I am towering above Michael Jordan. I am staring down at him. I stand, he sits on a gymnasium floor. He looks disconsolate. I am uneasy. That is because I have to tell him my editors have delayed the story I’ve been working on for months. It is 1986 and during his second season in the NBA he had broken his foot. I don’t tell him the editors worry he may just be a flash in the pan, a one season wonder.
Little do they imagine how wrong they are.
They don’t dream and I don’t dream that Jordan will not only become the most famous basketball player ever but a brand, a logo, a designer of shoes himself. Or that Air Jordans are about to make shoe design like car design. That people will begin to collect basketball shoes. Or that there will be a word like “sneaker pimp.” Or that commentators would call the Air Jordan line “the African American Prada.”
We are in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, my home town. The air in side the darkened gymnasium is heavy with the heat of an uncommonly prolonged North Carolina summer. A little later, smoke from tin containers placed around the basketball court lends a touch of mystery to the scene. The thick smoke rolls into the intense light of floor-level arc lamps, then up against a raft of lights hovering like a Steven Spielberg spaceship. Out of the dark, a white-clad figure appears, bouncing a basketball. Jordan drives for the basket in one of his many crowd-pleasing moves, ball tucked under his arm, then scooped up and over into the hoop. All the way to the basket, Jordan’s tongue sticks out, curled up in an expression of pure joy at his defiance not only of imaginary defenders but of gravity itself.
It was a shoot for a Nike ad for Air Jordan IIIs, with simulated iguana hide.
What Nike began to call the Jordan product was the closest thing around the Cadillac of the 1950s, I began to think. Like automobiles and fashion, basket ball shoes were about to establish themselves as powerful material artifacts, expressive of their era, worthy of inclusion in any time capsule. They change annually, like car or fashion styles. They have roman numerals like Super bowls.
They were like vehicles in other ways. For all their pretenses to high technology, basketball shoes like are dreams shoes, more spiritual than material in their effects. Like tail fins that suggest impossible flight or big wheels that suggest the ability to cross impossible mountains and deserts, most high end basketball shoes never come any closer to the hardwood than most Blazer o or explores come to the mud. Only a tiny fraction of the shoes are actually used for play. They are instead totems of personality and power like sports cars or off-road vehicles.
Marketing types call this excess capability and sociologists call it fetish value.
Cars and shoes—there’s a history there. “Limousines for the feet” was Converse’s boast for its shoes in the 1970s. The words “Air Jordan” were first uttered in the office of the agent David Falk of ProServ one steamy Washington afternoon a few weeks before Jordan went to his first Chicago Bulls’ training camp in 1984. Sitting with Falk was Rob Strasser, a vice president of Nike.
A few years ago, as Falk and Strasser recalled, makers of competitive shoes had fought it out by weight of numbers: Practically every notable player in the N.B.A. had a contract to wear some maker’s shoe. With the market for basketball shoes maturing, the names, logos and products of the leading makers—Converse and Adidas, Pony and Etonic—were well known.
Finally, Falk and Strasser agreed that the same fashion-consciousness that had transformed the running-shoe market could turn the old system of selling basketball shoes into one oriented to signing a few major stars and backing them with advertising dollars—especially television dollars.
Soon afterward, Jordan and his parents flew to Beaverton, where they watched quietly while Nike executives played a videotape. It showed Jordan shooting, blocking shots, stealing passes, slamming home dramatic dunks. On the soundtrack was The Pointer Sisters’ hit song, “Jump,” its refrain synchronized with Jordan’s onscreen leaps and slams. For the first time, Michael Jordan heard about something called Air Jordan and about a line of athletic clothing reflecting his own dashing style. Jordan had wanted to sign with Converse, the show worn by Dr. J, the great leaping Julius Erving, among other stars. But although he tried to appear cool, was sold.
An elaborate ad campaign was created by Chiat/Day, a hot Los Angeles ad agency. The first shoes—high top, black and red—were introduced in a six-city trial, accompanied by billboards, posters and television ads featuring Jordan leaping in slow motion to the accompaniment of whining jet engines.
When Jordan was ready to put on his own bright black and red pair for its professional debut, however, trouble broke out. Team and league rules decreed that no player could wear a shoe of a color that did not match the team’s uniform. Fines were threatened. Jordan, Nike, the Bulls and the league benefited from the publicity. The controversy insured success. New ads were rolled out. “Banned by the NBA!” the ads read—but you can buy them. Kids got the impression that it was some performance factor that led the N.B.A. to ban Air Jordans, as if they had springs in their soles.
Jordan was a sensation his first year. He led the league in scoring. He boosted attendance wherever he played. But the next year Oct. 29 1986 in the Bulls’ third game of the season, Jordan broke a bone in his left foot and missed the next 64 games. As his public presence declined, Air Jordans were discounted, sales declined. Now, in that hot gym, the healed Jordan was about to begin a new season and a new shoe was coming out. Each year, a new Jordan arrived.
