Given the interconnectedness of capital and fame, today’s athletes are part celebrities and part business brands. Athletes are eminently marketable, promising huge returns to businesses that make timely investments. Lebron James, for instance, signed a $90 million shoe deal with Nike before he played his first game as a professional. Nike was trying to get to Lebron early and capitalize off of his potential. The company’s plan worked, and today it reaps the benefits of James’ mammoth celebrity. Indeed, endorsement deals have become ubiquitous in the world of professional sports, and, as a result, professional athletes have a greater impact on culture at-large.
Nowhere is this latter point more manifest, as the LBJ example suggests, than in the joint worlds of professional basketball and the business that surrounds it. The shoe deal has become a kind of rite of passage for any fledgling star in the NBA. A Nike or Adidas deal validates a player’s skill. If a star is good enough to have his own shoe—that is, have it designed for him and marketed under his name—a brand is created. Under the right conditions, these branded shoes can flourish in other markets than basketball and move into disparate circles of fashion. Conversely, different subgroups of a given society might find purchase in appropriating branded shoes, combining these shoes with their own unique tastes and creating a wholly original fashion trend that, as with all things marketable, eventually makes its way into the mainstream. Consider, for example, Converse’s classic Chuck Taylors: what started out as a basketball shoe now carries a far greater cultural significance, as it has made its way from the basketball court through punk and grunge circles, and now everyone wants a pair. The success of the branded basketball shoe, then, is both contingent upon the athlete’s success and simultaneously independent of it, capable of being appropriated by sundry groups of people.
In its various styles and manifestations, the Air Jordan is such a shoe. When, in 1984, Nike created a unique shoe for Michael Jordan—the classic Air Jordan 1—the company knew it was investing its money in one of the most marketable athletes in the world. However, Nike could not have known then that they created, arguably, the most recognizable and lasting brand in contemporary sports. When the company made the shoe available to the public a year later, it transcended basketball and became a part of the fashion world. The company continued to redesign the shoe over the years, and still releases a new pair of Jordans each year, though MJ has been retired for over a decade. And though NBA players still wear their favourite Jordans in game—a testament to the brand’s lasting success as a basketball shoe—the public has embraced Jordan Brand shoes as timeless pieces of fashion like a watch or tie. Given that interminable lines still form outside shoe retailers when Nike re-releases old Jordans, the brand will not go away any time soon.
This list looks at the top 10 most awesome Air Jordans. Like any list of this nature, it will certainly engender scrutiny (hopefully not utter abhorrence) from Jordan Brand’s zealous fans. Everyone has their favourite pair of Jordans, whether it’s that first pair one gets as a present or that pair with the dope colour-way that looks banging with a favourite pair of jeans. Don’t like the rankings? Let us know your list in the comments section.
10 Jordan 1
This list starts with the inaugural Jordans, the Jordan 1s. When Michael Jordan first began wearing these shoes in the eighties, David Stern banned them because the colour-way was red and black and had no white (pause?). Jordan persisted, and the league fined him every game he laced up his red and blacks. Since Jordan wore these on court, the shoe has become massively popular and today has the most colour-ways of any Jordan. Resembling Nike Dunks, the Jordan 1s actually do not provide much support for basketball players, despite the high ankles. These shoes are much better worn out and about and paired with a clean pair of jeans. They also come in a two-pair package consisting of the original red and black Bulls colour-way and a green and white Celtics colour-way.
9 Jordan 6
The Jordan 6 is a special shoe for a couple of reasons. Jordan won his first championship in 1991 while wearing Jordan 6s. The 1991 championship was important for Jordan in that he showcased his skills against Magic Johnson and the Lakers. The shoe also appeared in the classic basketball film White Men Can’t Jump, which stars Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes. Though the “Nike Air” logo has since returned on re-released Jordans, the Jordan 6 was his Airness’ last on-court shoe to feature the logo. The Jordan 6 continues to be popular amongst Jordan collectors and it comes in a variety of colour-ways ranging from "Oreo" (black and white) to "Infrared" (black and red).
8 Jordan 8
Though the Jordan 8 is a bulkier and thus heavier shoe than its predecessors, the shoe also gives wearers a good deal of foot and ankle support. Thus, the Jordan 8 can still be used for its original purpose, though it’s prohibitively heavy. Back in his early, high-flying days, Kobe Bryant wore a pair with the Lakers colour-way, and every now and then NBA players decide to lace up a pair. A pair of Jordan 8s still looks great with most outfits, and the aforementioned support makes this shoe appealing to anyone having to wear it for long periods of time. The “Playoff” and “Bugs Bunny” colour-ways are the most coveted, but the “Aqua” 8s are fresh to death.
