A Short History of the Handsomest Sneaker You Never Knew Existed

Before Nike, Converse or Adidas, there was Bata

September 20, 2017 9:00 am

Nike can trace its roots back to 1964. Adidas to 1924. And Converse to 1908.

But snoop past the 20th century, 14 years before Converse  took its first steps, and you’ll find the peculiar origin story of a lesser-known heritage footwear brand: Bata. 

While oldest doesn’t equate to wisest in the ever-evolving sneaker game, the company’s latest Heritage line — which includes the Bata Tennis and Bata Bullet — offers a worthwhile spin on the classic canvas sneaker. 

Though popular enough overseas, the shoe never caught on in the U.S., even though it claims NBA hall of famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson as an early adopter. 

Why? Let’s go back to the beginning.

Bata Shoes 1 (3 images)

Photos: Tomáš Bat’a via Pestrý týden, Bata 1920’s store via Thomas Bata Foundation, Thomas G. Bata with Thomas J. Bata in front of Tomáš Baťa portrait via Thomas Bata Foundation

In 1894, Tomáš Bat’a and his siblings founded T. & A. Bat’a Shoe Company in Moravia (modern day Czech Republic). By then, shoemaking was an eighth-generation family trade, but the younger members dreamt of expansion. They were extraordinarily successful, partly due to their incorporation of canvas into the standard leather shoes of the time — offering a new style at a lower pricepoint.

Tomáš eventually became the sole head of the company in 1908. He is remembered for expanding the company during the WWI boom and the post-war slump. As successful as he was, Tomáš would not live to see the development of Bata’s two most pivotal designs. A plane crash on a business trip to Switzerland led to his untimely death in 1932.

Four years later, the Bata Tennis  shoe was created in Batanagar, India (a factory town named for the company) for school children to wear during physical education. The rubber-toe design caught on and spread around the world.

In 1964, the Bata Bullet was born in Belcamp, Maryland. The factory produced the high-top shoe for its local NBA team the Baltimore Bullets (who would eventually become the Washington Wizards). The kicks caught the eye of celebrated UCLA coach John Wooden, who partnered with the company to create a short-lived signature shoe: Wilson by Bata.

Bata Shoes 2 (4 images)

Photos: Heritage Line Bata Bullet and Bata Tennis
Which is where Magic Johnson comes in, becoming an Bata adopter long before he got in bed with Converse. During his time at Michigan State University, Johnson wore Batas on and off the court.

Johnson’s legend-status was cemented after his showdown with Larry Bird in the 1979 NCAA men’s championship game, reportedly the highest-rated college basketball broadcast of all time and #30 on Sports Illustrated’s “100 Greatest Moments in Sports History.” But there was another winner that night, as seen on the magazine’s iconic post-game cover.

But then … Batas just kinda’ fizzled. And the shoe company’s tale is one that’s rarely heard. While Bata continues to be a major footwear player in the global economy, their U.S. presence is almost nonexistent.

Luckily, the folks over at Huckberry have stocked various colorways of these two Heritage styles. Can’t promise the Bullets will make you play like Magic, but at least you’ll stand out from the packs of Jordans and Chuck Taylors.

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