If you’re having trouble keeping tabs on—or are blissfully unaware of—which retro sneakers currently reign supreme, here’s an extremely brief overview: Up until very recently, the rankings began and ended with the Adidas Samba. But the current title-holder has never felt more imperiled—threats to its dominance have come in the form of throwback running shoes and the meteoric rise of the Onitsuka Tiger Mexico 66, and lately, from within the brand’s very own archives. The Gazelle, in particular, seems poised for a massive breakout moment down the line, but the retro silhouette vying for the throne right now is a little more obscure: The Adidas Handball Spezial, a slim, colorful sneaker the Three Stripes first introduced in the ’70s.
New Yorkers might recognize an Americanized form of handball from the city’s public parks, but the game originated in Germany well over a century ago, where it became so popular that Herzogenaurach-based Adidas began developing a gum-soled shoe purpose-built for the courts. In 1979, the Spezial was born.
All of that is interesting enough, but it’s also secondary to our primary business here. Because, like most Adidas sneakers from the era, the result of the brand’s tinkering looks wildly cool in 2023. At first glance, the flourishes that separate the Spezial from its better-known counterparts might seem small, but they’re not inconsequential—they’re a huge part of the reason folks dig them over their indoor soccer-inspired cousins.
The Spezial’s wedge-like toe box and angular shape, in tandem with its rounded laces, adds up to a sneaker that looks equally street-ready with battered straight-leg jeans and ginormous pleated chinos. (If you’re a denimhead and want to keep the colors in the same family, the navy-and light-blue combination is calling your name.)
By now, of course, the Adidas Handball Spezial isn’t exactly a sleeper-hit; as you might imagine, it’s already plastered across TikTok. That said, it’s hardly reached the same saturation point as the Samba or the Gazelle. So if you’re looking for a sneaker that’s on the way up but hasn’t crested yet—or could care less what the algorithm dictates—it might be time to limber up and fight your local pickleball enthusiasts for a turn on the courts.