When the very first Air Jordan sneaker debuted over three decades ago, the black and red color scheme alone was the daring innovation amid a sea of plain white sneakers. This year, Nike's longtime subsidiary is launching an even further boundary-pushing design, with the introduction of the first laceless Air Jordan 33.
The shoe debuts the brand's new "FastFit" technology in basketball, highlighted by a visible band over the foot that can be pulled in one motion, triggering a pulley system that auto-laces and instantly snugs up the rest of the shoe for the wearer.
"From day one, we've taken pride in the Air Jordan game shoe, where we focus on athlete insights and the latest innovations to create silhouettes that are distinctly Jordan," said Michael Jordan.
The new design is certainly distinct, and certainly polarizing. Bridging the brand back to the edgy and elevated design of the Tinker Hatfield-penned Air Jordan 3, the debut white colorway celebrates the original version famously worn by the Chicago Bulls superstar during his leap from the free throw line at the 1988 dunk contest.
While the recent Air Jordan 31 and 32 each heavily drafted off of their 30-year-old predecessors, the brand was looking to innovate more this time around, versus simply rehash familiar design elements in an anniversary storyline.
"The focus is to move forward," said Gentry Humphrey, Jordan vice president of footwear. "When we strike a balance of being comfortable with being uncomfortable, we're usually at our best. We know that certain products aren't for everybody, but for the guys that get it, they'll get it."
From the onset, the design embodied the notion of "Flight Utility," building on the brand's recent focus around flight and Michael's iconic penchant for ushering in an era of air into the NBA a generation ago. Subtle hints to the original Air Jordan 3 remain, like the heel panel, sizable Jumpman tongue logo and Nike Air heel branding, but the gesture of the shoe largely looks ahead.
"We were also inspired by how space suits look and function," said designer Tate Kuerbis.
Much like astronaut suits and flight jackets, the shoe incorporates literal instruction detailing throughout, from the "Pull" wording along the FastFit band, to the technical coding along the strap and "Eject" wordmark along the unfastening pulley band.
Kuerbis had worked on the Air Jordan 18 and 19, just as MJ was finishing off his playing career with the Washington Wizards during the early 2000s. He's now been back in the fold leading the design of the past three sneakers, still meeting with the shoe's namesake multiple times per year to get insights, feedback and product input.
"I saw Michael on this one more than on any other past game shoes," he added. "There was so much going on with the fit system and getting FastFit to work properly. He was always challenging us to push it further, push it further and get it just right."
While the global icon is long retired from playing in even a light pickup game, he still requests that the Jordan team make an early sample in his size 13, requiring his final stamp of approval in the shoe, even all these years later.
"Let's make sure this thing performs," Jordan directed. "We've got a lot of bells and whistles on it, but let's make sure it performs."
The pulley system contains 20 different locking notches in all, with a series of cables circling around the foot, all visibly tightening and engaging through a clear disc on the bottom of the shoe. The shoe also continues the much-loved FlightSpeed cushioning system, with responsive Zoom Air positioned under a spring plate.
"His best products of the past, also solved a performance need," added Humphrey. "Yeah, we can make it look cool and tell a narrative of Flight Utility, but it has to perform."
Since Jordan left the court for good, a series of NBA players have helped to lead the annual shoe and lend it visibility. In the past, that's included Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook.
With Westbrook now leading his own "Why.Not" signature series instead, this year, Pacers All-Star Victor Oladipo and WNBA champion Maya Moore will be headlining the Air Jordan. Other Jordan endorsers like Jabari Parker and Mike Conley Jr. are expected to wear it as well, while Chinese Basketball Association star Guo Ailun will even receive his own jade hued-edition featuring his logo along the tongue, releasing exclusively in China.
Also lingering over the brand has been the ongoing shoe deal standoff with former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who so far this year has turned down extension offers from the brand in advance of his current contract expiring on Oct. 1.
"We have to obviously figure out what's going to happen with Kawhi and his situation," said Humphrey. "As we land that, he could be one of the lead guys."
As the latest annual edition of the Air Jordan franchise aims to take the series to new heights with its new laceless look for a performance sneaker, it will be priced at $175 and launch on Oct. 18. It's a day that has long held special meaning for the brand, as it will mark yet another anniversary of when Michael Jordan first wore his eventually "banned" black and red Nikes as a rookie.