7 Jordan 5
Although the Jordan 5 is a bulky shoe, and Jordan did not win a championship while wearing a pair, the shoe wins points in the swag department. As with most single-digit Jordans, the Jordan 5 has been re-released in a host of colour-ways, ranging from clean and demure to loud and flamboyant. A popular “Defining Moments Pack” of this shoe, which features the “Raging Bull” and “Metallic” colour-ways, was released several years ago, but the “Grape” 5 is this author’s favourite colour-way. 2013 was the year of the Jordan 5, so fiendish sneaker heads might be able to find their favourite colour-way, if they’re willing to shell out a bit extra to get them.
6 Jordan 7
The Jordan 7 is a classic basketball shoe, as MJ wore a pair throughout the 1992 Olympics, when he and the Dream Team showcased their superior skills in front of an international audience. MJ also appeared alongside his pal, Bugs Bunny, in a marketing campaign for this shoe—a match that, as we all know now, planted the seed of a fruitful and lucrative partnership. Lighter than its successor, the Jordan 7 will not fare too well if used to play basketball, but its various colour-ways and sole designs have engendered a good deal of fanfare. The Raptors colour-way of this shoe, also known as “Charcoal,” is one of the most sought after pairs of Jordans—period.
5 Jordan 12
The Jordan 12 remains popular today because of its combination of style and usability as a basketball shoe. Memorably, Jordan wore this shoe during his now-legendary performance against the Utah Jazz, when he lit the team up in the Finals despite suffering from flu-like symptoms. The “Flu Game” will be remembered for some time, but there was nothing sickly about the shoes Jordan wore that night. As intimated above, the Jordan 12 is a remarkably durable shoe that NBA stars and amateurs alike continue to play in today. The Japanese flag and women’s 19th-century dress shoes apparently inspired the look of the Jordan 12—a seemingly ill-conceived fusion, but it worked!
4 Jordan 3
The Jordan 3 exemplifies the bifurcated way in which an athlete both generates fanfare for a shoe and has nothing to do with its popularity. MJ’s most iconic image is, perhaps, his dunk from the free-throw line in the 1988 Dunk Competition, in which he wore a pair of 3s. As long as basketball is played, this image will last, and, by extension, so will the shoes. Jordan also teamed up with Spike Lee to make the “Mars Blackmon” ad for these shoes, a memorable and endearing advertisement. Spike Lee, though, may have played a bigger role in marketing these shoes than Jordan, as he put them in his beloved film, She’s Gotta Have It. Today, the Jordan 3 remains popular among athletes, celebrities, and sneaker heads.
3 Jordan 13
Released in the late nineties, the Jordan 13 is a classy shoe that offers good support as a basketball shoe and flashiness as a piece of fashion. NBA stars continue to wear this shoe in game, and Ray Allen broke the NBA record for 3-pointers in a career while wearing these shoes. Spike Lee, however, put this shoe on the map, when he put it in his film, He Got Game. The first thing Denzel Washington’s character does when he gets out of prison is cop himself a pair of 13s. His character dramatizes that satisfying affect of buying the latest pair of Jordans. The colour-way that Washington’s character wears in the film is now affectionately known as the “He Got Game” 13s. The film undoubtedly amplified the shoe’s cultural capital.
2 Jordan 4
The Jordan 4 is one of the freshest shoes to wear—period. MJ, of course, dominated while wearing 4s, and he wore them when he hit his famous shot over Craig Ehlo in the 1989 playoffs. MJ's celebration, though, is the most memorable part of his performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers that night, as he demonstratively celebrated his game-winning shot, leaping and fist pumping the air. But, as is his wont, Spike Lee immortalized this shoe in his film, Do the Right Thing. In the film, a cyclist offends the obstinate and effusive Buggin’ Out when he scuffs his Jordan 4s. One of the film’s last funny moments before its torrid climax ensues when Buggin’ Out restrains himself from seeking retribution. Scenes like this one propagate the popularity of a shoe in that it introduces the shoe to an audience that might be otherwise indifferent.
1 Jordan 11
Two words: patent leather. Indeed, the Jordan 11 is one of the prettiest shoes; it screams money. Like the Clarks Desert Boot and the Sperry Boat Shoe, the Jordan 11 is one of those eternally fashionable shoes. Twenty-first century editions of Jay Gatsby have probably copped a few pairs just for their image’s sake. Although it officially released when MJ was busy playing baseball, he would later wear the Jordan 11 to close out his career as a Chicago Bull. He also wore Jordan 11s in Space Jam, which undoubtedly increased the shoe’s popularity. Today there are many different colour-ways for this shoe, but this author’s favourite pair is the “Bred” 11s, a classic colour-way that features the Chicago Bulls’ colours.
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