No shoes influenced basketball style like the Air Jordans. From I to XXXI, through design iterations of each, through different athletes that repped the brand over the years, Jordan has taken its place at the head basketball sneaker culture.
Many know the shoes, but few understand the history and background behind their inception.
Every movement has to start somewhere.
The Air Jordan I is the OG, the classic, the shoe that started it all.
Michael Jordan entered the NBA after his junior year with the North Carolina Tar Heels. During his three seasons there, Jordan averaged nearly 18 points per game on 54 percent shooting. To that, he added five rebounds per game.
In both his sophomore and junior seasons, Jordan was a consensus NCAA All-American First Team pick, and won the Naismith and Wooden College Player of the Year awards in 1984, his junior year. After that, it was off to the NBA for him.
Jordan was projected as a high pick in the NBA Draft, and ended up going third behind Hakeem Olajuwon, drafted by the Houston Rockets, and Sam Bowie, drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers. Both of those teams were in need of a center, so they went with those picks, while Jordan fell to the Bulls at number three.
Luckily for the Bulls, Jordan became the greatest basketball player of all time. Luckily for us, Nike decided to go after him hard for a sneaker deal.
The path to Nike wasn’t as clear as it might be today.
According to ESPN, Nike was able to sign Jordan, but not for the same obvious reasons the brand can lock in big names now.
Adidas was in a state of flux at the time, and wasn’t able to make a reasonable offer, even though, according to various sources, that’s where Jordan wanted to end up. Converse had a meeting, where reps pitched the long legacy of their brand on great players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving, but didn’t have any innovative ideas, or the capital to invest in Jordan without taking away from their tried and true stars.
Jordan even met with Spot-Bilt, a brand owned by a company called Hyde Athletic that O.J. Simpson was vice president of promotions for. That didn’t work out.
Nike, at this time, was rising in the ranks, increasing its revenue by more than 29 times in the preceding decade. In 1984, it experienced its first quarterly loss, and the company was feeling like it had to get a young, big name like Jordan on board.
It ended up signing Jordan to a five-year, $500,000 per year deal, a total of $2.5 million. This was a significant amount at the time for an athlete’s shoe deal. For reference, James Worthy’s New Balance deal was $150,000 a year over eight years.
Nike wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.
The company put designer Peter C. Moore in charge of the Air Jordan I.
Moore put in many of the brand’s signature features, like the air pocket in the heel, high-top ankle support, and an overlay on the toe. Moore also created the ball and wings logo, which became an iconic symbol of the early Air Jordan shoes.
The original design, a prototype called the Nike Air Ship, was banned by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern for violating the league’s “uniformity of uniform” rule at the time with its heavy black and red colorway.
Many believed the Air Jordan I was banned and Michael Jordan was fined for wearing them during games, but there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding that claim. The rumors around the sneaker world were always that Jordan was fined for wearing the Air Jordan 1, and Nike happily paid the $5,000 fines in exchange for all the extra exposure. But there’s much debate about whether that shoe was actually the Air Jordan I. It certainly looked a lot like it.
No matter what is true, Nike used this circumstance for a marketing campaign using the word “banned” as the centerpiece for the Air Jordan I, capitalizing on the moment.
The 1985 commercial for the shoes shows Jordan dribbling a basketball as the camera pans down his body toward his feet. A narrator reads:
“On September 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them.”
When his shoes are finally shown on-screen, they’re censored out with black boxes.
It’s marketing at its finest. Nike positioned these shoes as too revolutionary for the NBA, even though the reason the prototypes were thrown out was not because of that. It was because they weren’t the right color scheme.
Jordan even spoke about the issue while appearing on David Letterman. Fast forward to 4:45 to see the conversation.
The discussion was playful, but Jordan was locked in on the brand messaging. The NBA didn’t want these shoes worn on the court, and the idea of that was exciting for consumers.
It probably didn’t hurt that Michael Jordan proved to be an awesome basketball player, too.
Don’t let the controversy about the shoe or the advertisements that followed distract you from the most valuable piece of marketing capital Nike had, which was Michael Jordan himself.
Jordan averaged 28.2 points per game on 51.5 percent shooting during his rookie season. He was quickly becoming a star, even in opposing fan bases. A month into his NBA career Jordan appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
He was voted an All-Star Game starter by fans and took home the Rookie of the Year Award. The Bulls finished with a 38-44 record and got knocked out of the first round of the playoffs, but Jordan was clearly on the path to stardom. Even at that young age, he was one of the most electrifying figures in basketball.
Nike had found its perfect match.
The Air Jordan I was released to the American market from 1985 to 1986.
The shoes debuted at $65 per pair, at that time the most expensive basketball shoes on the market.
