“I’ve been a Mike fan since before his first retirement! I remember him rocking Dan Majerle in the Finals. I remember him averaging over 40 points a game in the Finals!”
“Man, when were you born, though?”
“1989…but I remember!”
We all know kids like this, busy fabricating stories for Internet credibility. The truth of the matter is Michael Jordan was much more of an idea rather than a man to many of us as kids. My earliest memories are from 1995. I was nine years old and had just started playing basketball. But Jordan wasn’t someone I studied at that point. I couldn’t tell you if he abused Penny Hardaway in the post, couldn’t tell if Horace Grant was really the difference in the playoffs. Instead, Jordan was something else: a basketball or sports card to collect, a poster to look at, a sneaker to marvel over. He represented greatness rather than personifying it.
The fawning over the kicks did make sense, though, considering the Air Jordan XI is still considered one of the greatest basketball sneakers ever made, the ultimate crossover silhouette through its use of patent leather.
By the following season, after the unveiling of the Concord, Space Jam, and Bred XI, and with the Chicago Bulls in the midst of a record-breaking 72-win season, the Air Jordan fever pitch was at an all-time high.
This all set the stage for the Air Jordan XI Low that Jordan debuted during the 1996 NBA Playoffs. Even some of the most hardened sneakerheads might not know that during the Bulls’ 15-3 romp to their fourth championship of the 1990s, Jordan often wore the original black and red XI Lows rather than the Mids, even during the NBA Finals. Jordan even wore the Concord Low version during the championship parade that summer.
However, while two versions of the XI Low released to the public that year, both featured an entirely different silhouette than the low-tops MJ had worn on the floor. Those two releases–Black/Dark Grey-True Red and White/Light Grey-Cobalt–eventually earned the “I.E.” nickname, which was odd for two specific reasons. The first of which was obvious: the black and red pair did not feature that tag on the box at all. The second reason? No one to this day knows what exactly the “I.E.” stood for. We’ve seen a few educated guesses, including one revolving around a spelling mistake that makes a lot of sense. But nothing has been confirmed. (Tinker Hatfield has at least recently confirmed why the design was so different.)
Over the years, the “I.E.” edition continued to release in multiple colorways, including a run in 2007 that saw six retro sneakers. One of those was an all-grey and white edition that immediately became a go-to sneaker for me. Eight years later and it’s still in my rotation.
For all of their fanfare, Air Jordan Lows don’t always connect. For every Jordan XIV Low you’ll have the VI Low. But the I.E., particularly the Silver/Zest-White colorway, always worked for me. It’s one of the few low-top silhouettes that can function as a centerpiece throughout the year, whether it’s combined with jeans, joggers, or shorts. The colorway–a totally grey upper with a white midsole and clear sole–is a tried and true format that never goes out of style, which also limits how badly you can effectively screw them up. Add in comfort, breathability through the mesh side paneling, and the elephant print and you’re talking about a classic sneaker that looks unique while still staying true to the Jordan legacy.
Today marks the release of the Air Jordan XI I.E. Low “Referee” colorway, which was designed for the 1996 Playoffs so that the game’s referees would have something to wear. It features an all-black leather upper with black side paneling, lining, and sole, with red accents on the tongue, outsole, and the iconic carbon fiber. Available now at Champs Sports, the silhouette is releasing to much fanfare. Over the last 30 years, it’s a colorway that’s rarely seen the light. It showed up on Chris Paul‘s feet during a Team USA summer minicamp almost a decade ago, but other than that, it’s been a classic that JB has kept close to the chest. Now, finally, is your chance to own a piece of history.
I was reminded of all this just a week ago. While shopping at a mall just outside of New York City, I had three different high schoolers come up to tell me they loved my sneakers, the aforementioned Jordan XI I.E. Lows. The Air Jordan XI I.E. will never be as revered as the originals, but as those high schoolers taught me, a classic never runs out of time.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney