Michael Jordan grew up wearing Converse kicks like his idol David Thompson. He played at North Carolina in Converse kicks. He played in the Olympics with Converse kicks. But when it was time for the NBA rookie to sign a shoe deal, he wanted to be an Adidas man.
At that time, Adidas was more focused on an international market and didn’t have much interest in basketball players. So he visited Nike and they offered him a Vito Corleone deal most would have thought would be too hard to pass up. Instead of signing right away, Jordan went back to Adidas and said if you can come anywhere close to this deal then I’m yours. They passed and Nike won the lottery that day…although it would take a while for them to realize it.
Part of the Nike deal was Jordan having his own shoe and much like the “Friday The 13th” movies that people thought the Hockey mask-wearing Jason was the killer (it was actually his mom & the mask didn’t appear until the sequel) in the first movie, the original Jordan shoe didn’t have the famous Jumpman logo. For three years, it was actually just the wings, but the hang tag featured a photo of Jordan which would eventually become the logo.
The story behind that Jordan photo is also interesting. The design team in charge of creating the Jordan brand was led by Peter Moore. Peter came across a photo of Jordan in “Life” Magazine showing him wearing his Olympic jumpsuit and soaring towards a rim with a pair of New Balance shoes on his feet. Since they couldn’t use the image, they decided to recreate the moment on a studio set with Jordan wearing his Bulls colors. One of the pictures captured was Jordan doing a ballet move, not a dunk. That graceful picture was not only worth a thousand words but eventually billions of dollars.
When it was time for MJ to step onto an NBA court with his new sneakers, the NBA wasn’t a fan of the look and on October 18, the NBA banned the Air Jordan I from being worn because the sneaker’s color was too vibrant for shoe regulations. Jordan being Jordan, even as a young Jordan, still wore the Air Jordan I’s and was fined $5,000 a game for his actions.
The sneakers weren’t so popular with consumers either. The original Jordans were a hard sell at $65 and ended up on clearance racks for as low as $20 (if only time machines existed).
For the next few years, with the exception of his 2nd year when he was injured, Jordan amazed NBA fans as the most explosive offensive player in the league, while Nike continued to try to improve his shoes, which still were not selling.
Then in 1988, MJ’s contract with Nike was about to end and Rob Strasser, Nike’s VP, was in a power struggle with Nike CEO Phil Knight. Rob and Peter Moore, Nike’s head designer, were secretly hatching a plan to lure Jordan away from Nike to their new sneaker company called Van Grack. So Like Brian Dunkleman from the 1st season of American Idol, Peter would end up leaving the soon to be culture changer and Tinker Hatfield came in to not only fill Peter’s big shoes but to create the AJ3 shoes and make sure it was impressive enough to help keep Jordan at Nike.
Within weeks, Tinker and Ron Dumas designed the AJ3. It’s now considered one of the most celebrated shoes in history with it’s luxurious tumbled leather wrapped in elephant print with the big red Jumpman logo on the tongue. It impressed everybody and more importantly, it impressed Jordan. Tinker killed three giant birds at once: he helped Nike keep Jordan; he created one of the most famous shoes of all-time; he created a logo that’s more recognizable than the logo of the sport MJ plays in.
You would think anything else added to this story would just be gravy but Nike was on a roll. Their marketing team came up with one of the most brilliant ad campaigns ever, featuring up-and-coming film director Spike Lee’s character from “She’s Gotta Have It” – Mars Blackmon – and featured the memorable line: “Is it the Shoes?”
24 years and billions of dollars later the answer to that question is “It’s the logo!”
Sources: 1987 Hoop Magazine, Wikipedia, DonIsDope