One of the best new silhouettes of 2018 was Nike’s super-popular React Element 87, which makes use of the Swoosh’s brand new React cushioning. Described as 5 percent lighter and 11 percent softer than its predecessor Lunarlon, React has been billed as the Swoosh’s latest footwear tech revolution. But what many people don’t know is that React — or REACT — cushioning was done years ago, way back in the ’90s, and by now-Nike-owned Converse, no less.
Converse’s so-called REACT (styled in all capials) Juice was a liquid in the heel and ankle of the Boston brand’s sneakers, designed to provide increased support and comfort. The ’90s sneaker tech came at a time when Converse was attempting to innovate rather than relying on heritage models such as the Chuck Taylor, with REACT’s purpose mirroring that of ASICS’ GEL, Nike’s Air, and Reebok’s Pump. The difference was that it was actually a liquid stored in chambers (which were rather unfortunately called “bladders”).
REACT juice debuted in the early ’90s and was most famously used in the brand’s basketball shoes, although Converse put it in all types of footwear. Unfortunately for Converse, REACT didn’t last long, with the tech phased out about a decade later.
To promote REACT, Converse tied its latest advancement into a bizarre ad campaign fronted by 6-foot 7-inch NBA star Larry Johnson as “Grandmama,” Johnson’s elderly grandmother, who throws elbows and can dunk with the pros. The clips are pretty weird to watch today, but one has to guess the message was that REACT juice — like Popeye’s spinach — can turn anyone, even your grandma, into a basketball version of Taz the Tasmanian Devil.
When Johnson was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1991, he signed a $1 million deal with Converse and the brand promptly put the young power forward in a dress to market its shoes. Johnson admitted in 2013 he wasn’t feeling the Grandmama commercials at first, having originally been pitched something else.
Appearing on TV show Four Courses With J.B. Smoove, Johnson said, “They were going to lay me down on a gurney, cover me up and have two guys, like, operating on me. And at the end, they go, ‘Ahhh, the perfect basketball player.’” The joke was that the two surgeons would be NBA legends and Converse athletes Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who named their hybrid after themselves: Larry and Johnson.
After signing his Converse deal on the strength of the ad pitch, the actual Larry Johnson was told Converse had scrapped the idea in favor of Grandmama. He wasn’t happy: “I said, ‘I wish I had that money to give y’all back.'”
Regardless, the ad campaign was certainly memorable and Johnson gamely played Grandmama for a number of years.
So why did REACT juice disappear? According to ’90s sneaker expert Drew Hammell, it was down to a failure to innovate. “I think Converse just failed to evolve when other brands — primarily Nike — were able to,” he says. “Converse continued to push the same REACT and then REACT II cushioning into the late ’90s and early ’00s, while other sneakers were becoming lighter and more responsive. The glory days for REACT were definitely the mid-’90s, with the models that Larry Johnson, Kevin Johnson, and Latrell Sprewell wore.”
In addition to Hammell’s theory of stagnation, a bigger problem for REACT was perhaps linked to reports that the sneakers’ “bladders” were leaky, with juice seeping on to the court. Former Washington Bullet Tim Legler was on the NBA Today podcast in 2012 and shared a story about how his REACT sneakers had leaked during practice, causing Chris Webber to slip and almost injure himself. As Legler put it, “They’re out there, the ballboys are out on the floor wiping the practice court and it continued. Three or four guys slippin’, slidin’, and wipin’ out.”
Whatever the real reason for Converse’s REACT phaseout — Nike’s 2003 purchase and repositioning of Converse as a heritage brand might also have been a factor — it at least gave us Grandmama, and for that reason alone it deserves to be remembered as the “OG React.”
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