From The Archives: What does the “KO” stand for?
Editor’s note: Nike has announced the return of the Air Jordan 1 KO, a rarely seen model that arrived in 1985 with a lifestyle-oriented focus. It’s the first time the silhouette has been released since 2016.
While Finish Line won’t be carrying the Air Jordan 1 KO this time around, we dug into the archives for this explainer by Russ Bengtson on the shoe’s quirky history.
I’m pretty sure the first time I saw—maybe the first time I even heard of—the Air Jordan KO was in a Japanese magazine called Boon!, in a volume that purported to cover all of Air Jordan history.
This was around 1997 or 1998, when there was far less history to cover, but when there were still many mysteries to be uncovered. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, answers weren’t a Google search away. A mailer from Japan though, that helped.
It didn’t solve everything. What did KO stand for? Was it “Knockoff?” (This never really made much sense if it was an authorized Nike product.) Or, more likely, given that it was a canvas shoe, “Knockout?” How many colorways did they make? Where was it available? Why did they make it at all?
In 1985 Air Jordan was a new business, one that represented a huge leap of faith for Nike, and the best way to ensure its success was to try lots and lots of things….
Nike issued the Air Jordan 1 in a tremendous number of colorways—one that was vastly scaled back with the Air Jordan II and wouldn’t be matched again for decades — produced a whole mess of apparel hookups, and marketed the shoe heavily for months before it dropped.
And if the $65 price point was troublesome to people, why not release a cheaper canvas version? Get that new ball-and-wings logo on as many feet as possible.
This all made sense. Yet one would think—given the original Air Jordan’s popularity—the AJKO would have been everywhere too. This wasn’t the case. I was 14 in 1985, and I don’t recall seeing a single pair, not on feet, not on a sporting goods store shelf. This was in suburban Long Island, which wasn’t exactly a sneaker wasteland either.
And while knockoffs and takedowns weren’t going to make you the king of your homeroom, something like the AJKO would have still been preferable to whatever white/red/black almost-Jordan your mom could find at Fayva. Where were they then?
It’s this ongoing sense of mystery, along with the unique canvas upper, that still make the AJKO desirable, ever since it retroed for the first time in 2010. And many of the mysteries will likely never be solved.
Most of the people who could have answered questions about the AJKO’s origins are either gone from Nike or have forgotten the stories themselves (or both). Records are sparse, or buried so deep in the archives that it will take the sneaker equivalent of Indiana Jones to dig them up. At this point we can only take the shoe on its own merits.
It’s got plenty. The all-canvas upper is more summer-friendly than the regular Air Jordan 1, the thick sole (which it shares with the Nike Vandal) is more comfortable.
Possibilities still abound for further versions as well. One could easily imagine a skate update, a collaborative effort, maybe even a low-cut. The black/red makeup is a no-brainer, but what about an all white, an all red (er, on second thought maybe not) or a Fragment Design, um, knockoff? Flyweave and Flyknit make sense, too.
But even it its most basic form, it’s deserving of a place in your collection—and, more importantly, on your feet.
Russ Bengtson is former SLAM Magazine editor-in-chief and Complex Sneakers editor. He’s given away more pairs of kicks than any of us will ever have.