It would not be hyperbolic—or, you know, wrong—to say that the Nike Air Jordan 1 was the shoe that changed everything. In fact, if anything, that’s not saying enough. It would be more fair to say that the Air Jordan 1 started everything. It didn’t make Michael Jordan—he did that by himself—but it was there at the start as he, the Chicago Bulls, and Nike became juggernauts. The Air Jordan 1 wasn’t the first basketball sneaker, not by a long shot, but it was the first basketball sneaker that transcended basketball while it was still new. Designed in Portland, Ore. and worn in Chicago, it became a nationwide phenomenon before conquering the world.
Let’s get more specific: This is about the red/black/white Air Jordan 1—the one that wasn’t banned. The black and red pair had its Letterman moment, but the red/black/white pair was the version Michael Jordan wore most often, from November ’84 in his rookie year, to April of ’86, when no less than Larry Bird called him “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
God, it seemed, had good taste in sneakers.
The Air Jordan III (and designer Tinker Hatfield) gets credit for changing the course of signature sneakers, essentially birthing the concept, but the original Air Jordan laid down the blueprint. The name, picked from a list presented by agent David Falk at the initial meeting, came before Jordan even signed. So did the original ball-and-wings logo, sketched on a napkin by then-Nike Creative Director Peter Moore on his flight back to Portland. “On the flight home I noticed a youngster wearing a replica pair of pilot’s wings given to him by the airlines,” Moore remembers. “The design seemed to fit the idea of a guy who could fly.”
The sneaker itself was based on what little input Jordan gave. “[Jordan] expressed the idea of having ‘something different, something exciting, and low to the ground,’” Moore says. “Those were the directives. I decided color would be the way to create something different and exciting. The colors were dictated by the Bulls colors, which were red, black, and white. That meant that we could have three colors on a single shoe, which in 1985 was unheard of in basketball shoes.”
Jordan famously derided those as “the devil’s colors”—those of UNC rival NC State—but no matter. The palette was set, and in the five months between their November appearance and their April launch, Nike and Jordan tirelessly marketed the shoe—Nike through ads, Jordan through his play. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in December 1984 (his shoes unfortunately cropped out) and started the 1985 All-Star game, playing 22 minutes. He wore the black and red version of his shoe in the dunk contest, but wore the black, red, and white in the game.
By the time the April ’85 release rolled around, the Air Jordan hype had reached a crescendo never before seen around a sneaker release. In New York City, 54 of 75 posters put up in bus stations were stolen. Some of the first resellers in history flipped their $65 Air Jordans for $100 right out of the store. Demand was insane.
“I wanted them so bad, but I didn’t have the cash and my mom was not laying out that kind of money for sneakers that I was going to grow out of in a year,” says MC Serch. “I decided that the only way to get the kicks was to get a job at a sneaker spot, and I did. I went to work for Morton’s Army Navy in Far Rockaway and saved up my dough—and by the time I had enough for them, I no longer wanted them.”
“I am somewhat surprised by the staying power of the Jordan 1. It seems every new generation of kids has to try it, almost as if they discovered it.”
The Air Jordan was still available because, despite the initial sell-through, there was a second wave. How big was Air Jordan? Jordan products alone accounted for $100 million in sales in 1985 after the company sold just $65 million in all its product in 1984. Forget Nike and Jordan himself for the moment; Air Jordan represented a huge windfall for retailers as well. And once the initial shipments sold out, they wanted more. Lots more.
“Trying to cool the fever was the hardest thing,” says Moore. “Especially with a company that was in need of a home run at the time. In the end, we made too many shoes and so the unsold inventory was discounted.”
Flooding the market hurt the bottom line initially, but in the long run it may have been the best thing for the Air Jordan line. The first Air Jordan literally remained on shelves for years, eventually reaching markets it was never intended for. They were still available, dirt cheap, when skateboarders were looking for durable alternatives to canvas Vans—even as Vans was trying to branch out of skateboarding.
“When [Vans] stopped giving us shoes altogether, we started wearing other shoes,” says legendary skater Steve Caballero. “I rode Converse for a while, I rode Nike Air Jordans, Puma Prowlers. I even tried the first Airwalks when Airwalk started in ’87.” For some, the Bones Brigade (Caballero and his Powell-Peralta teammates) endorsement became as important to Air Jordan as Jordan’s own.
“I skated in my Jordans in Washington Square Park one sleepy afternoon ’cause I thought it would be ill and they matched my Hosoi Hammerhead graphics,” says legendary hip-hop A&R Dante Ross, then a 19-year-old living in NYC’s Lower East Side. “They were and are still the best kicks to skate in.”
The Air Jordan 1 wound up everywhere, and in those days before retro, the overproduced, virtually indestructible Air Jordan 1 never entirely went away. Like Serch, I didn’t get a pair of Air Jordan 1s when they first released for the same reasons. Unlike Serch, I still wanted them. Five years later, I finally got them, when, as a college freshman, I came across a pair in a Newark, Del. Goodwill. They were two sizes too big and a bit battered, but I bought them—and wore them—anyway. That was 25 years ago, and I still have them. In fact, they’re the pair photographed for this story.
Since 1985, the white/black/red Air Jordan 1 has returned several times, starting in 1994. It remains the most universally wearable Air Jordan, one that resonates with fans both new and old. “I am somewhat surprised by the staying power of the Jordan 1,” Moore says. “It seems every new generation of kids has to try it, almost as if they discovered it. When I look at the shoe today I don’t see old, especially in the upper—the cup sole is the thing that dates it—but the upper is almost timeless at this point.”
And what sets it apart now—despite legions of imitators, some of which were introduced while the original Air Jordan was still on shelves—is what set it apart then. “The whole idea of the shoes was to bring color into basketball,” Moore says, “and Jordan, as it turned out, was the most colorful performer in the game.”