion of many Nike Basketball fans.

06
of 07

Air Total Max Uptempo (1997)

nike-air-total-max-uptempo-1997.jpg
MisZapas.net

Similar to the Air Max Uptempo III, the Total Max Uptempo from later in 1997 featured basically the same full-length Air unit, but had a more streamlined, fluid-looking upper. The Total Max Uptempo is closely associated with Reggie Miller, who wore them during the 1997-98 season and was the shoe’s main endorser in ads.

07
of 07

Vis Zoom Uptempo (1999)

nike-air-vis-zoom-uptempo-1999.jpg
MisZapas.net

Not only does the Vis Zoom Uptempo look great, it also debuted the visible Zoom technology (hence the shoe’s name) to Nike Basketball. For whatever reason, Vis Zoom didn’t stick around for long, only showing up sporadically in basketball designs throughout the years—until it came back with a vengeance (albeit in a modified version) in the LeBron 10 in 2012. Also like Vis Zoom, the Uptempo name seemed to pretty much die in 1999, but the legacy of high-performance, versatile basketball shoes live on in Nike Basketball’s design language today.