Here the history begins to unfold year by year:
In 1987 Red turns to white, logo migrates to tongue top. Mock iguana hide.
In 1988 the original Air Jordan “basketball with wings” logo is replaced by silhouette of Jordan in flight, derived from Co Reetmaster photo used in billboards—and inspired by Ralph Lauren’s silhouetted polo pony. Sales rebound.
In 1989 Tinker Hatfield, an architect and former pole vaulter, begins designing Air Jordans for Nike, He borrows shapes from Ferrari fenders and patterns from tuck-and-roll auto upholstery. He put cross straps like safety belts on Nike Air Raids, and dos a shoe for Bo Jackson inspired by the bulbous, talking cartoon taxi in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
Hatfield, creates a model with mock elephant skin, “multiport lace locks.” High tech rules; flamboyance is key.
1990 Jordan talks to Hatfield about how he has learned to pace himself, as if hovering, then diving to attack late in the game. So Hatfield takes as his theme the image of a fighter plane the jagged tooth-like imagery from the P-40s of the Fighting Tigers. Jordan’s number 23 is rendered in type like an Air Force tail number.
In 1992, the new shoe sports crossed straps Hatfield calls “seat belts,” which also suggest X, reference to Air Raid outdoor basketball shot touted by Spike Lee in the ads. The logo becomes a kind of hood ornament, at once a visual pun on the Mercedes tri-star (sometimes stolen and worn as necklace) and the peace sign.
Nike is criticized for charging high prices for Air Jordans and inducing young people in the inner city to waste money on them. Spike Lee defended Nike. Why was there criticism only of a product associated with black people? No one worried about $400 ostrich skin cowboy boot or high heel Prada.
In 1994, Nike does something unprecedented in the shoe business: it reissues the original Air Jordan, a token that an industry devoted to relentless innovation and stylistic novelty had in spite of itself created a history. It reissues versions of the shoe I saw in the gym that day in, 2001, and 2003.
1997 Niketown in New York opens, offering a display of Air Jordans from the first model to the present. It’s done up in the guise of a Thirties radio—turn the dial to the appropriate shoe and you hear broadcasts of appropriate game highlights.
2001 Adidas invites Audi’s California design studio to design a shoe for Kobe Bryant of the Lakers. This is the place where Freeman Thomas designed the Audi TT sports car. Peter Moore, an Adidas designer said he thought a TT-inspired shoe would send a message that Kobe was a person of “a refreshing sophistication and an intelligent persona.” That dependable image contrasts with the bad-boy persona of Bryant’s rival star, the frequently fined, oft-arrested Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers Derek Jenkins, the head of the studio tells me “The shoe, like a car, is a directional object,” said Mr. Jenkins, who headed the project at Audi. “It is meant to go basically in one direction. So the same dynamic principles and proportion that you would use with a car, you would use with a shoe.” Audi designers shaped the shoe using a clay model, as they would a car. Perhaps as a result, the Kobe appears less complex and more solid than other basketball shoes. Molded-in lines grow thinner from rear to front, suggesting forward movement. Mr. Jenkins cited three main features shared by the Kobe and the TT: a continuous line across the top; smooth, uncluttered sides; and a bullet-nosed front. The front of the shoe does indeed look something like the TT’s grille. This “grooved shell-toe” is borrowed from earlier Adidas shoes—Detroit would call it a “brand cue.” The shoe’s main shoulder line continues around the arch and through its sole, Adidas says, “just as the Audi TT’s continuous loop runs from the side of the vehicle around the wheel arches and under the car.” The Kobe shoe also has an amber reflector on the heel, somewhat evocative of a taillight.
Year 2002 Puma launches the Mostro, whose cross straps and dimpled sole were inspired by the so-called naked frame motorcycle, the Ducati Mostro.
For 2003, Hummer and Nike bond to collaborate on concept vehicle. The interior uses Nike regrind material, made by grinding up and recycling old shoes. Off trail shoes are like off road vehicles.
As I watch in amazement the evolution of basketball shoe design, marketing and culture over the years, I often remember that day in the gym.
We spent the rest of that day watching repeated takes of the shot. I talk more to Jordan. He tells me he often feels nervous making commercials, which he never feels in a game. And when he sees himself blown up to billboard size or acting on television, it feels curious. “It’s a little bit like seeing another person,” he says. “It’s like another part of me I didn’t know about before.”
The photographers have brought along two ballistic cameras, the same kind that are used to track missiles, that expose 300 frames per second. They turn Jordan’s twisting release of the ball into a slow-motion drama, making a ballet of it. And when the videotapes are played back, the ghostly figure leaping through the smoke seems to be someone else entirely from the three-dimensional figure, fairly gleaming in his white warm-up suit, who drops the ball, dons a dapper golf cap and walks out of the gymnasium.
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