The shoes behind the biggest lie in Jordan brand history.
The shoes behind the biggest lie in Jordan brand history.

The Lie Behind Michael Jordan's Shoe Empire

Nathan Baugh
Articles

The Jordan brand does $4.7 billion in revenue per year. But did you know the sneaker empire was built on a lie? Here's the crazy story.

In the 1984 NBA Draft, Michael Jordan was the #3 selection to the Chicago Bulls. He had just won National Player of the Year in his final year at the University of North Carolina. Puma, Converse — all the big sneaker companies wanted him.

Jordan won National Player of the Year at UNC.
Jordan won National Player of the Year at UNC.

After the draft, Jordan wanted to sign with Adidas. He loved the 3 stripes and how influential they were in culture. But Adidas wasn't looking at MJ. It came down to 2 choices — Nike or Converse.

Converse was the big brand. Converse had Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Isiah Thomas on their roster. Nike didn’t yet have a basketball superstar and was determined to change that.

Many of the top players of the time were signed to Converse.
Many of the top players of the time were signed to Converse.

But Jordan didn't want to take the meeting with Nike. His agent David Falk tried his best to convince MJ but his mind was set: No Nike. Legend has it, his mom made him go.

Nike blew Jordan away. They created an entire line centered around MJ. His own sneaker. His own brand — Air Jordan. They also offered $500,000 per year at a time when the richest sneaker deal was $150,000 per year. So MJ signed his first shoe deal with Nike.

They went to work on MJ's first signature shoe. It would be called the Air Jordan 1. They used the Bulls colors of black and red plus inspiration from previous Nike models such as the Air Force One.

The first Air Jordans drew inspiration from the Bulls colors.
The first Air Jordans drew inspiration from the Bulls colors.

Shortly into Jordan’s rookie year, Nike received a letter. It read: “The NBA’s rules prohibit the wearing of red and black Nike basketball shoes worn by MJ on Oct 18.” This could've killed the entire launch. But Nike is one of the best marketing companies on the planet.

The NBA banned the Air Jordan 1s - or so they thought.
The NBA banned the Air Jordan 1s - or so they thought.

With the shoe effectively banned, Nike took the letter to its marketing department. On a $30,000 budget, they produced this ad.

Sales for the shoe took off. Nike estimated the Air Jordan 1 would bring in $3 million in the first 3 years. It did $126 million in Year 1. The Air Jordan 1 has gone on to become the best selling basketball shoe of all-time.

But there's one more twist to this story. Jordan didn't wear the Air Jordan 1 on Oct 18 as the letter stated. Because production was still ramping up on the AJ1, Jordan was actually wearing a shoe called the Air Ship. Here's a look at the Air Ships.

A look at the Nike Air Ship shoes.
A look at the Nike Air Ship shoes.

Meaning the Air Jordan 1s were never actually banned. But Nike didn't let facts get in the way of a good story.

TL;DR...

  • Jordan signed with Nike in 1984
  • He was tasked with turning Nike into a global shoe player
  • Before his 1st shoe had even launched, the NBA "banned" them
  • Nike used the controversy brilliantly to drive consumer interest