There’s one story I always tell about this shoe.
When I was a sophomore in college, my roommate and I were hunting for a store that was going to carry the retro release of the “Grape” Air Jordan V. It was a limited lifestyle release and we assumed — being that we were far away from a major metropolitan city — that we had no shot. Instead, it turned out a local mom-n-pop store was carrying it, just a five-minute drive from campus.
I was ecstatic. I was hyped. I knew we had a chance. We’d have to set an alarm, get up earlier, be there before the sun came out, but hey, at least we had a chance. Even at that point, the Grapes were routinely mentioned as one of the 10 greatest Air Jordans, and they hadn’t seen the light of day since the originals dropped in 1990.
Yet the story gets even better. The store didn’t even open until 10 a.m. on release day and when we showed up there was only one person waiting to get in. Easiest cop of my life. Still can’t believe it.
It’s a story that makes literally no sense when you consider this sneaker’s history. Every colorway, from the “Black Grapes” to the “Laser” edition to the “Green Beans” to the “Laney” version…literally every single colorway has been beloved in the sneaker community. This is a rare shoe, even for Michael Jordan‘s standards, in that no matter what JB did to it — even if they released it covered in glow-in-the-dark inscriptions — the finished result always came out flawless. Over the past few years, the V has come back as often as anything, mixing wild colorways with direct callbacks to what made this silhouette so amazing 25 years ago.
Originally released in the spring of 1990, just a little over a year before Michael Jordan would finally win a championship and enter a new stratosphere, the Jordan V took much of what had already been present in the Air Jordan line and completely reinvented it.
Tinker Hatfield was back for his third straight signature silhouette and just as he had done with the prior two shoes, he set the world on fire. Interestingly, the IV played nicely off of the III, building on many of the performance and tech features that helped make the III so successful. But the V? It was almost completely different.
The shoe gained inspiration from World War II P-40 Warhawk fighter jets, as seen in the teeth found on the shoe’s midsole.
“He [Michael Jordan] would be floating around the edges of the game,” Hatfield once said, “and come out of nowhere and attack…As I worked through the design of the shoe, I thought I’d make it look a little bit like a fighter plane.”
The V also featured a few firsts for the Jordan line. It had a clear sole, which helped with traction, and sported a 3M reflective tongue. The tongue was so big and loud that it became the shoe’s defining characteristic and played a huge role in helping this shoe succeed as a lifestyle piece off the court. The design was topped off with mesh netting — which does tend to yellow very easily — and lace locks.
The finished product looked wildly different from what had come before. However, Jordan not only turned them into a cultural phenomenon, he took the reception they received and elevated it to new levels. During that 1989-90 season, especially throughout the first few months of the year before the shoe officially hit retail, Jordan played like an MVP, leading Chicago to their best season of the era, all with some rookie coach named Phil Jackson and some old, extinct offensive system called the Triangle. For the regular season, he would finish with averages of 33.6 points and 2.8 steals per game — both league-leading numbers – as well as 6.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists. Jordan also drastically improved his perimeter shot, making 92 three-pointers after hitting just 68 in his career to that point.
In the playoffs, he was a one-man wrecking crew, dropping at least 40 points six times in 16 games, destroying both Milwaukee and Philadelphia en route to the Detroit Piston Bad Boys. It was the second straight year Chicago made the Eastern Conference Finals and this time they’d push the defending champs to a Game 7. Their season ended there amid a mix of strong Detroit defense, a huge second quarter, and a migraine headache for emerging All-Star Scottie Pippen. That game opened old wounds for Jordan, as Pippen and young power forward Horace Grant combined to shoot 4-for-27. (Sharpshooter Craig Hodges also contributed to the bricklaying, going 3-for-13.) But all would be quieted the following year as the Bulls would finally break through for a title.
Still, Jordan’s heroics in the 1990 postseason had everyone, not just Mars Blackmon, asking what made MJ the best player in the universe. Was it the vicious dunks? Maybe. Was it the haircut? Definitely not. Was it the extra long shorts? Nope. Was it the short socks? Nah. It had to be the shoes, right? Right?
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney