Whether you’re a sneakerhead, basketball fanatic, or a casual observer of pop culture, you’ve been influenced by the Jordan brand. Learn about the history, impact, and how one shoe started it all.
Air Jordan History
To understand why and how the Air Jordan sector of Nike grew to become its own $4 Billion brand, you have to understand Michael Jordan himself. The man and the brand are inseparable, both exemplifying innovation, creativity, and valor.
Nike’s Relationship with Air Jordan
Sure, Nike is synonymous with basketball now… but that wasn’t always the case. We’ll spare the details but for the decade-plus before Jordan entered the NBA, Nike was known as a scrappy running shoe company. They found some hardwood success when the “Ice Man” George Gervin rocked their shoes in the late 70s.
Nike knew it needed stardom to push its brand, and offered a ludicrous contract to a rookie out of Michigan State University in 1979. His name? Magic Johnson. The brands that ran the NBA, namely Converse, were able to offer contracts of $100,000. Nike was only, at that time, able to offer an unknown number of stocks (stories vary, but estimates for what the deal would be worth now range between $100 Million and a Billion), and his own signature shoe.
With Nike missing out on Magic, and Gervin just two years away from retirement, Nike went all-in on a guard out of the University of North Carolina (UNC) named Michael Jordan.
Jordan was an exciting prospect, whose style of play was awe-inspiring. Jordan played above the rim, like nobody else at the time. His hang-time and flying motions captivated the imagination of NCAA basketball fans across the country. There was substance to his style, too. As a Freshman, Jordan hit the game-winning shot to seal a National Title for the UNC Tar Heels. He’d spend two more years at UNC winning the ‘Sporting News Player of the Year’ honor in each.
Knowing Jordan’s star potential; knowing Adidas had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (one of the best players ever), Puma had Clyde Drexler (A smooth player and socialite known for his off-court style), and Converse had…. everybody else; Nike went all in. They were desperate. They had just posted their first negative quarter ever, and even though Carl Lewis won 4 gold medals in Nikes, sales weren’t climbing.
Before ever playing an NBA game Nike offered Jordan $500,000/year for 5 years. For reference, the next highest contract was Jordan’s college teammate James Worthy, who signed with New Balance for $150,000/year. To protect the company, Nike included conditions within the contract - Jordan would have to win Rookie of the Year, become an All-Star, or average 20 Points Per Game. And in the off-chance the shoes were a hit but Jordan was a miss, if the shoes sold $3 Million in the first three years, Jordan could still keep the contract without meeting the other requirements. It was an offer Jordan couldn’t refuse, even if he tried. He took the contract details to Adidas, whom he desperately wanted to sign with, but they refused to match. Thus, the Nike - Air Jordan marriage was made.
Michael Jordan Takes The NBA By Storm
When Jordan entered the league in 1984 as a member of the Chicago Bulls, the club’s red and black colors were a stark contrast from the ‘baby blue’ color Jordan donned in college. The bold colors were a perfect match for Jordan and his playstyle, which was intense and ‘in-your-face.’ Jordan took the world by storm. He was a stark contrast to the status quo of the NBA at the time. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the faces of the league and found immediate success, each winning a championship before Jordan entered the league. They were both the epitome of team players, known for their passing, court vision, and team-first approach.
Jordan, on the other hand, was a one-man show in Chicago. His play was fierce, which came across in stark contrast to Magic Johnson’s smiling showtime flair. Jordan won crowds over in every city and immediately challenged the NBA in every imaginable way.
Enter Air Jordan
Michael Jordan wasn’t just bold in terms of play, but in his style too. The precursor to the ‘Air Jordan 1’ was the ‘Air Ship.’ The ‘Air Ship’ was designed by Bruce Kilgore and worn by Michael during the early stages of his rookie campaign. The shoes quickly drew attention, as the original red/black colorway was illegal according to NBA rules. While having a shoe ‘banned’ may be seen as a death sentence to some, Nike and Air Jordan saw it as a massive marketing opportunity.
The banned shoes led to some famous television moments, including an iconic Nike ad and a memorable appearance with TV’s hottest talk show host at the time, David Letterman. While on Letterman, Jordan caught everyone’s attention immediately with his all red, all Nike jumpsuit (which would later inspire the ‘Dave Letterman’ colorway in 2016). The TV appearance was the first evidence of Jordan’s aptitude as a pitchman. He navigated tricky conversations and topics effortlessly, displaying the same savvy and bravery displayed on the court. Some pinpoint this as the moment that the Jordan Brand and the Air Jordan 1s became ‘cool.’
