Did you know that the US sneaker industry generated $70 billion in sales during 2020? To be an American is to be a sneaker freak.

Athletic shoes are now an indelible part of US fashion culture, but this wasn’t always the case. The launch of the Nike Air Jordan was a flashpoint for the American sneaker industry, and we’re still feeling its impact today.

Do you want to learn more about the history of the Nike Air Jordan and how they became the best shoes on the market? Read on to learn all about an important part of shoe history.

It All Starts With Sonny

If you watched the heralded ESPN documentary Last Dance, you missed him. Nobody, not the filmmakers, other Nike executives, or Michael Jordan, mentioned Sonny Vaccaro. Leaving Sonny out of the Michael Jordan and Air Jordan story is a glaring omission.

Some in the know blame old grudges within Nike leadership. Others talk about a rift between Vaccaro and Jordan. If you buy shoes and sneakers, you do so under a paradigm invented by Vaccaro.

Amateur Basketball

Before the conception of the Air Jordan, Nike’s main interest was running and cross-training. Vaccaro, a Trafford, PA native, was a high school teacher and prominent figure in the amateur basketball world. Vaccaro ran Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh and fostered relationships with the NCAA’s premier basketball coaches.

In 1977, Vaccaro approached Nike with a sneaker concept. Though Nike rejected his idea, they hired Sonny because of his connections to college coaches like John Wooden. Vaccaro would market Nike shoes to college coaches by offering them money to mandate their players wear the shoes.

It was a marketing boon. While some coaches weren’t sure of the legality, having that famous logo on the feet of the preeminent college basketball stars boosted Nike’s brand awareness.

A Gamble on Jordan

Before 1984, athlete-endorsed shoes were rare. Shoes endorsed by NBA rookies were non-existent. Julius Erving’s Converse Pro Leather dominated the 70s basketball world, but those were an exception.

Vaccaro’s work for Nike in NCAA basketball led him to a rising star at North Carolina, Michael Jordan. Though Jordan’s Tar Heels failed to make the Final Four his final two seasons and the Chicago Bulls selected Jordan third overall in the 1984 NBA Draft, Vaccaro believed in Jordan’s marketability. 

Sonny Vaccaro convinced the Nike executives to gamble on basketball and gamble on Jordan. After a considerable amount of arm-twisting, Vaccaro and Nike signed Michael Jordan to an exclusive contract. Basketball and the sneaker business would change forever.

Spike and Mike

By the late 1980s, Michael Jordan began establishing himself as one of the NBA’s premier talents. As a national audience tuned into his almost supernatural play, the Air Jordan line grew in popularity. It was here that the Air Jordan line crossed over from basketball shoe to cultural phenomenon. 

The 1988 launch of the Air Jordan 3 featured the ‘Spike and Mike’ ad campaign with Michael and film director Spike Lee. These ads made Jordan an international superstar. They also presented the Air Jordan as a fashion statement.

Do the Right Thing

The Jordan and Lee collaboration wasn’t only a few commercials. Lee embraced the significance of shoe culture and new shoes in his films, but the Air Jordans stood out in his 1989 landmark film, Do the Right Thing.

A key plot point in this film exploring the racial tensions of late-80s Brooklyn is a stranger stepping on the shoes of Buggin’ Out, one of the main protagonists. They just so happened to be a brand new pair of white Air Jordan 4s. Some shoe enthusiasts still say that these are the best Jordans.

International Superstardom and Branding

The early 1990s saw Jordan’s Bulls become the next great NBA dynasty. In 1992, Michael won regular-season MVP and NBA Finals MVP. 1992 was also the year of the Barcelona Summer Olympics and the USA Men’s Basketball “Dream Team.”

The Dream Team catapulted Michael into an international superstar. The Air Jordan 7s he wore during this period also took their place as one of the most famous of the line.

Branding Differences

Every Air Jordan shoe until the Air Jordan 7 featured the now-famous Nike logo. You could argue that Michael and the Air Jordan helped make that “swoosh” one of the most famous corporate logos in the world.

The Air Jordan 7 stepped outside the typical Nike design for a branding much more “Michael-centric.” The shoe featured no Nike logo branding. Replacing the Nike logo was the new silhouette logo depicting Jordan in full-flight, basketball in hand.

The silhouette logo became synonymous with the Air Jordan line and would soon rank as one of the most recognizable emblems in the universe!

High Fashion

The popularity of the Air Jordan now extends far beyond the basketball court. These are not the average shoes for sale. They are luxury items.

They are also collector’s items. Folks with a keen interest in sneaker fashion collect Jordans. Fashion designers also now design these shoes for more formal wear.

Dior Jordan 1

2020 saw the launch of a Dior collaboration on the classic Air Jordan 1. These high fashion sneakers were the talk of the fashion world, and their successful launch brought about a new era of the Air Jordan.

Folks spotted the Dior Jordan’s at the 2021 presidential inauguration. Vice President Kamala Harris’ niece, Meena, attended with her husband. Her husband wore a pair, and social media lit up at the sight of these shoes on such a profound platform.

Air Jordan History is Shoe History

Shoe history serves as American cultural history, and there has been no shoe more popular during the last 35 years than the Air Jordan. What started as a gamble by a mill-town dreamer became an international sensation.

The Air Jordan is easily the most popular shoe line, and Jordan hasn’t played an NBA game since 2003. The shoe’s history will continue, maybe forever.

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