The Epic History of Nike AF 1 Sneakers

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I’m not exactly a shoe guy. I’m getting there though, little by little. Basketball is a shoe game after all. And I want to know the game, in and out. And the AF 1 is THE basketball sneaker. Let’s dive into the history of Nike AF 1 sneakers.

Like, it’s basically the original basketball sneaker. Maybe a mild overstep, there were sneakers before the AF 1. There was just never anything quite like the AF 1.

And yet, I had no idea of the importance of the AF 1 until a couple of weeks ago, about 40 years into The AF 1’s production.

I was at my court. A couple of kids showed up. One I had played the previous season. He was wearing these old school shoes, so I asked what they were.

He explained that they were the Force, and the only basketball shoe he plays in. He also says he usually straps up the tops, but apparently I’m ‘light work”. I made him strap up eventually…

A Quick History of Nike AF 1’s

The shoe was designed by Bruce Kilgore and released in 1982. It was Bruce’s first basketball shoe, and it certainly made a statement.

Kilgore drew inspiration from hiking boots with the high-top and padded collar for ankle support. Quality materials meant that the shoe had a break-in period, but would ultimately form to the foot for a fit like a well-worn baseball glove.

The shoes didn’t catch on immediately; not widely at least. They picked up a following in Harlem at first, earning them the nickname “uptowns”. That following in the city spread quickly down the 95, into Philly, D.C. and Baltimore.

It didn’t spread fast enough though. Production was suspended in 1984, after only 2 years.

But 3 sneaker shops in Baltimore, lamenting the loss of a popular model, managed to strike a deal for a run of special edition AF 1’s. In 1985, these stores secured the royal blue and chocolate brown AF 1’s.

Not long after, and owing to the success of that first re-release, Nike began producing special edition AF 1’s on a regular basis under the “Shoe of the Month Club”. This cemented the model as a collectors item, and ultimately a golden standard in sneaker culture.

Production hasn’t halted since 1986. The AF 1 remains one of Nike’s most popular shoes.

Hip Hop Culture and the AF 1

But it wasn’t just its value on the basketball court that has kept the AF 1 alive all these years. Even if they do remain a serious contender for the best outdoor basketball shoe of all time.

In the 80’s and 90’s the Force would become a symbol of hip-hop culture. See, there was a chunk of time in America when a smart kid growing up in a city without money or some kind of incredible talent, didn’t have many reasonable options in life beyond selling drugs.

So then you would sell drugs right? And you would find yourself with cash, and nowhere good to put it. And considering the occupational hazard, you’d kinda want to spend that cash as soon as possible anyway. So you buy stuff.

It so happens that right at that time you’ve got this popular shoe, already a symbol of culture, but now with these limited special editions that make it equally a symbol of status. And so as the AF 1 became a status symbol in the city, it crept into the music of the city. and it’s never really left.

Artists from Jay-Z to Drake have all referenced the shoe in their lyrics and worn it in their videos. The association with hip-hop certainly helped encourage the longevity of the AF 1 as the fashion icon it is today.

Nike AF 1 Variations

The AF 1 High (1982)

The original model was a high-top. Cutting edge technology at the time. The circular tread was innovative then and is still holding strong today. And Kilgore made sure to incorporate Nike’s proprietary air technology into the design.

nike af 1 tread pattern

The AF 1 Low (1983)

The low top followed pretty quickly behind. And the low is what made the model what it is today. The high top is great. But it’s the low that appealed to a whole new audience class and made the AF 1 the casual, goes with anything shoe, that it is today.

Pure Black AF 1’s

We’re diving into meme culture here. Around 2018/ But if you’ve gone through your share of AF1’s, you should be aware that the all-black colorway gets funky quick. Some would argue that it comes funky to begin with.

But it makes sense. The obsession with keeping the all-white AF 1 clean leads to the idea that

Having spent an unhealthy healthy chunk of my youth in professional kitchens, I personally know the value of an all-black shoe that doesn’t totally suck. Restaurants typically want you to wear black shoes. And OSHA wants you to have non-slip soles. What you’re left with is a thin selection of garbage shoes that are not at all cool in any way.

The AF 1 doesn’t have a technically, OSHA approved, ‘non-slip’ sole but it is highly passable to the naked eye. And that means that the all-black AF 1 has picked up a following in the service industry as one of the few work shoes worth owning. And that, in turn, means it’s developed a reputation as the shoe of the dirtbag. Check out the Urban Dictionary entry for ‘Black Air force Energy’ for clarification.

This is not unwarranted. The service industry welcomes dirtbags. It encourages late nights and behavior that may well be considered inappropriate, particularly during daylight hours. And the unspoken hero of the service industry, the character you least wanna mess with, is the cook.

Stay Fresh AF1’s

Especially with the all-white colorway that remains incredibly popular, there’s a strong emphasis placed on crispness. In a fashion sense, these shoes will go with just about any outfit. But if they are not pristine (i.e. they are ‘cooked’) then they are no longer dress worthy.

For this reason, it’s pretty common to keep two pairs on hand. One pair is for walking around, maybe even hooping. The backup pair is for occasions. Fans will go as far as to avoid bending their toes while walking in order to avoid creases.

This year Nike is introducing a new model that is intended to stay fresh longer. It’s not entirely clear how they pull this off, but the intention is that the leather stays clean and uncreased for a longer period.

Nike AF 1 Special Editions

Specials are deeply tied to the AF 1 lore and resilience. It was the launch of the first special editions that really pulled the Af 1 under the skin of East Coast street culture.

To this day, special edition Air Force 1’s are a staple in the Nike line. These designs frequently end up among the most sought-after sneaker sets on the planet. At this point, there are over 200 variations of the Nike AF 1.

That’s way too many to try and cover in one sitting, but let’s at least check out a few of the more important issues.

The AF 1 Linen

nike af 1 linen clear background

The Linen was originally released as a Japanese exclusive, an attempt to promote the brand in foreign markets. You get a brown linen outsole with a pink swoosh. In 2016, the linen was re-released in the US. A pristine pair can push into the 1500$ range on the secondary market. People love the exclusivity and the incredibly cute color scheme.

The AF 1 Year of the Rabbit

This Chinese New Year 2012 release is just super sick. Vibrant colors and that semi translucent sole. These aren’t the most coveted specials, but they’re one of my favorites. A decent set will get you for well over $1000.

The AF 1 Playstation

Released in 2006, I think these ones are pretty lame, honestly. And I’m a gamer. But the Playstation AF 1’s are some of the most expensive shoes out there.

The limited production run offered only 150 numbered pairs, released in conjunction with the release of the Playstation 3. In 2009, for the tenth anniversary of the PlayStation 2, there was a re-issue with an even more limited run. You can even find a bunch of subtle pattern differences in these, so they’re crazy unique. The end result is, if you want to snag a pair of these, you can expect to pay $40k+.

The AF 1 Wheat

Released in 2001, there was a mid and a low, but the mid is a little easier to get ahold of. It’s a simple colorway, the gum sole and a perfect shade of brown, but it really is quite elegant.

The AF 1 Postal Ghost

nike af 1 postal ghost clear background

One of the goofiest AF 1 specials out there, this one ‘finally’ dropped in 2023 after a drawn out hangup with the postal service. Like, there was literally some contention between Nike and the USPS over the Priority Mail aesthetic. Leave it to bureaucrats to take issue with something this ridiculous.

The AF 1 Taiwan

nike af 1 taiwan clear background

The Air Force 1 Low Retro ‘Taiwan’ is a unique take. A highly coveted 2001 release that was, like the linen above, an Asian exclusive. It was released during the 2018 NBA All-Star weekend in Los Angeles. The gradient swoosh is particularly interesting.


The Nike Air Force 1 has a rich history as an icon of sneaker culture. Its unique design, cultural impact, and enduring popularity have made it one of the most beloved shoes in the world.

The Air Force 1 continues to be a favorite among sneaker enthusiasts and will undoubtedly remain a symbol of style and innovation for many years to come. It’s just a model that anyone who is interested in shoe culture needs to have on hand.

You don’t have to wear them all the time. You probably shouldn’t. But a crisp pair in the back of the closet is going to come in handy at some point.