Filled with priceless Egyptian antiques, paintings by some of history’s most important painters, from Claude Monet’s renderings of Europe in oil to Mark Rothko’s earlier work, and all housed in a massive Beaux-Arts landmark, the Brooklyn Museum’s collection stretches from ancient to modern. And now it’s showing off sneakers. The exhibition “The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” which runs though this October, features 150 pairs on display, ranges from the original Converse All Star from 1917 to a pair of gold Pumas; but there’s truly one pair that stands out above all the rest: the black, red, and white Air Jordan 1s from 1985. It might not be the first sneaker, but it’s the pair that spawned a million obsessives.
Air Jordans transcend the “sneakerhead” culture of people that wait in line all night just to cop a new pair of shoes before they go quickly out of stock and end up being resold online for double and triple their original price. Air Jordans were first released 30 years ago to a public that only knew Michael Jordan as the untested guard who hit the game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship game for North Carolina, and who went third after Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie in the 1984 Draft. He wasn’t the greatest player of all-time yet, but he had his own sneaker.
Since that first pair, Air Jordans have blown past the boundaries of sneakers and sportswear. There have been countless designs, a new pair introduced throughout every year of Jordan’s career and beyond. Some of the game’s greatest current players (Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin) all have shoes under the Air Jordan banner, as does a very recognizable cartoon character, and one of the greatest tennis players of his or any other generation also had a pair of shoes with Jordan’s unmistakable logo.
You probably know this, but it’s worth pointing out that in basketball and American sports, Michael Jordan is as close as we get to a living deity besides Muhammad Ali. Serena, Jeter, and even LeBron, who unfairly has to play every game being compared to the No. 23 that came before him, are all great – legends even. But Jordan is above them all, and beyond all the championships and MVPs, the Air Jordan brand is the reason why. The sneakers didn’t necessarily elevate his skill level, but wearing the same shoes as the greatest player on the planet helped the rest of us feel like we had something in common with him, and by extension, his greatness. Nike monetized our awe and adoration for Jordan, itself a revolution by way of fresh annual collections and gear. The Jordan brand became the company’s crown jewel, and the Jumpman logo the Golden Arches of its generation – maybe even a more ubiquitous symbol than the famous Nike Swoosh.
Nowhere is this more on display than right up the road from where Jordan was born in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, at the small Jordan Heads Brooklyn shop that sells new and vintage posters, hats, shirts, and of course, sneakers, all with Jordan or his logo. If the Jumpman is the icon of the Air Jordan religion, the store is one of its many houses of worship. The independent shop is a celebration of the player, but it also perfectly sums up how his brand has emblemized the way athletes market their talents.
On my first trip to Jordan Heads to pick up a shirt and Air Jordan 6 (the pair he wore while winning his first championship, and my own personal favorite) keychain, the small boutique, run by owner Calvan Fowler, was patronized by two Japanese tourists, both of whom made the trip to Brooklyn with the sole purpose of seeing the store. My second trip was more of the same; only this time it was a group of Russian tourists crowding the retail space, led by their friend Sasha, who had been living in America for the last 15 years. Proudly wearing black and gold Air Jordan 1 “Melos” that looked as if they’d just been taken out of the box for the first time that day. Sasha explained that, for people in their early teens when the Soviet Union collapsed, allowing a flood of real and knockoff American brands into their homeland, anything with the Jumpman logo was coveted as much as any luxury good from the west. Although he couldn’t recall what pair the kid had, Sasha mentioned a peer who also wore a Jordan 1992 USA Olympic “Dream Team” jersey along with the sneakers, and was “like a hero” among the other students for his fashion choices and the fact that he could acquire such coveted American items. “The Cold War was officially over to you then,” I joked. “Yes. Because of him,” Sasha said, pointing to a mural of Jordan on the wall. He didn’t sound like he was also joking with me.
Yet it wasn’t always like that. When Jordan hit the court at the start of the 1985 season in the now-iconic Peter Moore-designed 1s, the NBA thought the sneakers were too loud for the basketball court. Long before one of the first “next Jordan” players, Allen Iverson, was drawing the ire of the basketball establishment for his tattoos and cornrows, Jordan was being fined $5000 a game for wearing the red and black sneakers emblazoned with his name. Easy to spot in the sea of white Converse favored by the Magics and Birds of the era, the shoes weren’t a hit with fans either. By the end of the season you could find them on clearance racks and at discount chains. Of course today you’d be lucky to find them on eBay for less than $1000 dollars, but 30 years ago it was a lot to ask consumers to pay $65 for just one pair.
By 1988 things were different. Working with designer Tinker Hatfield, whose background was in architecture, not footwear, Nike replaced the wings logo with the Jumpman, essentially rescuing its partnership with Jordan, who was being courted by Nike’s former head designer for their new company, Van Grack. Can you imagine that world? Michael Jordan wearing Van Gracks, finally beating the Detroit Pistons, finally winning a championship, winning a second Gold Medal, and helping the Looney Tunes defeat the Monstars in Space Jam – it all seems totally plausible, and Jordan would have been successful no matter what he had on his feet. But even thinking about him wearing any other shoe just seems downright unnatural.
Instead, in what today looks like the greatest organic marketing stunt in style history, Jordan took off from the free throw line for a dunk that looked a lot like the silhouette logo and defeated Dominique Wilkins to win the 1988 Slam Dunk contest. His 6-foot-6 frame flying through the air at Chicago Stadium wasn’t the inspiration for the logo, but it legitimized the silhouette on the tongue of the very sneaker Jordan was wearing. Besides everything else the guy could do on the court at both ends, he legitimately looked like he could fly, pulling off moves that left him suspended on nothing but air. He was his own best marketing strategy. The more games he won, the more shots he made, and the more points he racked up, the more shoes he sold. His success led to the continued success of the sneakers on his feet and made Nike’s competitors scramble for players and stunts, maybe the most notable being his Dunk Contest rival Wilkins, picked by Reebok to sell the first Pumps in 1989. But today, Pumps are considered retro, while Reebok and Adidas skirt the same fate as a number of companies (remember L.A. Gear or British Knights?) that tried to take on Nike (with Under Armour signing Stephen Curry, and acting as the latest upstart to try and steal the crown); yet Jordans keep coming, and people line up outside of stores or click refresh repeatedly to cop the latest pair. The sneakers are just as much a part of the greatest player’s legacy as any of his numerous championships or awards, with the most remarkable thing being that over a decade since Jordan last laced up a pair to play an NBA game, the Air Jordan brand remains as popular and iconic as ever.