Let me set the scene….
It is March 7, 1996, and Michael Jordan is dominating the NBA. His Chicago Bulls are on their way to a record-setting 72-10 season and have just won their 54th game against the Detroit Pistons. Michael had 53 points that game while wearing the most beautiful Air Jordan ever, the “Concord” Air Jordan XI. The shoe is as iconic as Michael Jordan is.
Yet somehow on that night, his cultural impact paled in comparison to a sophomore at Georgetown University.
On that very same night, Allen Iverson and his No. 2 seed Hoyas started the Big East Tournament against the No. 7 seed Miami Hurricanes. The Hoyas would win 92-62 because of the amazing play of Allen I, who had 38 points. However, it wasn’t his play that made him a cultural icon that night; it was his footwear selection.
Allen, like Mike, wore the Air Jordan XI “Concord.”
As great as Iverson’s game was it was his pair of XIs that took the spectacle. Even though the XI is technically a “black and white” shoe, it still has the boldness of any hero colorway for a shoe. It pops off any court on any television…let alone Madison Square Garden, the mecca of basketball, where the Big East Tournament was being hosted. AI’s game, that court, and those shoes combined to create a moment that really hadn’t been seen in college basketball.
The Hoyas would go on to play No. 1-seeded UConn in the tournament final. Iverson and his team put up everything they possibly could that night and lost to the Huskies, 75-74. Iverson wore the XI in that game as well and ironically enough he was guarding future Jordan Brand endorsee Ray Allen as Ray Ray hit the memorable game-winning shot.
Losing that tournament didn’t take anything away from Iverson, though. It merely set the standard for what he would become and represent.
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Days later on March 15, Georgetown would dominate Mississippi Valley State by almost 40 points in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament. And Iverson? He broke out the “Concord” Jordan XI in front of a national audience, then proceeded to score 31 points on 18 shots in just 25 minutes. Marcus Mann, the opponent’s senior center, told reporters afterward, “It’s just unbelievable how quick he is. It was like he went into another world.”
Iverson’s stylish performance throughout that tournament took his status to another level. Too good, with too much swagger.
“What was different about the NCAA Tournament is that EVERYONE paid attention,” noted sneaker historian and all-around Iverson guru Nick Engvall told me. “In fact, the Monday after the first rounds of the ’96 Tournament, I remember a classmate who wasn’t nearly into sneakers the way I was coming up to me at my locker and asking if I saw Iverson in the Jordans. That’s the perfect example of Iverson in college. Iverson made people pay attention that normally wouldn’t. His wild child reputation, his sneakers, and his unbelievable skills for such an ‘average-sized’ player helped Allen Iverson redefine cool. He made it attainable. And his performance during March Madness was always elevated, which earned him comparisons with MJ. Although I doubt many of those commentators realized AI was wearing MJ’s shoes back then, luckily many of us did.”
Allen Iverson was a lightening rod for controversy and had a thunderous attitude that affected his style of play. Not everyone resonated with his boldness but everyone loved watching it. In many ways, he was a lot like the Air Jordan XI, as it’s bold and brash take as the “tuxedo for the basketball court” was jarring to some people. It shifted the norm for what was common in basketball shoes.
It is my belief Iverson proved to many while wearing that shoe that not only could he lead a team, but he could also lead a signature footwear line.
As fate would have it, his bold style of play earned him a signature shoe his rookie year and eventually a lifetime contract with Reebok.
Interestingly, whether it was a representation of the time or not, there were some resemblances to the XI in his first shoe, The Question. Albeit a far busier pattern, the shoe featured a ghillie construction for the laces, a flowing quarter pattern that led into a dress shoe-shaped toe, as well as a bold color pop and a midsole highlighting the contours of the foot.
By no means was it a copy of the XI but the bold aesthetic harkened back to it.
As a youth, Iverson’s Question sneaker was the first time I saw my classmates hyped up for a signature shoe that wasn’t an Air Jordan. The Question went on to become the most iconic shoe in the Iverson line and helped usher in a new era for Reebok.
You have to wonder what might have been had Allen Iverson signed with the Swoosh and became a Jordan athlete. For one night in the NCAA Tournament, though, we can remember it like a scene from a glorious movie.