Every year, the sneaker community collectively goes through the same motions. Jordan Brand drops off a mysterious image on social media teasing the latest addition to the Air Jordan line. Primarily fueled by nostalgia of the brand’s glory days, rumors swirl about what the shoe will look like. “What will be new this year?” “What NBA players will be wearing it?” In 2019, there are people who still hope the new Air Jordan will look like their favorites from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Jordan Brand has tried to channel the feelings of yesteryear with some of its more recent installments. The XXXI took elements of the Air Jordan 1. The XXXII took aspects of the Air Jordan II. The XXXIII followed suit, and even gave Travis Scott his own ad campaign and collaboration to drum up some excitement. It didn’t work. All of them were rarely seen anywhere besides the hardwood. Sure, Jordan Brand continues to innovate from a performance perspective with its annual releases like it always has, but these new school Air Jordans are lacking the cultural significance that makes the originals so cherished by the masses, so timeless.
Earlier this month, Jordan Brand unveiled the Air Jordan XXXIV (that’s 34 for those who can’t count that high in Roman numerals). The model introduces the Eclipse Plate, a cushioning system in the midsole to aid in explosiveness and stability. It’s something hardcore basketball players will care about, but the masses probably won’t notice.
They will notice the player who helped unveil the shoe, 2019 No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. He helped usher in the model recently with his freakish athleticism, throwing down a bevy of dunks at an event at Dunlevy Milbank Center in Harlem in front of an enthusiastic crowd of children and media members. The 19-year-old hasn’t played a single minute in the NBA yet is already one of its biggest names. He will be the flag-bearer for the XXXIV this upcoming season.
Williamson made his much-talked-about decision to sign with the Jumpman back in late July. If things pan out, he could very well be the face of Jordan Brand for years to come, and he should be. That being said, the XXXIV will not be Zion’s Air Jordan 1. The current generation of fans will probably care more about the retros Williamson arrives to the Smoothie King Center wearing than the pair he runs up and down the floor in on a nightly basis.
It’s pretty obvious why the new models will never be held in the same regard. The story crafted by the early Air Jordan models is just insurmountable. Michael Jordan, the man a large majority believe to be the greatest to ever play the sport, played in the original Air Jordans. He created moments in them. We will always be able to look at him leaping from the free throw line in the 1988 dunk contest wearing the Air Jordan III. The “Last Shot” Air Jordan XIV will always be tied to the clip of Bryon Russell getting crossed up by him in the 1998 NBA Finals. The new models just don’t have that type of relevance. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double and was awarded league MVP honors in 2017. He wore the Air Jordan XXXI for a large chunk of that campaign. Ray Allen hit one of the most clutch shots in NBA history in the 2013 Finals in the XX8. But does anyone actually remember they were wearing them? Not really.
Air Jordans were a large factor in the birth of sneaker culture as we know it today. I’m probably not getting paid to write this without the cultural phenomenon that Air Jordans evolved into since debuting in 1985. The new silhouettes just don’t feel as special. Jordan Brand has itself cornered. It can’t overcome its own legacy.
There’s a reason that retros still release every Saturday, and 60 Air Jordan 1s released in 2018. Customers can’t get over the originals. Jordan retired 16 years ago yet he still has the most valuable sneaker deal in the NBA. He will be making an estimated $130 million this fiscal year. It’s because of the retros, not the XXXIV. Fast forward ten years, and you will likely still see people running to the store for the latest Air Jordan IV colorway, a shoe that will be 40 years old at that point. And that doesn’t seem shocking.
This can be said about the current basketball market as a whole. The culture has shifted. The kids want the Off-White x Nike collab LeBron James laced up in the tunnel more than they want to buy the newest LeBron signature model. Kanye West is a way bigger ambassador for Adidas with his Yeezy line than perennial All Star James Harden is. News of a new Air Jordan collab from Virgil Abloh gets more attention than anything Williamson or even Jordan would be able to do right now. Times have changed, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.
The XXXIV is probably a great performance shoe. Nobody is arguing that. In fact, the reception seems to be fairly positive up to this point. Williamson is going to be throwing down gravity-defying windmills wearing them during his rookie campaign with the New Orleans Pelicans, but next year around the same time the brand will reveal the 35th installment to the Air Jordan lineup. Eventually, it will replace the space that the XXXIV will be occupying on shelves for the next year. The XXXIV won’t get a retro run. Nobody will be asking for it. It will just be another pair to add to the “isn’t I-XIV” archive.