In modern times, few NBA prospects could have been described as "sure things" heading into the draft. In 2003, there was LeBron James, a high school phenom with the most complete game of any player his age. Teams openly tanked for the fundamentally sound Tim Duncan in 1997 after he had dominated during his four-year college career. Before them, there was Shaquille O'Neal in 1992.
O'Neal was a 20-year-old, game-changing center from Louisiana State University. His unique blend of size and athleticism was unlike anything fans of the game had seen before. In three seasons at LSU, he was twice named an All American, won National Player of the Year, and was regarded as a guaranteed franchise player on the pro level. The Orlando Magic echoed those lofty expectations when they selected him with the first overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft.
Two weeks earlier, another entity entrusted O'Neal to be the face of its business. Locked in a battle in the basketball footwear market, Reebok made history by signing the incoming rookie as its first-ever signature athlete in any sport. O'Neal's unprecedented game and larger-than-life personality provided the perfect recipe for a brand that understood the need for star power in an evolving industry.
Per terms of the deal between he and Reebok, O'Neal was given his very own sneaker line. With only four months to turn around the first shoe for the beginning of the season, the keys were handed to Judy Close, a designer who had previously worked on the brand's training and Blacktop models. Along with her team and input from O'Neal, Close delivered the Shaq Attaq in time for O'Neal to wear in his pro debut.
With the Shaq Attaq back on shelves in celebration of its 25th anniversary in 2017, we spoke with Close to learn more about her iconic creation and how she was able to deliver it to The Diesel in such short amount of time.
When did you start at Reebok?
I started at Reebok in 1987. I assisted the other designers with product and then moved into working on training shoes. So when we worked on products like the AXT, SXT, and CXT lines, that was around 1987 to 1990.
Was working with Shaq the first time you worked directly with an athlete?
At that point, we didn’t have any athletes in the company. A product like the Omni Zone, we had designed those and they were placed on Dee Brown. He did his Pump Up and made history. Reebok signed Shaquille as our first official big athlete. It was a really big deal around here. People were excited. People were nervous. We wanted to make sure we were doing it right. We were heading into competition in terms of having a big name on our product. It was a very exciting time to be here.
Do you recall your first meeting with Shaquille and what were your first impressions of him?
My most memorable time meeting with him, which was also the first time, was when the team I worked with to create the product traveled down to his home in Texas. His family lived on a military base, so we went and visited with them in their family home. We sat on the couch, we talked to him about the product he was currently wearing. We talked to him about what he wanted in a shoe. We talked to him about the appropriate technologies that we thought we’d like to put in his new shoe and create for him, and we shared concepts with him. As you know, he’s a really big guy, and that perhaps could have been a little frightening for someone who doesn’t know him or his personality. But he’s a nice guy. Super friendly, warm. He definitely likes to give you a big hug. He’s very welcoming—the whole family just welcomed us to their home and their life. He knew what he liked. He knew what he didn’t like. He basically gave us direction for what he liked and where we should go.
Was the Shaq Attaq completely designed with Shaq in mind, or was it an existing idea that was fine-tuned once you received input from him?
No. As you know, we signed Shaquille in June and he was going to join the NBA in October. So, as a company, we sat down and said okay, what is the criteria we want to use as the foundation for designing a shoe for him? The people that were in charge here made it a really clear point to say what do we want this product to stand for, how do we want Shaquille to represent us as a company, and how can we help him play in great footwear? So, we had to incorporate corporate technologies. We had to make sure the shoe worked and felt good for him, was lightweight, comfortable, was visible on and off the court, and was functionally correct for him so that he’d remain injury free.
So, we laid out all these things for him while we were developing the shoe. And while we were there, we showed him three concepts. Through a lot of conversation, we picked one direction.
Was the Pump system presented to him as a starting point or was it something he mentioned specifically?
It was a key corporate technology for us at the time. I believe we hadn’t put the Pump technology and Graphlite fiber together in one product before. We had put the Graphlite fiber underneath a running shoe, but hadn’t extended it. By putting it under the foot, we were able to make a lighter shoe, but still make it strong enough to hold someone like Shaquille. The initial ideas were chosen, but we had to adapt them for him.
"We definitely were trying to design a shoe that broke the mold. We had big competition out there. We wanted to make our name there, especially with Shaq."
There was a stigma of big men not being marketable enough to sell sneakers. With the Shaq Attaq, that changed. Were you aware of the stigma and did you feel any pressure trying to deliver a design that would break the mold?
We definitely were trying to design a shoe that broke the mold. We had big competition out there. We wanted to make our name there, especially with Shaq. We wanted to create a simple aesthetic with one big, bold, aggressive element. From an aesthetic point of view, I think we were successful in that area, but from a functional standpoint, the bladder was able to hold his foot in and the amount of padding we put in the collar allowed for the additional stability around his ankle. There were a lot of things to consider. Even the panels on the side—how do you support his foot moving side to side?
We worked on a size 9 and a size 20. It was very clear that we were creating a mass market shoe, as well as a shoe that was specific for him. And we did testing throughout just to make sure that whatever we were doing was not in any way arbitrary.
Did Shaq specifically point out any athletes he wanted to compete with or make product comparisons when relaying his ideas to you?
No, it was just general competition. He has a lot of energy and is such a super nice person. Just his excitement for being involved in something was pretty fun.
Were you able to keep up with him during his rookie season? What did you think when you saw him breaking backboards and living up to all of the expectations?
Yeah, I had the opportunity to go to a couple of games with the Reebok team here. I actually designed the first three Shaq Attaqs, so I followed him for a little bit. Then when somebody else came along, I gave them the time to get connected. He was amazing! He went beyond what people had expected.
Do you have any keepsakes or memorabilia from that time that you’ve held on to?
As a matter of fact, I have one of the original samples that we made when I was in Korea for six weeks working on the project. I actually have a whole box of magazines from the first year or two of things that he was printed in—newspaper clippings, anything I could find. It’s interesting because I just uncovered them while moving and started going through everything. I’m so excited I saved it all. In my house, I have a size 20 and a size 9 next to each other in my living room and people always ask about them.
Recently, he went into the Hall of Fame. They released a limited edition colorway of the Shaq Attaq to celebrate the nod. When you think of that, how does it feel to know Reebok chose to commemorate his career coming full circle by reintroducing the shoe you designed with him 25 years ago?
All I can say is that I’m really humbled. It’s an amazing journey to be on to see products I created so long ago still be relevant. To have people interviewing me saying that was a shoe they wish they had. What he represents. What the shoe represents. I was pretty young when I designed that shoe and was involved in working with senior management and Shaquille. So, I was perhaps not aware of the big responsibility that I may have been taking on back in the day. Now, it’s pretty incredible.