Player: Scottie Pippen
Original Release: 1996
Designer: Wilson Smith III
Release Type: General release
Weight: 16.9 ounces
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That’s what Tinker Hatfield told designer Wilson Smith III after seeing a sketch of the Air More Uptempo. And for good reason, because up until that point, the Air More Uptempo was bold like nothing anyone had ever seen before.
Less than a year earlier, Nike advertised the Air Max Uptempo as having “the most Nike-Air cushioning we’ve ever put into one sole”. The Air More Uptempo took it a step further, combining full length Air cushioning with conspicuous branding by displaying the word “Air” on both sides of the shoe.
Scottie Pippen, the Air More Uptempo’s primary ambassador, thought the shoe stood out more than the Air Jordan XI that Michael Jordan was wearing at the time. Pippen described the Air More Uptempo as a graffiti shoe and admitted he was initially shocked by its bold branding.
However, his confidence in the way he and the Chicago Bulls were playing ultimately influenced him to wear them during the 1996 playoffs and Olympics. Originally named the Air Biggest, the Air More Uptempo became a statement shoe, a brash testament to Pippen’s basketball dominance on-court and pop culture dominance off-court.
Like other members of the Uptempo line, the Air More Uptempo was “ideal for the vertical player who needed the lockdown and abundance of cushioning”. This usually meant mid-sized, versatile players – 6’5”-6’8” – who were bigger and stronger than your average guard but more nimble than a traditional post player. As Wilson Smith once said, “Good design solves problems. It’s not just beautiful; it solves problems.”
The Air More Uptempo did indeed solve problems, or at least it helped. It helped solve the problem of the Bulls losing to the Knicks in the ‘94 playoffs, with a 4-1 victory over New York in the ‘96 East Semis. It helped solve the problem of losing to the Orlando Magic in ‘95, with a 4-0 sweep in the ‘96 Eastern Conference Finals. It helped solve a two year championship drought when the Bulls downed the Seattle SuperSonics 4-2 in what was the greatest mismatch in NBA Finals history at the time. And if that wasn’t enough, the shoe helped get Pippen another Olympic gold medal.
In spite of the feats accomplished on court, it was its flashy style that made the Air More Uptempo a timeless classic more than two decades after its initial release. As Pippen once said, “The shoe came out and took graffiti off the wall and put the art on my feet…the shoe came out way before its time.”
Aside from being futuristic, the Air More Uptempo was, in a lot of ways, ironic. The loudest sneaker in the game would become synonymous with a man known by many as the silent assassin, MJ’s talented yet underappreciated, introverted partner in crime. Yet maybe this was by design, because playoff averages of 17 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6 assists and 2.6 steals per game need no further explanation. Both Pippen’s game and his shoes spoke for themselves.
The Air More Uptempo was designed by Wilson Smith III who, like his creation, is a pioneer in the sneaker industry. While the shoe was one of the first to incorporate full length visible Air, its contribution to sneaker culture doesn’t even register when compared to that of its creator, who became Nike’s first African American footwear designer.
Smith graduated from the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts in 1980 with a degree in architecture. At the urging of Tinker Hatfield, Nike hired him in 1983 as a Corporate Interior Designer designing showrooms, stores, offices and graphic publications. By 1990, he had moved into Nike’s product design division and became the Senior designer for Nike Tennis, repurposing his architectural training into designing “homes for the feet”: athletic footwear. He would soon become involved with Nike Basketball and Cross Training as well.
It’s hard to be a Nike consumer and not be affected by Smith’s genius. He was involved in many of the Swoosh’s most popular designs like Charles Barkley’s Air Max CB34, as well as numerous lines of apparel. We also have Smith to thank for the Andre Agassi signature series, which he inherited from Hatfield in 1994, as well as Roger Federer’s and Serena Williams’ lines. By 1997, he became Jordan Brand’s first dedicated designer and would create the Air Jordan XVI (2001) and XVII (2002).
Smith is currently a Senior Designer at Nike and teaches Product Design at the University of Oregon. He continues to innovate, recently working on products designed for athletes with disabilities. He is also focused on giving back, working with Nike Better World projects which focus on aiding recovery efforts in Haiti and providing sports programs to underserved communities in the US and Canada. In 2018, the University of Oregon’s College of Design bestowed upon him their highest honor, the Ellis F. Lawrence Medal of Honor.
With a resume like that, there’s no question that in spite of its popularity, the Air More Uptempo merely represents a fraction of Wilson Smith’s accomplishments.
FIVE ORIGINAL COLORWAYS
The Air More Uptempo originally released in five colorways:
DESIGN FEATURES: “AIR” > Air
One thing we admire in a masterpiece is that it represents an extension of its creator. If we look closely, we can often gain insight into the creator’s mind. The Air More Uptempo is no exception to that.
Shortly after the Air Max Uptempo was advertised as having the most Air ever put in a shoe, Nike outdid itself again. The Air More Uptempo took Air to the next level, both figuratively and literally. Featuring a total of 7 Nike Swooshes on each shoe, the Air More Uptempo was, along with the Air Max Uptempo, the first basketball shoe to feature Air sole units that ran the length of the shoe. While previous releases, like the Air Max CW, only had heel and forefoot Air Max units, the Air More Uptempo (and the Air Max Uptempo) added a midfoot Air unit to go along with the forefoot and heel units.
Unlike the Air Max Uptempo however, it was “AIR” and not Air that made the More Uptempo the cultural icon it is today. That is, the “AIR” lettering across the sides of the shoe and not the Air sole units. Wilson Smith spoke of his process: “I think, generally, the mid 90s were a bigger-than-life time… I knew where the Air bag kind of lined up, so I flipped it and on the medial I made the ‘AIR’ in the other direction.” Smith was influenced by the larger than life mid 90s culture, including pop art, subway graffiti, and an old architectural project of his. This influence is, quite literally, written all over the Air More Uptempo.
The Air More Uptempo featured a full grain leather, Durabuck and ballistic mesh upper, molded lace locks, gore elastic reinforcement straps, a polyurethane midsole and the aforementioned Air sole units. The shoe was bulky, weighing 16.9 ounces, in part due to its abundant Air sole cushioning. This meant that the Air More Uptempo was high off the ground, a feature Pippen would eventually reject in favor of the lower-to-the-ground Zoom Air cushioning.
This bold shoe however included a few subtleties, with Smith adding the aesthetic detail of having the word “AIR” line up exactly with the Air bags along the sole. While the More Uptempo was not an official signature shoe, Pippen wore them during the Bulls’ 1996 playoff run and during the 1996 Olympics. Arguably, the Air More Uptempo is the most visible shoe of Pippen’s career, outshining even his official signature shoes.
Of note, a takedown version of the Air More Uptempo, the Air Much Uptempo, also released in 1996. Strikingly similar to the More Uptempo but lighter and designed for Point Guards, the Much Uptempo featured an encapsulated forefoot Air sole unit and visible heel Air sole unit instead of full length visible Air. The Air Much Uptempo was also lighter, weighing only 15.5 ounces.
A shoe that says it all doesn’t need an introduction. And while that certainly is the case for the Air More Uptempo, it didn’t stop Nike from featuring the shoe in numerous ads. Here are a few from the Air More Uptempo’s original run:
Click here to view the Periodic Table of Basketball Elements Ad.
The Air More Uptempo’s popularity transcended basketball making it a pop culture icon. Nothing made this fact more clear than its appearance in the 1997 film George of the Jungle (though the movie did not use the correct box, instead using the Air Muscle Max box).
Not to be forgotten, the Air Much Uptempo made an appearance in the 1997 film Air Bud.
The OG black/white/black Air More Uptempo retroed in 2006, 2010 and 2016. They are due to return again in late 2020. So far, all of the retros have failed to adequately replicate the OGs, making unnecessary changes to the shape, colorings and lettering of the shoe.
In 1996, the black/white/black Air More Uptempo retailed at $139.99 (about $229 in 2020).
The 2006 retros retailed at $150 (about $191 in 2020).
The 2010 retros retailed at $160 (about $188 in 2020).
The 2016 retros retailed at $180 (about $192 in 2020).
The 2020 retros will retail at $160.