For professional athletes, longevity is often the most important element in attempting to secure a legacy as one of the greatest to ever do it in their respective arenas.
In basketball, careers were derailed for probable Hall-of-Famers like Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady and Penny Hardaway who all saw their hoop dreams deflate under the weight of their own failing bodies.
On the opposite end of the injury spectrum are figures who loom largely – in a past and current sense – like Michael Jordan and LeBron James who both managed to avoid devastating injuries – even as they faced strategical choices by opponents which upped the physicality used against them.
However, fans would be remiss not to remember that Jordan’s career could have gone in a completely different direction after the would-be-superstar fractured the navicular tarsal, a small bone in his left foot, just three games into his sophomore campaign.
At that point, Jordan had never missed a game because of injury – dating back to his days at Laney High School in North Carolina.
In a contemporary context, Jordan’s fracture is the same foot injury that has Philadelphia 76ers fans and executives so worried about Joel Embiid’s longevity, and which also ended the career of Yao Ming.
What makes the injury particularly debilitating is that each time a person strides during running, they put three times their own bodyweight onto the area in question.
For Jordan, this meant 600 pounds of added pressure just to rut down the court – let alone the extra poundage needed to soar through the air and dominate like he did during his Rookie of the Year campaign.
In addition to it being a huge blow to the Chicago Bulls – who had made an 11 game improvement during Jordan’s first year – it also notably set Nike back after they had taken Jordan from a stock pair of Air Ships to his own signature model, the Air Jordan 1, the year that he was injured.
But at that point, there was hope that the injury would only have Jordan out for two months – with a planned return in December.
However, Jordan wouldn’t make it back onto the floor until March; amassing a total of 64 missed games where the Bulls often hovered at the 20-games-below .500 mark – stained by two five-game losing streaks and another seven-game losing streak along the way.
Many people around the Bulls organization wanted their prized shooting guard to remain on the sideline for the remainder of the season. Not only would this ensure his health, but it would also improve their chances in the draft lottery.
Although there was still a chance that the Bulls could make the playoffs – even with a dreadful record thanks to a weakened Eastern Conference – Jordan was adamant that once he was cleared by doctors, he was going to play.
“One of the reasons for coming back, was to really test the foot, and see how much stress the foot could really take,” he said at the time. “If I were to have sat out and come back in September – without testing the foot in a real NBA situation – and then I have problems, I [also] miss the next season. I want to deal with it now.”
Jordan returned to the court on March 15 against the Milwaukee Bucks – logging 13 minutes en route to a 12 point performance on 7 shots.
With an unparalleled competitive desire, the minute restrictions that GM, Jerry Krause, and head coach, Stan Albeck, was putting on him, was simply unacceptable.
“The thing was, at the time, we were going through a rebuilding process, and I was practicing two hours a day and that was the thing that bothered me more than anything,” Jordan said. “If I can go through two-hour practices, as intense as I practice, then when the game came, they gave me a seven-minute window (in each half) to play.”
A week later, the Bulls traveled to the Boston Garden to take on the Celtics. For keen-eyed viewers, they may have noticed that Jordan’s signature shoe had been retrofitted with something that Nike officials refer to internally as the, “Strap over Swoosh” model,” which boasted a a visible heavy nylon and aluminum buckle customization and tension cord to aid in the stability of Jordan’s foot while playing. Another aesthetic difference was that it had a Jordan 2 outsole.
According to a Nike spokesperson, ” During this time at Nike, there were a handful of Jordan’s shoes that were sort of Frankenstein’d together – which is why we see many versions of the Nike air Ship, and AJ 1 on his feet during the first two seasons. Quite literally, different soles were thrown on different shoes in the mid 80’s, testing feel and comfort for Mike.”
The “Strap over Swoosh” Jordan 1 remains one of least talked about shoes in Jordan’s illustrious sneaker career. However, that doesn’t take away from the shoe’s collectibility. Currently, a game worn pair is fetching at least $22,000 USD at auction.
It’s unknown just how many times Jordan donned this unique customization beyond just the one game in Boston which was documented by Getty photographer, Dick Raphael.
In the game in question, Jordan once again came off the bench – going 7-16 from the field and scoring 20 points in 16 minutes.
He led the team in scoring the final eight games and helped the Bulls clinch a playoff berth in the next-to-last regular-season game where they would meet the Celtics.
By that point, Jordan no longer required any additional structural attributes to his signature model.
Although the Celtics swept the series, Jordan averaged 43.7 ppg (and averaged 45 minutes a game) – highlighted by a 63 point outpouring in the second game of the series.
As for Jordan’s longevity following his injury, during the six Bulls championship seasons, he missed a total of six games: two in 1991-92 and four in 1992-93. He played in 82 games in each of the last three championship seasons.
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- Featured/Main Image: Nike