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Feature Wed Aug 13 2008
It's not a stretch to say that Nike probably owes their corporate life to Michael Jordan. True, the Oregon-based company was around long before Jordan was JORDAN. But they didn't become the No. 1 selling brand of athletic shoe in the world thanks to the silhouette of Steve Prefontaine or Bo Jackson on the side of their footwear.
And while there have been other athletic shoes named after famous ballplayers, did anyone really buy Converse All-Stars because Chuck Taylor endorsed them? Heck, wearing a pair of Joe Lapchick's was considered a good excuse for a beat down in my neighborhood. He might have been a great player in his day, but as a shoe pitchman he lacked the cachet of the kid from North Carolina.
Even though MJ left the court for good in 2003, his departure hasn't affected the popularity of the shoes, which continue to be produced and sold in as many variations as possible. How enduring in the Cult of Air Jordan? Consider that a movie is currently being filmed, not about Jordan the Man, but Jordan the Shoe.
Yes, an entire movie about the history of Air Jordans and their continuing legacy. Entitled "Jordan Heads: A Documentary About Air Jordans and the People Who Love Them", the film is product by actor Michael Rapaport (who also narrates) and centers on the fans and collectors of the shoe that "started the shoe collecting craze."
Director Calvan Fowler (who previously worked with Spike Lee, aka Mars Blackmon) likens Jordan collectors to Trekkies and has compiled enough stories of obsessed Air Jordan fans that even Trekkies might consider them over the top. One woman in Virginia, he says, has even named each and every pair of Air Jordans she owns. While he doesn't mention it, one would assume he will include a segment on the dark side of owning Air Jordans such as having them taken from you at gunpoint on the street, which still occurs.
Prior to Nike's ascendance, adidas ruled when their suede line made them the urban shoe of choice for on and off the court and pretty much killed regular old "gym shoes" forever. And it didn't hurt that, later, Run DMC extolled their virtues in rap.
Nike made a bid for sport shoe supremacy during that time too, but somehow, shoes endorsed by Romanian tennis star Ilie Nastase (their first celebrity spokesman) didn't catch inner city kids by storm.
Enter Jordan, who'd already put himself on the sports map with "The Shot" while at North Carolina. When Nike signed him in 1984, his rookie year with the Bulls, it hoisted them to the top of the market, catching adidas, Puma, Reebok and all the others off-guard. No other ballplayer had his own signature line of shoes, a design so radical that the NBA originally banned it for its unconventional color scheme. His ubiquitous "jumpman" logo (the flying Jordan symbol) was plastered on everything from shoes to shirts to shorts to arms (yeah, a few people actually had the imaged tattooed on their bodies).
Their promotional approach, unique in the world of sports at that time, was as much about creating an image as it was promoting an athlete or selling a shoe. And people ate it up, from high-school basketball wannabes sticking out their tongue on each drive to the basket like their hero (and risking a permanent speech impediment) to guys for whom stepping onto a basketball court would be inviting a heart attack. You didn't have to play ball to wear Air Jordans. In fact, it was probably better that you didn't. The only thing worse than not wearing Jordans was wearing scuffed-up Air Jordans.
For the Air Jordan fanatics here in Chicago, you'll get the chance to show your shoe love when the crew comes to the city on August 23 (23... get it?). They're hoping to film a shot of as many Air Jordan fans as possible hoisting their prized possession in the air in front of (where else?) the Michael Jordan statue at the United Center and in the process set a world record (if such a record for the most Air Jordan fans in one place even exists). At the very least, show up and you'll at least get to talk shop with other "Air" heads. Just do it.