Here's what they say: It's just shoes, right? Sneakers. They serve a single purpose. They don't make a difference on the court. It really ain't the shoes.
All true. All missing the point.
In the winter of 1985, something more than Michael Jordan was happening, something unknown to anyone -- even those who were paying attention. See, the shoe game has always been an extension of the game, a subtext of basketball's culture that made "Is it the shoes?" a plausible and legit question.
The shoes helped define who our heroes were. That was a part of their third dimension. Clyde Frazier was Puma. George Gervin was Nike. Dr. J, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird not only wore Converse -- they were Converse. So when Jordan took to the "Air," he was defined.
It was 30 years ago when MJ's signature shoe first blessed the court. After he "wear-tested" the Nike Air Ships for the first few months of his NBA career, Jordan -- with the help, ingenuity and foresight of executive Sonny Vaccaro, agent David Falk and designer Peter Moore, among others -- ignited the sneaker game that, three decades later, has become almost as important globally as the game of basketball itself.
Because Jordan's name is still attached to his shoes -- and only his name, not necessarily Nike's -- we connect the signature shoe bearing his name directly to his spirit, performance and being. Logically, we know his sneakers are not going to make us "be like Mike," but there is a commercial and universal belief that having his shoes in our lives makes us more connected to him.
"I've had a few experiences," newest Jordan Brand member LaMarcus Aldridge said. "Growing up in my neighborhood, [Jordans] were kind of like the Holy Grail. I couldn't afford them. So just being able to work and save up the money to actually buy them was huge.
"The first pair I bought was the Concords [Air Jordan XI]. Those have been a hot commodity since day one, so being able to save up for those, that was pretty cool. And since then, I've met Michael Jordan a few times. [I] have his number."
That validates the "dreams sometimes become reality" mythology.
In the video project created to celebrate the 30 years of Jordan, Tinker Hatfield spoke about designing his first pair of Jordans, and he reinforced his ongoing belief as to why the product continues to resonate.
"The Jordan III was the first shoe with the logo -- the Jumpman logo -- and that was my choice," he said. "I put it right on the tongue, and I felt like, almost instantly at that point, that this mark was going to be important for a long, long time. Because I did feel it spoke to people on several different levels.
"It was Michael, but also it was a mark of excellence."
"Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context -- a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan." -- architect Eliel Saarinen
I asked the man who helped create Jordan's third dimension the best and most challenging question he had to answer.
"Tinker, who is better: you at design or Jordan at basketball?"
His immediate, don't-think-twice response: "Michael is a better basketball player than I am a designer."
That was his take until I pushed. I told him that I asked Jordan the same question and revealed that Jordan's answer was Jordan.
Jordan also added, "Tinker was able to do what he did because of what I did on the court."
Then Hatfield's answer shifted a bit -- with reason.
"I agree with that," he said, "when it comes to basketball."
"Now, having you point this out and put me on the spot, I'm not so sure that Michael even knows that I've even invented different categories of shoes away from the Jordan Brand -- in cross-training, in ACG [All Conditions Gear], in running, shoes like the Huarache. I mean, that's done way away from the Jordan Brand. That all would have happened without Michael.
"I'll say this: In his world, he's right. He's the main ingredient in the big drink here. But of everything I do, I'd say Jordan represents probably about 20 percent of it."
"Growing up in my neighborhood, [Jordans] were kind of like the Holy Grail. I couldn't afford them. So just being able to work and save up the money to actually buy them was huge."Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge
Imagine being significant across the world -- and only using 20 percent of your gift. Imagine not being able to go anywhere in the world without seeing something you've done, something you've created or some impact you've had on a culture.
Hatfield can't even get away from his work on vacation. He has traveled to the Caribbean, all over Europe and to West Africa, and he said he "never went one place and didn't see something I designed."
Imagine, after nearly 30 years of being involved in a singular project, that you not only are the subject of cultish fandom in an industry but also can hold up a sneaker and people -- for a second -- stop breathing.
In this culture of sports aesthetics, one of the most difficult things to do is separate Tinker Hatfield from the shoes he has designed for the brand named after Michael Jordan. It is much easier to do that with his other works.
The Air Max, Nike's most influential and popular line of sneakers besides the Air Force 1, isn't attached to Hatfield, Nike's vice president of creative concepts, the way his Jordan concepts, designs and inventions are. There aren't sneaker fiends and shoeheads walking around with T-shirts that say "TINKER MADE ME DO IT" because of the Air Maxs, Air Huaraches, Air Trainers or Air Mags he created.
To get to this point is beyond expectation. It's a culture within itself, as well as a subculture within sports and commerce that to some degree is beyond explanation. The word "timeless" comes up in the conversation about why we discuss Jordan sneakers after all these years.
When Jordan Brand creative director and co-lead designer Mark Smith was asked about the new Air Jordan XXX, his response spoke to the greater function of the brand's importance and why the brand has sustained that importance for so long.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said. "[That frame of thought] allows us to really focus on the meaningful difference in things we could elevate.
"Business is like, 'Change, change, change! It's gotta be different.' No, no, no. This is a new opportunity for us to build off of something we know works very well, and we listen to the athletes, and the athletes were saying, 'Don't change. We really like what's going on.' And that allowed us to prioritize, keep things that were working. We were making meaningful changes based on priority."
The priorities have always been the athlete and the game, at least in the design and construction process as Nike annually builds its signature sneaker. Russell Westbrook has already put the XXX to the test in games, and Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Andre Drummond and Aldridge will follow. In the upcoming All-Star Game in Toronto, the XXX edition of Air Jordan might be the most represented shoe.
But that is a fraction of the overall narrative. The genius to be able to remain one of the most significant brands in sports is a shared commodity: design, innovation and performance -- not necessarily in that order.
In design, creativity can be seen as the key factor. But limiting Jordan sneakers to just that would diminish all the other components that attempt to explain how this phenomenon came to be and remains.
By hitting the game from two ends -- on the court with its newest and on the streets with the retros -- the Jordan Brand has positioned itself in a can't-lose "Catch-23."
Soon, the company will rerelease the Retro OG Jordan I "Chicago," a shoe Solecollector.com hailed as the "most recognizable Air Jordan of all time." The new Jordan XXX will share shelf space with the "Chicago."
"Whether the majority of people like or dislike [the XXX], it's still out there as, like, this new thing," Hatfield said. "No one has put together a basketball shoe like this in the history of basketball."
And there you have the sell, the perfect buy-in. Players aren't going to argue with Tinker, and people aren't going to challenge history.
For those who love Jordan Brand, the All-Star break was like a second Christmas.
For years, the brand used the midwinter break in the NBA schedule to release the newest Jordan into the marketplace. Michael would "break the shoe in" at some point during the first half of the season -- depending how far along Nike was with the shoe and how much MJ "loved" the model -- but for the retail release, it was always "hold your breath until All-Star Weekend" for the product possession to come full circle.
It was an ingenious business and societal move. It let the public know -- not guess or speculate -- that something directly connected to Michael Jordan -- something we could own -- was going to be available.
Even for athletes signed to the brand, the impact and brand impression are sort of the same.
"To be the athlete to debut the Air Jordan XXX is definitely an honor," Westbrook, the lead Jordan Brand baller, said in a statement.
"I definitely was big on [Jordans], I just wasn't able to afford them. Growing up, I never thought I'd be in this situation to be able to debut a Michael Jordan shoe, which is crazy to think about. But I'm just excited to be able to do that, and to be associated with Jordan is an honor in itself."
NBA stars still remember their first pairs and the depth of that experience.
"I think it was like the 13s, the white and red with the black bottom. I just ended up getting those for my first day of school," Spurs star Leonard said. "That was like my first pair of J's that I really liked at the time. I was in the second or third grade. I was just fortunate enough that my mom and dad were able to combine to get me those shoes."
Beyond the numbering of each sneaker is the sub-branding, as each rerelease receives a retro vault name (from AJXI "Space Jams" to AJXII "Bordeauxs" to AJ 17 "Coppers" to "Concords," "Cements," "Grapes," "Infrareds" and "Breds") while at the same time having different colorways, materials, textures and patterns as part of the rerelease.
"Apple is still 21 years and 18 iPhone models away from being where Jordan is with its signature sneaker."
The business model set in place by Jordan Brand's practice of annually releasing "something new" and "numbering it" into a marketplace that stays connected to a singular item has always been revolutionary. Many other companies have tried to match this standard of excellence, but not many -- if any -- have been able to sustain it for a similar amount of time. Apple is still 21 years and 18 iPhone models from being where Jordan is with its signature sneaker.
The ability to unapologetically stay true to its roots as one of the world's true "urban" brands (it has never distanced itself from the urban and city-driven consumer base) while also advancing technology and still making performance the principal focus of design might be the single greatest asset Jordan has as a brand. In a business and cultural sense, that has allowed the brand to, over the past decade, inundate two markets with one stone.
Need another example? Kobe Bryant isn't a Jordan Brand athlete, but Nike took advantage of the brief time when he was vacillating between shoe companies by releasing to the public -- in the middle of Kobe's retirement tour -- a "Kobe pack" of two of the Jordan sneakers Bryant wore in games when he was hoping to be signed by the brand.
It was calculated, and it was the brand fully taking advantage of a market it has created. That's how they roll. It's how they've always rolled and how they will continue to roll out a business model built on the back of a single, signature sneaker that has been impossible for any other company to emulate.
For those who wear Jordans, being part of an enduring brand is the culmination of a successful partnership.
"It makes me proud. Yeah, it does," Carmelo Anthony said. "I remember getting there and seeing where the business was then. I remember sitting in the airport in 2006, coming from the world championship, and I remember when the brand had just hit a billion, and to see where it's at right now -- [nearly $3 billion in sales] -- that's a lot. That's a lot of growth to be a part of."
It's hard to believe that something -- one thing -- can have a 30-year, ever-changing lifespan in this done-and-die, on-to-the-next-one cultural market we have created.
Yet at the end of the day, when it's all said, done, written and dissected, as one Jordanologist said to me during the unveiling of the XXX, it all comes down to one simple thing: "whether or not the sneaker is dope."