No one has earned this trust more than Hatfield, who saved MJ's relationship with Nike back in 1987 when the designer wowed Mike (whose initial contract with the Swoosh was almost over) with the former's innovative design for the Air Jordan III, which put the Jumpman front and center and boasted a mid-cut and elephant print that gave the shoes a look unlike any basketball shoe ever had. That little bit of Nike lore is too humble to be part of a splashy media launch, but even the scaled-down Hatfield bio is remarkable. To quote directly from how he's introduced at the launch, Hatfield "is a 35-year Nike veteran and is responsible for some of the most iconic sneakers ever created. He has worked on more Air Jordans than any other designer. He created all six shoes that Michael wore while earning those amazing six rings. And he is the lead designer on the revolutionary Air Jordan XX9."
Says MJ, "In terms of being able to understand the things that I like, Tinker is up there. He's not my wife, but he's close."
"What's great about this shoe is that there are no layers. It's completely smooth. It's very, very different than any shoe that's ever really been made.” —Hatfield
Hatfield, now 62, elaborates: "When I design a Jordan game shoe, Michael is who I have in mind. I still think of Michael as being the best player in the world. I still think of him as being the person I need to talk to the most, to give us the most feedback and exchange ideas with.
"We've been working hard on this for well over two years, because it's such a new technological advance in footwear," Tinker continues. "Not only design, but construction. This shoe is actually made in a special weaving machine, which does create a web of fibers. And it all comes together, sorta in one seamless construction process. What's great about this shoe is that there are no layers. In previous shoes, way back when, we would, in order to make a shoe stronger, we would have to add another layer of something else and then that might create a hotspot. You could feel it. But this is completely smooth. It's very, very different than any shoe that's ever really been made."
And if at the end of the construction process a shoe looks good enough for Hatfield, that's good enough for Jordan. "We stay in our arena," MJ says of their relationship. "We like to talk a lot about our different fields, but we do stay in our arena. It's part of the relationship."
A couple weeks after the media launch, Thunder guard and signature Jordan athlete Russell Westbrook became the first player to wear the XX9s in public, rocking a sweet, Thunder-hued colorway throughout Oklahoma City's three-round stay in the NBA Playoffs.
A couple months after that, Westbrook is still feeling the shoe. "My first reaction was, this feels like a nice, soft pillow," Russ says. "I like a real soft, soothing, comfortable shoe and the [XX9] felt like that from the first time I put it on. From then on, it's just been extremely good."
Adds the explosive, three-time All-Star, "It's how the shoe is made. It has a woven upper. It's very, very light. And it kinda fits around your foot, which makes it so comfortable. It's a good mixture for balance. I always felt balance with the shoe makes me feel good wearing it."
As Hatfield says, "I think people love the shoes partly because of how they perform. When people buy an Air Jordan, they're wearing part of his DNA."
Personally, I've never felt the DNA sensation, and I've yet to strap on a pair of XX9s, but I've played in the XX8s and the five or six editions before that, and it's true: Jordans perform. My favorite to play in of late has actually been the Air Jordan 2012, which many of you may not even remember. But the point is that regardless of what an insanely popular retro looks like, feels like or sells like today, when these guys set out to make a new basketball shoe, they're still going to do it as well or better than anyone else in the game.