This week I learnt a few things. Some PR people don’t like me any more (and emailed me to tell me that), Tumblr is a more powerful traffic source than big blogs as far as click-throughs go and the people who laughed at me when I told them that there would be some kind of hype Huffington Post method of content syndication were wrong, because my buddies at Hypebeast put my last entry up as an op-ed. Unfortunately I’ve been basking in some kind words and an abundance of snack foods that made me forget to blog yesterday, and this evening I’m hyping up those Concord XIs for sale, so I’m busy again. Christmas is a special time of year when people punch each other in the face in Texan shopping malls for shiny toed basketball shoes. If ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was made now, it would end with Jimmy Stewart shoulder barging a thirteen year old boy out the doorway of the Bedford Falls branch of NikeTown before running home triumphantly with a snow drenched Jordan box under his arm.
I’ve become addicted to sneaker footwear beef via YouTube of late – people doing “show reviews” via video is nothing new, but there’s a whole culture of beef, with disses and response videos regarding allegations of Jordan fakery and other such matters. Dribblez Tha God (“What the hell is the deal YouTube?”) resides in VA and he’s far more gooned-out than most — he’s always calling out his opponents and questioning their sexuality in angry rants. One 17:51 minute long rant involves him waving cheques and exposing alleged infidelity via text message — sports footwear = serious business. Dribblez even has his own clothing range (YOUTUBE’S MOST HATED MAN!!), that includes a t-shirt that embodies everything that the term “sneakerhead” conjures up to me — the font and the ultra literal image is a killer combo.
Seeing as tomorrow is Jordan brawl day, it’s probably an okay time to dump a piece I wrote that got rejected by Sneaker Freaker for the new issue in favour of people holding up shoes and an NB 574 based on Ray Meagher. It was meant to be an exploration of why people are preoccupied with Jordans rather than contemporary basketball shoes, but it turned into a rambling 2000 word waste of energy pretty quickly. But fuck it, here it is and there’s three of my favourite Nike Basketball ads at the bottom to reward anybody who scrolls down. That 1981 Dynasty one stays classic:
BACKWARD THINKING: HOW RETRO JORDAN STAYS WINNING
Whatever happened to all the heroes? We see the billboards, the constant stream of Flash videos deifying athletes and the constant updates, pumping jpg after clinically cropped jpg of signature shoe colourways way before release courtesy of those crafty back door factory super villains, but where’s the sense of magic that elevated players to the point of deification? Why aren’t we seeing the new brace of basketball shoes worn as much at street level as Mike, Sir Charles and Patrick’s signature shoes were?
Basketball shoes are evolving at a serious rate — just as 1992’s Olympic rollout pushed classics like the Force 180 and the Beijing festivities gave us the debut of Flywire on a court shoe, London’s summer event has kickstarted some new innovations, whether it’s the ankle reinforcement of the new Kobe design, the Y-3 inspired stretch lace strap of adidas’s D. Rose sequel or the Pro Combat lined LeBron 9, we’re less likely to see them on a foot than the shoes of old. Once, the boldness of the Jordan V, Flight Lite and — for the fortunate few — the towering Command Force were on the street, in an audacious era of neons, tongues hanging out like a dog from a car window and wealth measured in bulk and gimmicks. It wasn’t enough to have performance aiding technologies — people needed to see.
But ahead of all that, there was Michael Jordan, a player who transcended the sport. Whether those Mars ads hit your screens or not, the Jumpman was all-reaching. In an era where shoe-related crimes could hit the headlines and be enough of a zeitgeist to become soap opera drama devices, the price tag and escalating war of technologies had the masses scrambling for the shoes. The name alone conjured up a superhuman spirit, even if you’d never seen the man play.
Bucks exec Bob Zuffalato’s remark,”The man doesn`t live on Earth. He just shows up on Earth for practice and game days” hyped up that desire for a piece of Jordan product, whether it was a shirt or the shoes themselves. Jordan spinoffs of the original, like the (then) rarely seen KO created a blueprint for spinoffs within a signature series. After 1985’s first chapter, the II and III were a tougher find. By 1989’s IV was a more accessible option. Without cameras in the pocket of every attendee and coverage a Google search away, we were told that the offending “banned” Jordan shoe was a Jordan I rather than an Air Ship in black and red. Myths were easier to make back then.
The financial boomtime that fuelled the early days of Jordan allowed for extra risks. Sartorial conservatism was absent, in contrast to the powers that be at the time. There was less fear of strange. For all the informational exposure, the current generation likes to play it relatively safe. Given the moral implications of such a question, it’s tough to determine just how much a crack epidemic popularised bigger and better basketball shoes, but it was undeniably powerful in fuelling those ‘80s icons.
Then things began to look backwards in the early ’90s. Suedes, Campus and Cortez became desirable again beyond the hands of a few deadstock Columbos. Capitalising on the boom 1994’s retro III and early 1995’s retro I might have landed with an indifferent thud, but just as the post XI Jordan releases from 1996 became so admirably offbeat that only a basketball and inner city audience seemed to appreciate the output, Nike had forged a second lane to catch the new breed of nostalgics. Smart move. Creating a full Jordan brand in 1998 was even smarter, signing up athletes from multiple disciplines. All that before Google even went live.
After Jordan’s retirement Penny Hardaway was the logical successor to MJ’s sneaker dynasty, with a run of innovative releases, including the Foamposite — Nike’s next shock-to-the-system, but it never seemed to rock pop culture like the Jordan phenomenon. For regions where basketball isn’t a second language, Chris Webber, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Penny’s status travelled by the shoes on their feet rather than their feats on the court.
Still, despite strong product elsewhere, a wave of sneaker retrospect salted the earth for generations that followed. Nobody else could have a franchise on Mike’s scale, with its mix of talent, innovative marketing and a moneyed time that allowed for expensive output and a demanding audience. You can’t synthesize a moment like that. Not only is Jordan DNA in subsequent shoes, but it’s also embedded in the psyche of multiple generations passing that reverence for Jordan down to sons, grandsons, younger brothers an nephews. That’s a powerful lineage of brand loyalty.
But beyond that, why aren’t people freaking out over the latest basketball releases on a grand scale? The product’s there and Eric Avar and Jason Petrie are putting out work that certainly doesn’t pale alongside Tinker’s best moments. Do people want the “now” or will they hunt it down as a hybrid retro in fifteen years’ time? So why aren’t, say, Kobe and LeBron, creating seismic activity on the same level beyond basketball and inner city audiences when it comes to their footwear?
One theory could be an insatiable thirst for information that tarnishes attempts at mythmaking. All iPhones are on Kobe and LeBron at any given time — mouthing something regrettable becomes something that makes national headlines and it’s there in flash format for repeat viewings, again and again and again. No amount of Sonny Valachi formulated sports marketing can clean that up without a few specks remaining. It limits damage limitation. Google doesn’t forget easily. How would Michael Jordan have fared in the smartphone flashlight? With cameras in every pocket comes great responsibility.
There’s anecdotes and a few headlines, but with the lens readily available in clubs and casinos things could have been different. How many other NBA players with big money shoe contracts would have fizzled out if their behaviour was traced 24-7? It’s tough to place a player on the pedestal and make them seem immortal nowadays. That’s a “what if?” to match the-what-if-Michael-Jordan-signed-to-adidas? query. Would he have had some Forum-alikes that shifted some units because adidas didn’t have Peter Moore (yet) or Bruce Kilgore or Tinker, or would he have shifted the fortunes of adidas’s basketball division? LeBron’s 2010 media circus and oft-parodied aspirations for a league title buffed the shine a little too. With twitter allowing constant contact it’s tougher to remain necessarily aloof. Now, that constant contact and ability to know what to wait for means you’re perennially half-a-year ahead in terms of planning spending. We’ve lost the unexpected sense of shock and awe that opens the wallet.
Less choice in the 1980s than today’s wealth of retro, mashup and contemporary creations allowed the Jordan franchise to build, but there’s something to be said for the Wieden+Kennedy print and TV ads of the time. Now we’re assailed by attempts to monetize the internet, with popups, annoying 30-seconds of videos before videos and desperate attempts to go “viral” whereas a risky but iconic campaign, deliberately paced and the copy-heavy, powerful slogans of the 1980s and early 1990s proved deeply effective. Now the complete campaign seems a little more fragmented and the scope for distraction from the overall message is immense.
Style has changed – the power to say, “fuck you, this is what shoes look like now” has been replaced by an easier mode of consumer research that can be electronically aided. That fuels a certain low-risk style. Jeans were tight when bulky early Jordan shoes dropped and they’re tight again. Do consumers run to the new big shoes? Nope, not when there’s some Jordan Vs readily available. Zack Morris-style denim might be back, but that’s no use to new shoes with show-off features if ‘Saved By The Bell’ era shoes can still be bought.
Take a look at any hip-hop record (remember those big black discs?) sleeve from 1987 to 1993 and Jordan’s present somewhere if there’s a group shot. Even metallers, from the heavier sector like Dave Mustaine, to the weedier hair rockers like Kip Winger were repping the Jumpman. Even God-fearing oldies’ favourite Cliff Richard had been snapped in a pair of IVs. For the most part, the death of the album cover in the MP3 era could have been detrimental to the newer basketball styles.
Who could gawp and aspire any more? When it comes to newer shoes, they’re up against brand Jordan’s seeding savvy — Wale, Khaled, Rick Ross and other Maybach Music affiliates have broken out the ‘Brons as a refreshing alternative, but those Jordans are still the video stars (with flash video being the key visual vessel for hip-hop in 2011). Jay and ‘Ye’s ‘Otis’ is a perfect example. Would a contemporary comedian ever break out Kobes or LeBrons like Jerry Seinfeld in the V, VI and VII or a pre-Simple Larry David behind-the-scenes in VIs? Louis CK in Kobes? Andy Samberg in LeBrons? We haven’t seen that yet.
Each Jordan instalment is about all change. The franchise was powerful enough to allow for risks and as a collaborator Mike was open to madness at a pivotal time for innovations – from innovative colour blocking to Italian-construction during the crack era, visible air and — in latter chapters —interchangable innovations. Those colours, a lack of iD accessibility (you got what you were given) and patterns as integral to the shoes as the technologies were definitive. Now we know there’s more around the corner and sheer wealth of options can water down the offerings and dilute any notion of a definitive shoe.
From the beginning, the Jordan shoes tell a story of sneaker design’s evolution from simplicity to brave, avant-garde silhouettes, regardless of your opinion on the shoes. LeBron’s collection is strong, but there’s certain similarities between key chapters simply because that’s what the athlete favours and needs — Kobe’s adidas to Nike brand switch waters down that shoe legacy (try as you might, that Audi effort makes the Jordan XV look downright sleek by comparison. The stories don’t flow as effortlessly as Jordan’s basic shoe to moonboot narrative. Eric Avar’s work for Kobe for the lower IV and the even lower later instalments is excellent, but Mr. Bryant has an influential formula that works for him and it’s some fine and accessible variations on a theme.
Then there’s good old ability — it’s all in the stats. Numbers don’t lie. 38 points with a stomach bug? 10 NBA scoring titles? Twin that with some of the greatest marketing ever and it’s a hard act to follow. And if those spectacular sneaker design precedents and creation of a retro basketball market weren’t enough to kill your footwear franchise, Mike goes and contributes to the NBA lockout so nobody gets to publicly play in the shoes at all. Now that’s true boss behaviour.