How One Of The Most Iconic Sneakers In History Almost Didn't Happen

The strange story of the Air Jordan 1.​

BY PETE FORESTER | Jul 21, 2016 | Shoes


In 1984, right after the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the last thing that Michael Jordan wanted to do was meet with Nike. The sneaker company had seen its first-ever sales dip since its creation, and despite a morale boost from the Olympics, it needed new blood and more excitement.

Nike needed Michael Jordan. But he wasn't interested.

Jordan had spent his college career playing in Converse, but he really wanted to sign with Adidas. The German brand's shoes offered a low profile with a thinner sole that helped him "feel the court." That tactile response was crucial to his gameplay, and Nike couldn't offer it to him.

At least that's what he said at the time. Later, when he sat down at Nike headquarters in Beaverton after being forced by his parents to make the trip, he would admit that had never put a pair of Nikes on his feet. Ever.

What got him on that plane was a perfect storm of unforced errors and bad luck. Adidas was facing internal struggles over control after the founder's death, and the company just didn't have the financial liquidity to be competitive. Converse made a competitive offer, and with a roster that included Dr. J, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, had a proven track record of working with and finding success for basketball's best players. Converse offered Jordan the same deal that the other top-bill guys had—but he wanted more than money, and they couldn't offer any ideas on what that would mean. Spot-Bilt, the company that would eventually become Saucony, was also in the mix.

Eventually Nike offered Jordan five times what Converse did—a record-breaking deal, three times over. Jordan's agent, David Falk, heard an offer from Spot-Bilt that would have amounted to more cash than Nike's offer over time, but Nike had a secret weapon: vision.

Howard "H" White, the VP of Jordan Footwear, tells the story of Jordan's first visit to campus and how it felt like dreaming. Nike team members mocked up a Time magazine cover with the headline, "Man of the Year: Michael Jordan." They faked future newspapers calling out incredible achievements by the player. They told him he was going to be powerful, influential, rich. "All of this was this [envisioning] of what could be," H says.

After that meeting, Jordan and Falk gave Adidas one more shot to meet Nike's offer. The company declined. Jordan signed with Nike.

Nike's Creative Director, Peter Moore, was in all of those pitch meetings and was tasked with creating the first Air Jordan according to the (very loose) guidelines provided by MJ himself. He wanted the sneakers to be low to the ground, something different, and something exciting. The result was the Air Jordan 1. "When you look at what the One really represented, it was almost like a collision of all these planets that kind of all came together," H says.

Then came the ban.

Jordan wore his signature sneakers on the court in an NBA-policy-offending, black-and-red colourway that immediately prompted a letter from the Association demanding Jordan stop wearing the shoes. The league threatened to fine Jordan $5,000 for every game he played wearing them.

"Let's just pay the fine!" H said at the time. "What the hell, you're going to fine him $5,000? Just pay the fine!" The way H tells it, they didn't have any other shoes for him to wear anyway. Paying the bill was their only option.

Let's just pay the fine!

That colourway is now the most infamous colourway for the Air Jordan 1. Not just because of the letter, but because Nike took that letter and turned it into the greatest PR coup of its time. The brand threw together a simple TV commercial that featured Jordan slowly dribbling a basketball, wearing the "banned" Air Jordan 1s.

A voiceover told the story: "On October 15th, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18th, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can't keep you from wearing them."

"So all of the sudden we turn that on its heels," H says. "We probably went a little too crazy with it because they kept selling. Keep making more, making more, until you know…making more problems is not the right thing to do. But we kept going…”

Sales exploded. The shoes wouldn't stay on the shelves and retailers demanded more. They outsold expectations by a mile, so Nike made more sneakers. Too many. The multiple runs of the Air Jordan 1s sat on the shelves, in many cases for years, but the tone had been struck and basketball sneakers changed forever.

The thing is, the story is more of a fable than a description of reality.

"That turned into something almost [like] folk heroism," says H. He's right. There's actually no historical proof that Jordan wore the Air Jordan 1s at those games, and there are no records of the NBA fining Jordan or Nike for those violations. In fact, some investigation points to the probability that Michael's original offence was in a pair of Nike Air Ships, a sneaker we haven't seen since 1985.

Jordan Brand isn't lying when it says that the black/red colourway of the Jordan One was "banned," because those black and red colours were banned by the NBA. But this is a cultural tale more than a historical truth.

Now, 31 years later, Jordan is about to release the "Banned" Air Jordan 1s once again in September. But after this mysterious ad that played during this year's ESPYs we think that release might have some new company:

What's next for Jordan? Only time will tell.

From: Esquire US.