Jordan XX9: Mike Likes It

When Michael Jordan turned 50 in February of 2013, there was an onslaught of coverage. The look backs were appropriately respectful, but some of the portraits of current Mike veered a bit into the negative, as if this proud man, a son, father and, oh yeah, the greatest basketball player and most successful shoe endorser of all time, had grown bored and rudderless.

Any requests the team here at SLAM and KICKS made to speak with Jordan in 2013 were shot down, so we can’t speak first-hand about what the State of Mike at 50 was, but we got the unprovoked offer to sit with him in the Spring of 2014 and, well, maybe it was the writers and commentators who had grown bored and rudderless.

Sitting with Michael behind the temporary stage Jordan Brand erected inside the Ballroom-turned-court known to lucky NY-area players as #Terminal23 for the media launch of the Jordan XX9, I find Michael personable, funny and bordering on giddy. It’s springtime in New York, his wife of a year (Yvette Prieto) has recently given birth to twins, his Bobcats are in the Playoffs and business at Jordan Brand is booming.

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“It’s been great,” Jordan says. “I’ve been blessed. I don’t know where [the negative coverage] came from. I’m happy that now, because of my current lifestyle, I can enjoy some of the things that I missed early on. Having kids the first time, I wasn’t able to spend as much time with them. Fortunately, my life now is a lot different than when my other three kids were being raised. My ex-wife did a good job, and now I get the chance to be a part of it and do it all again.”

He also gets to push shoes again, and this one—which will be released to the public on September 6, the first shoe in the flagship Air Jordan line to come out since February of 2013—is a doozy.

“I think it’s a great product,” Jordan says. “Obviously, we put a lot of hard work into this, it’s not just something that you just throw your name on. I think when you look at this, it’s a product of [designer Tinker Hatfield and I’s] communication and interpretation of each other’s thought process. It’s a creative, good looking, stylish product.”

On one hand, by the time you read this, the Jordan XX9 will be old news. It’s received breathless coverage all over the internet ever since the aforementioned launch event, which took place on April 17. But it’s not actually out yet.

In fact, besides the ill tech aspects of the XX9—improvements to the Flight Plate that garnered rave reviews in the Jordan XX8, as well as a performance-woven upper—it’s the release date itself that is the $225 shoe’s most noteworthy feature. “By shifting to a fall launch, we ensure players around the world will have the very best in performance and style available as they prepare for the season,” says Jordan Brand President Larry Miller.

It’s a logical move; the traditional All-Star Weekend-timed Jordan release dates of the past were great theater and gave retailers a late-winter bump, but for most ball-playing consumers, the tail end of a season is not when you want to try out new shoes. “This year we shifted the launch of the game shoe to September to better serve performance basketball players, who are at the center of everything we do,” adds Brian O’Connor, VP of Global Brand Jordan Marketing.

As a player, Jordan was withering in his critiques of teammates, and to some degree, that was understandable; becoming the greatest player of all time never lessened his work ethic or passion, and he could not understand why less-accomplished players cared so much less than he did. As the centerpiece of a footwear and apparel brand, however, Michael is much more trusting.

Oh, he cares about how Jordan product looks and feels (especially each year’s signature release), and he spends time with the Brand’s staff throughout the year, but he’s more laid-back about shoes than he ever was about basketball. The Jordan team is rich in talent in areas that Mike is still an amateur in, and he smartly gives them the space to do their thing.

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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.”

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.”

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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.

Indeed, says Jordan, “We want to continue to innovate for the game of basketball. This whole process started with the focus on basketball. For us to lose sight of that would almost be a discredit to all the years we’ve been in the business. Our focus will always be on the performance aspect of the Jordan product.”

Thirty years in, the Air Jordan line has become the ultimate win-win; throw out a dope retro and count the money, then re-invest that bread into making the best new shoe you can. Watch people achieve success in the new shoe, and then, in a few years, they’ll be retroing the later shoes and winning with them all over again. “We look to expand on our retro business as much as possible,” MJ says. “The consumer is asking for that, and we’re going to do that. You know, everybody wants the first 13 shoes, because those are the shoes I actually played in, and they’ve been elevated to that lifestyle position. But we do have consumers that feel like the next eight shoes in the line are just as hot and they want to see them released, maybe in a different colorway, maybe with the innovation of technology.”

In a reasoned and understandably satisfied tone, Jordan reflects on the cycle of success he’s helped create. “The fortunate aspect of things is that our retro business has elevated the brand in a lot of different ways,” he says. “It has become a lifestyle product, it’s part of the style consciousness and it connects us to multiple generations, be it granddad, mom and dad, kids and hopefully someday to their kids. That’s the basis of where the brand stands. Over the years, we have established that defining identity to the brand. If you want lifestyle, we’ve got lifestyle. If you want innovation, we’ve got innovation. You want basketball, we got basketball. You want new stuff, golf shoes? We got golf shoes. We got running, we got fitness stuff. We’re able to touch our consumer base in a lot of different ways, and that’s the beauty of the brand right now.”

Many of us sneakerheads have our own Jordan stories. Our first Jordan purchase (for me it was the 1s, within a month of them dropping in ’85), our favorite original Jordans (the IVs), our favorite retros (the IIs, since I wasn’t able to get them as OGs). It’s this history that has created a retro Jordan market unlike anything the sneaker industry has ever seen…and that shows no sign of slowing down.

Mike was as focused a professional athlete as there’s ever been, but he still kicked it with his kids when he could, still drove nice cars, still listened to music and still observed pop culture. Knowing this, I ask him what his Air Jordan story is? When did this whole phenomenon hit him?

“You know when it happened for me,” Jordan repeats the question. “It was the XIs, which is probably my favorite shoe. Because that shoe went from the basketball court to off-court activities. The night that Boyz II Men wore them at the Grammys (in 1996) with their tuxedos, to me, said something that I had predicted to Tinker. I said, ‘Watch, someone is gonna wear these patent leathers with a tuxedo and make a whole big statement about the shoe itself.’ Well, when it happened I think that started that off-court, lifestyle trend that fans adapted to. And that shoe—the XI—as well as the IIIs, the 1s, the XIIs, those are our most successful retros. And now, our retro business is probably the golden goose of the Jordan Brand itself. So we protect that. For people who never saw me play in those shoes, it has become a sense of style for this generation.”

“This generation” includes kids who have never played a game of basketball in their lives but love rocking loosely laced Jordan IIIs ’cause they look dope, as well as the best young ballplayers in the world, who’ll rock old and new Jordans because of what they mean.

“I know when I put Jordans on, they have a special meaning,” says high school All-American Emmanuel Mudiay. “You can wear LeBrons or KDs, but they don’t have the same meaning. Wearing Jordans brings out extra competitiveness for me. He represents the best as a player, plus he’s the model for players who want their own brand.”

Comments like these make Jordan beam; they complete the cycle he started as a high-flying, fashion-forward athlete who became synonymous with winning.

“That means I’m still able to connect to this generation,” MJ says. “You never know how that’s going to play over a period of time, but so far, because of my relationship with Nike, because of my relationship with this brand and how we’ve been able to create and initiate our style, it’s transcended generations. You know, that’s hard to do.”

“Very hard to do,” I reply.

“I guess there are a lot of components that you can put into it,” Jordan says with a smile. “Whatever we’re doing, it’s working, and we want to continue that.” K

Additional reporting by Abe Schwadron

Ben Osborne is a former Editor-in-Chief of SLAM. Follow him on twitter @bosborne17.

Photos by Tom Medvedich