A True (Blue) Collaboration: History of the Jordan III
A True (Blue) Collaboration: History of the Jordan III
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date March 15, 2018
Michael Jordan was no stranger to pressure. In the early years of his budding career, his famous, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed” line was as appropriate as ever. Year in and year out, Jordan would be dispensed from the playoffs despite his Herculean efforts. Scoring titles were nice and flashy dunks excited the crowd, but it wasn’t enough. No matter if it was the Boston Celtics or Detroit Pistons, someone always stood in Jordan’s path. Every year he would come back, the noise around him growing deafening with every playoff defeat, intent on proving everyone wrong.
When the time came to design and present Jordan’s third signature sneaker, Nike found themselves as the ones suffocating under excruciating pressure. Jordan’s five-year contract with the company was winding down and Nike had just lost two of its most important employees, creative director Peter Moore and vice president Rob Strasser, two men who were instrumental in the recruitment of Jordan to the company. Jordan had reportedly grown disgruntled with the design path of his line and the time seemed as good as any to see what else was out there. If Nike had any hope of keeping Jordan, they needed to wow him at this meeting.
Enter Tinker Hatfield.
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Hatfield, a former University of Oregon track athlete under Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, wasn’t even designing shoes for Nike when he was first brought in. He was originally tasked with conceptualizing trade shows and retail space, until a contest pulled him into the sneaker design world in 1985. His trademark creativity and ability to pull inspiration from all walks of life caught the eye (and often ire) of the design team. Soon after, he designed the revolutionary Air Max 1, and was now tasked with creating the largest athlete in the company’s pivotal third shoe. If there was anyone perfectly suited to break the Jordan line out of a creative rut, it was Hatfield.
The first thing Hatfield did was sit down and talk to Jordan. He wanted to round out the image, combining his dominant on-court performance with his effortless off-court brand of cool. He once described him as “educated and animated,” with his trademark “class and style,” in his 1988 Air Jordan manifesto. Upon meeting him, Hatfield soon found that Jordan cared deeply about various elements of the design process and, naturally knowing his needs for performance, set out to create a shoe to his liking.
“In the 1980s, Tinker Hatfield started to define what working with an athlete was all about,” says Mark Parker, Nike’s CEO. “Really digging in, getting to know them as athletes.”
No one at Nike had ever taken the time to really find out what Jordan wanted aside from maximum performance. Jordan would soon realize that he was gaining not only a skilled designer to his team, but a true collaborator, someone who could bring his wants and needs to life—an off-the-court Phil Jackson or Scottie Pippen. Beyond basketball, Jordan knew what he wanted in terms of style and substance and Hatfield made sure his voice was heard.
First and foremost, Jordan wanted a lighter shoe. Hatfield decided to make the III a mid to allow Jordan more flexibility. Jordan played above the rim and needed a shoe that wouldn’t impede his flight. Even though most basketball shoes of that time were high tops, it would be an easy change. Jordan’s next request would really get the creative juices flowing.
“[MJ] told me straight away that he wanted to be able to wear a new pair of shoes for every basketball game,” says Hatfield. “He wanted a broken-in, soft, comfortable, out-of-the-box experience.” Hatfield employed a tumbled leather that gave the feel of an immediately broken-in shoe. The leather was supple and textured and proved to be a luxurious revamp of the era’s stiff basketball shoes.
In addition to comfort, Hatfield placed an enormous emphasis on innovation. The Jordan III was the first in the line to feature the visible Air bubble within the sole, which was accompanied by the iconic Nike Air logo on the back. Hatfield selected an exotic black and grey elephant print pattern which wrapped around the heel and toe box. It was different and exciting, and crucially, it all played to Michael’s sensibilities. But the most important feature was the first appearance of Jordan’s now ubiquitous Jumpman logo front and center on the shoe’s tongue. Aside from a stylistic choice, this was a symbolic gesture from Hatfield. Jordan “the brand” was now front and center.
On the day of the design meeting, Jordan arrived four hours late. He was out golfing with Moore and Strasser, who were pitching him to join their new company, Sport Inc. With Jordan initially dismissive and aloof, Hatfield presented his creation. In front of Jordan, his parents and former Nike CEO Phil Knight, Hatfield impressed Jordan with his attention to detail and creative responses to their previous discussions. Upon seeing Hatfield’s prototype, Jordan was sold. This was the equivalent of Hatfield nailing a dagger three-pointer with time expiring in the fourth quarter.
four colorways hit the shelves—White/Cement Grey, Black/Cement Grey, White/Fire Red and White/True Blue.
While the shoes were selling out in stores around the world, Jordan was continuing to build his legend on the court. Jordan’s 1987-88 campaign was one of the single greatest seasons ever produced. He won his first of five MVP awards—while leading the league in scoring at an insane 35 points per game—as well as his first and only Defensive Player of the Year Award.
At All-Star Weekend in 1988, Jordan outdueled Dominique Wilkins in one of the most famous Slam Dunk contests in NBA history. In front of the hometown Chicago crowd, Jordan iced the matchup when he flew in for a dunk from the free throw line; arm cocked, tongue out, white Jordan IIIs on his feet. He would go on to win All-Star Game MVP the next day wearing the black IIIs.
