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That was then, this is now

More than a decade later, Reebok has brought back the Pump. In stores since April, Pump 2.0 needs no shoelaces and inflates by itself. But can it repeat sneaker history?

CANTON -- In a laboratory kept under lock and key to most employees, Reebok International Ltd. has spent more than four years trying to reinvent the Pump.

The company enlisted a former NASA engineer, an MIT engineer, a product designer, and the inventor of the original Pump to revive the once-revolutionary shoe. The project quickly became one of the most complex and expensive in Reebok's history.

In April, after many experiments and prototypes, Reebok launched Pump 2.0, the most technologically advanced shoe in its lineup. In 10 steps or less, the $100 shoe seals itself around the foot, providing a custom fit designed to improve comfort and performance. At a time when rivals from Nike Inc. to adidas-Salomon AG are embedding spring-loaded shocks and computer chips in their shoes, Reebok needs the Pump to keep pace in the $16.4 billion sneaker industry.

''The Pump is all about athletic performance," said Reebok chairman and chief executive Paul Fireman. ''Even people who don't play sports want that authenticity. That's why credibility in sports is so important to us."

It's a risky strategy. After the Pump, Reebok's reputation as a serious athletic brand -- one that could make customers run faster, jump higher, and play harder -- withered. Five years ago, when the company started its comeback, it carved out a niche making fashionable shoes and signing hip-hop stars Jay-Z and 50 Cent to promotional deals.

Sales steadily climbed, reaching an all-time high of $3.8 billion last year. All the while, however, Nike focused on performance, showing ads with elite athletes such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James playing in Nikes. The world's largest sneaker maker, Nike tallied more than $12 billion in sales last year.

Even as Reebok outfitted the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League and built an all-star roster from NBA star Allen Iverson to Red Sox Manny Ramirez, its image as a lifestyle and fashion brand overshadowed its reputation for making serious shoes for serious athletes.

''Reebok painted itself into a corner with too much reliance on lifestyle products," said Joseph Anthony, chief executive of New York firm Vital Marketing LLC. ''It's at a point where it needs a defining technology to get them out of that corner."

Eight out of 10 people wear sneakers for the sake of appearance rather than sport, said Bob McGee, editor of newsletter Sporting Goods Intelligence.

Nevertheless, a brand's credibility in athletics is a key factor in people's buying decisions. They may not be running marathons but they want to feel part of Nike's ''Just do it" spirit and athleticism. Fireman likens it to buying a high-performance racing car like a Porsche.

''They're probably not going to race it," he said. ''But they still want the 500 horsepower engine."

In the 1980s, riding high on the aerobics craze, Reebok was the nation's top sneaker maker. As aerobics gave way to other fitness trends, however, Reebok needed to broaden its appeal. The original Pump did just that. At $170, the shoe sold at double the price of other sneakers, flying off store shelves. Reebok sold 20 million pairs in four years.

In 1991, when Boston Celtics guard Dee Brown pumped up his Reeboks before slam dunking the ball in a nationally televised contest, the Pump was catapulted to instant fame. Reebok took the technology from basketball to tennis, running, and cross-training. By 1993, it was in everything from track spikes to bike helmets.

Then, just as quickly as the Pump had risen to popularity, it fell. In hindsight, Fireman said, the company saturated the market too quickly, turning the shoe into a commodity and robbing it of its cool.

As Pump sales faded, Reebok floundered. By the late 1990s, sales were in a steady downward spiral. They bottomed out at less than $2.9 billion in 2000, down from more than $3.6 billion just three years earlier.

But Fireman never lost faith in the Pump and its ability to boost sales.

''It was too good an idea to keep selling it in that form," Fireman said. ''We couldn't sell it and develop it at the same time."

The idea behind the new Pump is simple. With the Pump ball in the heel -- instead of the shoe's tongue -- each step acts as a pump, inflating the shoe's air bladder and molding it to the unique contours of a person's foot. The close fit allows the shoe to move in unison with the foot, making it more responsive as well as doing away with blisters and the need to break in the shoe.

The Pump also eliminates the need for laces, allowing the designer to experiment with closure systems. The result: a shoe that doesn't require stiff layers of laminated material to hold the laces in place and doesn't absorb moisture, weighing down the shoe, like laces do.

''Doing away with laces may sound simplistic," said Bill McInnis, the former NASA engineer who spearheaded the new Pump's development. ''But it allows us to change a lot of the shoe's structure."

Turning Pump 2.0 into a reality, however, proved far from simple.

Without a mechanism to release air, the bladders would inflate until they burst. So the engineers worked on a valve to release air from the shoe, keeping the pressure constant. It needed to be small enough to fit into the shoe without altering its fit, but rugged enough to withstand wear and tear. They tested valves of different thicknesses and lengths, experimented with different materials and locations on the shoe.

They also needed to pinpoint an ideal pressure level -- not too loose, not too tight. They brought in hundreds of people to try different prototypes, isolating a range that was likely to suit at least 95 percent of the population.

The designer, Bill Marvin, put together the final prototype, borrowing bits and pieces from other Reebok shoes, making sure to avoid stitching over the bladder or obstructing the air intake or release valves. But when the first run of shoes came back from the factory, they didn't inflate.

''We tore the shoes apart," McInnis said. A factory sticker under the sock liner was blocking the air-intake valve. They went back to the factory, this time giving explicit instructions on assembling the shoes.

By November, they were ready for a ''soft launch," working with Finish Line and other running specialty retailers in fewer than a dozen markets nationwide to sell the shoes for a limited time. They sold out in three weeks.

''That's when we reached the conclusion the Pump 2.0 was ready for broader distribution," said Chris Walsh, a Reebok vice president.

This time, Fireman was determined not to make the same mistake he'd made with the original Pump.

In April, the company launched the shoe at Finish Line, Foot Locker, and smaller running specialty shops. It kept its official launch to 40,000 pairs -- a quarter the size of a typical product launch -- introducing the Pump 2.0 running shoe in five colors.

Rather than risk over-pumping the market, Fireman is keeping the product launches small and taking it slow. In August, Reebok will introduce the Pump Wrapsheer, a version of the self-inflating shoe that allows people to turn off the Pump. In time, the company plans to bring out self-inflating Pumps for basketball, tennis, and cross-training.

Reebok engineers continue to tweak Pump 2.0's technology even now. Athletes like Carolina Kluft, the Swedish track star who bears the mantle of the world's greatest female athlete, train in the shoe and make suggestions for fine-tuning the technology.

Everyday athletes also road test the shoes and ship them back to Reebok for a postmortem. Reebok's testing team dissects the shoes to see how their air bladders held up, how the soles of the shoe wore, and whether any flaws emerged after months of use.

In the lab, machines automatically deflate and inflate air bladders to make sure they can withstand up to 300 miles of use. Another machine simulates the pressure and motion of the shoe's heel striking the ground.

But the Pump has plenty of high-tech rivals on store shelves. Nike's Shox, with its columns of high-durability foam and spring plates designed to absorb impact and return energy to a runner's stride, continues to sell like hotcakes. This spring, the Portland, Ore., sneaker giant also introduced the Nike Free. A training shoe developed to simulate the biomechanics of a bare foot on a grassy surface, the shoe strengthens the foot, increasing an athlete's speed and endurance.

Even adidas took the sneaker world by storm this year when it introduced adidas_1, the world's first intelligent shoe. With a microprocessor capable of 5 million calculations per second built into the shoe's sole, it adapts its level of cushioning according to a runner's stride and the stiffness of the running surface.

''Catching up to Nike isn't something I worry about," said Reebok chief Fireman. ''I worry about doing what we do well, concentrating on our own business, and keeping pace with a world that is constantly moving forward. That's how you stay cool as a brand."

Naomi Aoki can be reached at naoki@globe.com.

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