by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)
Think about everything that Air Jordan represents: Twenty-eight (and counting) signature models, a roster of superlative athletes across all sports, a legacy chock full of championships and individual accomplishments, a logo recognizable around the world, a billion-dollar brand.
And it all started with one sneaker.
The original Nike Air Jordan 1 gets all the credit in the world, and at the same time it doesn’t get anywhere near the credit it deserves. Does that makes sense? It’s seen by most as a “game-changer,” but that’s just an empty cliché at this point. Plenty of sneakers — many of them in the Air Jordan line themselves — are hailed as game changers. The Air Jordan 1 was the James Naismith of this shit. They invented the game.
No, the Air Jordan 1 wasn’t the first signature shoe in the NBA. Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Julius “Dr. J” Erving had theirs first. And it certainly wasn’t the first basketball shoe, seeing that the Converse All-Star had it beat by roughly three-quarters of a century. It wasn’t even the most technologically advanced Nike basketball shoe — the Air Force 1, which dropped three years before, was still ahead when it came to cushioning and support. No, the Air Jordan 1 was something completely different.
The Air Jordan 1 was a marketing triumph, from the Peter Moore sketched ball and wings logo to the David Falk driven concept behind all of “Air Jordan” to the initial red and black sneaker that drew both the ire of David Stern and the snark of David Letterman. And of course there was the on-court success of Michael Jordan. By the time the sneaker released to the public, Jordan was a star, and the sneaker was a must-have. The Air Jordan line did $130 million in sales its first year, and if indeed the Air Jordan III did “save Nike” in 1988, the Air Jordan I ensured that there would be a Nike to save.
It’s easy to forget now in an avalanche of near-daily releases, but the initial Air Jordan 1 launch was a happening. And it happened without internet hype, without daily reminders and leaks. Nike’s push was unprecedented in its own way, but considering what happens around a launch now, the series of ads and commercials seems delightfully antiquated today. What you really had was an athlete wearing a shoe and redefining his sport, creating iconic imagery along the way(hello, Jumpman), and building appeal almost single-handedly.
People everywhere took notice. In Brooklyn, a young filmmaker named Spike Lee created (and portrayed) a character named Mars Blackmon who loved his Air Jordans more than he loved the actual love interest, Nola Darling. And in Long Island, a young middle schooler named Russ Bengtson lusted after a pair of white/”natural” (grey) Air Jordan 1s that were $65 at the local department store. Ironically, I wound up with a pair of white/natural Air Ships instead — because they were $35 at Marshalls — which were the shoes Michael Jordan started his pro career in.
The Air Jordan 1 was the James Naismith of this sh*t. They invented the game.
It took me another five years to get my first pair of Air Jordan 1s. I went to college at the University of Delaware in Newark, where I quickly got in the habit of making the thrift store rounds every weekend. And one day, there they were — a pair of original Air Jordan 1s in white/black/red, with a few loose stitches and some worn-down soles, but otherwise in excellent shape. Only problem was that they were a size 11.5 and I wasn’t — but in those pre-retro days, the matter of a few sizes wasn’t going make a difference. A few pairs of socks took care of that problem, and I wore them for years before retiring them to the drop ceiling of the SLAM magazine office, where they remain to this day.
In these days of embarrassing plenty, when the Air Jordan 1 is re-retroed in colorway after colorway, in different cuts with different materials and different brandings, when you can go to RIF in L.A. or Flight Club in New York (or L.A.) and find nearly any AJ1 release from any era, it’s good to remember what it was like when it all began, back when everything was new. And if you’re too young to remember, realize that it wasn’t always this way. And give the Air Jordan 1 the credit it’s due.
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