Oh, what might not have been.
Today, the Jordan brand is, in a word, iconic. With 34 mainline sneaker releases, various collaborations and billions of dollars in kicks sold, Michael Jordan is synonymous with sneakers.
What started as a basketball sneaker quickly crossed over into pop culture, then into fashion, then, years later, into high fashion. There’s never been a more influential brand when it comes to footwear — it’s essentially historical, irrefutable fact.
But what if it never came to be? What if the NBA pushed harder to keep those kicks off the court? What if the Nike folks didn’t find a way to use the “banning” of the Air Jordan 1 to catapult the sneaker’s stardom?
Well, part of why the Jordan brand is big now is because the NBA kind of didn’t want it to be.
Why was the Jordan 1 banned from NBA games?
On Oct. 18, 1984, Jordan took the court in an exhibition game vs. the Knicks wearing sneakers that were predominantly red and black. This wouldn’t seem to be such a foreign concept today, but in 1984, there were certain uniform guidelines that were adhered to. For sneakers specifically, a player had to have shoes that matched those of his teammates and also contain 51 percent white. The red and black sneakers — Jordan later would refer to them as “devil’s colors” — caught the eye of NBA commissioner David Stern.
Because the sneakers broke several rules, NBA executive VP Russ Granik sent a sternly worded letter (get it?) to Nike VP Rob Strasser in February 1985, confirming that Jordan would not be allowed to wear those sneakers on the court.
However, as with all things Jordan, there’s a bit of legend that goes into it.
While a pair of sneakers that Jordan wore were banned from play, it wasn’t the Air Jordan 1. In fact, it was the Jordan 1 precursor — the Nike Air Ship — that was banned because of the color scheme “His Airness” wore. Though the sneaker’s silhouette was strikingly similar to that of its successor, the Air Ship was a pre-existing model.
In future years, Jordan and Nike would amend the color scheme to feature more white to fit in with the NBA’s rules. Jordan would wear the Air Jordan 1 “Banned” colorway at the 1985 dunk contest, with Nike’s “Banned” ad campaign in full swing.
The 51-percent rule would stay in place until the late 2000s, when NBA relaxed the color restrictions for its players. In 2018-19, color restrictions for sneakers was completely removed.