Nike almost lost its biggest hoops star—until revolutionary designer
In the four decades since its debut, the Air Jordan has continued to thrive: Jordan Brand, now a subsidiary of Nike, earned more than $5 billion in sales in 2022. Retro Air Jordan releases often sell out in minutes, with aftermarket demand routinely driving resale prices into four figures and beyond. With Peter Moore’s 1987 departure, Nike almost lost its biggest hoops star—until revolutionary designer Tinker Hatfield stepped in. The Air Jordan 3, Hatfield’s first Jordan shoe design, is credited with keeping MJ at Nike. Working in close collaboration with Jordan, Hatfield created a modern, lightweight shoe, remarkable both for its innovative design and historical impact. The first ever mid-cut basketball shoe, the Nike Air Jordan 3 is the first Air Jordan sneaker to feature ‘Visible Air’ in the form of an exposed heel unit. It also marks the debut of the iconic Jumpman logo on the tongue, and the model’s distinctive elephant print accents. The story is unthinkable today, when the same retros that were once discounted to $19.99 sell for 100 times that amount and the AJ1s are more important than ever for Jordan Brand, which became its own subsidiary under the Nike umbrella in 1997. In November, the brand posted its first billion-dollar quarter, led by the sales of two shoes: its newest from the signature line, the Air Jordan 34, and the original Jordan 1, which saw at least 80 different versions released in 2019. (For perspective, the second-most-released retro in 2019, the Jordan 4, had 18 drops.) Demand for the classic silhouette is at an all-time high, surpassing even what it was when the shoe disrupted the sneaker industry 35 years ago. And with The Last Dance reigniting hype for basketball’s favorite son, demand may only increase. “It’s very difficult to separate Michael’s world from the footwear world that we are a part of,” says Jordan Brand vice president Gentry Humphrey. “They’re really, really synonymous.” The shoe was initially banned by the NBA because of its red-and-black colour scheme at a time when the organisation stipulated that players' footwear had to be predominantly white. This inevitably only created a rebellious mystique around it – it is the shoe's ability to take colour that might also have helped in its long-lasting popularity. "Whether it was the toe box or the contrast on the swoosh or the collar, the way that you could design it and make colours pop was just eminently noticeable in a way that was relatively new to sneakers, and I think that was part of it," says DeLeon. In 2011, Nike released the Nike Air Jordan 1 Banned High, celebrating the infamous black and red sneakers that the NBA “threw out of the game” in 1985. Dressed in the iconic ‘Bred’ colorway of the OG Nike Air Jordan 1 High, the Banned Air Jordan 1s are embellished with details that allude to the silhouette’s storied history. Xs on the heels and interior linings pay homage to the ‘Banned’ nickname, while the interior tongues read “Imagine If…?” The Banned Jordans also include commemorative insoles, featuring the date of the legendary ban. The Banned Nike Air Jordan 1 is also notable for reintroducing the original “Nike Air” branding on the exterior tongue tag. Released exclusively at Nike Factory stores, all 2011 Banned Nike Air Jordans are B-Grade stamped. “It was a beautiful moment to be at the beginning of what now is just the norm.” —Jason Mayden Michael Jordan had never even worn a Nike shoe at the time but was convinced by his parents to take the deal over Adidas, commencing the legendary partnership between Michael Jordan and Nike. The Air Jordan was born and the rest is history. In 2012, Marvin Barias was browsing the forum on the sneaker-news website Sole Collector when he raised a question: Did anyone have pictures of Michael Jordan wearing the Banned AJ1s in an NBA game? Everyone had seen the famous photo of him in the 1985 slam dunk contest, when the NBA uniform rules didn’t apply and he sported the Breds and a gold chain. But no one could produce anything of him wearing them in a regular-season game. Jordan Brand slowly began to seize on the moment, rolling out first a few Jordan 4s in 1999, then some 5s, 6s, and 11s in 2000. In 2001, Jordan finally re-released pairs of AJ1s—seven in total, including Breds and Black Royals and a few Japanese exclusives. Production didn’t exactly boom at first—there was one AJ1 in 2002, two in 2003, and none in 2004 or 2005—but by the end of the decade, releases like the Strap Bred showed there was still demand for the classic silhouette. The hype steadily increased, and the market exploded with the releases of the Fragment Design collab in late 2014 and the Shattered Backboards and remastered Chicagos the next year. More recent shoes like the popular Union Los Angeles collaboration have only pushed the AJ1 to a new level. “It was amazing being able to take some of the most iconic shoes but then to turn them into products that encouraged children who were in the hospital, who went through things that I had went through,” he says. “It was full circle.” Before the Jordans, signature shoes had been made for NBA icons like Walt Frazier and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but never had one been designed with so much intent, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, the creative director of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and author of two books on sneaker culture. MJ’s then agent, David Falk, and Nike vice president Rob Strasser had asked for a shoe that held appeal beyond the basketball court. Moore’s creation delivered. “Obviously it needed to perform well for Michael Jordan, but I think that it was designed with an eye towards fashion or aesthetics in a way a lot of other sneakers were not,” Semmelhack says. This special edition Nike Air Jordan 5 Retro SE Oregon brings an added element of Nike history to the classic design: the company was founded by former ‘Oregon Ducks’ track athlete Phil Knight and coach Bill Bowerman, and Hatfield himself is an alumnus and former track athlete. The Jordan shoes feature Apple Green uppers with contrasting black eyelets, tongues and mesh, and yellow shark tooth detailing on the midsoles. 1984 was a game changing year for popular culture: Prince released his rock opera Purple Rain. Apple launched the Macintosh computer during a SuperBowl ad. MTV hosted the first-ever Video Music Awards. Not to mention, I was a senior in high school and living in my own existential combination of great optimism and uncertain fear of what the future held for my emancipation into the world as an adult. The rest was history. Aside from the innovative construction—the fixed straps to the forefoot and ankle for more stability, a heel cup for extra support, padded ankle collars for a more comfortable fit, air cushions, and the winged logo on the upper part of the high tops—the most notable innovation of the Jordan 1 design (and the most disruptive) was the color. In 1984, most NBA regulation basketball sneakers were simply all black or all white. Occasionally, the sneakers were white with the accent color of the team. Moore pushed this idea by creating Jordan 1 in red, black, and white—the Chicago Bulls colors. Because of this colorway, the Jordan 1’s nickname became “BRED”. Bold and braggadocious, the Jordan 1, like the player who wore them, received a lot of attention. Each time Jordan laced up his Jordan 1, he was actually fined $5,000.00 per game. The shoes subsequently became known as “BANNED” —and Nike, smartly, decided to make lemons out of lemonade. While then they might have been cutting edge, now part of their appeal is nostalgia. For DeLeon, "I have an old Blur T-shirt or an Anime T-shirt that I'll never get rid of, [it's] the same thing with Jordans." That's been less the case this year, as several releases no longer sell through with immediacy, and some secondary market prices reflect softness. “You see the Air Jordan 1, and it’s a shoe that has gained notoriety over the years,” Barias says. “But the Air Ship was before the Jordan 1. That’s the shoe that Jordan was wearing.” If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter. In 1994, with a freshly retired Michael Jordan beginning a new career in the White Sox farm system, Nike did something it would do hundreds of times to much fanfare over the ensuing 25 years: re-release pairs of Air Jordans that had long been out of production. The first time the company did it, though, not many people seemed to care.

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