Everyone who has a pair has a favorite.
One they will wear for special occasions, and another one they may stock away for years at a time, waiting for the perfect “ahhh” moment to pull them out to an unsuspecting crew of competing friends.
It’s commonplace now, the culture that is so ingrained today. Nike’s Air Jordan line didn’t start out that way, but it was the innovator that began the trends we see today.
The biggest fans of Michael Jordan can pick out the year of a particular highlight by looking down at what was on his feet, usually the Air Jordan line.
When he dunks on Patrick Ewing from the baseline in the 1991 playoffs, you know those are the Black Infrared VI’s. That iconic free-throw line dunk at Chicago Stadium in 1988 that became a poster in so many kids’ bedrooms? Cement III’s.
When he laid on the floor of the United Center locker room, celebrating the Bulls’ 1996 title and mourning the 1993 death of his father, the elegant Black and Red XI’s gleamed from the cameras, with the rare patent leather a deviation from any model we’d seen before.
The ones he wore that night in Salt Lake City in 1998 when he hit the winning shot in Game 6 of the Finals against the Utah Jazz? The XIV’s, perhaps a nod to his impending retirement considering he’d been wearing the XIII’s through the year and playoffs. He made sure to wear the new model in case nobody was around to see him in it by the time of their release a whole year later.
The shoes are as synonymous as the player himself, becoming a brand even before Jordan Brand was created in 1997.
By now, the story has been told tenfold: Jordan wasn’t keen on going with the upstart shoe company that was more known for actual “tennis” shoes than basketball shoes, but decided on them before his rookie year over the more established Converse and Adidas brands.
The so-called “banned” Air Jordan looked so different than any shoe any player was wearing — designed similarly to the Nike Dunk and Air Ship, the latter being a model Jordan actually wore his rookie year — that Nike figured out or stumbled upon the fact that its shoes could be worn off the court.
Whatever price point Nike placed on the shoes, it was paid. From $65 initially to $100 a couple years later all the way to $150 by Jordan’s last season in Chicago, it didn’t matter — they were flying off the shelves and the profits ballooned.
Why Air Jordans stand out from other sneakers
The models were unique and similar at the same time. The III’s and IV’s have common threads, as well as the V’s and VI’s, all designed by Tinker Hatfield and approved by Jordan himself — usually inspired by something he loved — and he evaluated the shoes all the way down to the most minute detail.
A young filmmaker named Spike Lee took advantage in his early films, giving the shoe prominent placements in “Do The Right Thing” and “She’s Gotta Have it”, and without a doubt, he had it and Jordan had it. A partnership was soon birthed, with Lee’s over-the-top brilliance as Mars Blackmon and Jordan, usually silent in the iconic Wieden+Kennedy ads.
You saw them on “Fresh Prince” Will Smith. Jerry Seinfeld often wore the September Blue VI models on his show.
Celebrities wanted in on the ad campaigns, singers like Mary J. Blige performed a remake of Stevie Wonder’s “As” in a campaign during Jordan’s second sabbatical, along with rapper Mos Def having a song immortalized in an ad.
It seems so simple now, but it wasn’t common sense then: match the shoes with the apparel, put them on a charismatic athlete in a big city like Chicago for a team that had recognizable color patterns (red, black, white) and then — boom — a billion-dollar business.
Now, the colors are so radical with various re-releases that it’s hard to fathom the color schemes then were just easy to recognize, style and sell. It’s no wonder Bulls apparel is still top-10 worldwide despite the team not being relevant for the better part of 20 years, but because of its tacit association with Nike and Jordan. Resale sites like StockX or Flight Club can have Jordan models that go for thousands of dollars — even if they'll eventually resurface for retail value.
The success couldn't have been planned, but the way it’s transcended basketball hasn't just been organic, but by foresight of the future.
Before Jordan retired from the Bulls, the spun-off Jordan Brand had younger players who didn’t mind carrying the torch of the man they admired and were supposed to beat. Being a member of Team Jordan was an honor, wearing that Jumpman logo was something that had plenty of teammates whispering and begging for the plug — for clothing, special shoes, anything.
Jordan hasn’t played in the NBA in nearly 20 years, but the Air Jordan models keep churning, with the retro lines still popular among kids who never saw Jordan play or only remember him as the guy from the crying meme than the aspirational, inspirational figuring flying through the air.
The significance of Air Jordans
At the ground level, the shoes became a mark of prestige. Kids who didn’t have much showed off their new Air Jordans to prove they had taste, or a little pull, or simply, that they weren’t broke.
It came with drawbacks, of course. Some kids got them snatched off their feet, often at gunpoint, moments after purchase.
Others became targets throughout their own neighborhoods, resulting in a “ban” of a different kind: Don’t buy them or if you do, don’t wear them.
But the phenomenon extended far beyond Jordan himself. While it added to the mystique and played a part in him being crowned the greatest player of all time, the industry itself was sparked by the interest Jordan generated.
Getting a signature shoe became the biggest separator between star and superstar. Nike was at the forefront of design and technology, possessing the resources and credibility to set the agenda, and thus plucking the best of the best to promote its apparel — especially in basketball.
This untapped market had unlimited potential, so they assigned Charles Barkley — the antithesis of Jordan in terms of public persona — with his own shoe.
There were some brash college kids at a signature school, the University of Michigan, attracting the attention of young athletes everywhere. So the “Fab Five” became another phenomenon, albeit an unpaid set of endorsers who wore the freaky-looking Air Huarache’s with black socks.
Penny Hardaway, Scottie Pippen and Kevin Garnett all had shoes with their names on them, with memorable ad campaigns to boot. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are the standard-bearers of Nike now, but they’re still chasing Jordan.
And if your favorites are the black and cement III’s, there hasn’t been a shoe released in the 32 years since that compares to them.
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