What Makes The Air Jordan 11 Iconic?
September 6, 2019
As the box of the Air Jordan 11 Retro says, “Tinker made them shine, Mike made them fly, You made them iconic.”
In short, that’s the truth about how the Air Jordan 11 became the most legendary sneaker in the world. But if we dig a little deeper, there’s much more to the story of Michael Jordan’s favorite Air Jordan model.
Rumor has it, Michael had asked legendary Nike footwear designer, Tinker Hatfield, to create a sneaker that he could wear on the court and with his expensive Italian suits. Never one to back down from a challenge, especially one from MJ, Tinker set out to tackle the challenge.
The story of the AJ11 really begins on May 7th, 1995. Michael and the Bulls set out to prove that MJ’s first retirement to play baseball wasn’t the end of his success on the basketball court against the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In a surprising move, for game 1 of the series, Michael donned the Air Jordan 11 Concords. Keep in mind, MJ had been playing in the Air Jordan 10 all season up until this point and the Jordan 11 wasn’t set to release until the following spring. It was meant to be the shoe for the 1995-1996 season. But MJ liked them so much, he decided to break them out anyway. Besides, who’s gonna tell Michael Jordan not to wear his own sneakers? The choice would cost Jordan $5,000 per game for violating the league’s dress code.
The Bulls had decided to wear black and red sneakers for the series, so not only was the shiny patent leather and icy translucent sole grabbing everyone’s attention, but MJ was the only player on the team wearing a pair of black and white sneakers. This even captivated the announcers calling the game, as their questioning of the shoes gave the Air Jordan 11 air time on national television.
After Nick Anderson of the Magic stripped the ball from Jordan to seal the Orlando victory in Game 1, he went on to tell reporters, "Number 45 doesn't explode like number 23 used to. Number 45 is not number 23. I couldn't have done that to number 23." The comments got under MJ’s skin enough for him to return to his number 23 jersey for Game 2, again with the Jordan 11 Concords on his feet. Once again, the announcers took note of the Air Jordans and mentioned the fine on national TV. Whether they knew it or not at the time is debatable, but for Jordan fans, and sneakerheads, this was the very beginning of hype.
Chicago would end up losing to the Magic in that series, but the defeat would, in turn, motivate MJ to come back the following season with something to prove. After an off-season that left sneakerheads wondering when they’d see more of the Air Jordan 11, Michael Jordan and the Bulls would go on to a record of 72-10 during the 1995-1996 NBA season. For every game, MJ laced up a pair of the Air Jordan 11, including the All-Star Game in San Antonio, where he laced up the original all-white Columbia Jordan 11, and the 1996 NBA Playoffs, in which he would lead the Bulls to the first championship of their second three-peat while wearing the black and red Air Jordan 11.
Behind The Design
As mentioned, the Air Jordan 11 was designed by Tinker Hatfield. What has become lost in translation throughout the years due to the AJ11’s beautiful aesthetic, is the fact that the Air Jordan 11 was one of the most technologically advanced sneakers ever created.
Tinker was motivated in part to try and prove that he and the team at Nike could still do great design work even if Michael wasn’t playing. With that in mind, he loaded the Air Jordan 11 with technology like the full-length carbon fiber plate that can be seen through the outsole around the midfoot. The plate would help prevent the shoes from over-flexing. The shiny patent leather is visually stunning but as it turns out, the material increased the rigidity of the upper, which helped MJ (and sneakerheads) keep things under control under the most aggressive directional changes.
Above the patent leather, two design elements stand out. The ballistic mesh was one of the strongest materials used on a sneaker at the time. It came from backpacks, which were designed for much more rigorous adventures. Along with the ballistic mesh, the Jordan 11 features the Nike speed-lacing system, which uses nylon webbing loops that allow the laces to move freely from top to bottom, making for a much quicker lacing experience than traditional laces.
In Pop Culture
While the on-court performance started early, and clearly the design performed, the Air Jordan XI commercial was another classic commercial from Nike, except there was something unique about it. The commercial didn’t have any words! Instead, it featured MJ “sky walking” to throw down a dunk on a hoop that seemed to be a mile high.
The Air Jordan 11 was not just the choice for sneakerheads back in the day, but also for other NBA players, celebrities, hip-hop artists, and basically everyone on the planet.
NBA rookie, Kevin Garnett wore multiple colorways of the Air Jordan 11 in his first season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Allen Iverson wore the Air Jordan 11 Concords during his final season at Georgetown.
They were featured in the movie Space Jam, which gave the black pair its nickname. Will Smith wore them on the final episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Boyz II Men wore them to perform at the Grammy Awards. Kriss Kross wore them on the cover of their Young, Rich, & Dangerous album. Busta Rhymes wore them in his Woo-hah!! I Got You All In Check music video. Martin wore them on his show. Damon Wayans wore them on his show.
The Air Jordan 11 was everywhere.
Not to mention, the retro release just five years later during MJ’s second retirement and subsequent return to the NBA, kept the energy going for the Air Jordan 11. Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records was one of the hottest music labels of the time and the group 112 wore the Concords in the video of one of their most popular songs, It’s Over Now when the retro released in 2000. That year players like Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, and countless entertainers started the whole cycle over again.
The list could go on and on, and that in itself is proof that the Air Jordan 11 is one of the most iconic sneakers of all time. It’s also why the Air Jordan 11 was one of the first sneakers that people spent hours lined up at retailers for a chance to purchase it, but that’s a story for another day.