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How the Air Jordan I changed the sneaker culture

When Michael Jordan was inducted into the NBA in 1984, he joined a rapidly changing league in a rapidly changing world. Five years earlier, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had transferred their college rivalry to an NBA recently merged with ABA. Together with star Julius "Dr. Erving, the NBA had received a large portion of high-flying athletics as well as the three-point shot of the ABA. The 1981 NBA finals were the last to be shown with late-night delays. The ever-growing fanbase was ready for new stars, new champions – and a new shoe.

Nike was also at an interesting crossroads in 1984. The Boston-based aerobics leather shoes, which Nike had no immediate answer to, have recently been awarded # 1 in America by Reebok. Meanwhile, basketball was something of an untapped market. Nike had caused a sensation with 1982's Air Force 1, but the majority of superstars – including J, Magic and Bird – wore Converse. So it has been, since a salesman named Chuck Taylor had found his name on the screen All-Star in the 1920s. There were notable exceptions – Pumas Clyde, adidas Jabbars – but brand name shoes were just that: exceptions.

For Nike, Jordan was a great opportunity if they could sign him. Jordan himself wanted to wear adidas, the brand he wore in high school. But Nike had a plan where other brands did not just give Jordan a big (for that time) assignment, but also use his input and create a shoe for him. And beyond, to give the new shoe a marketing boost that is second to none. Jordan himself would debut the shoe early in the NBA season and will not be available until April of the following year.


If it is difficult to separate the Air Jordan I from the sneaker culture, it is because most of what we know as the "sneaker culture" has come about around the Air Jordan I itself. Much of what we take for granted today did not exist until the Air Jordan was founded. The television commercials, the limited production figures, the cult of personality itself – all this brought forth Jordan.

First, think of the world of 1984. There was so much new, from PCs to cable TV to hip-hop. There was so much to discover for a child in 1984: Atari 2600s and Commodore 64s, ESPN and MTV, Run-DMC and LL Cool J. Suddenly, there seemed to be so much MORE of everything. As far as the NBA goes, there was the ongoing rivalry between Magic and Bird. J flew high for the Sixers and the year before, the league had introduced yet another ABA innovation – the Slam Dunk Contest.

For Nike, time could not have been better to introduce something new. And considering their time frame, what happened next was perfect – the NBA banned their new shoe. Not exactly. What they had banned was a custom version of the Air Ship, an inline shoe and successor to the Air Force 1, made in the black and red colors of the Air Jordan. It did not fit the unified code, the NBA said, and it was out. Nike responded in two steps: they created a version of the shoe that added white inserts to the black and red upper and complied with the uniform rules. And they have turned the ban into this famous TV commercial.

When the ban fell, the NBA season had not started yet, and the shoe would not be available for sale until six months later. It was the kind of advertising that you literally can not buy. Jordan addressed the shoe Watching TV with David Lettermanand then wore the "forbidden" black and red model at the slam dunk competition in 1985 along with a matching nylon tracksuit. After the first lap, he took off his tracksuit and lost the competition to Dominique Wilkins. Nevertheless, he caught the anger of other All-Stars. "Michael is a beginner and he has much to learn," said Spurs George Gervin, "just like all of us." Well, not so much.


When the Air Jordan was finally released in April 1985, the hype had become a fever. Jordan, who was voted All Star starter, was well on his way to becoming Rookie of the Year. And because jerseys are still a specialty store, his shoes were the best way for fans to show loyalty. According to Jordan's initial five-year contract with Nike at over $ 500,000 a year, the last two years would be guaranteed if he sold $ 4 million worth of shoes in the third year of the contract. Instead, Air Jordan did $ 100 million worth of business in the first ten months. Air Jordans were everywhere.

The incredible success of Air Jordan would change everything that had to do with basketball shoes. In the year before Jordan's draft, the biggest sneaker deal was number 1 in Ralph Sampson's deal with Puma. Jordan's former college teammate James Worthy, who was No. 1 in 1982, had signed a contract with New Balance for $ 150,000 a year. Now, with Air Jordan under his belt, Agent David Falk could conclude with adidas a huge deal for Knicks Center's Patrick Ewing, the first choice of 1985. After the group's release, they also would contract Run-DMC to make a song called "My Adidas "in 1986.

But while other brands were catching up, Nike ran away. The original Air Jordan I remained on the shelves for more than a year before being replaced by the Air Jordan II, an elegant Italian-made shoe that completely eliminated the Swoosh and left the Jordan logo the only open brand on the outside of a block letter NIKE on his heels. And the DNA of Jordan I was passed on in the Dunk, a college model created in all sorts of team colors. The Georgetown Hoyas, Patrick Ewing's alma mater, even got their own shoe – the Terminator, with HOYAS on the heels in navy and gray.

Of course there were both figurative and literal missteps. After Air Jordan's immense initial success, Nike produced millions more, many of which were well below the suggested retail price of $ 65. And Jordan himself would break his foot in the third game of his second season and knock him out for almost five months, including the All-Star break. (He would return in time to play 15 more games in the regular season before finishing a legendary playoff performance – 63 points in the Boston Garden! – against Larry Bird and the Celtics, of course in Jordan.)


Jordan would not win a pair of Jordan Is for an NBA game for another 12 years following this Celtics sweep. He never intended to carry her again. But before he had expected his last regular season game at Madison Square Garden in 1998, he had found an original pair in the back of a cupboard and thought it would be cool to wear it one last time, even though they were one size too small. He scored 42 points, one last sign of a world he and his shoes had created.

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Russ Bengtson is a freelance writer. He tweets @RussBengtson,

Photos about Nike and Getty Images.

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