Drew Hammell, aka @nikestories, takes us through the true stories behind Nike’s Jordan Brand and its catalog of seminal silhouettes. This time, he covers the history of the Air Jordan 3.
The shoe that saved the brand.
One of the most popular Air Jordan models ever, the Air Jordan 3 set a new standard in fashion and tech for Nike’s Michael Jordan-branded sneakers. Like the Air Jordan 2, the Air Jordan 3 was a mix of sophistication and style.
Once again, the sneaker didn’t feature a large Swoosh along the side. Instead, there was only the Nike Air logo on the back, along with three key new elements: the new Jumpman logo on the tongue, gray elephant hide-like print on the upper, and a visible Air unit in the heel. The shoe also came with the same hefty $100 price tag as the Air Jordan 2. This model would live up to the hype, and then some.
At Nike in 1987, however, there was trouble in paradise. Peter Moore, designer of the first two Air Jordan silhouettes, and Nike marketing VP Rob Strasser both left the company within a week of each other and started their own brand Van Grack. This made things complicated for Nike and slowed down the Air Jordan 3 production timeline. On top of that, Jordan’s initial contract with the brand was coming up for renewal.
Moore and Strasser were trying to woo Jordan away, telling him he could create his own empire with them instead of relying on Nike.
Happily for Nike, a young designer by the name of Tinker Hatfield had recently entered the picture. The former University of Oregon pole vaulter and architecture major had already enjoyed a couple of early hits with the Swoosh, the Air Max 1 running shoe and the Air Trainer 1. Both featured revolutionary designs, their success helping Hatfield to land the Air Jordan 3 gig.
“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. “So it had to be another hurry up, no sleep for weeks and months, traveling back and forth to Asia with all the developers and getting a prototype in.”
Hatfield genuinely wanted to hear what athletes had to say about the sneakers they were wearing, a trait he likely picked up from his former Oregon coach and Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman. Hatfield spoke to Jordan about what the Chicago Bulls star was looking for in a shoe: something with a mid-cut height instead of the super-high shoes everyone else was wearing; something comfortable that broke right in with soft, supple leather; something with flash and sophistication.
Hatfield listened, and when presentation time arrived, he was ready.
But the presentation itself wasn’t so straightforward. Hatfield and Nike president and co-founder Phil Knight flew to California to present the new shoe to the player and his family. Jordan, however, was four hours late for the meeting because he was out playing golf with Strasser and Moore.
When he finally arrived, he appeared to be going through the motions. Had Jordan’s head been turned by the former Nike guys? Knight handed the meeting to Hatfield, who started asking the player if he remembered his demands from their earlier conversation. The star man started to soften as they spoke, and when Hatfield removed a shroud from the prototype model, Jordan loved it.
It was exactly what he’d been looking for. The sleek style, the mid-cut height, the soft full-grain leather, the elephant print, and — most exciting of all — his own logo on the tongue. The Jumpman had been inspired by a famous 1984 image of Jordan leaping through the air for a dunk. Its positioning front and center told Jordan that he was at the forefront of the brand. He renewed his deal with Nike.
Most sneakerheads recall Jordan first wearing the Air Jordan 3 during the 1988 NBA All-Star Game. However, he sporadically wore the “White Cement” model as early as November 1987 in several games.
Jordan sported Air Jordan 3s at All-Star Weekend in Chicago on his way to a second straight Slam Dunk Contest win with his signature foul-line dunk. He also wore the “Black Cement” pair in the actual All-Star Game. In front of 18,403 fans, Jordan dazzled his home crowd with 40 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals, and four blocks, taking the MVP gong. It was the only time all season that Jordan wore the black colorway in a game.
To promote the new shoe, there were hugely influential Air Jordan 3 commercials featuring a young Spike Lee in the role of Mars Blackmon. Lee first played the character in his 1986 movie She’s Gotta Have It. Blackmon, a nerdy, sneaker-obsessed loudmouth, accompanied Jordan for four years in TV spots and print ads. The Wieden+Kennedy ads were a huge hit, sparking catchphrases such as “It’s gotta be the shoes” and one of Jordan’s nicknames, “Money.” There was also a two-page ad in the 1988 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue showcasing Jordan and Blackmon.
Between Jordan’s stellar All-Star Weekend, the commercials, and the fact he wouldn’t rock the black version again, an iconic shoe was born.
The “White Cement” and “Black Cement” colorways came out in January 1988. Sporting the white version for the rest of the season, Jordan switched over to the “Fire Red” colorway for the 1988 Playoffs and the start of the 1988-89 season. A fourth colorway, “True Blue,” wasn’t worn by Jordan in an NBA game until 2001, when he donned a retro version while playing for the Washington Wizards. He did wear the OGs in a 1988 NBA All-Stars vs. Team USA exhibition game, however.
