The holy grail of basketball shoes   

Updated: January 25, 2008, 3:00 PM ET

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It's not every day that a shoe demands its own cultural history. But of course, not every shoe is an Air Jordan.

Michael Jordan

AP Photo

Here's MJ with the new Air Jordan XX3, coming soon to a store near you.

The release of the new Air Jordan XX3, amid speculation that this may be the final edition of this most vaunted pair of kicks, brings us full circle from Nov. 17, 1984, when Michael Jordan debuted the shoes in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers and Dr. J, the game's reigning icon at the time and the player MJ would most often be compared to in his early NBA years.

Jordan ruffled the feathers of some NBA veterans when he stepped on the floor at the 1985 All-Star Game in Indianapolis wearing his own Air Jordan gear from head to toe, instead of the officially issued All-Star Game apparel that everyone else was wearing. He also turned the heads of many young NBA fans, who by now were dying to replicate his high-flying style off the court. The Air Jordan 1 was released for sale to the public not long after.

In the ensuing 23 years, Jordan went from spectacular rookie to cultural icon, eventually arriving at his final destination: American legend, where he and his famous shoes now stand. The number "23" is synonymous with Jordan himself, and considering that the Air Jordans have always been numbered -- like a limited-edition lithograph -- what better time than the present to end one of the longest-running love affairs our culture has ever seen?

Air Jordans would come to represent unquestioned excellence, the neverending pursuit of greatness, and the height of style -- all at the same time. The ubiquitous Jumpman logo, which debuted on the Air Jordan III in 1987, underscored that old adage about an image being worth a thousand words. No disrespect to Jerry West, but for many people, the Jumpman is the image that best represents the NBA.

Jordan -- along with two other groundbreaking figures who emerged in the '80s, Oprah Winfrey and Madonna -- became a living, breathing symbol of his own name brand. For years, MJ made more money from his Air Jordans and other endorsements than he did from the Chicago Bulls. So clearly it was the promotion of his brand that was paramount. The actual basketball games were simply the stage where he was able to advertise all his products. The individual-as-brand-name concept continues to resonate in our culture today thanks to Jordan's success, with Tiger Woods being perhaps the most obvious example.

Air Jordans came to be marketed like Hollywood films. In the mid to late '70s, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas redefined the cinema game with the release of their films "Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977). These films ushered in the era of the blockbuster, a phenomena that had people camping out days ahead of time just to be the first ones into theaters. Eventually people would begin discussing the release date for the new Jordans and camping out in front of sneaker spots in the same way. The debut of a basketball shoe became a cultural event, a happening unto itself.

Yes, Air Jordans were so coveted for a time that people were killing to get them, literally.

Part of their original appeal had to do with the cultural climate in which they were first released. The Air Jordans were originally banned by the NBA because they defied the color scheme that the league had in place regarding player's sneakers. In a move of foresight and unquestioned genius, Nike paid the fines levied against Jordan for wearing the shoes, while Jordan continued to wear them in spite of the ban. In the process, the shoes became notorious, and Jordan became a legend.

The embrace of these shoes by a young urban audience demonstrated a desire among many to break away from the generational expectations of their elders. Though an older African-American celebrity, Bill Cosby, was dominating the television ratings at the time, Jordan -- along with his '84 draft classmate, the edgier Charles Barkley -- were more in line with Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC than Cosby. Both Jordan and Barkley represented the younger, urban energy of the burgeoning hip-hop movement, which was starting to make some noise on a national level around the same time.

Michael Jordan

AP Photo/Anat Givon

MJ's Air Jordans are the most famous basketball shoes ever.

When Jordan teamed up with the young maverick filmmaker Spike Lee and his alter ego, Mars Blackmon, for a series of memorable commercials promoting Air Jordans, Jordan began establishing himself even further as the face of a new generation. As Blackmon was fond of saying, "It's gotta be the shoes." The centrality of the Air Jordans to the culture was prominently underscored in a famous scene from Lee's celebrated film "Do the Right Thing" (1989), when a character wearing a Larry Bird jersey committed the ultimate crime and stepped on Buggin' Out's spotless white Air Jordan IVs. Jordan and his shoes were at the center of a cultural debate in American society that had now clearly transcended the game of basketball.

Jordan's incredible mainstream success, across color lines, aided the emergence of a generation of young black men like Chris Rock, Will Smith, Ice Cube, Snoop, Puff and Jay-Z, among others, who would go on to break down many of the social and cultural barriers that had been denied to so many people before them. Jordan's immense popularity, and that of his cherished shoes, circulated from the suburbs to the 'hood and beyond.

I am convinced that Jordan's ability to break down these previously impenetrable social barriers, beginning in the '80s, helped pave the way for the widespread receptivity that Barack Obama enjoys today.

The Air Jordans were also quite revolutionary in terms of fashion. Far from being just another pair of functional shoes to play basketball in, Air Jordans were often on the cutting edge of style as well. Jordan would work in consultation with the designers, which meant that various influences from his personal life -- his cars for instance -- might provide inspiration for the shoe.

There is no better example of the shoes making a fashion statement than the Air Jordan XIs; those, by the way, are my personal favorites. For this edition, celebrated designer Tinker Hatfield used black patent leather, which gave the shoe a formal look, set against white nylon, the type of material normally used in mountain climber's backpacks. The black and white contrast made these sneakers look like "spectators," the classic two-tone wing tips that have long been seen on the feet of the most sartorially sophisticated cats. It was not uncommon to see guys wearing their XIs with suits and tuxedos in the '90s.

Considering the many different roles that Air Jordans have assumed over time, to refer to these sneakers as simply basketball shoes is to make an enormous understatement. It is a shoe in the most limited sense. Indeed, a more appropriate description would be to call them a cultural touchstone, a repository of history, and an arbiter of style. Air Jordans represent a lifestyle; check out in Sole magazine, the documentary "Just for Kicks" (2005), and the hip Web site hypebeast.com for examples of how this lifestyle played out. This lifestyle informs the contemporary urban sneaker culture that connects hip-hoppers, skateboarders, sneaker fashionista and others across the globe in their quest and appreciation for rare, retro, high-end, individualized kicks -- of which the highly coveted Js are the gold standard.

If it turns out that the Air Jordan XX3 is the end of the line, it's not as though the shoes have existed in vain. All good things come to an end, and maybe now is as good a time as any to go out on top. Honestly, it hasn't been the same since Jordan retired, because part of the shoe's appeal was always linked to being able to see MJ rep them on the court.

But let's not mourn the Air Jordans. They lived a good life, changed the culture, and put a smile on many a face during the past 23 years.

Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator, and The Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at USC. The paperback edition of his "hip hop history" of the NBA, "Young, Black, Rich and Famous," will be available in March 2008.


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