Interview — Paul Litchfield, inventor of The Pump.

[This interview was originally in 3 parts over at Counterkicks and is copied here in it’s entirety for ease of reading, and archival purposes]

In our latest exclusive interview, Counter Kicks talks with Reebok Pump creator Paul Litchfield,Vice President of Advanced Concepts at Reebok. In Part 1 of a 3-part series, Paul discusses the Pump’s origins, talks about his involvement in the project, and gives us an insight into the athletic shoe industry climate in the late 1980s. Continue reading to get a glimpse of what the man behind Reebok Pump technology has to say about it all…

Counter Kicks: What was the impetus for creating The Pump?

Paul Litchfield: The impetus was we were told to do it (Laughs). I was fortunate enough to be the project manager for The Pump. I got handed this project and it was a request for us to create some custom-fitted footwear. Our owner at the time, Paul Fireman, had had a prototype of a combination ski boot/shoe from one of the companies we bought, Ellesse. He thought that we should make some customizable piece of footwear, possibly using Pump or other kinds of raw material. The impetus was to try to create something that created a customizable fit. We worked inside Reebok as well as with an outside design firm in the Boston area to create this.

CK: Can you tell us about your start at Reebok?

Litchfield: I started in late ‘85, early ‘86 at Reebok. Basketball was really becoming a global sporting endeavor and it was really capturing an attention, not only in the essence of the sport but also how the athletes presented themselves and how they became global icons. Reebok had launched a really successful basketball line in ’86 and ’87, and we followed up with The Pump. We were doing pretty well as brand and to be even part of that, it was pretty cool. I started in development at Reebok and for a brief period of time I was the product marketing manager for basketball. I did basketball marketing and development in ’87-’88. It was really funny because a lot of the Detroit Pistons – Dennis Rodman, John Salley – a lot of the Celtics – Ainge, all those guys – wore the Pump. It was a really cool time. It was great to be able to be that close to it and see how the NBA grew up and became global. For Reebok, and the Reebok basketball brand, to be right there hand in hand with it, it was pretty exciting.

CK: How did your academic background in biochemistry and in exercise science inform how you approached the Pump?

Litchfield: Desperation is a great way to make you creative. One of the things about the shoe business and creating product is it’s really how you apply what you’ve learned. I’m not a mechanical engineer but with my biochemistry background, I knew about chemistry. For some reason, chemistry was just something I liked and enjoyed. I was able to work a lot with a lot of the chemical companies, the resin companies, and that’s where I learned an awful lot about their product line and how to understand what they offer to the product line. I have an understanding of how we could potentially use that and how it might behave in a certain way.

With the exercise science background, the human body is an amazing machine. Looking at biomechanics, or looking at exercise science and muscle biochemistry like I did, you’re kind of like a car mechanic. You’re trying to make something move as efficiently as possible. You just kind of extrapolate. The thing that we do in the athletic business which is kind of cool is that it doesn’t cost a lot to make samples and prototypes. So you can make a lot of initial ideas and you can test them on yourself. We’ve done a lot of that. To this day, we still do that all the time. We make ideas, we make new products, and we test it. There’s so many prototypes and so many ideas of Pump and Hexalite and ERS that go with a lot of other technologies that we haven’t introduced, that never make it to the marketplace because they don’t work. What you see at the end result, hopefully, is a product that is a culmination of a lot of experiments and something that works.

CK: Dominique Wilkins was essentially the face of the original Pump shoe. During the development process, did he or any of the other Pump athletes give you any kind of feedback on perhaps what they would like for their own personal on-court needs, or did you just develop the shoe and have them wear it?

Litchfield: We certainly started out in the beginning with a focus on trying to create this customizable fit and support. Then, when we put it together and had the different players evaluate it and test, they came back, as they always do, with a whole bunch of feedback that helped direct us into refining the product as well as moving into different directions with it. It ends up being a real kind of balance. To say ‘Hey, what would you do for a new style of shoe?’ is not really fair. But you put something out there like we did for the first Pump with Dominique and Dennis Johnson, and we even had coaches involved. We had Pat Riley and Digger Phelps. A little later on we had Dee Brown. Dee Brown’s not only a phenomenal guy and great spokesman but he believed in the product from the get-go.

All these guys had a lot of input – how they use it, how they interact with it. Different players. Dominique was a big forward. Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Doc Rivers were smaller guys. We had a whole stable of really cool basketball NBA players. Reebok was really small, relatively speaking, and we were a pretty open environment so these athletes were in all the time. Although I just built the shoes – I wasn’t part of the PR nor was I part of the athlete promotions department – you still had access to these folks and you got a lot of feedback from them. A lot.

CK: Take us back a bit to the late ’80’s and describe being involved in Reebok and in the sneaker business at a time when there was an amazing amount of competition. There were so many landmark shoes coming out at that time.

Litchfield: It was really, really cool. Reebok was one of the top brands and we were battling for number one in size with Nike at the time. A lot of kids growing up, they didn’t have iPhones, they didn’t have mp3 players and things like that, so your athletic gear that you wore around was your badge. So people were buying a lot of product at the time. Jordan was taking off and we had our own stable of athletes with Dominique and Dee Brown and all of the other folks who were doing a bunch of great product work for us representing the brand and so it was a really cool time to be involved.

Now, working in the job that I work in, we’re kind of like the engine room. We’ve just got to keep the fuel in the engine and we’ve got to keep on stoking the furnace to make sure that the place runs. To say there was a lot of time for us to bask in the glory of the Pump, you know, it didn’t happen. The advanced concepts department at the time was three people. We had to make new stuff. As soon as the Pump was launched, we were well in the midst of trying to improve it. And we were well in the midst of trying to expand on it. That’s not to say that I’m upset about the course that I took on it but there was never a stop. It’s not like there’s a season here that you can just stop at.

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.

CK: What was production of the Pump like? No one had ever manufactured a shoe like this before and certainly not on a large scale.

Litchfield: The Pump shoe, because it cost so much money, every Pump bladder we made here in Massachusetts at this medical device company. We inspected the Pump twice here in Massachusetts before we shipped it out. We inspected it once when it arrived at the factory, once when it was stitched into the shoe upper, and then once on the finished shoes. So it was inspected five times for at least three hours at a time to make sure it didn’t leak. We were good. I was out there for the first production. We saw the first two days of production. And at the end of the line, all these people are pumping up the shoes to make sure they’re filled up. I flew back from Korea and I was like ’Alright, this is good, I’m okay’ because we got this launch going. About two or three weeks later – because we flew all the shoes in – I get a call from the warehouse. They said ’Hey, the first thousand pair of shoes were okay but these other 6,000 pairs, none of them work.’ I’m like ’What do you mean ‘none of them work‘?’ He goes ’They don’t work!’ I’m like ’You guys are out of your minds.’ So we went down there. They didn’t work. We panicked.

At the end of the line, people had to pump up the basketball. After a couple hours of that, your hands are tired. So they took the needle off of a sewing machine so you had just the guide bar going up and down. Well, what the guide bar did was it went really fast and it bent one of the valves in the Pump ball itself. Nobody knew it because it filled up the shoe but it filled up for the last time. So when they released the air, they’re like ’Okay, Check, they’re all done.’ When they came to the U.S.A., our warehouse goes to inspect them, none of them work. So, all the sudden I’ve got like almost 6,000 pairs of shoes that are pretty much useless. So, we had to go in – me and about six other people – and we literally unstitched the top of the tongue where the Pump ball is. We had to take out the Pump ball, put in a new one, and then stitch it back up without anybody ever knowing it. I don’t think we slept for days, seriously. That’s how smoothly things go sometimes, you know?

CK: There’s been so many shoes with the Pump technology. Do you have a personal favorite or favorites that represent your vision of what a Pump shoe is?

Litchfield: I’m not a designer and I’m not the most fashionable guy going. However, when a good product comes by, I can recognize it. The way I define it for myself is a product that’s elegant, a product that is not over-embellished, fairly simple in its execution, and when people see it they understand it or when they put it on they definitely understand it. I think the first Pump definitely did that with the Pump ball. I thought our VP of Design at the time, Paul Brown, when he did the shoe design that was the drawing for the shoe that launched, the first one with the orange ball, I thought that was brilliant. That was awesome. It captured everything that we needed it to do.

We had set up some parameters. We needed the Pump to be on the tongue, we needed it to be high enough but it wouldn’t be in the way. We gave him a whole bunch of boundaries and he did this design that was ultimately that white and blue shoe that got launched. When I saw it one day, I was like ’That’s the shoe.’ I mean, I didn’t even need to bring it by the marketing people or anything. I just knew that was the shoe. So I’m pretty proud of that shoe. I think that shoe captures a lot. There were some parts of the shoe that I would have changed, looking back on it. We did it with the next one, which was the Twilight Zone. And then we had a shoe called the Pump Omni, which was a great shoe. The Dee Brown shoe [Omni Zone II] is an awesome shoe. The Pump Fury was one that I was really proud of because of the fact that, within our own little group, we were able to kind of redefine what Pump meant at the time. We’ve done some shoes that haven’t even made it to retail that I’m pretty proud of, that I think captured the essence what we were trying to with Pump, even if they didn’t get launched. So, yeah, I’ve got a few shoes that I think are just really cool and kind of my own personal favorites. But it’s funny because every time I bring up a personal favorite, somebody will go ’No, are you kidding me? I like this one better.’ And I’m like ’Alright, whatever.’

CK: What do you remember most from the Pump development process?

Litchfield: I remember everything. We were a pretty small group and we did a bunch of product. I was a product manager, I worked hard. We were really successful – me and a small group of people. The guys out at Design Continuum helped originate the whole thing. There’s a lot of people who got involved and it’s very cool to have been part of that and to be, I hope, an important part of that. It’s great. It’s a great product. The fact is, a lot of people say ’Oh, The Pump was a gimmick, The Pump was this, The Pump was that’ and I’m like ‘Alright, that’s fine.’ But, I’ll tell you, when you put them on, they work. It’s pretty simple. You can disrespect it, you can make fun of it, that stuff doesn’t bother me. I know for a fact that if you put it on and if you inflate the air bladder, it’s going to make the shoe fit better, it’s going to make the shoe more supportive, and it’s going to make the shoe different than any other brand of shoes that you can buy anywhere. So, that’s kind of cool.

CK: How do you see the Pump technology being refined as time continues on?

Litchfield: We’re like Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog. We pop our heads up every now and then and most of the time the business kind of goes along. We work behind the scenes. We’ve been working for a long time at trying to create new opportunities with customizable product using the Pump. I think we’re on the verge of a really great breakthrough, hopefully bringing a new renaissance to the Pump. We haven’t gone away from the Pump in the advanced concept groups, we just have had some successes and a bunch of challenges. That’s the part that brings you back to reality fairly quick.

CK: What is Pump’s legacy?

Litchfield: I’ve got to be really truthful with you. We wanted to make a really great shoe. There are certain aspects of the shoe, particularly the first shoe, that were really good. Certain aspects I didn’t like when we look back on it. It’s a very cool product but I know it’s not perfect. It’s a little humbling when people get enthusiastic about it.

I’m really proud of the Pump. I’m really proud of what we’ve done. I’m really proud to have been a part of it. We didn’t start out trying to do this, like this. We just tried to make a good product that was different and unique and something that we could own. So, the fact that it’s been sustainable and, hopefully, iconic, that’s awesome.

— Original 3-part interview via Counterkicks.

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