With very few exceptions, Michael Jordan almost never played in anything outside of his signature sneaker line as a pro. That’s why the Converse Pro Leathers he donned during his first truly iconic moment–the NCAA title-winning jumper for North Carolina in the 1982 championship game 34 years ago today–endure as a beloved piece of sneaker trivia.
“Put all the other things aside–Jordan Brand, Nike, whatever,” Jordan said in a 2012 interview. “I started with Converse, and Converse was a brand I identified with at a young age.”
The Tar Heels had worn Converse since the early 1960s, when Chuck Taylor came to Chapel Hill and took coach Dean Smith to dinner, persuading him to purchase Converse sneakers for his squad. “You got a free meal,” Smith said in Art Chansky’s book Dean’s Domain, “and that was about it.” Times obviously change, and by the early ’90s, the brand paid for UNC’s sneakers–and paid Smith six figures for the honor.
Jordan’s Converse-clad heroics against Georgetown were the culmination of a remarkable first campaign at UNC, especially if you consider how the legendary coach operated. Totally set in his ways, he was loath to put freshmen in his starting lineup, but Jordan’s overwhelming skill level made him just the fifth first-year starter on Smith’s watch.
Still, Smith had his ways of keeping his young star in check. Jordan was embargoed from appearing on the cover of the Sports Illustrated college basketball preview with his fellow starters–he hadn’t accomplished anything yet, Smith reasoned–and he was routinely tasked with lugging the team’s heavy film projector. Jordan won ACC Freshman of the Year but averaged just 13.5 points, ranking third behind upperclassmen James Worthy and Sam Perkins.
[RELATED: An ode to the Fab Five and their Nikes]
Of course, Jordan had picked UNC because he wanted to prove he could succeed on the biggest stage, and he later credited Smith’s strict but fair regimen for making that happen. He would wear UNC shorts under his uniform for his entire Bulls career in honor of a man he came to consider as his second father.
“Coach Smith would challenge you mentally. … He made you think,” Jordan wrote in Driven From Within. “He was the perfect guy for me. He kept me humble, but he challenged me. He gave me compliments when he really thought I needed them.”
Smith’s biggest compliment was putting his first national title in the hands of a freshman still refining his jump shot. Down one with 32 seconds left, Smith knew the Hoyas would focus their zone defense on stopping Worthy and Perkins. “When we came out of the huddle,” Smith told the Charlotte Observer, “I just told Michael: ‘If it comes to you, knock it in.’”
If Jordan had any trepidation, it wasn’t apparent: He had just scored an acrobatic layup directly over Georgetown monolith Patrick Ewing, who goaltended UNC’s first four baskets solely to instill them with fear. “I thought that might be one I’d say he shouldn’t take,” Smith would tell the NY Daily News. But he still called Jordan’s number with the game on the line.
Despite the impossibly high stakes and his lack of experience conspiring against him, Jordan coolly sank a 16-foot jumper from the left baseline. After an ill-fated Fred Brown pass to the wrong team–Smith credited Jordan for playing the passing lane and disrupting the play–The Shot was immortalized forever. Somewhere, a chill ran up Craig Ehlo’s spine.
After two more sensational seasons, Jordan was encouraged by his coach to go pro, touching off a competition for his sneaker endorsement services. M.J. had obvious history with Converse, though he actually favored adidas; Chansky wrote that he typically opted for the Three Stripes during practice. He was less than enamored with Nike’s product, with his parents having to convince him to make the trip to Portland to hear their pitch.
At the time, Converse was the biggest player in basketball, and they wanted to add Jordan to a roster that included Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, and Julius Erving.
“I told everyone the same thing,” agent David Falk wrote in Driven From Within. “’Don’t ask what Michael can do for you, if you can’t figure it out after what he did in the 1984 Olympics. I wanted to know what they were going to do for Michael. As simple as that sounds today, it was a great challenge in 1984.
“Converse basically said they would do what they did with Dr. J, Magic, and Larry. And (Michael’s father) James, in one of the funniest low-key lines, says, ‘Don’t you have any creative ideas?’”
While Converse viewed Jordan as another brick in the wall, Nike’s presentation envisioned M.J. as the foundation of their entire operation. He initially balked at wearing a black and red sneaker, calling them “the Devil’s colors,” but he was won over by the Swoosh’s creative vision and level of commitment.
With adidas declining to match Nike’s bid, the rest, as they say, is history. Jordan dominated on the court and on Madison Avenue, becoming a cultural icon. Helped by some clever marketing, Air Jordans were an immediate hit, and the Jordan Brand is expected to be a $4.5 billion business by 2020, according to Forbes.
[RELATED: A history of Jordan lifestyle sneakers]
Back at his alma mater, like Jordan before them, players started wearing other sneakers besides Converse in practice. In 1993, Smith and his players made the switch to Nike, and the rest of the UNC athletic department followed suit. In a full-circle thing, the Tar Heels later became the flagship college team to represent the spin-off Jordan Brand.
As for Converse, Nike purchased the struggling company in 2003 and breathed new life into it. You don’t see players wearing the brand on court anymore; Udonis Haslem was the last back in 2012. But with retro Chuck Taylors coming back into vogue, as well as the Chuck 2 taking center stage as spring approaches, Nike reported revenues of $2 billion for Converse last year.
[RELATED: 10 sneakers you must wear this spring]
It all begs the question: How would things have been different had Jordan picked Converse or adidas over Nike?
“I don’t think the shoes would have changed my whole outlook in terms of how I played the game,” Jordan told Darren Rovell back in 2009. “But I think I could have enhanced a shoe in terms of how it would have been marketed.
“Would the (Jordan) brand still be as strong if it was an adidas brand? … I don’t know. But the good thing about it is, I’m happy where I am, I’m happy with the relationship. I’m happy everything worked out for the best.”
all images from the “30 Years of 23” Jordan x Converse 2012 Collaboration