There are two types of Nike Dunks in this world: Those with performance modifications primed for skateboarding that are released under the Nike SB umbrella, and those that closely mirror the look of the original version of the shoe that debuted in 1985. At a casual glance, both are obviously Dunks, but they are actually more different than you may have realized.
So, what are the key differences between the SB Dunk and “regular” Dunk? Why does one feature “fat” shoelaces and the other a thin tongue? And why would anyone even want to skate in a pair of old basketball shoes anyway? We’ll answer all these questions and more in this comprehensive Nike Dunk Explainer.
How Many Nike Dunks Are There?
Before we get into the crux of this Dunk overview, let’s start by calling out that there are in fact more than two Nike Dunk models. If you want to get super specific, there are five kinds of Dunks: A high and low-top version of both the SB Dunk and “regular” Dunk, and a mid-top version that is exclusive to the Nike SB line. When the original Dunk was released in 1985, it came in high and low options. Which brings us to our next topic of discussion, the origins of the Dunk.
The Nike Dunk was originally released in 1985. While the similar-in-design Air Jordan 1 was making headlines on the feet of star rookie Michael Jordan in 1985, Nike aimed the Dunk at college hoops. Both were a boon to the popularity of not only their intended wearers, but also Nike’s burgeoning basketball program. Like the Jordan 1, there were plenty of colorways of the Dunk to choose from in ‘85. Seven collegiate-inspired Dunk colorways known as the “Be True to Your Shool” pack were created for Nike sponsored schools including Kentucky, Michigan, Syracuse, Iowa, St. John’s, UNLV, and Arizona. Players from these programs rocked the models during some of the biggest games of the mid-80s, putting the original batch of Dunks in the spotlight.
The Dunk’s demise as a performance basketball shoe was as swift as its ascension through college basketball’s ranks. Footwear’s progressive technology rendered the model practically archaic just a couple years after its debut. The Dunk may have been obsolete for basketball, but it was quickly adopted by another collective in the sports world: skateboarders. Why? It’s simple. Skaters never met a shoe with a sticky sole, padded ankle collar, and leather construction that couldn’t be skated within an inch of its life. But the silhouette didn’t evolve into a full-fledged skate shoe until the advent of Nike SB in 2002.
The Birth of Nike SB
In 2002, Nike SB was officially launched as a dedicated skateboarding brand. To promote it as such and make inroads within the skate community, Nike SB recruited underground skate shops like Supreme and several highly regarded pro skaters for their take on the new SB Dunk. From the years 2002 through roughly 2007 or 2008, there wasn’t a hotter shoe on the planet than the SB Dunk. The “regular” non-SB version of the Dunk was still kicking around, largely in Japan as part of the country-exclusive “Concept Japan” series, and usually in low-top form.
Let’s recap. You know about the origins of the Dunk; the “Be True to Your School” pack from 1985; and you can know why skateboarding culture quickly adopted the model after it was written off by basketball players. Now let’s break down the design intricacies of both the SB Dunk and “regular” Dunk. We'll be comparing the Nike Dunk Low “Syracuse” with the Nike SB Dunk Low “Chicago.” Comparison shots below will each feature the standard Dunk first, followed by the SB Dunk.
To better protect the feet of skaters, the Nike SB Dunk has more padding throughout the design, most significantly on the tongue and collar.
SB Dunks have, for lack of a better term, “fatter” laces that are designed to be more durable for skateboarding. The thicker, oval-shaped laces last longer than standard laces when battling grip tape abrasion.
Zoom Air Cushioning
Since 2002, SB Dunks have always featured a Zoom Air cushioning unit in the bottom of the insole’s heel for impact absorption while skating. The rest of the insole is also more padded than a standard Dunk’s sockliner.
Most releases of the SB Dunk from 2011 onward have a more detailed tread pattern to better grip the skateboard. The updated outsole design also has a cutout portion in the midfoot with foam in place of the rubber to reduce weight. However, some collaborators with Nike SB opt to use the classic Dunk sole. The Travis Scott x Nike SB Dunk Low is an example of a newer SB Dunk with the original outsole construction.
One smaller detail that you’ll find on Nike SB Dunks is the option to “hide” the bottom two loops of the laces to give skaters more protection against griptape. The SB Dunks have a “flap” at the bottom of the eyestay panel that allows you to loop the laces only through one set of the holes, resulting in the loose panel covering the laces.
And One Last Detail...
There is one more detail that’s different between the two Dunks, and it’s so minute you may have never even noticed it. Standard Dunks have a single line of stitching over the side Swooshes that was removed from the SB Dunk construction. This stitching was removed from the SB Dunk construction at the same time the outsole was updated in 2011.