It had to happen eventually. The return of the elusive Nike Air Ship in its original black and red colorway, as worn by Michael Jordan in 1984 and banned by the NBA that year, felt like a foregone conclusion for 2020. First there was the February retro of a white and red pair that marked the first time the shoe had ever been re-released. Then there was the April arrival of The Last Dance, the ESPN docuseries that ignited new frenzy around Jordan relics and even brought one original pair of the "Banned" Air Ships out of the woodwork. Then, without forewarning, it happened.
At the end of July, Italian sneaker shop Back-Door Bottega announced a raffle and scavenger hunt in Bologna with the black and red Air Ship as the prize. The store had 960 pairs for sale in total. There was no press release on Nike's news site, no advanced product seeding to fan the flames of hype, no cryptic social media from Jordan Brand to go with. The legendary "Banned" Air Ship arrived without warning, exclusively in Italy, of all places. Everyone expected it to happen, just not like this. Why no big announcement? Why here?
"I think and really hope that is because Jordan Brand and Nike really understand that Back-Door Bottega was not just [meant] to be a cool store, but the best Jordan destination in the world," says Marco Evangelisti, the store's owner. "The passion, the love you can experience here, is something special. It comes from my and my team's bones. And the store has always been, from day one, like a little museum."
The Air Ship is a relatively nondescript Nike basketball sneaker of its era made important by Jordan wearing it. Nike and Jordan Brand have long traded on the myth that his first signature shoe, the Air Jordan 1, broke NBA color rules in the 1980s and earned its rookie wearer fines every time it appeared on court. In the 2010s, sneaker sleuths like Barias discovered a wrinkle in that myth—all photo evidence confirmed that Jordan never really wore black and red Jordan 1s in any circumstance that could have resulted in the league's letter complaining about his shoes. He was actually wearing the Air Ship, a shoe that had been mostly forgotten until its place in Jordan's early sneaker history was recently confirmed.
That place makes it a tricky sneaker for Jordan Brand to truly embrace. To acknowledge the Air Ship, and not the Air Jordan 1, as the true "Banned" shoe would be to tacitly admit that decades of marketing and product releases around black and red Jordan 1s were based on blurry facts. In the Air Ship's retro life that began this year, Jordan Brand has been somewhat quiet about the shoe. The All-Star rollout of the first pair did not detail its connection to Michael Jordan. Promo for the summer release of the black and red version was done by Back-Door Bottega and not the brand.
Still, Jordan has made the Air Ship its own to some extent. The two releases of the sneaker so far have absorbed the Nike silhouette into Jordan Brand; the Air Ship was never actually a Jordan sneaker until 2020. There are differences in this year's two pairs: the white and red used an Air Jordan 1 sole, while the black and red has a sole borrowed from the Nike Pro Circuit, just like Jordan's original pair. The "Banned" drop also updates the shoe with contemporary Nike React cushioning, subtly modernizing the design. These sorts of anachronistic changes usually aren't appreciated by purist collectors that prefer that archival models come back in original form. Barias isn't bothered, though.
"I'm not offended by it," he says. "I like that it includes it. The 'guts' of the shoe I'm OK with."
The React addition has not ruffled the usual feathers, perhaps because its update is inconspicuous. The Air Ship Pro, the official name for the retro with React cushioning, is not done in the vein of cushioning-updated retros like Air Max Lunar 90s or Huaraches with Free tooling on bottom, which significantly changed how those shoes look. Instead, the sole appears mostly the same as it did in 1984, save for a React logo on the midsole's medial side. Evangelisti is fine with the new material inside, but still thinks it should have been even subtler.
"If I was the designer, I would have just removed the React writing," he says.
This is a standard reaction: collectors want shoes crystallized in their first form and thawed for re-releases in those exact shapes and specifications. It's a crucial element to the nostalgia that Jordan Brand's high-volume retro sales are based on. This tendency to want sneakers to appear exactly as they do in one's memory is understandable for fans like Evangelisti, who has loads of original Air Jordans in his collection. He was first awed by Michael Jordan via a fuzzy VHS tape back in 1993, a moment of rapture that he says created a storm in his adolescent brain. Before he saw the tape, Evangelisti was a tennis player.
"I decided in five seconds to start playing basketball, to be close to him as much as I could," he says. "That obviously drove me to wear and own his shoes and apparel and collect books, newspapers, toys, accessories."
The release of the "Banned" Air Ship at his store in Italy has created confusion for some, but he sees it as a personal payoff earned through years of passion for everything Jordan. Plus, the shoes have already trickled out elsewhere. Evangelisti says there were 1,920 pairs available worldwide, and his stock doesn't account for all of that. Last weekend, a surprise delivery of the shoes appeared via the Nike SNKRS app in Europe. (The brand copy calling the Air Ship "the primordial Jordan" was the closest Nike or Jordan have come to acknowledging the real story of the shoe.) Sneakers like this rarely remain truly exclusive to one region, although Jordan didn't release the "New Beginnings" pack, featuring the Air Ship, anywhere but Chicago back in February. Barias is still miffed about that, saying Nike made a mistake by limiting it so much.
If the black and red Air Ship releases again this year, the most obvious date would be Oct. 18, which Jordan Brand celebrates as "Banned Day" in commemoration of the NBA's infamous letter. When asked to comment on the shoe for this article a brand spokesperson said that another release is not coming at this time and didn't give any rationale for the Italy-specific drop. For now, Evangelisti can only speculate on whether the Air Ship will experience a more international flight in the months to come.
"I really don't know," he says, "but I genuinely think yes."