Over the years, the Air Jordan 3 has been retroed a dizzying number of times, with the classic “White Cement” and “Black Cement” colorways remaining the most popular. The “White Cement” version was re-released in 1994, 2003, 2011, 2013, and 2018, while the “Black Cement” model came back in 1994, 2001, 2008, 2011, and 2018.
In 2001, Jordan Brand also brought back the “True Blue” and released the first non-OG colorway, “Mocha,” switching out the Nike Air logo on the heel for a Jumpman Air logo on both. The Jumpman heel was also present on the 2011 “White Cement” and “Black Cement” retros.
The “Fire Red” model didn’t get a retro until 2007. That year also saw the arrival of new colorways “Pure Money,” “Black Cat,” and “Do the Right Thing.” The next few years were fairly quiet for the Air Jordan 3, with the “True Blue” returning again in 2009 and the “25th Anniversary” and “Doernbecher” models following in 2010 before a splurge of retros and new colors in 2011.
The Air Jordan 3 returned again in 2013 with a retro of the “White Cement” (featuring the OG Nike Air logo back on the heel). Jordan Brand also brought back the “Fire Red” and the “Doernbecher” alongside yet more new colorways.
In 2014, Jordan Brand partnered with SoleFly to drop the friends-and-family “Lotto” Air Jordan 3, and in 2017, atmos dropped both a safari-print Air Jordan 3 and Jordan 3-inspired Air Max 1 for Air Max Day.
Last year’s “Black Cement” retro, like the 2013 “White Cement” retro, restored the original Nike Air logo to the heel for the first time since 2001 and featured leather and elephant print closer to the 1988 OG. A special commemorative clear-soled “Free Throw Line” “White Cement” retro also appeared in February, honoring Jordan’s dunk at the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest. The “Tinker NRG” version of the Air Jordan 3, again released in 2018, added a side Swoosh to the upper as a nod to one of Hatfield’s early sketches.
The Air Jordan 3 represented many firsts for Jordan and Nike. It was the first sneaker with to carry the Jumpman logo and was the first of many shoes Hatfield designed for His Airness. The 1987-88 season was Jordan’s first playing alongside crucial teammates Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, and was Phil Jackson’s first year coaching at the Bulls (albeit as an assistant).
Jordan also earned his first MVP and won Defensive Player of the Year in the Air Jordan 3s. Jordan’s legacy began the minute he first stepped on an NBA court as a rookie, but by that fourth year, he had started dominating games as never before. The footwear he wore only added to the image of an icon entering his prime. The Bulls fell in the conference semifinals of the 1988 NBA Playoffs, but the image of Jordan in those white and gray elephant print sneakers throughout the season remains indelible.
Notable Nike Air Jordan 3 Releases
OG 1988 Air Jordan 3
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Black Cement”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “White Cement”
Air Jordan 3 Retros
Nike Air Jordan 3 “White Cement” (1994, 2003, 2011, 2013, 2018)
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Black Cement” (1994, 2001, 2008, 2011, 2018)
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Black Cat”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Wolf Grey”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “5Lab3”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Sport Blue”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Cyber Monday”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “True Blue”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Wool”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Katrina”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Fire Red”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Charity Game”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Pure White”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Chlorophyll”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Mocha”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Seoul”
Air Jordan 3 “Black History Month”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Joker”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “25th Anniversary”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Doernbecher”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Crimson”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Do the Right Thing”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Fear Pack”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Black Flip”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “White Flip”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Free Throw Line”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Infrared 23”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Powder Blue”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Stealth”
Air Jordan 3 Player Exclusives
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Oregon Pit Crew”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Oregon Pit Crew White”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Kobe Pack PE”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Michigan PE”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “UNC”
Air Jordan 3 Collaborations
SoleFly x Nike Air Jordan 3 “Lotto”
atmos x Nike Air Jordan 3 “atmos”
Justin Timberlake x Nike Air Jordan 3 “JTH Bio Beige”
Justin Timberlake x Nike Air Jordan 3 “JTH”
DJ Khaled x Nike Air Jordan 3
DJ Khaled x Nike Air Jordan 3 “Father of Asahd”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Quai 54”
Nike Air Jordan 3 “Quai 54 Friends & Family”
Where to buy Nike Air Jordan 3
Nike’s Air Jordan sneakers are globally available at select stockists, as well as at Nike stores and online. Key retailers for Air Jordans include the following:
Special thanks to the following sources: Mental Floss, Portland Monthly, ‘Abstract: The Art of Design,’ Grailed, Jordan Brand, Sean Collard, Cory Takahashi, Brian Romney, the @ogsupportgroup, and Roland Lazenby for their expertise on the Air Jordan 3.