A Brief History of Jordan Brand

February 13, 2022 by Joey Birch

A Brief History of Jordan Brand

Michael Jordan is one of the biggest names in history, let alone basketball. His influence has permeated through all areas of culture including sneakers and sports while having the power to influence multiple generations. 

Jordan began his basketball career in college while studying at the University of North Carolina (UNC) where he was named the Player of the Year in both his sophomore and junior years. Following on from his time at UNC, an inspiration for several later highly coveted colourways, MJ went on to be drafted the Chicago Bulls in 1984 after the Portland Trailblazers chose to draft Sam Bowie fresh from the college playoffs. 

After the first training session, the assistant coach at the time called the owner of the Bulls exclaiming “you didn’t mess this draft up”.

OG Nike Air Ship

When Michael first joined the Chicago Bulls, he was playing in a pair of Nike Air Ships. Designed by Bruce Kilgore, designer of the Air Force 1, the Air Ships were initially released in 1982 and would later go on to have specific features included within the Air Jordan 1 design. 

However, while some PE versions of the shoe featured the ‘Nike Air’ on the heel, the sneakers were, in fact, separate with the Black and Red Air Ships being later used in the marketing for the Air Jordan 1 following the NBA’s ban of the Bred colourway in line with their uniform regulations.

Before the release of the Air Jordan 1, Jordan was looking elsewhere for his signing and was said to have visited a number of sneaker brands who were eager to sign the breakout success. At the time, Jordan was keen to sign to adidas with the Forum 84, designed by Jacques Chassaing, set to be his signature shoe should have signed to the brand. 

While Michael was keen to sign to adidas, Nike simply provided a better offer. Allowing him to keep his ‘Jumpman’ brand and have more freedom with his signature sneakers. Nevertheless, upon receiving the official offer from Nike, Jordan went back to adidas one last time to ask “Are you sure” - a feature Jason Hehir, the director behind the Netflix docuseries ‘The Last Dance’, wasn’t able to keep in the series.

OG Air Jordan 1 Advert, 1984

With that, Nike went on to create one of the most infamous advertisements in history for the rollout of the Air Jordan 1. The advert included a pair of the new Air Jordan 1 silhouette, designed by Peter Moore, in the ‘Banned’ Nike Air Ship colourway previously seen that year. The advert, while panning down Michael Jordan bouncing a basketball with a thunderous clap, announced:

”On October 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe,” the narrator intones. “On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can't stop you from wearing them. Air Jordans. From Nike."

As soon as they were released, they were gone. The AJ 1 saw immediate sellouts with the popularity of the shoe being bigger than Nike and MJ could ever have imagined. While Nike was hoping that the release would reach around $5 Million in sales, the first year saw over $126 Million in sales and by 2020, Forbes estimated that MJ had earned around $1.3 Billion from his partnership since 1984.

OG Air Jordan 1 'Chicago', 1985

Since the Air Jordan 1s release, the sneakers have transcended trends, generations and backgrounds and the popularity of the shoe only seems to increase with new colourways and collaborations releasing near enough every month.

Two years after the initial release of the Air Jordan 1, the two masterminds behind two of Nike’s best silhouettes were called in to work together on the Air Jordan 2. Unlike the performance-focused AJ 1, Moore and Kilgore seemed to take a different approach with the second iteration of Jordan’s still new line. The duo wanted to create a shoe that featured superior materials including premium leather on the upper along with faux Iguana Skin and fast lacing system which garnered a higher price point at $100. This met with some questionable responses from fans in addition to the lack of the Nike Swoosh.

OG Air Jordan 2, 1986

After the release of the Air Jordan 2, it seemed that there was a handful of hardcore fans following the silhouette despite several high key collaborations with the likes of Vashtie, marking Nike’s first female collaborator and close friend of Kanye West, Don C.

This was until mid-2021 when rumours started to circulate of a possible OFF-White Jordan 2 collaboration which came to fruition in November of 2021, weeks before the brands' founder, Virgil Ablohs’, untimely passing. Following the release, the interest behind the AJ 2s has skyrocketed with other collaborations from Union LA and A-Ma Maniere waiting to be released.

OFF-White Air Jordan 2 'White Varsity Red', 2021

Following the release of the Air Jordan 2, the relationship between Michael Jordan and Nike were becoming strained. Following the release, the designers of the 2s were asked to step away from any future Jordan models; leading to Peter Moore leaving Nike, closely followed by Nike’s marketing VP at the time, Rob Strasser who began their own brand named, Van Grack. 

Around this time, Jordan was once again looking like he may stray away from the Swoosh with his contract close to ending alongside Moore and Strasser advising he could start his own solo empire without Nike.

Original Air Jordan 3 Designs by Tinker Hatfield

Step in, Tinker Hatfield. The designer behind the Nike Air Trainer 1 and the Air Max 1 in 1987 and deemed to be one of the greatest designers of all time. 

“It was six months behind schedule by the time it was given to me," recalled Hatfield in the documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design.

OG Air Jordan 3 'Black Cement'

The Air Jordan 3 was born and later released in 1988. With the original sketches showing that Hatfield had planned to add a Nike Swoosh on the lateral side of the sneaker, the final product was made of a premium tumbled leather upper with never before seen elephant material details and the now famous ‘Nike Air’ on the heel tab, referencing the air unit first seen in Hatfields Air Max 1 design, sitting within the sneaker's midsole. Along with the Jumpman logo on the tongue to hold Jordan’s brand front and centre with the new, sleek design. Michael Jordan was sold and it’s the Air Jordan 3 that is widely said to have saved Nike from losing the basketball superstar. 

Following the mass popularity of Air Jordan 3, Nike signed on Tinker to design the Air Jordan 4. Hot on the heels of the AJ 3, the 4s were released in 1989 and took a similar design language to its predecessor. Utilising the 3s mid-cut upper and air unit midsole, Hatfield wanted to further streamline the sneaker but introduced a lighter leather and mesh panels as well as the addition of the synonymous ‘wings’ around the ankle to coincide with the idea of ‘Flight’ as well as written on the tongue under Jordans Logo, inspired by a famous image of a jump shot from Jordan in 1984. 

It was in the Air Jordan 4, that Michael Jordan was at peak performance, achieving his overall best statistical season with averages of 32.5 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists and later going on with the Chicago Bulls to win the championship. An achievement that Jordan had yet to tick off the ever growing list.

Michael Jordan seen wearing the Air Jordan 4 'White Cement'

The Air Jordan 4 has since gone on to be one of the most popular sneakers of all time, and also the most expensive. With colourways including the Black Oreo, OG Fire Red and OG Bred sitting atop many sneakerheads top 10 lists, some collaborations gave the Jordan 4 grail status, including the Eminem x Carhartt Air Jordan 4 and UNDEFEATED Air Jordan 4 reaching 5 figure prices on the resale market. 

By the 1990s, Jordan was on top of his game and seemingly dominating every team he came up against to the point where Detroit implemented the ‘Jordan Rules’ which consisted of getting Jordan down and out in any way possible including more aggressive tactics pushing him to the ground. 

Nevertheless, Jordan fought back. This fighting spirit and determination to push back inspired Tinker Hatfield, still appointed to design for Jordan Brand, to create the Air Jordan 5 with features an American WW2 Mustang P-51 fighter jet, using the shark teeth on the midsole along with an all-new design for the Jordan model.

OG Air Jordan 5 'Fire Red'

Including a higher cut, padded, ankle support and 3M material on the tongue, the AJ 5 provided a more futuristic look along with a more aggressive shape. One of the key additions to the sneaker was the clear outsole which is said to have been carried over from Hatfields 1989 design for the Nike MAG seen Back to the Future 2. 

While the sneaker was released in 3 different colourways, it was the ‘Grape’ colourway that many hold dear thanks to the influence of Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Belaire in the ’90s. 

Come 1991, new Jordan models were released in quick succession thanks to the hype behind the athlete at the centre of the brand and the influence his sneakers were having both on and off the court. ‘91 saw the release of the Air Jordan 6, coming in six different colourways most notably the ‘Infrared’.

Michael Jordan wearing the Air Jordan 6 'Carmine'

By this time, Jordan was enjoying the finer things in life including golf and high-end cars. One of which was his Porsche 930 Turbo Cabriolet 'Flat Nose' which can be seen on the new tag tab on the heel, referred to by Tinker as a ‘spoiler’ inspired by the sportscars whale-tail spoiler feature. 

It was around this time that Jordan was also looking to have more influence over the design of his sneakers. Speaking to ESPN, Hatfield says: 

“Michael actually started influencing more design power over the process, and I was cool with that. He started feeling like his signature look shouldn’t have a [toe] tip. He was wearing dress shoes at the time that had a cleaner toe and a moulded toe. We always say that if some things are similar from one year to the next, there should always be something that's radically different."

Tinker Hatfield was at the helm of many of the initial Jordan models from the AJ 3 through to the AJ 15 as well as designing the 20 and 23 which hold a strong place in many sneakerheads’ hearts. 

Fast forward to 1993, Jordan’s basketball took a left turn. That is to say, it came to a halt. Following the tragic murder of his father and rumours that he had been a part of illegal betting on the game of basketball (a case later debunked), the Jumpman decided to step away from the court and onto the baseball pitch to follow a childhood dream of his. 

The same year, the Air Jordan 9 is released and stands as one of the models that Michael had a lot of input over despite never wearing in a basketball competition. Referencing Jordan’s now global appeal, the outsole of the shoe featured a number of languages including Japanese with words such as “Independence” and “Freedom” which were parts of the Sportsman's ethos. 

While the shoe wasn’t seen worn by Jordan on the court, it was developed into a baseball cleat which he was seen wearing his own PE version during his short spell in baseball till 1994.

Air Jordan 9 PE Baseball Cleats, 1993/94

1994 marked Michael Jordan and Nike’s 10th anniversary together as well as the Bulls top players dramatic return to basketball. Air Jordan 10 was produced with a minimal leather upper and included 10 stripes on the outsole to mark each of his early career achievements providing a fitting return for the King who scored 55 points in his first game back wearing the new release.

The following year, Jordan Brand created what became Michael Jordan’s favourite model yet, the Air Jordan 11. While the 11s appear to be the odd one out in terms of the Jordan lineage, its cultural impact and lasting shockwaves are clear. Featuring a patent leather wraparound on the upper and clear outsole showing the new TPU plate to provide further support to the foot arch, the sneaker has seen annual retroes which are met with mass popularity. 

OG Air Jordan 11 'Concord', 1994

Since its release, the 11’s are held in the same high regard as the 1s, 3s and 4s. Michael was even said to have worn them ahead of Nike’s desired release date as he loved the new design and technology advancing materials. Colourways including the OG Concord and the Cool Grey 11s (seen re-released last year in 2021) are grails for many collectors worldwide with the sneaker also being featured in 1996’s ‘Space Jam’ in which Jordan wore a special colourway of the sneaker which saw a later public release on the 13th of December 2000. 

Three years later, in the 1997 NBA Finals game between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz, Michael Jordan pulled off one of the greatest games of his career while battling flu symptoms which ultimately led to the Bulls winning the game.

Michael Jordan wearing the Air Jordan 12 'Flu Game', 1997

On his feet were the Air Jordan 12s, since coined the ‘Flu Games’ following his performance on the court. Featuring an eye-catching black and red tumbled leather upper, the design of the sneaker was simple but signifies a huge achievement in Jordan's career showing he was still a force to reckon with.

Michael Jordan’s ‘Last Dance’ was in another game against the Utah Jazz in 1998. The year leading up to this was a turbulent one. With many believing Jordan, as well as Scottie Pippen, were on the verge of retirement after the season. The sneakers worn to close off the greatest successful run any basketball team had seen before from the greatest basketball player, was the Air Jordan 13.

Air Jordan 13 'Bred'

Inspired by Jordan's nickname of ‘Black Cat’ derived from his agility and prowess, the sneaker featured an outsole moulded to resemble a panthers paw and also included a holographic eye on the medial side.

Michael Jordan's final shot, wearing the Air Jordan 14 'Bred', 1998

While the 13’s were worn for most of the game, it was the Air Jordan 14 that was worn for Jordan’s final shot during the game, garnering the name ‘Last Shot 14s’. A sneaker that, much like the AJ 6, was inspired by his love of cars, this time the interior of his Ferrari. 

By 1999, the Chicago Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause and Head Coach Phil Jackson were in a bad way. After reports suggest Krause was feeling under-appreciated with Jackson receiving a vast amount of the credit for the Chicago Bulls success, Jackson decided to leave the Bulls. This promoted Jordan to follow suit soon after, saying he would not play for any other coach and was 99.9% sure he would not return following his second retirement. 

Following his retirement in 1999, MJ was a free agent. He had become the Washington Wizards' vice president of basketball operations as well as a minority owner in January 2000 who was a struggling team that he wanted to try and uplift. 

However, during the 2002-2003 season, Jordan returned to the game one final time. At 38 years old, he played as a part of the Washington Wizards and has been quoted as saying: 

“It’s an itch that still needs to be scratched here and I want to make sure this scratch doesn’t bother me for the rest of my life. I’m just going to play the game of basketball that I love. I’m not about the money. I’m going to play the game because I love it”.

Michael Jordan playing for the Washington Wizards, 2002/03

This sentiment rang true as the now basketball legend donated all the money earned from the games to victims of the 911 tragedy earlier that year. During this time, MJ can be seen wearing the Air Jordan 18. A decadent sneaker that had a carbon fibre midsole along with a prominently suede upper. The detailing included a driving heel, once again referencing his love of sports cars, and a vamp cover over the upper of the sneaker similar to that of a high-end Italian dress shoe.

Air Jordan 18 'White Sport Royal' (seen worn above)

The details didn’t stop there, within the shoebox, came a brush, towel and driver manual to finish off the already premium shoe.

Nike and Jordan Brand have gone on to make a staggering 36 sneakers in total to date. While the initial releases from the duo are the most highly appreciated by sneaker collectors, Jordan Brand is still creating silhouettes with performance in mind with the designer of the Jordan 36, Tate Kuerbis, stating that is the lightest and fastest Jordan sneaker ever made. 

Michael Jordan has seen unrivalled success both on and off the court. Serving as a key figure in history and a name to remember for many, many, more years to come. With almost 40 years of collaboration between Nike and Jordan Brand, the influence both the player and the sneakers have will undoubtedly go on across generations to come.