For most sneakerheads, picking a favorite Jordan silhouette is far from a snap decision. Choosing the best accompanying colorway is simply an effort in futility.
Regardless of personal preferences, certain Air Jordan backstories have stood the test of time, and the incredible true tales behind Jordans like the “Flu Game” 12s or “Shattered Backboard” 1s have become cemented in sneaker folklore, passed down to younger generations over time.
Thanks to Michael Jordan’s illustrious career on and off the court, many of his signature shoes come attached with a wonderful narrative, often lending insight into parts of Jordan’s life that many young sneakerheads are not familiar with.
Below are 10 of our favorite backstories attached to the Air Jordan franchise.
Air Jordan 4 “Motorsport”
Although they were treated to a retro release earlier this year, the original “Motorsport” 4s were initially so exclusive, that only the Jordan Brand Motorsport team were gifted pairs. Most Jordan fans are familiar with his foray into baseball after retiring for the first time in 1993, but the story of Jordan’s failed motorsport venture is lesser known.
In 2004, after retiring from the NBA a year earlier while playing with the Washington Wizards, Jordan established his own motorsports team in just five weeks, which included the tasks of securing sponsorship, sourcing equipment, and building a team of riders and mechanics.
Jordan Motorsports failed to win a single race in 93 appearances, until finally breaking through in 2010, when Jake Zemke won the Daytona International Speedway. Jordan’s competitive nature is notorious in sports circles, so it was surprising to see him embrace the role of an underdog. “I like being the underdog,” he said in a 2007 interview. “When you least expect it, you go out and find ways to beat the favorites. It’s tough, because the factory teams are well-equipped. But what’s starting to happen is they’re seeing no matter what, my interest and my passion is strong enough that, sooner or later, I’m going to find the right things that make it work, and get us up in front and get us winning.”
Air Jordan 12 “Flu Game”
The Air Jordan 12 is one of the greatest Jordan designs of all-time, and one of its signature colorways, the black-and-red iteration, became immortalized as the “Flu Game” sneaker during the 1997 NBA Finals. With the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz tied at 2-2 in the best-of-seven series, Jordan led his team to a game 5 victory on the road in Utah, serving up an astonishing 38 points.
Known as one of the most clutch players in NBA history, Jordan delivering in one of the biggest moments of his career was no surprise, but what made it a career-defining game was the fact he was playing through an illness, seeming quite lethargic and on the verge of collapsing during the entire game.
“Probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Jordan said after the victory. “I almost played myself into passing out just to win a basketball game.” The black-and-red 12s were part of Jordan’s sneaker rotation in the 1997 playoffs, but his game 5 performance in the finals vaulted the shoe to new heights.
There’s another great subplot to the actual pair of Jordan 12s worn for the Flu Game. Prior to Game 5, Jazz ballboy Preston Truman stood next to Jordan at the Delta Center in Utah as he was receiving a pre-game treatment of IV fluids. Given that moment alone with the greatest player of all-time, Truman worked up the confidence to ask Jordan what he was doing with his game shoes. Jordan offered them to Truman. The game-worn shoes ended up being worth $104,000.
Air Jordan 1 “Banned”
Thanks to Nike’s storytelling, most of us – even non-sneakerheads – have come to subconsciously recognize the iconic black-and-red Jordan 1. This was the sneaker that the NBA officially banned, because the colorway didn’t comply with the league’s uniform regulations back then.
In reality, it was the Nike Air Ship, released in 1984 (which remains in relative obscurity given the fact it has never been re-released), that drew the league’s ire in the first place. But according to the backstory told by Nike, Jordan was fined $5,000 for each game he wore what came to be known as the “Banned” 1s.
It was a penalty Nike happily paid for in exchange for the publicity, which helped launch the most successful signature basketball sneaker line of all-time. The truth might be debated, but there’s no denying two things. One, the Jordan 1 has become streetwear’s definitive sneaker, and two, the “Banned” 1 campaign was a stroke of marketing genius from Nike as summarized by the famous TV commercial above.
