By the time Nike launched an official signature shoe for Charles Barkley for the ’93-’94 NBA season, with “CB” in the actual model name, he was at the top of his brute powers. Coming off an MVP season in which he carried the Phoenix Suns to the ’93 NBA Finals, and after winning a Gold Medal at the Barcelona Olympics as perhaps the best player on the historic Dream Team just a year before, Sir Charles was ready for the spotlight of leading his own signature sneaker.
Tasked with design duties for Barkley’s debut model was Eric Avar, a young designer at Nike at the time who was just on the cusp of making a name for himself by entirely shifting the basketball landscape of the 1990s with several of the industry’s greatest ever designs. Avar’s first hoops sneaker, the Flight Huarache, was worn by an equally brash “Fab 5” at Michigan, and he looked to personify Barkley’s outspoken game and fame in the CB 94.
Avar had designed the Flight Huarache under the mentorship of Tinker Hatfield, who began that series with the Air Huarache running shoe. Hatfield, of course, was the first to merge the worlds of storytelling and design together in partnership with an athlete while working on the iconic Air Jordan series—and he looked to Avar to carry over much of that same formula in Barkley’s first shoe.
“I remember getting the phone call to say that I was going to get a signature shoe,” reflects Barkley. “It’s just great pride.”
Long before LeBron James’ unreal blend of speed and power came to the league, Barkley was the most dynamic player the association had seen. Avar looked to straightjackets for inspiration, a cue drafting off of both Charles’ at-times frantic and erratic personality and the harnessing strength and support that his game would demand of his footwear.
“This became more and more overt as a composition. We wanted to capture Charles’ game and his personality,” says Tinker. “The outlandishness of Charles’ persona and the beauty of the product married up.”
Now two decades later, the CB 94 has long enjoyed its cult fans and is once again headed for another round of Retro releases on the horizon through the Nike Sportswear category.
“There’s nothing better than when you see young people wearing your shoes,” says Barkley all these years after its 1994 debut. “You get emotional every time you see a young kid. They’re part of your family from that point on.”
Check out several of Eric Avar’s original sketches for the Air Max CB, at one point dubbed the “Air Barkley Max,” below.