When Michael Jordan returned to basketball in the spring of 1995, much had changed since he’d first announcement his retirement from the NBA 17 months prior. That included the sneakers.
Jordan came back to the Bulls and quickly went through the Air Jordan X before transitioning to a sample pair of the “Concord” Air Jordan XI. Once that patent leather classic saw the daylight, sneakerheads and the Jordan line never looked back, advancing to even greater heights. The entire process–Mike’s first retirement to his baseball journey to his comeback and subsequent shortened 1995 season–combined to steal the Air Jordan VIII’s thunder.
The VIII could’ve been the last shoe Mike ever played in, and he went out in epic fashion. During the 1993 Finals while wearing the black and red “Playoff” edition, Jordan put up a ridiculous 41 points per game against Phoenix and Charles Barkley. That record still stands. A few months later, No. 23 called it quits and it seemed like we’d never see the man hit the hardwood again, further delineating the VIII as an iconic “last” silhouette. In the end, that didn’t happen.
However, with the Jordan VIII returning this weekend at Champs Sports in a never-before-seen colorway, the sneaker is almost as relevant as ever. The “Three Times a Charm” edition pays homage to the opponents Chicago beat in 1991 (Lakers), 1992 (Blazers), and 1993 (Suns) to win their first three titles.
The VIII was always a rare cat. Created by legendary sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield, the VIII went in the opposite direction of its stripped-down ancestors to create a heavy shoe that, honestly, was sort of fitting considering Jordan’s off-court life inspired this shoe. (At the time, the wrath of celebrity was a weight that was wearing down the world’s greatest athlete.) Hatfield himself called it an “explosion” of design he wasn’t all that happy with, an enigma of a shoe that didn’t seem to fit. The VIII featured a full-length Air sole with a Huarache sockliner, two key reasons why it earned “the Punisher” nickname for its strong support. There were the mid-foot straps as well. But the most iconic aspect of the design had to be the quilted Jumpman logo on the tongue.
It was an iconic moment in the creation of the Jordan Brand. The VIII represented the first sneaker in the line to feature no Nike branding at all, something Tinker had been pushing for.
Jordan’s retirement ultimately affected the release of the shoe–the VII had more colorways and sneakers than the VIII did and the VIII had zero low-top versions during the initial run. But all three of the original editions are now considered classics. The “Bugs Bunny” Jordan VIII earned its nickname through the second iteration of the collaboration with Warner Bros., a commercial and marketing campaign that now also included Marvin the Martian. (Kids sometimes worked the straps until they resembled bunny ears.) The “Aqua” colorway was worn by Mike during that season’s NBA All-Star Game. And the “Playoff” edition was the weapon Jordan took to the 1993 postseason.
For his part that year, Michael Jordan tied Wilt Chamberlain‘s record with his seventh straight scoring title. He also made his seventh straight All-Star Game and earned both All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team nods. During the regular season, Jordan actually wore the “Cardinal” VII for many of his best moments, including the 64 points he scored on Orlando in his second meeting with Shaquille O’Neal and his game-winning, buzzer-beating three-pointer to topple Detroit. But he was rocking the “Bugs Bunny” joints when he dunked on young stud Alonzo Mourning.
Then, in the playoffs he went to another level.
We all know about the NBA Finals when Jordan scored 40 points or more in four straight games. (Quick fact: During Games 3 and 4, Jordan took 80 combined shots. Eighty! If that happened in 2015, social media would rip him apart.) But do you remember him throwing up 43 points in the second round during his first matchup with Cleveland’s “Jordan Stopper,” Gerald Wilkins? Wilkins had come to the Cavs during the summer to be their guy to slow down MJ, and so, naturally, Jordan unleashed his full repertoire on the man.
“I wanted to prove to him that, hey, no matter what you do, what changes you make, I’m gonna overcome that challenge,” Jordan later said.
Mike spent the entirety of Game 1 absolutely dominating, all while mouthing over and over again to the crowd that “he can’t guard me…he can’t guard me.”
Jordan finished off the sweep of Cleveland in Game 4 by hitting “The Shot, Part 2” at the buzzer in Wilkins’ mug.
Then in the Eastern Conference Finals, Jordan saved the three-peat by bludgeoning New York for 54 points in a must-win Game 4, revving himself up for an ultimate showdown with his friend, Sir Charles.
Over the years, the VIII earned a spot within the sneaker hierarchy, dropping in increasingly eccentric colorways (hello, “Pea Pods”) while using cats on NBA hardwoods and the eclectic taste of influencers like @JumpmanBostic to stay relevant. (Note: Ray Allen‘s Boston PE VIIIs are considered some of the rarest Jordan sneakers ever. And Kobe‘s PE VIII is legendary.) Nowadays, Drake is attempting to take the shoe in another direction, driving hype through his Air Jordan VIII OVO x Jordan Brand collaborations. After seeing rappers like Jay Z, Fat Joe, and even Kanye West rocking the kicks, the timing feels right.
The Air Jordan VIII might’ve originally succumbed to bad timing–the whole line nearly ended once Nike asked Tinker to stop designing Air Jordans when MJ left for baseball–but no sneaker collector can ever deny this shoe’s impact on the game.