In the pantheon of Air Jordan sneakers, the IX bears an interesting distinction: It’s arguably better known for being worn by a facsimile of Michael Jordan than by the man himself.
“When I was asked which shoe should go on the statue in front of the United Center in Chicago, I chose the Jordan IX,” legendary designer Tinker Hatfield wrote in Driven From Within. “They showed me a clay model of the pose, and I thought the neatest outsole we had that actually told a story was the IX.”
That outsole, sketched by Hatfield and orchestrated by Mark Smith, features 10 words in various languages representing defining characteristics of Jordan–fuerza (“force” in Spanish), muundaji (“hope” in Swahili) and so on. The sneaker’s swooping lines and rising sun logo connoted what Hatfield called a “Japanese simplicity,” inspired by M.J.’s recent overseas trip to spread the Nike gospel, not to mention his growing post-Dream Team global profile.
The Air Jordan IX originally hit shelves in November of 1993, about a month after Jordan shocked the world by announcing his retirement from the NBA to pursue a baseball career. As such, Jordan never actually wore it while playing for the Bulls, though he did wear the Cool Grey IX years later with the Wizards. That said, he wore cleated versions of the IX almost exclusively while roaming Double-A outfields, which served to link the sneaker with that surreal chapter of his career.
The baseball gambit was never as frivolous as it seemed at first glance, nor as pointless as Sports Illustrated would have had you believe. For one, it was inspired primarily by his father, who originally maintained his son would find his greatest success not on the hardwood, but on the diamond. When Jordan remained steadfast about attempting baseball even after the tragic murder of his father, it was in large measure a labor of love.
“On my drive to practice in the dark every morning, he’s with me, and I remember why I’m doing this,” Jordan told Bob Greene in Rebound. “I remember why I’m here. I’m here for him.
“He’s with me in that car. I look over at the next seat, and I think: ‘We’re doing this. We’re doing this together. You and I, Pops. We’re going to get this done. You watch. You and I are doing this. We’re on our way.’”
Even if many treated his new pursuit as a sideshow or fantasy camp, Jordan definitively did not. Under the tutelage of legendary White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak, he worked just as hard on his swing as he had on his jump shot, if not harder. Baseball did not come nearly as easily as hoops, and he was not a person who simply accepts failure.
“I’m tired a lot, and I have my down days,” Jordan told Greene, “but if I weren’t doing this, then I’d never know, would I? I’m here–and I’m here because I want to be here. I’ll take the bad with the good. If I accomplish my goals, then the good will be very good. And if I don’t–no one can say that I didn’t try my best.”
Jordan’s initial goal was to make the White Sox, if only as a bench player, but that was quickly proven unrealistic. Lithe and strong as he was, his physiology and mentality had been painstakingly hard-wired to succeed on a basketball court. Hall of Fame ballplayer Ted Williams once said that hitting a baseball was the hardest thing in sports, and sure enough, even someone with Jordan’s sheer athletic genius was completely flummoxed when thrown a simple curveball. He was not destined to be the next Deion Sanders, much less Bo Jackson.
To focus on his failings, however, is to roundly miss the point. True, Jordan batted a meager .202 with just three home runs in his lone Double-A season. But consider that he had zero professional experience and hadn’t played competitive baseball in 13 years, and that .202 average actually starts to look halfway decent. One might consider it proof of his ability and tenacity that he somewhat resembled a legitimate Minor League outfielder, if admittedly a light-hitting one.
When Jordan returned to the Bulls, he moved on to the Air Jordan X, which was subsequently replaced in mere months by the XI, without question one of the greatest signature sneakers of all time. His days spent wearing those AJ IX cleats in the Minors, while still an important part of his timeline, instantly felt like a dream.
The Air Jordan IX colorway releasing this Saturday at Champs Sports commemorates the sneaker’s hallowed spot on the United Center statue, a worthy inspiration. But for me at least, the AJ IX evokes that wonderfully weird summer when one of the most famous people in the world took 8-hour bus trips through the Carolinas, ate at greasy-spoon diners, and horsed around with teammates like the immortal Kerry Valrie.
While M.J.’s basketball achievements were inspiring, his attempt at baseball was perhaps more endearing. This isn’t to say we desired to see The Great Jordan fail, but for us to witness him flail a bit–yet keep at it–made him somewhat more relatable, more human, than the soaring supernova we had grown used to.
Above all, Jordan’s baseball endeavor demonstrated that it’s okay to put yourself out there with a leap of faith, even if you can’t always be sure how things would end up.
“If you knew what everything was going to be like going in,” Jordan told Greene, “then why would you do it?
“You do it so that you can find out.”