Dee Brown and the Flight of the Reebok Pump

An iconic shoe, a dunk contest champion with Bird’s Celtics and a run-in with Michael Jordan that created a “shoe war.” This is the story of the Reebok Pump.
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There aren’t too many NBA players synonymous with a sneaker that is not considered their own signature shoe. Magic Johnson and an array of NBA legends wore the Converse Weapons in the ’80s. In the ’90s, Penny Hardaway became the face of the Nike Foamposite, which he wore during his time as a signature athlete with Nike, but it wasn’t actually his shoe.

You can’t talk about the Reebok Pump without mentioning the name Dee Brown.

NBA legends Dominique Wilkins and Dennis Rodman donned the Pumps before him. Shaquille O’Neal, Shawn Kemp and Allen Iverson created signature lines with Reebok after him. But 30 years ago on Feb. 9, 1991, the brand, the sneaker and Brown soared to new heights, literally, when the Celtics’ rookie participated and won the dunk contest.

“I feel old. Times flies. It is kind of unique because we always talk about it every All-Star weekend no matter what. Whatever year it is. The video is always shown, I am always doing some type of interview about it,” said Brown in a video chat with Sports Illustrated. “It's never out of the way, but all of sudden it’s been 30 years and it pops up again. It’s special that 30 years later we can still talk about this and people are still excited and interested in the shoe.”

Brown was a late addition to the dunk contest that included rising stars Shawn Kemp, Kenny Smith, Rex Chapman and fellow rookie Kendall Gill. No one expected Brown to steal the show and become an instant sensation overnight.

“It’s funny I was the shortest guy in the contest that year. Being a Celtic in the dunk contest was unheard of back then. You normally see these guys during the All-Star Game or the three-point contest with [Larry] Bird but never in the dunk contest, but it was very special to me to be the first to do that,” says Brown. “I knew I had to do something special and I knew I had to get the crowd behind me because Kendall Gill and Rex Chapman were playing for the Hornets and the contest was in Charlotte. So they had two guys that were hometown favorites on top of the guy who everyone thought was going to win in Shawn Kemp. It wasn’t pressure on me. I knew all the dunks I could do. I knew I had a lot of good things people never seen at that time before, so I was excited about it.”

While Brown caught the attention of everyone in the arena with his dunks, there was marketing magic happening on television screens around the globe when Brown reached down and pumped his Reebok Pump Omni Zone II sneakers after each of his seven dunk attempts. Brown sealed his newfound fame after his famous “No-Look” dunk in the final round to take home the crown.

“I made it up on the spot. The backstory is that if you look back at some of the footage when I was practicing my dunks before the contest, one was a dunk I did that was basically me running with a Reebok hat on and I was going to tip my hat to the crowd and dunk it with my left hand. That was the dunk I was going to do but come to find out we couldn’t use props. We couldn’t jump over cars or jump over people because those were the rules of the dunk contest back then. My prop was the shoes. It was something that was supposed to be something else, but I never practiced it.”

Brown states that a good majority of people believe he signed a deal with Reebok after the dunk contest, but he was already an official brand endorser prior to the event. He signed a contract when he first got to Boston. Nike and another shoe company offered him a deal, but with Reebok based in Boston, Brown saw an opportunity to stay local so they could look out for him. He wasn’t initially drawn to the Pump for the dunk contest, but the real reason why he wore them was not a gimmick. It’s because he could tighten his shoes because he hated taping his ankles.

“My primary reason was not be a shoe icon. Because no one was really doing that stuff back then and there wasn’t that many big shoe companies. Reebok and Nike was kind of head-to-head at the time. I didn’t think I would become a worldwide superstar literally overnight. We really did it without social media. I could imagine if social media was around and it got big. It was big because of word of mouth, newspapers and people talking about it, but I didn’t know how big it got until [I] started getting feedback from Reebok and other athletes. I was 21 years old and happy to win that big ole check. That’s all I cared about that time. Not the money but just the big fake check. I remember watching the dunk contest and thinking the trophy is nice, but that big check is cool. I never thought about the sneaker part. As the season went on, I started to realize what I did because people kept talking about the Pump and people were buying it and it was outselling Jordan’s and all that stuff. We sold so many pairs of shoes and people were wearing them. When the season was over I was doing commercials. I’m on this show and that show and doing tours overseas and going to Japan and Australia and found out I did something special.”

Brown’s ascendance meant that Reebok had a star of its own in their shoes while Nike was ascending as well with a budding global superstar in Michael Jordan. Brown remembers vividly his personal run-in with MJ after the contest that sparked a conversation about the battle between the two sneaker brands.

“I think he cornered me. I don’t know how I got in a backhaul after the party and the fans kind of broke through the barrier. And all the NBA players kind of got bunched together trying to get out because it was at this hotel and somehow I got in the same area as MJ and security. I honestly don’t believe it wasn’t an accident because Michael is very premeditated on things and he knows what he is doing and basically congratulated me on the great dunk contest and told me, ‘You did a great job, young fella, but now I have to kick your butt on and off the court, but you started the shoe wars.’

“I was like, Thank you, sir. Like what are you going to say to Michael Jordan? He is the guy that everybody wanted to mimic. He was a guy I wanted to be like, so for him to have a conversation with me at that time was special, but for me to be on his radar, everybody seen his stories in The Last Dance—you don’t want to be on his radar. I didn’t put two and two together at that time, but it was a pretty unique situation I got myself into with him.”

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Reebok will rerelease the Pump Omni Zone II in March, and Brown says people still look at him and pump their shoes when he walks by.

“There is no other shoe that looks like that. You can’t even duplicate something like that. I just think during the dunk contest pumping up my shoes, I looked like everybody else. I was this skinny kid that was 6' 1" and I could relate to everybody. I think it helped me look like the kid next door and it kind of symbolize the first marketing ploy in a dunk contest. It wasn’t something that was planned through Reebok. Everything is retro and classics now and even over the course you see people wearing it. John Cena was wearing the shoes in a wrestling match. It’s good that even after 30 years when they see that shoe, they think of one person and they think of me, which is very special and there is not one day that goes by somebody will see me and bend down a pump their shoes. They don’t care if it was penny loafers. Just the motion of them doing that makes you realize you did something that they will always remember.”

Brown has stayed involved in basketball through the years with various front office and coaching roles with the Clippers, Nuggets, Kings and Pistons. He still has a close relationship with Reebok as his daughter, WNBA player and Minnesota Lynx star Lexie Brown, who signed with the brand.

“I can pretty much say we are the only father and daughter that has that type of relationship with a shoe company where a father and daughter has a brand they represent and they really have been supportive. That is very exciting that Lexie has her own lane because she is such a really good basketball player and better person. Reebok has identified the “GirlDad” theme and what I done, obviously for the company and they have done for me. It is very special and I am looking forward to this upcoming season. It makes me very proud she is part of the Reebok family. And it makes me really proud that Reebok identified that and really came to the table and brought that up, let’s build something with your daughter.”