Undoubtedly, this is by far the most subjective piece this author has ever undertaken and the pressure to somehow complete this list is both daunting and, speaking frankly, near impossible. The reality though is that you really can’t go wrong with anything in the Air Jordan line at all; they’re timeless, they always make a statement, they’re stylish, they are, in a word, Jordans. Have you ever heard someone say, “Why on Earth are you wearing Air Jordans?” Of course not and you never will. The real questions is, other than the fact that Jordan could perform like no one else on the basketball court, how did Nike manage to conquer the globe with Air Jordans? Here’s the answer.
In 1872, Karl Marx wrote what is largely considered his definitive work, Das Kapital, and probably one of the most difficult reads – period. In that work, Marx spent considerable time and effort on the commodity – where he articulated that all commodities possess two inherent properties: use value and exchange value. This wasn’t exactly a revelation and for those who aren’t business minded it’s actually quite simple. Air Jordans are, at the end of the day, basketball sneakers. Use value (in this case Air Jordans) is what the commodity is “used” for. Exchange value, on the other hand, is what the commodity can be bought and sold for in the marketplace, and we know that exchange value can fluctuate depending on the market: surplus, market trends, the public’s willingness to purchase goods, etc. However, Nike seemed to have a window into Marx’s writing that few others did, or do. Karl Marx also spoke of something that he termed “commodity fetishism,” which is a third, and oftentimes overlooked quality inherent in all commodities. What is it? Commodity fetishism is basically the feeling that one gains in consuming or buying commodity, not for its use value at all, but what the commodity says about the person and how the person wants to be perceived by others in the world. Enter Nike and Michael Jordan!
Prior to Michael Jordan, consumers of basketball sneakers by and large used their purchases for the hardwood (or playground). The point is, consumers of basketball sneakers would (or at least attempt) to play basketball. Air Jordans changed all that. Air Jordans, while maintaining their use value as the #1 basketball shoe, also, and even more so, transcended the basketball court entirely. Jordans, almost immediately after hitting the market, have every bit as much to do with fashion, status, and a sense of belonging as they do about basketball. In short, Michael Jordan and Nike changed branding as we know it today and, although the greatest basketball player in history has stopped playing, the kicks are just as popular. And you have to admit, socio-political economics aside, Air Jordans are sweet looking kicks. The following is an entirely subjective list of the Top 20 Nicest Jordans of All Time.
20 Air Jordan III - “Retro Night Stadium”
The Air Jordan IIIs were undoubtedly near perfect in every way; these were what Jordan was sporting in the 1988 Slam Dunk contest when he lifted off from the foul line (or thereabouts). Released as part of a “Fear Pack,” you could grab this colour scheme in the Jordan III, IV, and V. According to Sneakernews, the Jordan Fear Pack was inspired by the fear that Jordan would instill in his opponents, while paradoxically articulating the fear that one would feel if they were to, as Atticus Finch would say, “climb into his skin and walk around in it.” The one insole reads “I’m scared of what I won’t become,” while the other reads, “And you’re scared of what I could become.”
19 Air Jordan XXIII - “Chicago”
The last numbered Air Jordans in the historic shoe series, Nike chose, for obvious reasons, to end the run at number 23. Using environmentally friendly materials in the construction, the Jordan XXIIIs have Jordan’s thumbprint on the inside of the tongue and the outsole is also intended to look like MJ’s forensics. Additionally, the left shoe tongue sports the Jumpman logo and the right tongue depicts the number 23. After the Air Jordan XXIII, Nike went to identifying Jordans by the year they were made, which began in 2009.
18 Air Jordan XVIII - White/Royal
During his final NBA season, Michael Jordan was wearing the Air Jordan XVIIIs and, like some of the other Air Jordan designs, they portray Jordan’s love of automobiles. In this case we’re talking high end Formula 1 cars, as the shoe itself somewhat resembles the footwear of an F1 driver. Also of note is Jordan’s affinity for style, with the stitching being motivated by his preference of fine Italian dress shoes. In his final game on April 16, 2003th, Jordan went with the White/Royal colour scheme.
17 Air Jordan II - Dark Cinder/Black
The Air Jordan IIs? What do those even look like? If you remember back to Jordan’s second season in the NBA, he only played 18 games – that in turn meant that far fewer opponents were “posterized” while Jordan was wearing these. And that’s less advertising. That said, the Air Jordan IIs in Dark Cinder say “fashion, luxury, and style,” they’re like a leather jacket on your feet, coupled with a royalesque wax stamp on the left shoe. With these kicks you could be literally styled out while walking by the 4th street courts in Manhattan and jump in the cage for a run if you felt the urge.
16 Air Jordan V - “Doernbecher”
The Oregon Health & Science University is home to the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and the inspiration for these philanthropic Jordans. These Jordan Vs come in two colour schemes, both based on the design concepts of Isaac Arzate, who was a patient at Doernbecher hospital that, at 12yrs old, went into cardiac arrest during a basketball practice, recovered from open heart surgery, and later succumbed to a second heart attack and tragically passed. The outside of the left shoe sports the #9 and the right shoe #31, Isaac’s baseball and basketball jersey numbers respectively.
15 Air Jordan X - “Bulls Over Broadway”
There are a couple of things that make these particular shoes special, aside from how awe-inspiring they look. Firstly, Jordan was fresh out of retirement and was looking for a stage to reclaim his status as the best baller on the planet; he chose Manhattan and the New York Knicks as the backdrop for his 55 point performance. Secondly, MJ was wearing the number 45 at the time, which he did wear for a handful of games before going back to the number 23. The “Bulls Over Broadway” Xs have a great narrative behind them, high quality red leather contrasted with black in all the right places and these Jordans unquestionably belong on Broadway.
14 Air Jordan Future - “Dark Chocolate”
As an off-court shoe and low cut to boot, the Air Jordan Future is the ideal casual shoe. The dark chocolate color tone serves only to add to the Future’s versatility as an all-purpose sneaker that sacrifices nothing in the style department. Again, Nike reinvented advertising and marketing with Michael Jordan, so you needn’t worry about coming under scrutiny for what you lack on the basketball court while wearing these – there is no expectation that you can actually play basketball.
13 Air Jordan XIV - “Last Shot” Black/Varsity Red
Michael Jordan has a love for cars and these Air Jordan XIVs were designed to mirror a Ferrari. And, in one of Jordan’s most famous moments, the “Last Shot” Jordans are the shoes he was wearing when he hit the last shot against the Utah Jazz in 1998 – which was also his last shot as a Chicago Bull. In this edition of the XIVs, the Jumpman logo appears on the shoes multiple times, but the one that stands out most is in yellow, which could easily be mistaken for the Ferrari horse from a distance. These Jordans offer a fast, high performance, yet comfortable ride – they won’t steer you wrong.
12 Air Jordan XIX - “Black Mamba”
Indiana Jones hated snakes, Nike, on the other hand, was inspired by them. The Air Jordan XIXs were inspired by the black mamba, which is the most poisonous, fastest, and longest, yet one of the most enigmatic snakes in Africa. The shoe itself has a scaly quality with a mix of patent leather. And although Jordan never actually wore these shoes in the NBA, other noteworthy players did and the shoes came in color schemes to match their teams; namely, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Ray Allen, and Carmelo Anthony.
11 Air Jordan XI - “Concord 45”
The Air Jordan XI is an excellent basketball shoe for a variety of reasons which are forthcoming, so this entry will focus on its cultural significance and where Michael Jordan was in his career at the time. In short, Michael Jordan wore two other numbers while playing in the NBA. One was the #12, which he wore on Valentine’s Day in 1990, after his #23 was stolen from the Bulls’ locker room. The other was when he came out of retirement wearing the #45, the number that he wore while playing baseball for the Birmingham Barons. Additionally, Jordan’s #23 was actually retired by the Bulls on November 1st 1994. In sum, Jordan came back to the NBA in 1995 wearing #45 and the Air Jordan XI with the #45 on the heel serves as a reminder of that time in his career.
10 Air Jordan XIII “He Got Game” White, Black/True Red
Shame on you if you don’t remember the film, He Got Game, where Ray Allen played a young basketball player named Jesus Shuttlesworth, whose father Jake in the film, played by Denzel Washington, purchases a pair of Air Jordans. The film is a culmination of some of Spike Lee’s best social commentary work, along with perhaps the best collaborative, cross genre, musical ensemble of all time – Public Enemy and Buffalo Springfield, who used the hook from “For What It’s Worth” for their song “He Got Game.” Great film, great shoes.
9 Air Jordan I “UNC”
In 1985, Nike signed Michael Jordan to a 5 year contract for around $2.5 million, which was an absolute steal for Nike. Today, however, Jordan makes about $100 million a year in Jordan Brand royalties alone. When he did originally sign with Nike, he was coming off an NCAA title and Olympic Gold Medal and, like other NBAers who are proud alumnus, Jordan is a Tar Heel. These Jordans certainly capture that connection with their simple, yet classic Chapel Hill colours.
