As an adidas fan, the chances are you’ll probably have owned at least one pair of Superstars. What you might not know is that one of the most successful shoes that adidas has ever made almost didn’t come to life at all.
At the start of the story, it is important to understand what was happening in the sporting goods industry in the 1950s. Sandra Trapp from the adidas Archive explains it was a very different time to the world we know now:
adidas was dominant in Europe, but much less so in America where there were only a handful of distributors. One of these companies was run by Clifford and Chris Severn who sold adidas footwear to track and field athletes. Chris tells me:
“It was a very small business. In the early stages we sold shoes to the athletes one pair at a time – the sporting goods stores would not buy them because they came from Germany and in the post-war period there was a ‘Buy American’ policy.”
Despite dominance in football and track and field, there was one sport that adidas didn’t have a strong presence in: basketball.
In the newly developing American professional leagues one shoe reigned supreme… the Converse All Star. With its high-ankle canvas upper, and vulcanized rubber sole it was considered state-of-the-art. However, Chris had played basketball in All Stars at high school and knew that there was room for improvement.
“They were comfortable to walk around in, but when I started doing moves at high speed, start-stopping, landing from jumps, the inside of the shoe would collapse causing friction and I’d get terrible blood blisters on my heels. I began to think there must be a better shoe that would create less injuries.”
The seed of an idea had been planted in Chris’ mind.
The ambitious son
The other key player in the adidas Superstar story is Horst Dassler, the son of company founder Adi and his wife Kaethe Dassler. Sandra explains that in 1959 he was tasked with opening a new production facility in France:
“The Dasslers hoped that lower labor costs and the established shoe-making industry in France would enable them to make shoes at a more competitive price. This may seem like a big responsibility for someone aged just 23, but Horst had quite a lot of life experience.”
It was on one such trip to the 1960 Olympics in Rome that Horst witnessed basketball played at the highest level. By this stage, Horst Dassler and Chris Severn had been working together, providing American Olympians with track spikes. Chris had previously mentioned his idea of creating a new basketball shoe to rival the competition, but the idea hadn’t found traction…
“Horst wasn’t particularly moved by the idea until he went to the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. For the first time, he saw basketball through different eyes. The team that represented the US was the very best all-time USA Olympic team.”
Chris tells me Horst now had a vision. The problem was Adi and Kaethe Dassler didn’t agree.
“He went to his parents and they basically told him, ‘We don’t have the time nor the resources to waste on basketball. It’s a very minor sport. Don’t bother.’
“But Horst was still enamored with the game. He told me ‘we are going to make basketball shoes, but you must not tell my parents.’ It wasn’t meant out of disrespect. It was like his parents couldn’t see the vision that he saw.”
Developing a legend
Then began several years of development work undertaken by Chris, Horst and the team at adidas France, all without the knowledge of the company’s owners.
Starting with the silhouette of a training shoe called the Olympiade, he added technical features to solve the problems he had experienced as a young player: An oversized heel counter (the cup that the heel sits in) stopped the foot sliding around and reduced the risk of sprained ankles; a padded tongue stopped tight laces cutting off blood circulation; and a wedge in the heel stopped the shoe collapsing when the players landed.
There were also several features that we would recognize from the Superstar that we know today.
“First and foremost, I always felt that I did not have enough grip on the floor in my Converse. We created the sole in a herring-bone pattern to provide more traction and made it out of grippy Morvan rubber.”
Each time a new prototype was developed, Chris tested it with players in the US and got their feedback. One recurring issue was that, under the stresses of game play, the different layers of the sole would start to break apart.
“We only learned about this through trial and error and it ultimately led to the development of the dish sole. Instead of layers of sole materials glued together, the dish sole was a single unit where all the layers were molded together to produce this dish shape. It was revolutionary at the time. When we first got that single unit [dish] sole, we put the shoe together with glue, but it wouldn’t stay together.”
Finally, in 1965 Chris and Horst had a basketball shoe that they knew was better than the All Star. It was named the Supergrip, with a high ankle version called the Pro Model. All they had to do now was convince the major players in the US to wear them.
If at first, you don’t succeed
The Supergrip’s problem was that it was SO different from what players and retailers were used to that they didn’t trust it.
Chris tells me that sports distributors weren’t interested so he resorted to approaching players individually, with mixed results: “They said, ‘Is it a track shoe?, What is it?’, I said, ‘Don’t worry, just try the shoe on and just play in it, then you’ll understand just how terrific this shoe is.’”
One professional player Chris did manage to convince was a rising star called John Block. He had recently been transferred to the San Diego Rockets, a brand-new team being set up in the NBA.
“He became my strongest advocate. He introduced me to the new coach of the Rockets, I put the shoes on the coach’s feet, he walked around and said, ‘These feel great, if you want to, you can talk to the players. I won’t stop you from doing that, and if they want to wear them, fine.’ That opened the door for me.”
Having built his relationship with the San Diego Rockets players, Chris felt he was making serious progress, but when he visited to watch the team play their pre-season exhibition games he was gutted to see NONE of the players had the shoes on.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re not going for it. They really like the Converse better; we just cannot get top players to wear the shoe.'”
“I asked them afterwards, ‘Why weren’t you wearing the shoes in the exhibition games?’ They said, ‘These shoes are so good that we want to make sure we have them for the full season. We didn’t want to wear them out.”
Now, the perfect ending to this story would be that the shoes were so good the San Diego Rockets went on to win the league in their first season, but of course, that isn’t how it goes. They were the NBA rookies and were beaten by every team in the league.
However, the exposure they gave the new adidas basketball shoe provided the springboard that Chris needed.
“As various teams came to California to compete against the Rockets, I would meet those teams and get acquainted with those players. I would get their sizes, I would order those shoes, then I would physically put individual players into the shoes.”
The following season, Chris successfully got the adidas basketball sneakers onto the feet of the Boston Celtics who went on to win the NBA. The arrival of adidas into the US basketball scene was confirmed.
So what of the Superstar? Its creation came from the DNA of the Supergrip and Pro Model and was driven by feedback from players.
The distinctive shell toe was added, and the first Superstar officially launched in 1970.
There was a time when the popularity of the adidas basketball shoe was so great that Chris estimates 75% of the players in the American pro leagues were wearing Superstars, Supergrip, or Pro Model shoes. All without sponsorship deals. Whilst this number is hard to verify, it is clear that American basketball players had begun their love affair with adidas footwear.
In the early 80s, as shoe technology continued to evolve and personal sponsorship started to change the game, players moved away from the Superstar to competitor brands and newer adidas models.
However, this was not the end of the story for the Superstar. Sandra tells me that unlike other shoes before it the Superstar took a crucial step away from sport:
In the mid-80s, when Run DMC removed the laces from their Superstars and penned the famous song about their beloved sneakers, the Superstar name was cemented in history.
It has been re-imagined and re-designed many times since then but has always managed to retain its identity, so I asked Chris Severn why he thought the famous silhouette has had such longevity. His simple answer: