KICKS 10: Fresh Air

by August 08, 2009

In some ways, it wouldn’t be the most ridiculous thing if KICKS were simply named JORDAN. After all, as Russ Bengtson tracks so perfectly here, Mike changed the sneaker industry. From his groundbreaking and innovative relationship with Nike in the mid ‘80’s to where we are today, no one has had the impact that MJ has. He’s not a name brand. His name is a brand. He didn’t just change the game, he conquered it.

The original sneaker bible’s tenth anniversary issue had to pay homage to the kicks equivalent of God, Allah, Jesus, Yahweh and every other deity rolled into one. That’s why no one was a more proper pick for KICKS 10 than the man himself. Let this history of how Jordan’s sneaker game elevated like he just took off from the line whet your appetite, because KICKS 12 is coming. Who’s next?—Adam Fleischer

By Russ Bengtson

It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, and often it’s just plain wrong. Because chances are—in sports, and damn near everything else—anything that’s done, no matter how amazing, has been done before. But what Nike did with Michael Jordan in 1984, this was different. Truly unprecedented.

Allow me to tell you a story.

In ’84, Nike was a 12-year-old company, not far removed from Phil Knight selling Onitsuka Tigers and Bill Bowerman making outsoles in his wife’s waffle iron. The NBA was dominated by the Lakers and Celtics, who were led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, respectively. In the ’83-84 season, Bird won the MVP while leading his Celtics to 62 wins, which he then followed with a seven-game victory over the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Sneaker-wise, Converse dominated the NBA, as it had for much of the previous 38 years. The venerable Massachusetts-based company had four of the five ’83-84 first-team All-NBAers under contract—Bird, Magic, Isiah Thomas and Bernard King. (The fifth, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, wore adidas.) Nike had what may have been the ultimate shoe from a performance standpoint—two years earlier they had introduced the Air Force 1—and a considerable NBA roster, but comparatively little star power (apologies to Moses Malone). Heading into the ’84 off-season, the people at Nike knew they were paying far too much for far too little a return. They needed to focus.

KICKS 10 Cover; Jordan. The thought was this: quality over quantity. Forget volume, and find one young, exciting player who would be able to carry the brand forward. At a meeting in early ’84, a few Nike executives had tossed around names—with one exec, Sonny Vaccaro (you may have heard of him), bringing up Michael Jordan’s. Jordan was then a junior at North Carolina, still a few months away from his star turn at the ’84 Olympics (and, for that matter, his decision to forego his senior season). But Vaccaro, who had made his name by getting top college programs to wear Nikes, was sure—Jordan was the guy.

Even when Jordan did leave school early and signed with Nike-friendly agent David Falk, it wasn’t that easy to get him to wear the Swoosh. Jordan had worn Converse at UNC but wanted to sign with adidas, which he’d worn back in high school. He would have gladly signed with the German brand had they simply matched Nike’s offer. But adidas didn’t. And not only did Nike offer the most money by far (nearly matching Jordan’s rookie contract), but they were willing to essentially give him his own brand within Nike—over two decades before that would literally happen.

It was strange—Nike seemed to have more faith in the 21-year-old guard than his Chicago Bulls did. Following the Draft, when Jordan went to the Bulls at number three, then-GM Rod Thorn gave his assessment of Jordan to the Chicago Tribune: “We wish Jordan were seven feet, but he isn’t. There just wasn’t a center available. What can you do? Jordan isn’t going to turn this franchise around. I wouldn’t ask him to. He’s a very good offensive player, but not an overpowering offensive player.”

But before Jordan played a game with the Bulls or made anything official with Nike, MJ played in the Olympic Trials, and the subsequent Olympic Games, in Los Angeles. He was the star of the team and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated…wearing Converse. Before the Olympics had begun, Falk had proposed a number of names for the hypothetical Jordan project, and Nike execs Peter Moore and Rob Strasser focused on the same one: Air Jordan. By the time the initial meeting ended, Moore had sketched the original ball-and-wings logo. After the Olympics, Jordan signed on the dotted line.

The first Air Jordan shoe was nothing to write home about from a performance perspective—the aforementioned Air Force 1, as stated earlier, was more advanced technologically—but it sure was loud. In a Hoop magazine piece detailing Jordan’s first training camp, the red and black hightops were the focus of day four: “He’s wearing those shoes for a reason,” joked trainer Mark Pfeil. “This is like our quarterback drill. He’s wearing those so nobody will hit him.”

They also drew the attention of NBA Commissioner David Stern, who declared the shoes to be in violation of the NBA’s uniform code (the rest of the Bulls wore white shoes) and decreed that Jordan couldn’t wear the shoes in games. If he did, the Bulls would be fined $1,000 for the first violation, $5,000 for the second and after that would forfeit games. Nike knew a marketing opportunity when they saw one—they promised the Bulls they’d take care of the fines, told Jordan to wear the shoes anyway and built a TV commercial around the ban.

KICKS 10 JORDAN Feature; Spread. Not that there was a product to sell yet. Although the shoe was ready for Jordan at the start of the regular season (they later produced a white, red and black version to comply with the uniform code), it wouldn’t go on sale until April. In the meantime, Jordan was spectacular. He scored 37 points in his third NBA game against the Milwaukee Bucks. He put up 33 in a win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, 45 against the Spurs, 35 against the Bucks, 45 against Cleveland, 42 in his second visit to the Garden, 45 against Atlanta, 41 against the Celtics. Then came the All-Star break.

Jordan came out for the Slam Dunk Contest in Indianapolis wearing Air Jordan garb from head to toe, black warmup pants over his Bulls shorts, gold chains bouncing and gleaming. NBA traditionalists weren’t happy with the brash rookie—nor were some of the veterans who virtually shut him out of the game on Sunday. But the Air Jordan legend grew two sizes that weekend. And the first game out of the break, against “freeze-out” leader Isiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons, Jordan scored a career-high 49.

By the day the Air Jordan finally went on sale, April 1, ’85, Jordan was cruising to the Rookie of the Year award. And the release, predictably, was pure chaos. Sellouts everywhere. The Bulls would go on to lose their opening first-round Playoff series with the Milwaukee Bucks in four games, 3-1, but Air Jordan was here to stay.

With a single release, Jordan and Nike together had shifted the entire sneaker landscape. It’s not that the Air Jordans took over a share of the sneaker market that already existed as much as they created a new sneaker market that wasn’t even there before. Jordan and his shoes just happened to be the exact right pairing at the exact right time.

Others noticed as well. In Brooklyn, a 28-year-old aspiring filmmaker named Spike Lee was working on his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It. In the film, Lee himself played a scrawny, hyperkinetic bike messenger named Mars Blackmon—a devout basketball fan whose prized possession was his Air Jordans. He never took them off.

Back in Portland, a young ad man named Jim Riswold noticed that. An employee of Nike’s agency, Wieden & Kennedy, he had the idea that Lee and Jordan would make a perfect fit for future commercials. Only…

Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Air Jordan reportedly sold in excess of $100 million worth of product that first year—which was ridiculous. Jordan wore the original Air Jordan for his second season as well—well, what little he played of it. Jordan missed 64 games with a broken foot suffered during the third game of the season. But he came back, led the team in scoring for the last eight games, then moved on to the Playoffs against the Celtics. The Celtics, the best team in the NBA that year, swept the Bulls and went on to take the championship. But Jordan still found his time to shine. In Game 2 at Boston Garden, Jordan scored a Playoff-record 63 points in a double-overtime Bulls loss that led Larry Bird to comment afterward that he’s “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” The legend grew.

