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The 1984 NBA All-Star Game, played at McNichols Arena in Denver, was the start of something different. The night before the main event consisted of the first-ever NBA Slam-Dunk Contest, which has since gone on to be a marquee event for the League’s best. All-Star Weekend ’84 marked the start of a sprawl that would eventually take over the better part of an entire week. But even this was prologue. Because it was the following year that would see the debut of Michael Jordan.
Jordan, then a heralded rookie out of North Carolina, was named to the 1985 All-Star team and also competed in the dunk contest, where he faced off against—among others—defending champion Larry Nance, all-time legend Julius Erving, and third-year Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins. Jordan finished second to Wilkins, setting off a dunk rivalry that would come to a head three years later in Chicago.
It was an audacious act by an audacious player, marketing his upcoming line on live TV a week before he turned 22. Again, this was something different.
The next day, Jordan paid the price for his perceived arrogance. Lacing up his traditional red, white, and black game shoes for the All-Star Game, Jordan scored just 7 points in 22 minutes—his nine shots were the fewest of any East starter. Rumor was he was frozen out of the offense, in part because of his actions the night before. “There were reports the other NBA all-stars were turned off by Jordan`s behavior at the slam-dunk contest,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Bob Sakamoto the next day, “when he went through the first round in his warm-up outfit while the other seven competitors were in their uniforms.”
George Gervin, appearing in his 12th and final All-Star game, was quoted as saying, “Michael is a rookie and he has a lot to learn, just like we all did.” Jordan learned his lesson, all right. But it may not have been the one Gervin—who would find himself Jordan’s teammate in Chicago the following season—was talking about. When the first Air Jordans released that April, they sold out immediately.
After missing the All-Star game and dunk contest the following season due to a broken foot that sidelined him for much of the season, Jordan made his return in 1987 in triumphant fashion. He left the Nike warmups at home, but once again broke out two different pairs of his signature sneakers, wearing the white, black and red Air Jordan IIs as he won his first dunk contest, then a white and red pair in Sunday’s game, where he scored 11 points on 12 shots in an East loss. Seattle’s Tom Chambers won MVP. The All-Star sneaker trend that Jordan established in 1985 was locked in in 1987, but this was just setting the table for 1988.
What would prove to be the most pivotal year in Air Jordan—and, at least up to that point, Michael Jordan—history started exceptionally well, no matter how you consider it. He scored 36 points in the first game of the 87-88 season, and posted a triple-double (25 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in the first game of 1988. With the All-Star Game set to take place in Chicago for the first time since 1973, Jordan and Nike had big plans.
Said plans revolved not only around Jordan himself in his home arena, but around the Air Jordan III, the first Air Jordan designed by Tinker Hatfield, which would debut in Saturday’s Dunk Contest as Jordan defended his crown.
For the first time since 1985, Jordan would match up with Wilkins, who lost to teammate Spud Webb in 1986, then missed the ‘87 contest with an injury of his own. Nike would also debut a new ad campaign, shot in black-and-white by and starring a young filmmaker from Brooklyn named Spike Lee. “Hang Time,” the first in the series, started with Lee standing on Jordan’s shoulders and ended with him getting dunked on while still clinging to the rim. Lee’s motormouthed Mars Blackmon character did all the talking, the shoes took center stage.
And, in Chicago, Jordan himself did the same. He defeated Wilkins in a dunk contest for the ages in white IIIs before scoring 40 points on Sunday in the black versions, winning his first All-Star MVP honors. By the end of the season he’d have a full trophy case, adding the Defensive Player of the Year and MVP trophies to his collection for the first time.
Sneaker-wise though, everything peaked in February. Up until that point Jordan hadn’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs, so, for Nike, it made the most sense to debut his latest shoe in mid-season, when all eyes would be on their singular star. That would change for Jordan the following season, as he chose to not defend his Dunk Contest crown for a second time, and he hit his first playoff-series winning shot. But the precedent had been set. All-Star weekend had become prime time for sneakers. All because everyone wanted to be like Mike.