When Michael Jordan entered the NBA draft in 1984, it was obvious that he was going to be a superstar. And while very few predicted that he would go down as the greatest of all time, no one could have predicted the impact he would have on the sneaker industry. Following Jordan’s otherworldly rookie season in 1985, the first Air Jordan would officially be released to the public.
After that, Jordan and Nike were up and running, and the competition was still at the starting line. Since 1985, there have been 34 individual Jordan models released to the public. The Jordan brand continues to make $195 million dollars annually, helping to solidify Michael Jordan as the most valuable athlete of all time.
In recent years, the Jordan brand has veered more towards performance—based shoes, wished has resulted in shoes that are….meh. Regardless, the Jordan moniker has put out some of the greatest shoes of all time, so let’s look back at some of the best.
- Jordan XIII
In 1997, Nike was set to make a huge announcement. Jordan was to be recognized from that moment going forward as its own brand, not just a subset of Nike. This meant that the Jordan XIII was going to be the brand’s first official shoe, and as such, expectations were higher than usual. So who better to design the 13th instalment in the Jordan lineup than legendary shoe designer Tinker Hatfield? Hatfield reportedly took inspiration from big cats, specifically jaguars, after watching Jordan’s aggressive yet graceful style of play, and designed the outsole of the shoe to represent a cat’s paw, with a round jewel inlaid with the Jordan logo representing the cat’s eye. The Jordan XIII accomplishes the task of feeling futuristic yet grounded in reality, a task that the more recent Jordan releases have failed miserably at. They have an undeniable sense of grace just like the big cats they drew inspiration from.
The shoe debuted November 1, 1997, in seven unique colorways: ‘Black Toe’, ‘Playoff’, ‘Flint’, ‘White / Black – True Red – Pearl Grey, Black / Varsity Red, ‘Low Navy’, and ‘Low Black’. The two ‘low’ models retailed for $130.00, while the rest were available to the rabid public for $150.00. Needless to say, Jordan impressed audiences with its first release as its own official brand.
4. Jordan VI
Get used to the name Tinker Hatfield because you’re going to hear it a lot throughout this list. For the sixth installment in his prolific shoe lineup, Michael Jordan asked Tinker for a few specific features. These included a never-before-seen reinforced toe and a newly positioned heel tab so that it wouldn’t touch Michael’s Achilles tendon. Tinker, of course, added some features of his own, such as a tongue with two holes in them to allow the wearer to slip the shoe on and off easier, a new rubber sole that wouldn’t collect dust, making it less slippery, and he even incorporated Jordan’s famous number “23” into the shoe itself.
The Jordan XI was released in 1991 and the added features held up to the strain of the 91’ season, becoming the first shoe that Michael Jordan would wear in the NBA finals. The Jordan XI has some of the best colorways out of the entire Jordan lineup. The ‘White Infrared’s’, ‘Carmine’s’, ‘Maroon’s’, ‘Black Infrared’s’, and even the recent collaboration with Houston rapper Travis Scott, all receive high marks from sneakerheads across the world. Tinker and Michael had another slam dunk.
- Jordan IV
It was 1989, a year since Tinker designed his first Jordan—the Jordan III—for Nike. He was faced with the task of creating a shoe better than his already famous-freshman effort, and at first, it appeared that he failed. When the shoe was released to the public in early 1989, it faced heavy criticism. The public claimed that the shoe was “very ugly” and that Tinker’s goal of focusing on performance rather than aesthetics had failed.
Tinker kept many of the same details from the Jordan III the same, but added performance specific elements such as a “over-molded” mesh, to give the shoe more breathability, and a visible Air Max bubble to absorb impact. Jordan wouldn’t officially debut the shoe until the NBA All-Star game, but fans could check out a sneak peak in Sports Illustrated.
Over time, the public began to come around, thanks in part to the ability of the wearer to customize their Jordan IV’s by lacing them in eighteen different patterns. Colorways also played a key part in the change of public perception, with the ‘Black Cement’s’, ‘Fire Red’s’, and ‘Elephant Print’s’ being massive successes. Or perhaps it was Jordan’s promotional campaign accompanied by their appearance in the hit Spike Lee movie Do The Right Thing, one of the best directorial debuts of all time. Regardless, most fans did a complete 180 over time, and the Jordan IV grew into the stuff of legend, becoming the company’s first global release, bringing the Jordan brand to new audiences.
- Jordan XI
Our runner-up for greatest Jordan of all time, just so happens to be Tinker Hatfield’s favorite Jordan. “I think the Jordan XI will always be the No. 1 for me because they told me to stop,” he said in an interview with TMZ. Why in the world would Nike tell the greatest shoe designer of all time to stop creating some of the best selling shoes of all time? To find that answer, we need to take a trip back in time to the year 1993.
The Chicago Bulls had just completed one of the most impressive feats a team can accomplish in the NBA: a three-peat. Three back-to-back championships, the ultimate sign of a dynasty. So you could imagine the shock of the entire sports world when Michael Jordan announced he would be retiring from the NBA on October 6th, 1993. Although this would be a relatively short retirement—Jordan would return to the Bulls in March of that same season—the rumors surrounding the nature of the retirement polarized the entire NBA. Why would a player with the competitive nature of Michael Jordan leave the game in the middle of his prime? Was it a under-the-table suspension handed down from NBA commissioner David Stern? Was it due to a not-so-secret gambling addiction? Was he saving himself for the Olympics?
The theories were numerous, and the public never received a definitive answer. Back at Nike, executives began to discuss terminating the Jordan shoe line, ending it at the Jordan X. Tinker Hatfield had other ideas, “My impression was that in the marketplace, he had already transcended the sport and it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter as much if he was playing or not,” Tinker continued to work on what he considered the “holy grail” of the Jordan lineup “even under the threat of some kind of punishment [from Nike].”
Throughout his career, Tinker took inspiration from many sources, one of them being cars. The Jordan XI wasn’t an exception. Tinker gave the shoe a sleek and shiny design, using ‘patent leather’ for the first time in his career, helping him to achieve the “convertible” look he was aiming for. Tinker thought it was important for the shoe’s bottom to be as aesthetically pleasing as the top, so he incorporated an ‘icy sole’ with a carbon fiber base. The Jordan XI is the Lamborghini or Ferrari of the entire Jordan lineup; the shoe simply exudes luxury.
Nike promoted the Jordan XI’s in the best way possible, introducing them for the first time in the hit movie Space Jam. Audiences watched Jordan defy the laws of physics in his ‘Space Jam’ XI’s, defeating the dreaded Monstars and saving the Tune Squad. In the end, Tinker was proved right, the market had, in fact, transcended the sport. The public echoed Tinker’s sentiments, saying that this was indeed the “holy grail” of shoes. And this holy grail came in some of the best colorways of all time. I mean come on! The ‘Concord’s’, ‘Space Jam’s’, ‘Bred’s’, ‘Cool Grey’s’, ‘Columbia’s’—each and every colorway was a work of art more than a shoe. In the end, however, none of this could edge out our No.1 spot…
- Jordan I
The original, the OG, the shoe that started it all—the Jordan I. The shoe was designed by Peter Moore, and when a 21-year-old Michael Jordan first laid his eyes on them, he was disappointed. He said “I’m not wearing that shoe, I’ll look like a clown.” Moore wouldn’t be deterred. He knew Jordan would eventually come around. He stuck to his guns, and the shoe was released in April of 1985. Like with most new ideas, it took the public a little while to warm up to the Jordan I. They retailed at $80, but after selling terribly, had their price reduced to as low as $20. Despite all of this Moore was confident that the public would come around, and eventually love the shoe, just like Micheal had done.
All you need to do is look at the Jordan brand’s sales to see that Moore was correct. The beauty of the Jordan I is in its simplicity, which allowed Nike to do something never done before in the sneaker industry. The addition of the colorway changed the entire shoe game. Previously, shoes were only available in the most basic of color combinations. Nothing came close to what Nike and Jordan were creating.
They were so ahead of their time that they faced backlash from the NBA.The commissioner at the time, David Stern, banned the black/red version of shoe for not complying with the NBA uniform standards, and set a $5,000 fine for all who wore the shoe. If Stern thought that banning the shoe would deter Jordan from wearing it on the court, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Nike paid off every $5,000 dollar fine that Jordan accumulated throughout the season, and the public purchased the “Banned” version of the shoe in droves. This was the first instance of the “Be Like Mike” phenomenon that swept the country towards the end of the 20th century. Stern’s plan had backfired terribly, and the Jordan I became synonymous not only with basketball, but with American culture.
Remember how I said that the Jordan XI had “some of ” the best colorways of all time? Well, the Jordan I has THE best colorways of all time. The best of the OG colorways include iconic shoes such as the ‘Chicago’s’, ‘Banned’s’, ‘Black Royal’s’, and ‘Bred’s’. The tradition of the retro began with the Jordan I, and can lay the claim to shoes like the ‘Shattered Backboard’s’, ‘Shadow’s’, and my personal favorite shoe of all time, the ‘Turbo Green’s’. The Jordan I has been a go-to for collaborative efforts that include the likes of Off-White, Dior, and Huston rapper Travis Scott.
The Jordan I is the most important shoe in the history of the footwear industry, the symbol of a generation, the start of an apparel empire, and not only the greatest Jordan of all time, but the greatest shoe of all time. Never has the saying “you can’t beat the original” rung so true.