“What we did as a team, was be able to build a product to sustain time,” Michael Jordan says, referring to his creative partnership with Hatfield. While the 1987-88 season was an incredible launchpad for the III, it was really just the beginning.
Capitalizing on the success of his movie She’s Gotta Have It, Nike brought in Spike Lee to reprise his role as Mars Blackmon, a character from the movie who always rocked Air Jordans. The duo of MJ and Spike would create one of the most important ad campaigns in sports and sneaker history, and its tagline, “It’s Gotta Be The Shoes,” lives on in sports advertising lore. The successful duo would work together again on campaigns for the Jordan IV and V over the next few years. The commercials represented a paradigm shift in sneaker advertising, with Nike pulling in Hollywood A-listers to lend a hand. But it wasn’t just Hollywood who was all in on the Jordan III. In the late ‘80s Eazy-E, Kid ’n Play, Geto Boys, New Edition and other performers wore Jordan IIIs on their respective album covers as well.
In 1994, Nike brought back the black-and-white colorways for the first retro run of the shoe, which surprisingly did not sell well. Jordan had retired from the NBA but his new models were still more sought-after. By the time it received a true retro return in 2001, demand for the classic shoe had risen. In addition to the Black/Cement version, the “True Blues” retroed for the first time and Nike released a new “Mocha” version. 2001 would mark a point when the retro market began to boom, thanks in large part to the return of the III.
The White/Cement version would see another return in 2003 and the “Fire Red” colorway, the last of the original four to finally get a retro, was re-released in 2007. The Jumpman logo would replace the Nike Air branding on the back of the shoe starting with the “True Blue” retro and “Mocha” releases in 2001. The Nike Air logo wouldn’t see the light of day again until 2013, when Jordan would release a special retro dubbed the White/Cement “Retro ’88.”
All told, dozens of iterations of the shoe have released in a multitude of colors and concepts in eight different years since the original 1988 drop, including a “Flip” design which moved the patented elephant print to the entire body of the shoe, as well as a “Do The Right Thing” design—a nod to frequent collaborator Spike Lee’s other classic film.
The shoe even saw a revival on the court during Jordan’s last gasp run with the Washington Wizards in the early 2000’s. While with the Bulls, Jordan never broke out the “True Blue” version on the court, but they got plenty of run during his time in Washington. Kobe Bryant even donned the “True Blues” during the 2003 All-Star Game as a tribute to Jordan. It would be MJ’s 15th and final appearance playing in the star-studded affair. German brand adidas had severed their ties with Bryant once allegations of sexual assault surfaced and Bryant would routinely wear Jordans during that time. Jordan regularly laced Bryant with personalized pairs, including a Lakers-inspired III, before eventually signing with Nike.
Celebrities from all walks of pop culture, especially in the world of hip-hop, have continued to keep the Jordan III in front of the camera even in years when releases were quiet. Jay-Z, Kanye West (before placing his sneaker allegiances elsewhere) and Kid Cudi, among others, kept the III in their rotation over the past decade. DJ Khaled even collaborated with Jordan on his own version—the red all-over “Grateful” Jordan IIIs complete with his signature “We The Best” logo—in conjunction with the release of his 2017 album.
The success of the III sparked the beginning of an incredible run for Hatfield at the helm of the Jordan line. Hatfield would go on to design Jordans III-XV, XX and XX3, along with assisting in various other Jordan models. He continued to pull inspiration from all over the world, from German sports cars (shout out the Jordan VI) to the Rising Sun, creating some of the most important sneakers in history. The creative synergy between Jordan and Hatfield remains unmatched and the III serves as a benchmark for all other signature sneakers. People may debate which Jordan silhouette is the greatest, but there’s no denying the III its place on the Air Jordan Mount Rushmore.
On February 17th, Jordan’s 55th birthday, Jordan re-released the Black/Cement III with the Nike Air branding on the heel for the first time since 2001. 30 years later and the shoe has doubled to a hefty $200 price tag, but that shouldn’t stop the masses from consuming.
The Jordan III resonates with fans of the brand and sneaker aficionados today for the same reasons it did in 1988—its flawless design, a hint of exotic flair, and the timeless memories from a product connected to the greatest basketball player of all time. It is obviously an important sneaker, not just in the Jordan lineage, but as a product connecting sports, fashion and pop culture for 30 years. That's not just talk either. The III has been a canvas for Justin Timberlake as a tie-in with his performance on one of the world's biggest stages—the Super Bowl. To honor the history of Hatfield's design, the special-edition III is inspired by the Nike designer's original sketches.
As the shoe celebrates three decades at the top of the sneaker game, Nike has put the shoe at the center of its 2018 release calendar. Aside from the aforementioned JTH release, The Jordan III received releases that link the shoe to the Seoul Olympics (and Jordan fans) in South Korea, as well as another Tinker-centric homage; the former hit stores March 10, and the latter drops in on March 24. Fans of the silhouette should also expect iterations in Flyknit and all-white (recalling the "Pure Money" release from 2007).
“Phil Knight thinks I helped save Nike that day,” Hatfield says in regard to that tense meeting with Jordan all those years ago. Even if Hatfield thinks those sentiments are hyperbolic, the Jordan III’s importance cannot be overstated. With pressure mounting and Nike about to bust, Tinker truly designed a diamond.