The first Air Jordan to pay homage to Michael Jordan’s University of North Carolina roots was, of course, the first Air Jordan. The original Air Jordan model released in a veritable rainbow of colors, from basic white/black to Bulls-specific black/red and white/red/black to a variety of metallic colors on a white base. Even now, nearly 30 years later, it’s still difficult to find a full accounting of each and every Air Jordan 1 colorway. But a white/Carolina Blue variant was indeed one of them, which made perfect sense seeing that Jordan had helped lead UNC to a national championship just three years prior.
And that was that.
As a whole, the ‘80s were not a time for nostalgia. There were no such thing as “throwback jerseys” (except for the ones on the clearance racks), no “retro” sneakers. And the idea of a sneaker done in collegiate colors for anyone other than actual collegians was absurd. After all, there was no UMass Converse Dr. J, no Southern Illinois Puma Clydes. The “Carolina” Air Jordan 1 was effectively a pilot that didn’t get picked up. (There was a Carolina Air Jordan II, but only a lowcut PE that Michael Jordan himself wore in a 1987 alumni game.) When adidas snatched up Patrick Ewing in 1986, they didn’t do up any of his signature models in Georgetown colors, although they probably should have. As for Air Jordans, they were produced in “lifestyle” colors, but none that really tied back to Jordan’s past. Why would they, when the present was so bright? Then, on October 6, 1993, everything changed.
Michael Jordan’s retirement at the age of 32 didn’t just throw the NBA into disarray—it changed the sneaker world as well. After years of searching, there was still no “next Jordan” waiting in the wings, and Air Jordan was a big enough part of Nike’s business that discontinuing it (at least right away) was unthinkable. And with Jordan’s present shifting away from basketball, perhaps for good, there was nowhere to go but backwards.
Michael Jordan’s retirement at the age of 32 didn’t just throw the NBA into disarray—it changed the sneaker world as well.
As part of that, they issued Air Jordan retros for the first time, bringing back the first three models across 1994 and 1995. Meanwhile, the all-new Air Jordan IX, designed to recognize Jordan’s global influence, became the first Air Jordan since the first to be produced in Carolina colors—and Nike even shot Jordan in his college uniform as part of a series of ads. They also took his No. 23 off the heel, making it in essence the first-ever Air Jordan team shoe. More importantly, they were the first Air Jordan actually worn at North Carolina, who had coincidentally just switched from Converse to Nike after winning the 1993 NCAA championship, notably by Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, and Derrick Phelps. The Air Jordan did remain on NBA courts, via PEs issued to young up and comers like Golden State’s Latrell Sprewell and Orlando’s Penny Hardaway. In Chicago, it was worn by B.J. Armstrong, Jordan’s No. 23 replaced by his No. 10.
The following season saw the Air Jordan become even less Jordan-specific, as Nike looked both forward and back, expanding the palette exponentially. With Jordan still out of the NBA, they designed a limited release “city pack” for a handful of Jordan-selected heirs (some who’d previously worn the IX): Kendall Gill in Seattle, Mitch Richmond in Sacramento, Hubert Davis in New York, and Nick Anderson in Orlando. Meanwhile, both Scottie Pippen and Harold Miner wore the Chicago version. But those would-be heirs weren’t limited to pros. Once again there was a UNC Air Jordan in “powder blue,” which was again worn by Tar Heels including Stackhouse. And like its predecessor, it was available to the general public.
Jordan eventually returned, of course, and the Air Jordan XI—which Tinker Hatfield went ahead and designed against Nike’s wishes—became the most revolutionary shoe of the line since the III. And its “Columbia Blue” iteration that Mike wore in the 1996 NBA All-Star Game became the last mass-release, UNC-inspired Air Jordan until the XV in 2000. But for sneaker companies, looking back had become commonplace. And, as with so much in this thing of ours, we have Michael Jordan to thank for it.
RELATED: The Best Air Jordans Ever Produced