I like to think of the Air Jordan XIII as the best of the rest, the greatest underrated Jordan sneaker ever. Everyone loves the I and the III and the XI and the XIV because of the history behind the sneakers, because of what Michael Jordan did in them. But as great as the XIII was when it first released in 1997, the shoe never truly got its due. Jordan went against advice from his friends within Nike and the Jordan Brand, just as he did a few years earlier with the Jordan XI, and debuted the following year’s model before giving the XIII its just due. It created a classic — the “Last Shot” XIV — and probably cheated the XIII out of a little glory.
Despite that, I can’t help but call this shoe one of the best sneakers I’ve ever seen. You should too.
Just start at the beginning. Jordan and longtime sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield have both long had an obsession with stealth and portraying that in Mike’s sneakers. Even as recently as the Air Jordan XX8, Hatfield said he often texted Jordan, asking what stealth and black cats meant to him. Jordan texted back: Stealth is like a black cat. It’s an automatic aircraft. You can’t f*** with an automated aircraft. It’s like my game. By the time you see it, it’s too f****** late.
It’s a big part of his game, that feline-capacity to come from nowhere, to be there and then be gone before you can even react, that slippery agility, and perhaps most importantly, that nasty, edgy undercurrent. The black panther represents all of that, and during designs for the Air Jordan XIII, Tinker locked onto the concept. The most iconic portions of the sneaker all link back to this. There’s the outsole, which perfectly mimics the paw prints of a big cat, and there’s the hologram, which represents a black cat’s eye in the dark. The fact that the sneaker could even pull off the hologram speaks to the genius behind this shoe: In less experienced hands, it could’ve become a mockery.
Jordan debuted a white-based original pair during the 1997-98 season, his final year with the Chicago Bulls, and for a while it seemed like the classic design might be wasted. Scottie Pippen missed nearly 40 games and then began telling people he’d never again suit up for Chicago because of tension with management. Dennis Rodman‘s skills, at 36 years old with years of partying tacked on, began to rapidly decline. During the offseason, the team had lost valuable backup center Brian Williams and replaced him with nothing. And Phil Jackson was at constant odds with general manager Jerry Krause.
The team blew a 20-point lead against the terrible Celtics on Halloween to start the season, and stumbled to an 8-7 start. After losing just 23 games total during the previous two seasons, many thought Chicago’s run might be over before they could three-peat a second time. However, the team eventually righted the ship and MJ had a number of big moments while wearing the XIII, including a couple of buzzer-beating jumpers and breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s NBA record by scoring in double-digits for the 788th consecutive game.
Jordan spent most of the regular season playing in the original “Black Toe” XIII, also known by many as the “He Got Game” Jordans because of the role they played in Spike Lee‘s cult classic movie by the same name. But he also rocked a white and red-based edition that was also one of the original releases. And then in the 1998 NBA All-Star Game, he wore an all-black pair later dubbed the “Playoffs” because he spent most of the postseason in them, even if they’ll always be remembered more for Jordan’s All-Star Game duel with Kobe Bryant.
During the postseason, Jordan alternated between the “Playoffs” and a black and red “Bred” edition of the sneaker, eventually wearing the XIII in Games 1, 2, and 5 of the NBA Finals against Utah. (It feels like all anyone remembers is that he wore the Air Jordan XIV when he made the most famous shot in NBA history.)
In subsequent years, the XIII would return in various colorways, debuting classics like the “Grey Toe,” “Wheat,” and iconic “Altitude” in 2004 and 2005, as well as a number of different low-top colorways. Still, it’ll always be the originals that hold a special place in any collector’s closet.
The Air Jordan XIII is remembered fondly for its inspiration as well as this commercial, as it represented — in a way — the beginning of the end for Jordan’s basketball career. That he wore these during the “Last Dance” was reason enough to love them. But when combined with everything else, it put the shoes over the top.
This weekend at Champs Sports, the shoe will return again in a new “Cement Grey” colorway, sporting classic colors and building off the 2005 release of the same name. Don’t be a fool and miss out on one of the greatest Air Jordan sneakers ever, even if your friends won’t give the shoe credit for its role in MJ’s final year in Chicago.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney