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Rarefied Air: How Nike took Michael Jordan from college hooper to sneaker deity

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November 17, 1984 marks the 36th anniversary of the on-court debut of a basketball shoe that changed the game: the Nike Air Jordan 1.

Bulls rookie Michael Jordan laced up his signature model, in what we know now as the “Chicago” colorway, for his team’s match-up with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Sneaker writer Mike Taddow takes a trip back in time to the mid-1980s, where seemingly the fate of one of the biggest athletic companies on the planet hung in the balance.

At the time, the running shoe market was slowing down, so if Nike was to remain viable the brand knew it had to step up its foray into the world of basketball sneakers, and 1984 was about to become the year where freedom of expression would be tested. Victory here would mean a gateway to a timeless, iconic brand. Failure simply wasn’t an option. 

The Swoosh zeroed in on a kid out of North Carolina, an unknown entity that founder Phil Knight barely knew about — a bold move, really. Michael Jordan had made a name for himself at the University of North Carolina when he made the game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA championship game against Georgetown. 

In the summer of 1984, Nike executives met with the Chicago Bulls’ first-round pick. Famously, this was the meeting Jordan didn’t want to have. His reasoning was that Converse, his college footwear brand, was too busy with established NBA players, and adidas, the brand he wore in high school, acted like it didn’t want any part of him. Legend has it that Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mom, gave him that mom brand of tough love and forced 

him to get on the plane to meet Nike. As that plane soared to Beaverton, OR during the summer of 1984, it flew into the history books. 

Jordan, albeit begrudgingly, ended up signing a deal with Nike. And not just any run-of-the-mill deal. The reported $500,000, five-year deal also included royalties for every pair of Air Jordans sold. Nike was making a statement — Michael Jordan was its ticket to the top of the basketball sneakers marketplace. 

Read Mike Taddow’s full piece, FREEDOM TO EXPRESS: THE ARRIVAL OF AIR JORDAN, on the JD Style blog.