We brought you Part 1 yesterday. In Part 2 of our 3-Part exclusive interview with Reebok Pump inventor Paul Litchfield, Paul explains the Pump product plan, shares his thoughts on Dee Brown’s Pump showmanship and discusses how the public reacted to, and interacted with, the Pump system. Continue reading for a behind-the-scenes view straight from the man who brought Reebok Pump technology to the world…
Counter Kicks: Was The Pump developed initially only for basketball or did you have in mind that you were going to introduce it gradually on a series of different footwear categories?
Litchfield: We started it as a way to create a better fit and support in motion management for basketball. We’d hoped that it was going to create a new level of performance features and benefits to the basketball player. Back in the day, the running boom had already happened, aerobics was happening, and there was an emerging U.S.A. basketball marketplace that was really starting to catch on fire between us and Nike and some of the adidas product. This was a pretty intense period for us to kind of maintain our preeminence in the basketball arena. So it was initially focused as a basketball shoe.
CK: How did you think the public would react to the Pump?
Litchfield: When we did the Pump, there were a few things that happened. When we finally confirmed the product we wanted to make, we only had about 7,000 pairs that were ordered for production. Those were ordered by Foot Locker, if I recall properly. And they were ordered basically as a favor to our VP of Sales from the Foot Locker people because it was really high-priced and it was a little peculiar because no one had really seen what the product did. And I think people were pretty skeptical because it broke a lot of barriers as far as price and positioning, even though this was definitely an athletic gear world at the time. It wasn’t until PR and marketing and advertising put together this celebration of this new way to customize footwear support and fit that it became real. Paul Fireman was great at that. He made things bigger than life. He stood up at a press conference at one of the big shoe shows in that fall of 1989, and said, “This is the Freestyle of the 1990s.”
We were coming off the glow of the aerobics shoe and the Freestyle, and we were already in the basketball marketplace and people started paying attention to that. At the same time, they put together this really cool ad with all of our athletes and our coaches who basically told the world how many times they pumped up the shoes for themselves and how you do it. You push this basketball on the tongue and then you press this button on the back. It just worked really well so that was pretty exciting. It started without this huge arc. The initial steps were not grandiose. They were pretty small and then it just caught fire really, really quickly.
CK: There’s an attraction to the fun side of the Pump because no other shoe had looked like that or offered that kind of system. During the Pump’s development, did you think that people would take to this idea of greater interaction with their footwear? Until then, most people’s footwear interaction was simply tying their shoelaces.
Litchfield: Here’s an interesting thing. When we did our very first prototypes – this was before the Pump became The Pump and before we named it The Pump – we brought back some shoes and there were basically two types of shoes, both with the exact same kind of air bladder inside of it. One was a shoe that you pumped up yourself, and the other one was one that you walked on. It inflated for you. I thought the one that inflated for you was kind of cool because it had this dial on it that could open and close like a dimmer switch. So, we’ve got these two shoes, right? One that pumped up itself and the other one pumped up by this thing in the heel. So, we did a bunch of testing with three or four different local high school basketball teams. We did a whole bunch of testing to see which one they liked. And I thought for sure they were going to like the automatic one because you get in it, it would fill up. They hated it! They loved the one they pumped up and it was the first time that I saw this shoe that people were interacting with.
A lot of times, you want to just put whatever you have on and forget about it, right? Well, these kids, they’re all pumping up their shoes and letting out the air to pump up again. It was really interesting. And hands down, the manual Pump was the one that they chose over the automatic model. So that’s what we went with. The notion of interacting with it became fun. We thought for a while about telling people with the hangtag ’Here’s how you use the shoe. You pump up eight times or 10 times or whatever.‘ We found out early on that some people pumped them up eight or 10 times. Dominique Wilkins, I think, used to pump up like 60 times. He would just pump and pump and pump. He loved a really snug fit. It really became a very unique product to whoever wanted to use it.
CK: What was your reaction when Dee Brown pumped up the Omni Zone II’s he was wearing at the 1991 NBA Slam Dunk Contest?
Litchfield: Making the shoes, sometimes I’m not participating in some of the events things so I was at home when they did the Slam Dunk. As interesting as the fans might have thought, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It was awesome. The guy was phenomenal. When he bent down to pump up the shoes, it was a pretty proud moment for a lot of people at Reebok, certainly for me. He was really using it. It was a great piece of showmanship. It’s really gratifying.
CK: It’s been 20 years since the initial Pump craze. How do you think the original Pump system holds up after all this time?
Litchfield: I think the first Pump was way cool. I think the various models, when you had the full Pump or the tongue Pump or some of the other Pump models kind of defined not only how the Pump functioned inside of the shoe but what kind of player you wanted to be, how much support you wanted, how much fit you wanted. I was always pretty proud of that. We sort of customize the type of customizations any individual might want.
Pump Fury was our next really, really great opportunity because we took everything off the shoe except for the Pump bladder. I’m really proud of the Fury, I’m really proud of the first Pumps we did. I think that those are kind of benchmarks. Recently, we’ve done some Pump cushioning product that I thought was really, really good. It may not have gathered as much notoriety but it was really breakthrough product. We’ve got some product on the horizon that, I think, is going to bring back the Pump and make it incredibly exciting.