The Air Jordan 1, designed by Peter Moore, was officially released in March of 1985 for $65. The release had 15 different colorways to choose from. Air Jordan 1’s were also ahead of their time in terms of customization; the shoes came unlaced and were packaged with multiple colored laces, allowing the purchaser to personalize their kicks.
The colorways, customization, and premium pricing combined to produce results nobody had anticipated. You might remember the Nike contract incentives mentioned earlier, where Michael had to accomplish one of the following--become Rookie of the Year, become an All-Star, average 20 points per game, OR reach $3 Million in shoe sales. Jordan accomplished all four of these in just the first year.
From that Letterman moment, Jordan's were more than a shoe. They represented an attitude, they were cool, they were elite, they were fresh, they were new, and they were DIFFERENT. The leather outsole was a revolution for a basketball sneaker but the design, various colorways, marketing, and ability to customize made the Air Jordan 1 a sneaker that could be worn anywhere and with anything. Selling $126 Million worth of shoes in just its first year, the Air Jordan 1s quickly became the most recognizable shoe in the world.
Air Jordan and Nike developed iconic ads that are still remembered and revered decades later.
- Mars Blackmon - Original Commercial featuring a character played by Spike Lee in the 1986 film ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’
- Mars Blackmon - It’s Gotta Be The Shoes An advertising landmark, credited as a turning point in fashion, making shoes profitable, fashionable, and culturally relevant.
- Air Jordan 1 - Takeoff
- Complete Collection
The Air Jordan Brand also received free advertising from other celebrities who loved the new line of sneakers. On camera there was another Spike Lee movie ‘Do The Right Thing’ that featured Air Jordans, and Will Smith featured them prominently in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Off-Screen and in photoshoots, you could regularly catch Eazy-E and NWA sporting the stylish sneakers.
The Air Jordan legacy and brand continue to grow. It would be impossible to list and show all the celebrities providing free advertisement to the company now.
As the brand soars to new heights, the legacy of the original does too. The Air Jordan 1 was the first of its kind and changed fashion in America. Its impact from the ’80s is still felt today. The shoe has been re-released countless times, and is just as hot now, if not hotter than it was nearly 40 years ago. When you wear them you’re doing more than just looking good, you’re literally walking in history.
Varying Jordan 1 Pricing
While the style has held up, the $65 price tag has not. Prices vary on what you're after when it comes to the Air Jordan 1 (AJ1). Let us explain.
Current and Common
You can find common AJ1s at various well-known websites and local retailers.
Dick’s Sporting Goods has an all-white AJ1 Mid for $120
Nike’s website has several colorways and options maxing out at $175
Rare and Retros
If you’re looking to really upgrade your wardrobe and find some more rare sneakers, you can check out sites well known to sneakerheads and missed by the rest.
In 2011 when the Air Jordan IIIs were re-released, they sold out, globally, in minutes. Sneakerheads had camped out for days to get a pair. This may sound insane to you; camping out for days just for some fashionable shoes?
If you’ve learned anything by now it’s that Jordan Brand shoes aren’t just shoes. In 2015, renowned sneakerhead Josh Luber presented at a Ted Institute event given in partnership with IBM. He then explained how Nike and Air Jordan combined to comprise 96% of the sneaker resell market, a market of $1.2 Billion. With an average resell profit of 33%, Nike and Air Jordan customers made $380 million dollars. Since his groundbreaking Ted Talk in 2015, Josh Luber co-founded StockX, a sneaker resell app that has a valuation of nearly $4 Billion. Between the now famous Ted Talk and the astronomical valuation, the culture has evolved and massive musicians have influenced the sneaker industry. Names like Travis Scott, Kanye West, and countless others have collaborated with sneaker companies. Josh explains in great detail in this 2021 report how the industry has evolved and the numbers now eclipse the ones presented in 2015.
Since Josh’s first Ted Talk the term 'sneakerhead' has become universally known, and the market has grown significantly. Here are some of the most notable and expensive Jordan shoes to illustrate the point:
- Air Jordan 1 Colette F&F - $13,449; Designed for the famous Parisian concept store. Gifted to friends and family of the store. Average pair auctioned for over $13,000
- Air Jordan 1 Bred (1985) - $17,000
- Air Jordan 1 Chicago (1985) - $18,000
- Air Jordan 1 Dave White Wings For The Future Gold - $18,888; A lot of 23 shoes sold for $23,000 ($1,000 per shoe) at a charity auction. Individual shoes have sold for as much as $18,888
Other pieces for serious collectors, investors, and Jordan enthusiasts have sold for even more. However, these shoes weren’t ones you could purchase from a store and resell, these are authentic game worn Jordans that represent all of agony, defeat, and triumphs.
- Air Jordan 1 Broken Foot - $422,000; The pair of shoes worn when Michael Jordan sustained the most serious injury of his career. A broken foot which caused him to miss over 60 games during his 2nd year in the league.
- Air Jordan 1 Game Worn and Autographed - $560,000
- Air Jordan 1 Shattered Backboard - $610,000; The pair worn when Michael shattered a backboard while throwing down a hateful dunk. These ‘chicago’ colorways still have broken bits of glass embedded in them.
- Air Jordan 1 ‘Chicago’ Dunk Sole - $1,012,500; A rare shoe with only a few prototypes ever created. After Michael broke his shoe, Nike experimented with different soles. The AJ1 with a dunk sole are the most expensive pair in history, and the only to break the million dollar price point. The sale was completed in February of 2022.
It should be noted that the Jordan Signature Shoe line that started with the Air Jordan 1 in 1985, releases a new model every year. These shoes are identified by a number, almost always in roman numerals. These shoes are currently in their 36th installment. Each of the signature shoes are collectible items and can be resold at a high value. Some classics include the III, VII, IX, and XI. Each installment tells a story and has a unique design. While the line is valuable and iconic, the AJ1s are still the most respected, recognizable, and often the most valuable.
Spotting a Fake Jordan 1
With the value ever-increasing and reselling getting more and more popular, interested parties need to be certain they are buying authentic sneakers and not counterfeits. You’ll be worry-free purchasing from the companies listed above, and StockX has a 100% guarantee that all their shoes are verified. However, if you’re looking elsewhere, here are a few tips on spotting an imposter.
What to watch for
Heels - Looking at a pair of AJ1s from the back, the shoe should have an hourglass figure. This is done in part by design and is a result of Nike’s method of stitching. We’ve provided two examples.
Tongue - Nike took the time to make sure the shoe was comfortable and ready for performance, because of this, the tongue in the real version is soft and packed heavily with sponge padding. Most fakes are unable to replicate the feel and are often stiffer. Additionally, Nike took the time to ensure a nice curvature of the tongue to make an ideal fit. The tongue of most fakes is more rigid, straight, or has minimal curve.
Laces - The extra laces come packaged in two separate thin, clear bags if the shoes are real. The laces are wrapped into an oval shape if it’s real vs. the sphere shape most fakes come packaged as. Spot the difference?
Too Good to Be True Pricing
Some fakes can come pretty close to the indicators mentioned above. The final bit of caution is to use common sense. If you’re buying from a stranger or online marketplace like eBay and the price seems too good to be true - it probably is.
Air Jordans are a high-quality product that has remained in demand for nearly a half-century. As a staple in American pop culture and worldwide fashion, high-end or super rare shoes will not come cheap.
Jordan 1 New Release
We’ve studied the past and the history long enough. By now, I’m sure your interest is piqued. If you’re looking to cop a new pair or a fresh release, here are some recent examples.
- July 16th - Air Jordan 1 High OG ‘Stealth’ - SNKR and Select Retailers
- July 21st - Air Jordan 1 High OG WMNS ‘Starfish’ - SNKR and Select Retailers
- July 29th - Air Jordan 1 Low OG ‘UNC’- SNKR and Select Retailers
- August 13th - Air Jordan 1 High OG ‘Yellow Toe’- SNKR and Select Retailers
- September 17th - Air Jordan 1 High OG ‘Heirloom’ - SNKR and Select Retailers
What’s Your Air Jordan 1?
All that’s left is to find the AJ1 that matches your style. You know the history of the man behind the shoe and the shoe itself. You know why it’s as iconic as it is, where to buy them, when to buy them, and how to spot a fake. We’ll be keeping you up to date with the latest AJ1 drops, news, and more. Check Neustreet often if you’re interested in flipping, reselling, or buying your own pair.