Sneakers, Sports Memorabilia & Modern Collectibles

History of the Nike SB Dunk

By Zoë Vanderweide
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Since making its debut in 2002, the Nike SB Dunk has become one of the most iconic sneaker styles of all time, and a blank canvas for design inspiration. Boasting hypeworthy collabs and an effortlessly cool aesthetic, Nike SB Dunks rank among the most sought-after silhouettes on the market. While today the Nike Dunk SB is a skateboarding and lifestyle staple, its origins can actually be traced back to college basketball. Read on to discover more of the fascinating history behind the Nike SB Dunk, as told through some of our favorite pairs available for immediate purchase.

1985: The Nike Dunk Makes its Debut

In 1985, the Nike Dunk was introduced. Released in colorways matching seven of the best NCAA Division I teams in the country, Nike Dunk Highs were marketed with the legendary “Be True to Your School” Campaign.

Nike Dunk Low Off-White 'University Red'

These rare Off White Dunks, from the 2019 collab between Nike and Virgil Abloh’s design label Off-White, pay homage to the original UNLV colorway from 1985. Reimagined as a low top, the Off White Dunk Lows echo the school’s colors with leather uppers in University Red and Wolf Grey. Abloh puts his signature spin on classic Nike Dunk detailing, with an orange-tabbed Swoosh, bright orange flywire overlacing and Off-White branding on the medial side.

The Off White Dunks also celebrate the classic basketball silhouette’s skateboarding legacy. While the Nike Dunk was eventually supplanted on the courts by the Air Jordan I and other newer basketball models, the style was steadily growing in popularity with an unexpected group of consumers: skaters. By the mid-’90s, the Nike Dunk had become a cult favorite amongst the skateboarding community, thanks to its superior cushioning, support and traction.

2002: The first Nike SB Dunks Drop

It wasn’t until March of 2002 that Nike officially launched Nike SB, codifying the connection between skate culture and the Nike Dunk. The company enlisted Sandy Bodecker to manage the division, and under his leadership, the iconic Nike SB Dunk made its debut.

Nike SB Dunk Low Pro Tie-Dye 'Raygun White'

Bodecker’s impact on the evolution and success of the Nike Dunk SB is hard to overstate. A year after his passing in 2018, Nike released these Raygun SB Dunks as a tribute to the late legend. The Dunk Low Rayguns are based on an original Raygun SB Dunk style from 2005–the first to feature the Nike SB tongue label. Like the OG, these tie dye Dunks also feature the embroidered alien mascot for the Roswell Rayguns, a fictional team dreamt up for a 2002 Nike basketball campaign. The 2019 Dunk Low Rayguns are splashed with vivid orange and yellow hues inspired by the tie-dye Rayguns hoodie that Bodecker often wore.

2000’s: Nike SB Dunks Ignite Sneakerhead Culture

Nike smartly positioned the Nike SB Dunk as a shoe with street cred in the skateboarding community. Skater-friendly upgrades to the original Nike Dunk silhouette included a fat tongue, additional padding, elastic straps and Zoom Air soles, to name a few. The company was also strategic in its collaborative choices, working with individuals and brands that embodied the skate culture ethos, and dropping releases through local skate shops. The first Nike SB Dunks were released in partnership with the company’s inaugural skate team–Danny Supa, Gino Ianucci, Richard Mulder and Reese Forbes–each with their own signature colorway. Later that same year, the legendary first Nike SB Dunk collab with streetwear brand Supreme dropped, marking the first appearance of the Jordan 3 elephant print on another shoe. A string of buzzy releases followed throughout the aughts, including collabs with Futura, Diamond Supply Co., Chocolate, Zoo York and more. In 2005, the release of the Jeff Staple ‘Pigeon’ Nike Dunk SB catapulted sneakerhead culture into the mainstream. The iconic Nike Dunk Low was so hotly anticipated that police were called to manage the crowd outside Staple’s NYC storefront.

Nike SB Dunk Low Pro QS, Civilist 'Thermography'

An ultra-exclusive Quickstrike release from 2020, the Civilist SB Dunk continues Nike’s legacy of choosing collaborators with cachet. For this Nike SB Dunk Low Pro QS, Nike partnered with the Berlin-based skate shop and exhibition space Civilist to really turn up the heat. The Nike SB Civilist collab shoe is dressed in a unique monochrome material that, when exposed to high temperatures, transforms to reveal a spectrum of vibrant colors.

2020 & Beyond: The Nike Dunk SB Renaissance

While the 2010’s saw a dip in the style’s popularity, Nike Dunks came back in a big way in 2020. Collabs with the likes of Travis Scott, Virgil Abloh and the Grateful Dead once again propelled the Nike SB Dunk into the spotlight to become the hottest silhouette of the year.

Nike SB Dunk Low Grateful Dead 'Yellow'

One of our favorite 2020 collaborations, these rare Grateful Dead Dunks are packed with psychedelic details. The yellow Dunks’ tongues feature the band’s signature dancing bears, a Bob Thomas illustration from the 1973 album, “History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1 (Bear’s Choice).” Continuing the bear theme, the upper toe, mid panel and collar of the Grateful Dead Dunks are dressed with plush faux fur detailing, and the jagged blue Swoosh mimics the bears’ collars. The Nike SB Dunk Low Grateful Dead shoes also sport a 420-friendly stash pocket inside the tongue, embellished with the Dead’s “Steal Your Face” logo.

Nike SB Dunk High 'Strawberry Cough'

Nike SB Dunks have long embraced stoner culture. In 2004, Nike SB dropped its first 4/20 release, beginning a beloved – and highly collectible – tradition. These Strawberry Cough Dunks from 2021, named for the Strawberry Cough strain of cannabis, are the latest Nike SB Dunk Highs to celebrate the holiday. Designed by illustrator and SB legend Todd Bratrud, the Strawberry Cough Dunks mimic the look of an actual strawberry with uppers in textured red leather and green suede. A coughing strawberry at the heel sits atop a translucent outsole, completing the distinctive look of these Nike Dunk Highs.

Today, the Nike SB Dunk is without a doubt one of the most desirable silhouettes on the market– you might even say that it’s high time you got yourself a pair.

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