Prior to his rookie campaign with the Chicago Bulls, Basketball Hall of Famer and six-time NBA champ Michael Jordan got word from the league that his custom Nike shoes would be banned because they didn't match the uniform protocol. While many believe that those were Air Jordans, the truth is, they weren't, instead, rather, a black-and-red version of a sneaker called the Air Ship.
Released by Nike in 1984, the Air Ship has quite the story, which is brilliantly told by our friends over at Complex, which gives tremendous insight into the shoes that the NBA never wanted Jordan to have anything to do with.
The Air Force 1 was revolutionary, but the Air Ship was, for the most part, just a continuation. Still, in 1984, the all-leather Ship was Nike’s top-of-the-line basketball shoe, over the similar leather-and-mesh Air Train and the non-Air Sky Force. It had a ride height similar to the Air Force 1, thanks to the Air-equipped sole, but did away with the nylon strap.
Jordan laced up a black-and-red version of the Air Ship, which, as then-Nike creative director Peter Moore remembers, they had ordered just for Jordan. “It would have been a special make up,” he tells Complex, “and they might have made, say, 25 pairs or something only for him.” If something like this happened today, it would have been cause for some sort of special release. Back then, though, it was just something he wore. Hardly anyone noticed, except for the earliest sneaker die-hards—and, of course, the NBA.
Jordan started the season in the Air Ship, but in the NBA-compliant white-based colorways of “White/Red” and “White/Natural.” He was wearing the white-and-red Air Ship against the Spurs on November 13, when he scored a then career-high 45 points. He transitioned into the Air Jordan sometime in late November—it’s hard to nail down an exact game—but he wasn’t done with the Air Ship quite yet.
And that's not the end of the story, as Complex continues by talking about the rare pair of Air Ship's that Jordan wore during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers and was sold at an online auction for $71,000 last April, with the seller being a former Laker ballboy.
First there’s the ankle height, clearly lower than production pairs and closer to that of the Air Jordan. More importantly, look at the sole: That’s an Air Jordan midsole/outsole paired with the Air Ship upper, giving that low-to-the-ground ride that Jordan—who wore Converse Pro Leathers in college—had grown used to. So not only were these a pair of Jordan’s game-worn shoes, they were a pair of one-of-a-kind test mules, allowing Jordan to try out technology before it found its way onto his own shoe. In hindsight, $71,000 may have been a bargain.
With the Air Ship's a figment of Nike and Michael Jordan lore, Complex talks about how the sneaker is gone—and often forgotten—even amongst sneakerheads.
Nowadays the Air Ship is all but forgotten, a mere footnote in sneaker history. It hasn’t been retroed—in part, legend has it, because its original cantilevered outsole infringes on Avia patents. Vintage pairs only rarely pop up on eBay, prices inflated thanks to the Jordan connection (a connection that Jordan Brand itself finally acknowledged via Tweet in 2014). Some of us, though, already knew.
You can read the entire Air Ship story over at Complex to get an in-depth idea of the shoe that the NBA never wanted.
Lead image via Getty.