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December 18, 2012

Inside Access: Nike Zoom, then and now

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What started as a mid-1990’s experiment to evolve cushioning has literally and figuratively changed the shape of basketball footwear.

It’s what's inside that counts. Nearly 20 years ago, Zoom Air revolutionized the footwear industry, a catalyst of design innovation that has inspired designers to reshape footwear.

Nike’s Air Force 1 transformed basketball footwear in 1982 with the introduction of a bag-like structure with pressurized air, all embedded internally in the shoe’s sole. Basketball players across the world were astonished by the improved performance and comfort as they literally were running and jumping on air.

In the hunt to evolve Nike Air cushioning, the Nike design team created the Zoom Air unit and applied it to basketball with the Nike Air Go LWP shoe in 1995. The leather shoe with bold black and white color blocking was light and versatile.  Interestingly, players felt something they just couldn’t pinpoint: an extremely responsive cushioning feel hidden in the shoe’s forefoot.

“Tensile Air” was the original name used among designers and was later referred to as “Zoom Air” technology. It took the basic concept of Max Air cushioning and modified it to the fine-tuned specifications of basketball for a responsive and “springy” feel on the court. Strong tensiles of fabric bound the top and bottom of the plastic Zoom Air units together, creating a streamlined and more responsive cousin to Max Air.

The best thing about Zoom Air is its very low-profile feel in shoes while helping the player’s feet react closer to the ground, which allows for a better court feel and a comfortable ride.

Nike hasn’t stopped evolving this unique innovation. Designers have been able to revolutionize Zoom Air and tune its pressure and contours to the exact specifications of specific sports. In this case, basketball designers have modernized the Zoom Air unit of the 1995 Air Go LWP and rapidly progressed this cushioning system over the years.

In 2012, the first full-length, visible Nike Zoom unit was introduced in the LEBRON X. Both the top and bottom surfaces of Nike Zoom unit were flat and smooth, with no welds, notches or joints and minimal midsole thickness. Strong synthetic fibers were welded to both sides of a flexible membrane, creating the flat surfaces when inflated. Those fibers controlled the thickness of the system, regardless of the volume of the air pressure used to inflate it. It's strong and durable, yet flexible and responsive.

“We will continue to evolve the Nike Zoom Air unit to move better with the body,” said Tracy Teague, Nike Global Basketball Category Creative Director. “The Zoom Air provides overall protection in a lower-profile cushioning platform, which allows players to lower their center of gravity. This allows us to create footwear that's more responsive and quick.”

At six feet, eight inches tall and 250 pounds, LeBron James is a dominant physical specimen on the court. He’s expected to run nearly 400 miles during regular season game play this year. That’s more than 15 marathons. He’ll jump thousands of times. Footwear performance and comfort is key for LeBron as he exerts extreme physical force on his shoes. The special LEBRON X full-length Nike Zoom unit was developed with his pounding in mind. It’s Nike’s most advanced Nike Zoom unit to date, designed for LeBron and tuned for players worldwide.

"Inside Access" is a series providing an inside look at Nike Basketball through the lens of design innovation. Look for new features the first and third Tuesdays of each month throughout the basketball season.