Rating it strictly terms of design, it’s probably the single most overrated sneaker of all time. It’s legacy is what defines it and makes it what many would consider the greatest shoe of all time. From a design standpoint it’s little more than a very typical mid 1980s basketball shoe. Had the Air Ship or Nike Terminator been designated as Jordans signature model and featured the wings logo; there’s no doubt that THAT would be the design being discussed in this thread and what we recognize today as the AJ1 were a near forgotten footnote in sneaker history.
Most people aren’t going to want to hear this; as the 1 is viewed as sacred by most people and revisionist history has made the legend larger than the reality. The Jordan 1 started life as a pretty run on the mill mid 80s Nike. This is the exact reason Michael Jordan didn’t like the 1.
Everyone knows the story of how Jordan wanted to sign with Converse. In a last ditch effort to get him over to Nike, they offered him his own signature shoe. As a rookie this was pretty unheard of. It’s not exactly like they had a lot of time on their hands to design a shoe from scratch. So what do you do? Simple: You pull another shoe that you’ve already designed off the back burner and throw a lazy logo with a winged basketball on it.
As I’m sure most people know, Jordan can be a bit of an egomaniac. Sharing a signature model with anyone wouldn’t be good enough. He wanted HIS own model, with HIS name on it. The absolute earliest samples I’m aware of are the “Big John” samples from 1984. Some sites have claimed these to be “Jordan 1 Prototypes” but they’re quite obviously just a hand painted pair of what became the Air Ship. Now these may very well have been painted by Nike to moc-up what his shoe would look like, but Nike already had the Air Jordan under a different name.
What we now know as the Air Jordan, started life as the Air Hoya. Nike had a very good relationship with Georgetown U and had recently developed this sneaker. When they signed Jordan, they swapped the “HOYAS” logo for a basketball with wings and gave them Bulls themed colorways. There’s your Jordan, Mr. Jordan.
Fast forward: The Hoyas won the Big East in Nike Terminators. Jordan went on to wear the Air Ship in his earliest games, as did many other NBA players. But he eventually got his signature model and didn’t have to share it with anyone…. Even if it did bear a striking resemblance to every other Nike basketball shoe that year.
Earliest 1s didn’t feature Jordans name on the banner in the wings logo, just “NIKE”. Jordan didn’t like this. They changed it before mass production. Again, the guy is known to be a bit of an egomaniac… He wasn’t satisfied with what was effectively Georgetowns leftovers. Hence the massive departure from the design language of 1 compared to the 2 and all models that followed.
There are quite a few misconceptions about the 1s history and initial reception as well. I blame Scoop Jackson for spreading the notion that the AJ1 was the first sneaker to cost $100.00. The Jordan 1 did not cost $100.00 in 1985. It retailed at $65.00. Not cheap, but pretty standard fare for a decent basketball shoe at the time. The AJ1 did not fly off shelves. AJ1s could still be found on sale years after their release (a contributing factor that made them so popular with skateboarders through the late 80s). They sold well enough, but they were by no means the “gotta have it” shoe they are now. Adidas absolutely dominated the street and Nikes in general were seen as somewhat bland 2nd tier shoes. Adidas Rivalry, Adidas Forums, Adidas Micropacers, Converse Weapons.. Those were the “Hyped” neckbreaking “grails” of 1985/6… Jordans were “Nice shoes man”, but nothing more.
The Jordan 2 was a massive departure from the style of the 1; largely due to extensive consultations with Michael Jordan. From the embossed exotic leather, to the one-off winged box to the fact they were made in Italy…I always felt there was more to the story of the 2 than we’ve heard. Almost like Nike was overcompensating to maintain Jordans contract considering how much he disliked the 1s. The 2 was the shoe he always wanted, the 1 was the shoe he got.
I could go on for hours addressing each model. The 3 marked the time when the line really exploded into something larger than itself, much attributed to MJs iconic performance at the 88 Dunk Contest… But the point to be made here is that the shoes are nothing without the man in them. It’s those iconic moments, year after year. It’s 6 rings, 5 MVPs, 14 All-Star games, 10 scoring titles… It’s the lineage of shoes that followed. Is the anything about the design of the Jordan 1 all that outstanding in itself? No. Is it still the greatest shoe of all time in regard to what it started? I’d say that’s a fair assessment.