And the Air Jordan line thrived. The second model—which coincided with MJ’s third season—was produced in Italy, dropped the Swoosh, added faux-iguana and retailed for $100 (as opposed to the original’s $65). And it too sold like wild. It didn’t hurt that during that ’86-87 season, Jordan won his first Dunk Contest, was named an All-Star, and averaged an NBA- (and career-) high 37.1 ppg. In his first game of the season, at Madison Square Garden, he dropped 50.

But at the end of the season, things weren’t so good. Moore and Strasser had left Nike, and Jordan was thinking about leaving too. Nike, though, had a secret weapon—an architect named Tinker Hatfield who had started to design shoes (among them the first Air Max and the Air Revolution). His approach, which involved the athlete like never before, captured Jordan’s imagination and kept him with Nike. The ensuing shoe, the Air Jordan III—featuring the new “Jumpman” logo—became perhaps the most-loved basketball shoe of all time. Combine Hatfield’s design with Lee’s commercials (he was finally given the green light in ’88), and the monster Nike had created three years prior was awake and breaking through walls.

KICKS 10 Feature; Michael Jordan. And from there, things only got bigger. In ’88, Jordan won his second Dunk Contest, his second scoring title, the Defensive Player of the Year and MVP. In ’89, he won yet another scoring title and hit “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers and send the Bulls to the second round of the Playoffs (they would eventually lose to the Pistons in the Conference Finals). In ’90, another scoring title and another Conference Finals loss to Detroit. And then, in ’91, the first NBA Championship. And then another one, and another one. All the while wearing a new Hatfield design each year, always unveiled during All-Star Weekend, where the new commercial was met with as much if not more anticipation than the game itself. (Wieden & Kennedy didn’t stop with Mars Blackmon—later on, they teamed Jordan with a certain cartoon rabbit and went all the way to Mars itself to find a foil.)

What all of this is really about is dominance. And a bit of good old-fashioned luck. Nike placed all their bets on Jordan—on red and black, if you will—and they paid off. Hugely. Jordan not only became perhaps the best NBA player ever, winning six championships and 10 scoring titles, but he left footsteps through uncharted territory that many to come after him (Kobe, McGrady, LeBron, etc.) could only hope to follow. Individual eclipsed team (for good and bad), endorsement dollars for athletes skyrocketed. For a decade, Jordan was possibly the most well-known person on the planet.

And Nike left other companies and athletes to wonder, What if? What if Converse had given Larry Bird and Magic Johnson similar signature products upon their arrival? (Or what if they had just gone with one of the two players and blown them up from the jump? It’s hard to believe that someone with Magic’s charisma and talents couldn’t have had similar success.)

But it was Nike, the young upstart company, who was able to think in ways that the then-giants couldn’t. They needed to make a splash, and they did. The birth of Air Jordan coincided with the explosion of both the NBA and hip-hop (not to mention cable TV)—winning over a market that every other company had yet to even recognize. By the time hundred-dollar sneakers became a hood (as well as suburban) status symbol, Air Jordans were firmly entrenched as the first choice. Everyone else would have to fight for second place.

Of course, what’s most amazing has been the continued success. In ’92, Nike opened the first Niketown retail store, in Chicago. In ’96 they opened one in New York. In ’97, Jordan became its own brand. And in ’98, The Sporting News named Jordan the most powerful person in sports in their annual ranking of the top 100.

His retirements slowed things down, of course. The Air Jordan IX, which debuted during his first retirement in 1994 and coincided with an overall market downturn in basketball shoes, didn’t do terribly well. Nike also released the first “retro” Air Jordans at that time, re-releases of the I, II and III, some of which sat on clearance shelves for months (in some cases) priced under $20. His time with the Washington Wizards didn’t do much for the legacy.

But Jordan kept coming back to basketball, and so did the market. Retro exploded the second time around, to where it constantly threatens to eclipse all new product. And now, kids who never even saw Michael Jordan play basketball—certainly not at the peak of his career—clamor for the shoes that bear his name. It’s hard to say when, how or even if it will ever end.

But now at least you know the story.