Shipwrecked: The Untold Story Behind Michael Jordan's Banned Sneakers

As legend has it, the Bulls icon's black-and-red Air Jordan 1s were banned by the NBA. But in reality, the forgotten Air Ship came first.

Nike Air Ship 3
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original/David Cabrera

Nike Air Ship 3

It was the simplest of commercials: a single shot, panning from top to bottom, ending with a new logo. The messaging was simple, too, delivered in voiceover: “On September 15th, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18th, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them. Air Jordans from Nike.”

This was all true—to a point. The NBA had banned Michael Jordan from wearing a black-and-red shoe, similar to the new ones that were covered by black bars in the commercial. But they weren’t Air Jordans—those came later. Jordan started the season in a black-and-red version of an entirely different shoe: the Air Ship. This is their story.

Nike Air Ship 1

Well, let’s clarify a bit: This is a story. The Air Ship were released in 1984, in those pre-Jordan days when sometimes a sneaker was just a sneaker. True, 1982’s Air Force 1 was a big deal, but for then-10-year-old Nike, the first basketball shoe equipped with its revolutionary Air cushioning technology was crucial to the success of the company as a whole. The Air Force 1 was revolutionary, but the Air Ship was, for the most part, just a continuation. Still, in 1984, the all-leather Ship was Nike’s top-of-the-line basketball shoe, over the similar leather-and-mesh Air Train and the non-Air Sky Force. It had a ride height similar to the Air Force 1, thanks to the Air-equipped sole, but did away with the nylon strap.

Had the NBA season started later, or Jordan signed with Nike earlier, it’s likely he wouldn’t have needed to wear the Air Ship at all. His first Nike contract was dated October 26, 1984, the same day the Bulls played their first regular-season game. He’d spent the summer anchoring the USA Olympic team in Los Angeles and exploring the possibility of signing with his first choice, Adidas. Which meant the Air Jordan—September 15 creation date or not—wasn’t ready when the Bulls played their first preseason game.

Instead, Jordan laced up a black-and-red version of the Air Ship, which, as then-Nike creative director Peter Moore remembers, they had ordered just for Jordan. “It would have been a special make up,” he tells Complex,  “and they might have made, say, 25 pairs or something only for him.” If something like this happened today, it would have been cause for some sort of special release. Back then, though, it was just something he wore. Hardly anyone noticed, except for the earliest sneaker die-hards—and, of course, the NBA.

Nike Air Ship 4

The league most certainly did ban the black-and-red shoe, that much is true. Up until that point, basketball sneakers were primarily white with accent colors, although the Boston Celtics sometimes got away with wearing green. Teams were supposed to match. Jordan’s black-and-red shoes broke that code, but he wore them in the preseason anyway, and the NBA sent a letter to Jordan, indicating such he would be punished by a fine. As the story goes, Nike agreed to pay it, and Jordan continued to wear the shoes.

It’s a great story—and it made for a fantastic commercial—but just how many times did Jordan actually break the rule? There are plenty of photos online of Jordan during his rookie year, but none show him playing in black-and-red sneakers, either Ships or Jordans. The only evidence of him taking to an NBA court in black-and-red Air Jordans that first season was during the 1985 NBA Dunk Contest—when the normal uniform rules didn’t apply and his Air Jordan–branded warmup suit and pair of gold chains drew all the attention.

Jordan started the season in the Air Ship, but in the NBA-compliant white-based colorways of “White/Red” and “White/Natural.” He was wearing the white-and-red Air Ship against the Spurs on November 13, when he scored a then career-high 45 points. He transitioned into the Air Jordan sometime in late November—it’s hard to nail down an exact game—but he wasn’t done with the Air Ship quite yet.

In April of last year, the earliest known pair of Jordan’s game-worn shoes came up for auction. They were sold by a former Lakers ballboy, who got them from Jordan after the game, and went for $71,000. At first glance, they look like any other pair of Air Ships. But a closer look reveals changes from the production models made, one would surmise, to cater specifically to Jordan.

First there’s the ankle height, clearly lower than production pairs and closer to that of the Air Jordan. More importantly, look at the sole: That’s an Air Jordan midsole/outsole paired with the Air Ship upper, giving that low-to-the-ground ride that Jordan—who wore Converse Pro Leathers in college—had grown used to. So not only were these a pair of Jordan’s game-worn shoes, they were a pair of one-of-a-kind test mules, allowing Jordan to try out technology before it found its way onto his own shoe. In hindsight, $71,000 may have been a bargain.

Michael Jordan Wearing Nike Air Ship 2

If the Air Force 1 was designer Bruce Kilgore’s way of trying out new things, the Air Ship was confirmation that a great many of those things worked. The strap was eliminated, but the hiking-boot-inspired cut remained, angling down towards the heel. The Air Ship and its companion Air Train shared the same cut, while holdovers like the Penetrator, Legend, and Sky Force utilized the classic straight front-to-back cut, unchanged since the first Converse All-Star Chuck Taylor. The Air Ship was an evolution in other ways as well, utilizing a three-eyelet extension of the toebox reinforcement for forefoot lockdown, a more refined version of which would be used on the first Air Jordan.

From that first black-and-red Air Ship (which Jordan wore at least once with two sets of laces), modern sneakers and sneaker culture arose. Look in the back of Scoop Jackson’s classic Nike history book, Sole Provider, at the shoe chronology: Up until 1985, it’s primarily white shoes with navy, grey, or red Swooshes. After that? Things brighten considerably, leading all the way up to shoes like 1997’s “Royal” Foamposite One and 2002’s orange patent leather Zoom Turbine—both of which were worn on NBA courts. Even the Air Force 1, the Air Jordan’s stodgier predecessor, would later be made in literally thousands of different colors.

Nike Air Ship 5

Nowadays the Air Ship is all but forgotten, a mere footnote in sneaker history. It hasn’t been retroed—in part, legend has it, because its original cantilevered outsole infringes on Avia patents. Vintage pairs only rarely pop up on eBay, prices inflated thanks to the Jordan connection (a connection that Jordan Brand itself finally acknowledged via Tweet in 2014). Some of us, though, already knew.

When the Air Jordan finally released in March of 1985, I was about to turn 14 and was fully drawn in by both Jordan himself as well as his shoes. I’d been into sneakers for as far back as I could recall and had not long ago worn through my first-ever pair of Nikes, a pair of blue-Swooshed Bruins. I wanted the Air Jordans, but the $65 pricetag was a deal-breaker. Instead I was taken to Marshalls, where I looked feverishly for that “Nike Air” tongue tag. I found it on a pair of white-and-grey hightops, priced at a more parent-friendly $35. They were Air Ships.

Nike Air Ship 2

They’re not the pair seen here, although they’re the same colorway and size. I acquired these via eBay years ago, when they weren’t yet widely known to be the first pair of Nikes that Jordan wore in the NBA. They were relatively inexpensive back then—although I certainly paid more than $35. I bought a “White/Navy” pair as well and am still seeking a “White/Red” pair.

But the ultimate Air Ship grail, of course, would be one of those 25 or so black-and-red pairs made for Jordan himself, the real shoes that the NBA threw out of the game. The ultimate fate of those might be the biggest mystery of all.