A Brief History of the Air Jordan

Released in 2020, The Last Dance from ESPN Films is a 10-part docuseries about legendary basketball star Michael Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls. We loved the entire series, but the episode that really caught our attention was episode 5, which discussed the history of the Nike Air Jordan. We were already familiar with the sneaker, but we had no idea about its history! Allow us to elaborate.

(image via sneaker history)

In 1984, Converse was the official shoe of the NBA. Michael Jordan was rising to fame, and Converse started the process of signing him to the brand. However, the execs at Converse were upfront about the fact that they could not put Jordan’s name above Larry Bird or Magic Johnson, so he passed. Jordan liked Adidas, but the brand couldn’t make anything work for him either. So Jordan’s manager pushed for him to meet with Nike. At the time, Nike was more prominently known for its track shoes, but the brand presented him with a deal that he would be crazy not to take: $500,000 per year plus a signature sneaker line. This was a wild deal for a rookie, but one that would pay off.

Nike’s timing could not have been more perfect: It had just released its “air” sole. What better name for the sneakers than Air Jordans? (Plus, Jordan spent a lot of time in the air.) Nike projected it would sell $3 million worth of Air Jordan 1s after the first year; it sold $126 million worth.

(image via sneaker freaker via nike)

Not long after Air Jordans were released, the NBA banned the shoes. Why? Because they weren’t all white. Rumor has it Jordan was fined $5,000 by the NBA every time he wore his Jordans during a game. But as you can imagine, Nike was more than happy to pay this measly fine if it meant more people wanted to rock the Air Jordans.

And did they ever. By the late ’80s and early ’90s, Air Jordans were everywhere. Nike released Air Jordans 2s, 3s, and 4s, all sticking to the original color scheme until Air Jordan 5s rolled out, ditching the Bulls’ colors and reaching an entirely new market.

Jordan kept making history. When he played his last game at Madison Square Garden, he gave fans the ultimate throwback and rocked some OG Jordan 1s. By halftime, his feet were bleeding, and he learned the hard way that shoe innovation and technology had come a long way in a few years. With this great ’90s revival in fashion we’ve been seeing, it’s no wonder that we are once again seeing these iconic sneaks everywhere.

Source: The Last Dance. Directed by Jason Hehir, ESPN Films, 2020.

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