8 Air Jordan XVII
These are what Jordan had on his feet when he returned to the hardwood to play for the Washington Wizards. The shoes have a musically inspired jazzy look to them, coupled with MJ’s ever-present love of cars – this time the Aston Martin. The lace cover on these Jordans is removable so the wearer could chose “to show, or not to show “the laces. Additionally, Jordan scored his 30 000th point while wearing the XVIIs, well playing against the Bulls. which was a perfect way to reach that milestone.
7 Air Jordan XVI - Black/Red
The Air Jordan XVIs are intended to showcase Michael Jordan the Executive, as he transitioned from the basketball court to the front office. A solid looking shoe, the XVIs meld a few themes that reflect where MJ was in his life. First, there is the sleek, high performance car theme; next, the time tested architecture theme, and although Jordan was a trailblazer during his career; changing marketing, branding, advertising, and basketball as we know it, the Air Jordan XVIs have a more conservative look to them, like that of marching boots. These shoes seem to reflect a more nostalgic attitude toward the game, echoing voices like Charles Barkley, who continue to be reminiscent of the glory days and lament over the attitudes exhibited by the current crop of young NBAers.
6 Air Jordan VI - “Champagne Metallic Green”
What do you do after you win your first NBA title? You drink champagne and smoke cigars – two things Michael Jordan would do frequently. The shoe itself is a high shine green and the tongue an equally shimmering gold to resemble a champagne bottle. And even more awesome is the would-be foil that would cover the bottle’s cork – on these shoes it’s a gold ring with the Jumpman logo on the face.
Quick footnote, Jerry Seinfeld wore these sneakers (with a different color scheme) in the second season of Seinfeld.
5 Air Jordan 2010 – Black/Red/White
2010 was the 25th year of the Air Jordan Brand and these shoes give a literal window into Michael Jordan’s game. The 2010 Jordans are built for the “modern game” with a thinner air bag that “provides the players with a better ability to feel the floor” and fit like a glove. The 2010 Jordans are also the most environmentally friendly of the series. When they were revealed in 2009, Dwyane Wade was standing alongside Jordan as the current NBA face of the brand.
4 Air Jordan XI – Black/Red
From a performance standard alone, the Air Jordan XI is one of the most popular basketball sneakers. In Sole Collector Magazine, the Air Jordan XI was voted “the top shoe of all time.” Also of trivial note is that MJ was wearing these shoes in the film Space Jam and because of the shoe’s style, patent leather and all, Jordan was quoted as saying that you could wear the Air Jordan XIs with a tuxedo. While wearing these shoes on the court, Jordan returned to his old ways in his first full season after his retirement: All-Star selection and All-Star game MVP, NBA scoring champ and league MVP, and NBA Finals MVP and NBA title winner – for the fourth time.
3 Air Jordan IV - Black Cement
Any of the top three Air Jordans could almost be interchanged, however, despite the Air Jordan IV being one of the most popular in the entire series, it didn’t have a lot of innovative firsts, but rather went with what worked and there’s nothing wrong with that. Spike Lee teamed up with MJ for a second time to rekindle a great marketing campaign from the year before, the Jumpman logo worked on the IIIs and it was here to stay. The cut of the shoe is actually very similar to the Air Jordan III, save the breathable mesh and the plastic heel tab. This shoe could easily be #1 on any given day.
2 Air Jordan I – Black/Red
With a 1985 retail price of $65, the first installment of the Air Jordan shoe was the most expensive basketball shoe on the market. One of the more famous Jordan photos of all time has him way up high, close to the rim, wearing gold chains and wearing these Air Jordans in black and red. That year, his rookie year in 1986, MJ also had his 63 point playoff performance against the Boston Celtics and, although the Bulls couldn’t get past Larry Bird that year, Jordan gave the world a glimpse of things to come.
1 Air Jordan III - Black Cement
These are it, the Air Jordan IIIs in black cement; undoubtedly and without question the nicest Air Jordans of All Time! At least at the time of writing they are. This was the first year, 1988, where the Jumpman logo was used in lieu of the wings as well as a basketball shoe that wasn’t the traditional high cut. The faux elephant print would also become a fixture with the Air Jordan design along with high quality leather. Nike also advertised heavily with these shoes, using Spike Lee and Michael Jordan; remember Mars Blackman standing on MJ’s shoulders saying, “Do you know, do you know, do you know?” Jordan averaged 35 points per game in these kicks and they continue to be the most popular Jordans of all time.