The History Of The Air Jordan III

It’s hard being a trendsetter.

Normally, by definition, someone who sets trends is way ahead of their peers, often not being socially accepted or respected until years later. The “Wolf Grey” Air Jordan III that’s dropping in The Game Plan from Champs Sports is an example. Sometimes specific shoes push the boundaries so far that they draw criticism faster than Money Manziel. The Air Jordan III was all of that. But, uniquely, it was beloved from the very beginning.

With luxurious materials, elephant print, and the origins of the Jumpman logo, this was the sneaker that truly started it all for Michael Jordan and the Jordan Brand. Before that, we had the first Jordan sneaker and a whole campaign built around how the NBA banned the shoe. But the sequel wasn’t nearly as successful and in 1987-88, Jordan was on the cusp of leaving Nike. That’s how much was riding on this shoe. It wasn’t just a shoe. If you subscribe to the belief that this entire sneaker culture exists solely because of Jordan and his signature sneakers, then you have to start the journey right here. People like Randy Caoili and George Coloney don’t exist without this shoe. Blogs like The Drop don’t exist without this shoe. Shoot, maybe even you and me don’t exist without this shoe… at least in terms of our OCD sneaker obsessions. In the least, we’d all be very, very different.

So would Michael Jordan. Does he become the cultural icon he is without the Jordan III? Does his influence continue to shape fashion even 10 years after retiring? Does he generate $2.25 billion in 2013 off U.S. retail basketball sales? Does he launch some other company — adidas? Converse? — into the stratosphere if he leaves Nike/Jordan? All viable questions. Without this shoe, who knows what happens?

Jordan hadn’t expected to sign with Nike out of North Carolina. He wanted to sign with adidas, and wore Converse throughout college. But adidas was in flux with ownership changes and Converse had only so much to promise Jordan because of the presence of established NBA stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving. Nike swooped in and stole a resistent Jordan because it promised him he’d be the center of everything. He’d be their guy, the biggest and most important athlete in their brand. Up until that point, Jordan had never even tried on a Nike shoe, let alone worn one. But when Nike offered to cater everything to the 6-6 rookie… well that right there started to break down the barriers.

Eventually, Nike offered the No. 3 overall pick a deal that could potentially be worth $7 million over five years. Once adidas declined to match it, the rest was history. Jordan had found his home, and nearly 30 years later, he earned $90 million in 2013 off his sneaker contract.

Fast forward a few years after initially signing with Nike, and the Air Jordan III represented the proverbial fork in the road in the relationship. If it became a bust, as the Jordan II was to some of those folks involved, Jordan probably leaves. Instead, the sneaker changed the game. New designer Tinker Hatfield came on board and developed a classic, adding the elephant print and full-grain tumbled leather to make every pair feel broken in. The shoe also came in a mid design, different than anything else at the time. Nike’s commercial campaign with Spike Lee as a sweet-talking basketball fanatic named Mars Blackmon put it over the top.

That season, Jordan went on to average 35 points per game for the scoring title, while also winning both the league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. In his first three seasons with Chicago, Jordan had won just one of 10 playoff games. In 1988, the Bulls finally broke through and beat Cleveland in five games in the first round.

All of that helped define the Jordan III’s legacy, however, what many sneakerheads remember best is Jordan’s All-Star Weekend performance. Not only did he win the game’s MVP while wearing these shoes, he also won the dunk contest with a ridiculous leap from the foul line, almost literally cementing the iconic Cement IIIs.

Nowadays, the Air Jordan III still sells out every retro release and both the Cement colorways (black and white) are considered two of the greatest basketball shoes ever. This weekend, the Jordan III will be releasing in a new Wolf Grey colorway at Champs Sports, reminding us all over again what true greatness is.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney