A Quick History of the Air Jordan
With the prevalence of Air Jordan and other NBA-inspired sneakers in today’s footwear market, it’s hard to imagine a time when basketball sneakers weren’t popular. But before Michael Jordan and Nike shook up the shoe game in 1985, basketball shoes weren’t exactly a hallmark of style. NBA regulations required white shoes, and there weren’t a wealth of basketball stars lending their names to performance footwear.
Since then, 32 versions of the iconic Air Jordan sneakers have been released, spawning a yearly tradition that excites “sneakerheads” much like new Apple releases captivate techies. Air Jordan sales hit $2.6 billion in 2014, and commanded a whopping 54% share of the basketball shoe market in the same year.
What’s the story behind the Air Jordan, the most iconic basketball sneaker of all time? Here’s a quick history of the famous shoe and how it gave way to the monolith that sneaker culture is today.
It could have been Adidas
It’s hard to imagine that a shoe so synonymous with Nike could have been made by Adidas. But as the story goes, in 1984, Adidas was looking at signing a little-known basketball star named Michael Jordan. At that time, signature sneakers were largely the realm of tennis stars (think Stan Smiths). Jordan was playing basketball at the University of North Carolina and had his sights set on working with the German athletic brand.
Adidas execs initially wanted to sign Jordan, but decided at the last minute that shoppers were more likely to favor taller basketball players. Jordan is a towering 6’6″, but the company had a 7-foot player in mind: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The company still makes his shoe, and it’s a hit among sneaker collectors to this day. But we’re betting Adidas is still kicking itself over the choice, given the massive popularity of Air Jordans.
After the Adidas deal fell through, Nike moved right in. But Jordan, having just finished up an eventful college career and the Olympics, needed some convincing. The people at Nike called Jordan’s parents and put together a tour of the company’s Oregon facility.
During the tour, Jordan mentioned that he liked the Adidas shoes because they were lower to the ground than the shoes Nike was making at the time. Designer Peter Moore ensured the budding star that the shoes could be tailored to his liking. Eventually, Moore came up with a red and black design that soon made its debut on the court.
The infamous shoe ban
When the first Jordans rolled out in 1985, would-be customers were a little put off by the shoe’s steep $65 price tag. But NBA commissioner David Stern inadvertently changed this by taking a hard line on enforcing the league’s white shoe rule.
When Michael Jordan walked out on the court in those red and black Nikes, the NBA swiftly fined him $5,000 per game for failing to comply with the dress code. The ban and massive fines garnered enough buzz for the shoes that Nike ate the costs—an investment that proved to be well worth it.
Eventually, Nike made a secondary Air Jordan color scheme to comply within the NBA’s dress code.
Who owns the brand?
Michael Jordan may have retired from his basketball career back in 2003, but the former player is still raking in the big bucks. Jordan is reportedly worth around $1 billion, thanks in part to the sneaker deal of a lifetime.
The Jordan Brand, a subsidiary of Nike, is still in place from the original sneaker deal set up in 1984. According to an article in Forbes, the brand sells $2.6 billion a year, outpacing the shoe sales of other popular players—even LeBron James.
Back in 1985, the clearance racks were loaded with unsold Jordans at the end of the season. That’s a far cry from today, where the original edition of the shoe will run you no less than $1,000. The latest release will run you $180, and that starting price quickly rises for limited edition versions and other upgrades.
Just a few days ago, Nike released the Air Jordan 1 Best Hand in the Game collection featuring four new takes on the iconic sneaker—one for each of MJ’s biggest career milestones. When the collection hits shelves globally on May 5, we’re predicting that sneakerheads will be lined up to snag a pair, even at a high price tag.
These days, $65 for a pair of Air Jordans is the steal of a century.