Air Jordan 1 “Shattered Backboard”
The off-white, black and orange colorway might look like just another random color treatment of the Jordan 1, but it actually comes with an obscure but fascinating backstory. Released in 2015, the “Shattered Backboard” 1s were actually inspired by Jordan’s appearance in a 1985 exhibition game hosted by Nike in Trieste, Italy.
In the first half of the game, Jordan – wearing a black and orange jersey – soared past a defender for a right-handed dunk, and shattered the backboard in the process.
Jordan chalked up 30 points in the game, and this rarely mentioned moment now goes down in history for helping spawn one of our favorite Jordan 1 colorways.
For the completist, you can also buy a replica version of the jersey Jordan wore in the 1985 exhibition game for a very reasonable price online.
Air Jordan 1 “Royal”
For a sneaker that Jordan never wore in the NBA, the backstory of the “Royal” 1s is the stuff of legends. Jordan was seen wearing the “Royal” 1s in a famous Air Jordan poster while posing on an airport runway with a matching Nike royal-and-black flight suit.
The only time Jordan has been seen playing basketball in a pair of the “Royal” 1s is also a bit of an urban legend. Wearing the same flight suit from the Air Jordan photoshoot, Jordan was seen – most likely on the same day – playing in these famous sneakers on a celebrity cruise ship in the 1980s.
It didn’t have the mainstream push as the “Banned” narrative, but the “Royal” backstory is just as fun to revisit and talk about years later.
Air Jordan 6 Retro Pinnacle “Saturday Night Live”
For the premiere of Saturday Night Live‘s 17th season in 1991, the famous late-night sketch show invited Michael Jordan to host, alongside Public Enemy as the evening’s musical guest. Jordan showed off his comedic chops in several skits, including “Daily Affirmation” and Bill Swerski’s “Bears Superfans” skit, which actually predicted the Bulls’ repeat (they would go on to win the next two NBA championships after Jordan’s appearance on SNL).
Not a lot of backstage anecdotes have come out of Jordan’s appearance on SNL, although Chris Rock – a cast member on the show in 1991 – did tell a brief story on Complex‘s “Sneaker Shopping” earlier this year about how he, Jordan and his castmates Chris Farley, Adam Sandler and David Spade almost went for a McDonald’s break with the greatest basketball player of all-time during one of the pre-show breaks.
While Michael’s SNL appearance might not have been memorable for everyone, most fans do have a lasting memory of the green satin jacket he wore during his opening monologue. The jacket was an inspiration for the “SNL” 6s which were released in September of this year.
Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam”
While the film does evoke a lot of nostalgic appeal, it’s certainly debatable whether Space Jam is an objectively good movie. It has a 38 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, for which Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars and called it “a happy marriage of good ideas.” Regardless, the Jordan 11 “Space Jam,” inspired by the movie, is arguably the most successful and most mainstream recognized Jordan sneaker of all-time.
The “Space Jam” 11s were first worn by Jordan in the 1995 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, during which the Bulls lost to the Orlando Magic in six games. That summer, Jordan filmed Space Jam, and the sneaker, which made its way into the film, became immortalized.
The 2016 re-release of the sneaker came with “45” on the heel tab, which paid homage to the jersey number Jordan wore in 1995 when he returned from baseball. Over the past two decades, the shoe and the story behind it has become one of the most hyped Jordan re-releases.
The 2000 retro release of the “Space Jam” 11s, which came on a Wednesday, caused such a commotion – with kids skipping school and angry parents wondering why their children were missing exams – that Jordan Brand subsequently moved most of their releases to Saturday as a result.
Air Jordan 1 “Barons”
The “Baron” Jordan 1s took inspiration from the colors of the Birmingham Barons, the minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox in Birmingham, Alabama. Jordan played for the Barons as an outfielder in 1994 after his first retirement from the NBA. In 127 games and 497 at-bats, Jordan hit .202 for the Barons, which led to an infamous Sports Illustrated cover where the magazine told Jordan to “Bag It.”
Even though Jordan’s Major League Baseball dreams never came true, there were certainly those in the White Sox organization who still appreciated Jordan’s presence in the clubhouse. “It was a treat for everybody to get to see probably the best basketball player that ever was,” Don Cooper, who worked in the White Sox’s player development department in 1994, said last year. “I think people can see and learn stuff from that – he wanted to win at everything, I don’t care if it was basketball, ping pong, golf, Yahtzee, I mean, we got a chance to be around a guy who reached the heights that he did in basketball.”
While Jordan’s baseball career was short-lived, it did help pave the way for the “Barons” colorway of his signature sneaker.
Air Jordan 3 “White Cement”
Yes, the original Air Jordan 3 was the first to do away with the iconic “Wings” logo, and marked the debut of the Jumpman logo, which we’ve all come to know and love over the years. Yes, it was the first pair of Jordans which included elephant print on the upper, and visible air in the sole. But all those details matter a bit less when you consider that the Jordan franchise could have ended with the Jordan 2.
Famed designer Tinker Hatfield needed to hit the Jordan 3 out of the park, mostly because Jordan himself was not impressed with his signature sneaker range, and was considering leaving Nike. At the time, Hatfield was a newcomer. He hadn’t even designed a single pair of Jordan sneakers, and had only been working in the industry for two years.
Now, Nike was pinning their hopes on Hatfield to make it click with Jordan, who wanted a shoe that felt less restrictive. Michael had just come from a round of golf with Rob Strasser and [Air Jordan 1 designer] Peter Moore, who had both recently left Nike and were trying to convince Jordan to depart, and join a new brand they were launching.
With all of this on the line, Jordan asked to see the sample. He picked up the sneaker, studied its details, got a kick out of the Jumpman logo, and gave Hatfield the thumbs up. The rest, as they say, is history.
Air Jordan 6 “Black Infrared”
Depending on who you ask, “Black Infrared” 6s might be considered a favorite among sneakerheads thanks to Kanye West popularizing them several years ago. But the actual backstory and history of the sneaker are quite rich too. There was specific orders from Jordan himself who wanted a clean toe for the shoe, since Jordan had problems putting on the previous five Air Jordan models. Tinker Hatfield made sure there was a reinforcement around the toe. He also created a heel tab that was inspired by one of Jordan’s favorite cars, the Porsche 911. Tinker Hatfield created the heel tab to reflect the rear spoiler of the car, so opponents on the floor would feel like a Porsche was racing past them as Jordan exploded towards the basket.
The “Black Infrared” 6s also hold on-court significant for Jordan, who won his first NBA championship in 1991 by wearing these in the Finals, when the Bulls beat Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. Jordan averaged 31.5 points that season, winning his fifth consecutive scoring title. He was also named first-team All-NBA and first-team All-Defense, and won the Finals MVP. There are other Air Jordan shoes that carry a championship narrative, but the “Black Infrared” 6s remain as the sneakers Jordan wore to win his first championship.
Air Jordan 7 “Charcoal”
Better known as the “Raptors” 7s for for their red, purple and black colorway that resemble the primary colors of the Toronto Raptors when they entered the league in 1995, this pair was worn by Jordan in game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals against Portland.
During the game, His Airness sunk six three-pointers during the first two quarters, scoring an NBA Finals-record 35 points in the first half, and capping off arguably the most remarkable shooting display of his career with the now famous shrug.
While Jordan was the best player in the game, the performance was still extraordinary considering he made just 27 percent of his three-point attempts during the 1991-92 season. Even Jordan himself was at a loss for words after the game. “Shots started dropping from everywhere,” Jordan said. “I started running for the 3-point line. It felt like a free throw, really.”
Air Jordan 1 “Letterman”
As a 23-year-old, up-and-coming basketball star in 1987, Jordan made an appearance on David Letterman’s late night show to discuss his Air Jordan brand and talk about his rising popularity. Interestingly enough, Letterman is actually an adidas man, once talking the brand into sending him 50 pairs of their sneakers. Aside from Jordan admitting in the interview that the design of the Jordan 1 was ugly, the most memorable part of the interview was Jordan’s bright red-and-blue tracksuit:
The Jordan 1 “Letterman” was designed based on the colors of the tracksuit. The insole of the shoe feature a clever “On Air” pun, which plays off both the Air Jordan brand and references the television appearance.
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- Main & Featured Image: Alexander Hudák / Highsnobiety.com
- Words: Alex Wong