The Definitive History of the Air Jordan 11

We can thank Tinker Hatfield for the Air Jordan 11. Without him, there’s a good chance that we never see the classic sneaker come to life.

When Michael Jordan retired from the NBA for the first time in the fall of 1993, Nike reps told Tinker to abandon the signature line of the game’s greatest player. As a sneaker designer, Hatfield had been involved in a number of incredible projects, from Nike Air to the debut of the Huarache. But the advancements in the Air Jordan line were arguably his biggest, and best, accomplishment.

Convinced Mike wasn’t done playing — Jordan was only 30 years old when he first said he was done playing for the Bulls — Hatfield just couldn’t let go, and so during Jordan’s unsuccessful foray into Minor League Baseball, the former architect kept at it, designing blueprints and samples for future Air Jordans. His foresight proved valuable when on March 18, 1995, Jordan issued a two-word press statement: “I’m back.”

From there, the eventual atmosphere for the XI quickly fell into place. Jordan was never enamored with the Jordan X, in part because he wasn’t around to be consulted in its development. (Even at the last minute, Jordan was telling Tinker he needed to make adjustments to the toe. It worked, too.) Still, circumstances deemed that he’d have to wear the sneaker at least for a little while. Jordan ended up playing 17 regular season games and four playoff games in the X.

But by May, Jordan was ready for something new and shocked everyone, including Nike reps, by playing in a XI sample at the start of Chicago’s second-round series against the Orlando Magic in 1995. Reportedly, Tinker had showed him an early sample of what would come to be known as the “Concord” XI and Jordan was so excited that he said screw it, I’m lacing these bad boys up right now. This changed everything for Nike. The following year, after seeing Jordan wear the shoe for five playoff games against the Magic, they went with that sample as the final version.

Jordan was immediately infatuated with the patent leather. The sneaker’s most recognizable feature, it was the first of its kind and helped usher in a new era in sports footwear. Not only was the patent leather lighter than regular leather, it also stretched less often, and all that gave the shoe something many of its later “children” lacked: style laced with substance.

Early on, Jordan actually predicted that the XI would be worn to formal occasions. He was right–again. From Boyz II Men award appearances to weddings, the Jordan XI showcased a versatility that was almost unheard of for on-court shoes.

And so Jordan shocked the world by debuting the “Concord” XI in Game 1 of Chicago’s series versus Orlando in the 1995 Playoffs, earning a $5,000 league fine in both Games 1 and 2 because the sneakers were white while the rest of the team wore black shoes. Just as the original Air Jordan created controversy over 10 years earlier after being banned by the NBA because of a color issue, the hype behind the XI started immediately.

To mitigate the team’s losses — no one, not even general manager Jerry Krause, was going to tell Michael he couldn’t wear the sneakers he wanted to — Nike quickly designed a black pair of Jordan XIs for Game 4. (Game 3 marked the only time in Jordan’s career where he wore another player’s sneaker — the Nike Air Flight One for Penny Hardaway.)

Those black shoes for Game 4? None other than the sneakers that’d come to be known as the “Space Jams.”

Over the series’ final three games, Jordan wore these sneakers, the same ones he’d wear over the following summer during filming for the classic sports movie, Space Jam.

By the fall of 1995, the public’s anticipation for the Jordan XI was at a fevered pitch, and the releases turned into utter chaos. The sneaker was more than just a hit shoe. It was a revolution, a style all its own. During Chicago’s record-breaking 72-win championship season that year, Jordan spent most of the regular season in the white-based “Concord” XI before rocking the “Bred” colorway for the playoffs. During the All-Star Game in February, he also wore a special “Columbia” colorway, an all-white XI that’ll release again this Saturday at Champs Sports.

Since that year, the XI released again and again over the years, sometimes in classic colorways like the “Cool Greys” and other times as part of limited edition packs, like the “Defining Moments Package” from 2006. Yet no matter the scenario — and normally, no matter the colorway — this shoe is always popular. It’s the rare sneaker that can’t look bad. Literally, I have yet to meet a sneakerhead that didn’t consider this one of the two or three greatest Air Jordans ever. It’s special.

But in the end, it might not have ever seen the light if it wasn’t for the foresight of one sneaker designer. Thank God for Tinker. This weekend at Champs Sports, make sure you’re ready for the release of the “Legend Blue” Air Jordan XI, a sneaker with direct ties to the 1996 NBA All-Star Game. Why? If every single XI release over the past two decades is any indication, this sneaker will be gone before you can blink.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney