“This has to be the best playing shoe, period,” says Tate Kuerbis, designer of the Air Jordan 35. 

It’s an edict probably not much different from what was set for the Air Jordan 5, or any other model in the line for that matter. But in 2020, as the latest entry into the world’s most famous sneaker line is officially unveiled ahead of its global launch on Oct. 17, it’s become something that’s almost expected of a new Air Jordan game shoe from the players wearing them in local pickup games all the way to the NBA Playoffs. 

That distinction that matters now more than ever, with interest in performance basketball footwear continually waning when it comes to off-court wear. A shoe like the Air Jordan 4 was just as likely to be seen in the streets as on the courts when it originally dropped in the late ‘80s, but the 34? Casual outfit sightings have been few and far between despite it becoming an instant hit with ballers, and not even a Travis Scott co-sign and collaboration could propel the 33 into fit pics on Instagram feeds.

Trends change, and whether or not true basketball sneakers ever move back off court, the performance of the modern Air Jordan line has helped carry a legacy that could have easily been forgotten when Michael Jordan retired for good in 2003. Instead, through a combination of top-tier young talent wearing the product at the game’s highest level and genre-pushing innovation like the Eclipse Plate technology introduced in the Air Jordan 34, the game shoe’s legacy is thriving even in an era where hype is driving the sneaker industry. 

“When we got to the 34, we really unlocked something that was pretty cool and magical,” Kuerbis says. “The idea of reduction—taking the plate from underneath the foot and [moving] it more to a side aspect where you can really start to remove material, lighten the shoe, and also be able to see the technology and unlock the Zoom bag as much as possible. We had no idea it was going to be loved as much as it did, but we did test it a lot because it was such a new technology for us.”

Zion Williamson, the most coveted rookie of the 2019 NBA Draft class, helped provide some key insights, says Kuerbis. “The 34 was pretty much done before we had signed Zion, so it was even really interesting to see how someone like Zion would play in the 34. We’ve definitely learned a lot and taken a lot of feedback from our athletes.”

The popularity and effectiveness of the Air Jordan 34’s design provided a natural starting point for its successor, and feedback from the shoe played a critical role in the direction of the 35. Improving on the Eclipse Plate, a technology that utilizes two Pebax pieces to improve transition as well as maximizing the efficiency of the shoe’s Zoom bag, was the first order of business. 

The Kuerbis-led team looked at adding a large Zoom bag in the heel of the Jordan 35, similar to the one in the forefoot, to give more bounce and propulsion underfoot. “We did a ton of sketching of what that could possibly be, and it turned out that the Eclipse Plate became the heart and sole of the design of shoe, allowing the forefoot to be unlocked, and now allowing a heel Zoom bag to be unlocked as well, and still being able to see through,” he says. In addition, the Eclipse Plate was wrapped up the side of the shoe to add even more lateral support.

The upper of the Air Jordan 35 uses richer materials than the 34, but with minimal effect on the shoe’s weight. This was made possible in part due to the inclusion of Jordan Flightwire, a Nike Flywire style of cabling that allows for lockdown without adding bulk. “It’s see-through material on the base and then you have the cables tacked down which go all the way down and wrap underneath the foot and then come up as well,” Kuerbis says of the new construction. 

All of this performance direction and technology isn’t to say that hype doesn’t play any role in the new game shoes, as evidenced in the 35’s under-the-radar first official mention in a press release as part of a new Fragment collection. There’s also a nod to Air Jordan 5, seen in the molded collar and tongue shape. “I think it’s always fun to add those little winks back to some of the legacy models, just to reference that, but also push the future as much as possible,” Kuerbis explains.

As has become the rule in 2020, the ongoing global pandemic played a role in the development of the Air Jordan 35. The model was in the finishing stages when the world was upended, which led the team to working remotely—not only from the U.S., but from home. “It took a little bit of practice,” Kuerbis admits, “but I think we’ve gotten really good at working remotely...There were more questions than answers, but fortunately we were able to come together as a team and get through it.”

Kuerbis revealed that another of the biggest challenges in designing the Air Jordan game shoe is the diversity in athletes who will wear it. “To be able to design a shoe that’s going to be able to work for Zion, who’s just a beast on the court, to someone like Luka, who’s stepping back and wants to be very nimble, you have to take in a lot of feedback and design a shoe that can work for all of them.” Thankfully, he doesn’t have to look far to find an appropriate muse. Despite not having played in the NBA since 2003, Kuerbis still sees the shoe as coming ultimately from Michael Jordan, who still has input on the design as well. “We meet with him, and even before we start sketching we’ll have a conversation, and he’s very keen about the current state of the NBA and how players are playing and the game is changing. The one thing with MJ, he was super good on offense, super good on defense—he kind of represented all those athletes—he did it all. I see MJ still being the heart and sole behind the shoe.” 

Among the handful of styles previewed by Jordan Brand are a black and red “Warrior” colorway launching on Oct. 21, a “DNA” edition coming Nov. 11 that harkens back to the “Fire Red” V, a new “Bayou Boys” look for Zion Williamson set for Nov. 30, and a Guo Ailun PE dubbed “Morpho” dropping Jan. 29. First up, though, the “Center of Gravity,” releases worldwide on Oct. 17 (following an early offering in China on Sept. 17). It’s a multi-color style that was debuted by Jayson Tatum from inside the NBA bubble, and is not the typical look for an Air Jordan launch colorway. “I wouldn’t say it’s a normal color palette for Jordan, but we really felt like we wanted to push something in the future that was really fun and expressive—a colorway that maybe years from now people will look back and remember ‘that was the Center of Gravity’ colorway, kind of like the Bordeaux back in the days or something like that,” Kuerbis says. 

That memory of the Air Jordan 35 being unveiled in the middle of the NBA’s isolation zone is something that Kuerbis couldn’t have envisioned when the process began, but it’s brought some much needed distraction in this time of uncertainty. “It’s just fun to see sports back on TV,” he says. “It’s not the same as it used to be with people in the stadiums and such, but I think everyone is just so hungry for sports and to see people competing. To see the shoe on the court now is super exciting, and fingers crossed everything goes well with the rest of the season, and sports, and the NBA next year. There’s just so many unknowns. The best part is just seeing the players play in it and that it’s performing.”

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