From 1985 to 1986, Nike put out the shoe in at least 20 different colorways, including the following:
Air Jordan 1 Original Black / Red
Air Jordan 1 Original White / Black – Red
Air Jordan 1 Original Black Toe White / Black / Red
Air Jordan 1 Original AJKO White / Black – Red
Air Jordan 1 Original Black / Royal Blue
Air Jordan 1 Original Black / Grey
Air Jordan 1 Original Grey/Black
Air Jordan 1 Original White / Natural Grey
Air Jordan 1 Original White / Blue
Air Jordan 1 Original White / Black
Air Jordan 1 Original White / Carolina Blue
Air Jordan 1 Original White/Metallic Blue
Air Jordan 1 Original White/Metallic Green
Air Jordan 1 Original White/Metallic Dark Red
Air Jordan 1 Original White/Metallic Purple
Air Jordan 1 Original White/Metallic Orange
Air Jordan 1 Original White/Metallic Black
Air Jordan 1 Original White/Metallic Blue Low
Air Jordan 1 Original White/Natural Grey Low
Air Jordan 1 Original White/Dark Red Low
In addition to the famous “banned” advertisement and on Letterman, Jordan was everywhere promoting the shoes. Nike was getting Jordan in front of as many people as possible.
Here he is in a 1985 commercial during the holiday season, playing Santa Claus one-on-one.
In another released that same year, Jordan is shown at an outdoor basketball court. He’s running up for a dunk as the sounds of an airplane taking off play in the background. When he reaches the rim, you can hear Jordan say, “Who says man was not meant to fly?”
The Air Jordan I has been brought back many times over the years. It was first retroed in 1994 with an $80 price tag, but sold poorly, not even scratching the surface of the original popularity.
Still, Nike retroed the shoes from 2001 to 2004 and 2007 to 2016. Even today, the shoes remain a popular fixture in the sneaker world. But what’s more important than modern sales is the influence Air Jordan had on NBA culture and sneaker branding.
This was the beginning of it all for Jordan’s brand. Now, a player can’t enter the league with at least an idea of what kind of brand he wants to establish. This concept was most definitely brought on by the popularity and success of the Air Jordan line.
Now we’re going to bring you our top 5 colorways.
Keep in mind that these are subjective picks. We chose these based on what we like, and this list is by no means definitive (though we like to think that). Feel free to cruise the colorways and give us some feedback on your favorite colors and style for the Air Jordan I.
Here’s the list:
1. Air Jordan 1 Bred
(Photo via Kicks On Fire)
The Air Jordan 1 “Bred” is perhaps the most popular of Michael Jordan’s first release with Nike. These are the “banned” shoes, the Air Jordans that the NBA didn’t want Michael Jordan to wear. They may have broken league regulations, but they were so smooth. This color re-released in 1994, 2009, 2011, and 2013. The latest Remastered Air Jordan 1 “Bred” released in 2016 for $160.
2. Air Jordan 1 Royal
(Photo via SneakerNews)
Air Jordan 1 “Royal” is a black and blue version version of Jordan’s first release. These were one of the original colorways released in 1985, followed by releases in 2001 and 2013. A low-top release came out in 2015. The latest version is the Remastered Air Jordan I, released on April 1, 2017 at a cost of $160.
3. Air Jordan 1 “All Black” Japan Exclusive
(Photo via Kicks On Fire)
The Air Jordan 1 Retro 2001 – Black / Black – Metallic Silver colorway was released in 2001, and are part of the Japan Editions. They dropped on New Years Eve 2001 at 10 to 12 stores in Japan as one of four colorways released at that time. Between the four colorways, only 3,000 pairs were released in total. These feature an all black colorway made leather, with silver Air Jordan logos. They were also packaged with a chrome Jumpman piece.
4. Air Jordan 1 Black Toe
(Photo via SneakerNews)
The Air Jordan 1 “Black Toe” originally debuted in 1985, and remain as one of the most popular Air Jordan 1 shoes to this point. These are the white, black, and red high-top version of the shoes. They were released on November 5, 2016 at a cost of $160.
5. Air Jordan 1 UNC
(Photo via Sneaker Bar Detroit)
The Air Jordan 1 “UNC” pays tribute to the place where Jordan’s notoriety in the basketball world began, at the University of North Carolina. As we said before, Jordan played three seasons with the Tar Heels before heading into the NBA draft. These were one of the original releases, and came out again in 2015 at a price of $160.
Celebrities Wearing The Air Jordan I
No iconic shoe is complete without the celebrity seal of approval. The Air Jordan 1 has gotten a ton of love over the years from celebrities all over the world. Here, we’ve rounded up some of the world’s most famous wearing some of the world’s most famous shoes. We’ll sign off on this Air Jordan I celebration with a few of these photos.
Kanye West wearing the Air Jordan 1 Bred.
Jay Z and DJ Khaled wearing the Air Jordan 1 Royal.
Rihanna wearing the Air Jordan 1 Bred.
A$AP Rocky wearing the Air Jordan 1 Chicago.
If you want to learn more about the Air Jordan XII next, visit this page.