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Reebok Pump: How the search for an Air apparent Pumped up sneakerheads in the 1990s

Andy Silva breaks down the history of the Reebok Pump ahead of the re-release of the Reebok Pump Omni Zone II on April 15.

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Reebok Pump 20th Anniversary Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Reebok

Nike has long had “Air” as its signature cushioning system, something easily identifiable and relatable for consumers. This left its competitors to seek out their own version of “Air,” and for Reebok this would come in the form of Pump technology.

The Pump system debuted in 1989 in the Reebok Pump. Designed by Paul Litchfield and inspired by skiing equipment, the Pump utilized an inflatable bladder system connected to a “pump” designed to look like a basketball on the tongue which allowed consumers to create a customized fit tailored to their foot. This technology came with a price, however, as the shoes debuted with an exorbitant for the time price tag of $170. Still, Reebok clearly had done something right, as Nike attempted to deliver their own version of Pump technology in the form of the Nike Air Pressure. However, as is almost always true, the imitator never can duplicate the success of the originator, and that was certainly the case here.

No doubt, part of the appeal of the Pump is the fun that can be had pumping up and releasing the air (if you were a kid in the early 1990s and didn’t pump up all the way and release, what were you even doing). Reebok sought to play up the fun with its “Pump Up, Air Out” ad campaign surrounding the kicks. Dominique Wilkins, the signature athlete behind the original Pumps, even takes it right to his Airness in this 1989 commercial:

Reebok would go on to expand this campaign, including other athletes such as Dennis Rodman, tennis great Michael Chang and golfer Greg Norman in similar ads. Even the by-then-retired Bill Walton got in on the act. The ads also served to show how the popular technology was spread throughout Reebok’s catalog. The company even partnered with Rawlings to integrate Pump technology into a baseball glove.

Perhaps the technology’s most prominent athletic moment happened in the 1991 NBA Dunk Contest. Then-Celtics guard Dee Brown made it a point to pump up his Pump Omni Zone II sneakers before his famous “No Look” dunk which brought him home the title.

Reebok just so happens to be releasing a pair of Pump Omni Zone II this week which seem to be paying homage to Brown, coming out in what are clearly Celtics colors with Boston Garden parquet-inspired insoles.

The Pump continued to play a key role in Reebok’s basketball division, most prominently on the feet of Shaquille O’Neal. The Shaq Attaq, O’Neal’s first signature shoe with the Vector, featured Pump technology, as would the Shaq Attaq 3 and Shaq Attaq 4, although those would use slightly different iterations of the Pump technology rather than the much more popular original “basketball” pump.

Perhaps the most enduring and popular of all the Pump models, however, would be introduced in 1994 — the Reebok Instapump Fury. This model would ask the question: What if we just made the Pump bladder the shoe? Reebok did just that and to say the shoe was ahead of its time would be an understatement.

The Instapump Fury is still being re-released today, including in OG colorways, collaborations with both streetwear and pop culture icons, including Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park and Power Rangers. There was even a mashup with then-corporate sibling Adidas’ Ultraboost.

The Pump technology may be the enduring symbol of the height Reebok’s popularity in the late 1980s and 1990s. And it’s certainly not hot air, but rather something to be pumped about.

To purchase a pair of the Reebok Pump Omni Zone II Core Black / Glen Green / Ftwr White on April 15, click here. Reebok is also releasing a pair Reebok Smiley Classic Leather Pump 50th Shoes on April 15.

To see more of this month’s releases, check out our release date calendar.

If you have questions or just want to talk sneakers, hit on me up on Twitter — my username is @a_silva32.