Greater than the "Flu Game": A History of the Jordan XII
Greater than the "Flu Game": A History of the Jordan XII
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date February 3, 2021
Michael Jordan was sick. On the morning of Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Jordan had a 103-degree fever and was experiencing severe flu-like symptoms. With the series tied at two games apiece and the matchup shifting to a hostile environment in Utah for a decisive fifth game, it was uncertain if Jordan would even have the requisite energy to suit up.
Not only did Jordan take the court, but he dominated Utah, racking up 38 points and 7 rebounds, including the go-ahead three-pointer with 25 seconds left in the game. Jordan was swiping passes and running the fast break while getting pumped with fluids, covered in towels and doused with ice packs during every time out. With the game all but decided, Jordan could barely walk to the bench for a final timeout with seconds to play, as teammate Scottie Pippen had to prop his heroic teammate up on the way to the huddle. On arguably the biggest gut-check night of Jordan’s Herculean career, he was wearing his “Black/Red” Jordan XIIs, But after that night, they would be renamed the “Flu Games” and become a part of sports lore and sneaker vernacular for the ensuing two decades.
Despite the “flu,” Jordan and the Bulls would hang on to win and take a 3-2 series lead, before ultimately vanquishing the Jazz for good in Game Six back in Chicago. While the “Flu Game” has taken on a life of its own in the two decades since that night in Utah, Jordan has since debunked some of the details from that legendary performance. In ESPN’s 10-hour documentary The Last Dance, which chronicles the final 1997-1998 season of the Chicago Bulls dynasty, Jordan claims that he wasn’t suffering from the flu, but instead a violent bout of food poisoning. Up late the night before and clamoring for some food, the only option was ordering from a nearby pizzeria. Despite suspicions from some of his friends and handlers, Jordan ate the pizza and suffered the consequences throughout the night and into the next day.
While the “Food Poisoning” XIIs don’t quite roll off the tongue the way the “Flu Game” XIIs do, it doesn’t change the fact that it was a heroic output on a night when him and his team had their collective backs against the wall and the fate of the NBA Championship hung in the balance. It’s the story of that night in Utah, along with the XII’s design and legacy, that makes it one of the most important Air Jordans of all time.
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The Jordan XII originally released in 1996 in its popular white and black colorway, better known as the “Taxi.” Four more original colorways would be released as we rolled into 1997, including the aforementioned red and black “Flu Games,” a “White/Varsity Red,” “Obsidian,” and a “Black/White” colorway commonly known as the “Playoffs.” These original pairs would retail for $135 and were a huge hit throughout the 1996-1997 season.
By 1997, Jordan’s legacy and worldwide acclaim had become larger than ever. He was already one of the most popular people in the world, according to a study conducted by Warner Bros. in preparation for the movie Space Jam (along with Princess Diana and The Pope). The Jordan Brand would effectively launch as an independent subsidiary of Nike in 1997 and the Jordan XII would be a pillar of the brand’s inaugural year. Tinker Hatfield was once again brought in to design this landmark shoe, and he looked across the globe for inspiration on the shoe’s aesthetic.
Japan’s Rising Sun flag has been a complicated piece of history for centuries, leading all the way back to the days of feudal warlords in the 7th Century. It would eventually become a symbol for the powerful Imperial Japanese military all the way through the end of World War II in 1945. The red and white flag and its radial sun rays would serve as the primary inspiration for the XII’s upper, which featured a similar pattern of stitched panels across the sides that resembled the Rising Sun’s patterned rays.
Also serving as an inspiration was a 19th-century women’s shoe design, believe it or not. Jordan wasn’t afraid of fashion and throughout the process of building the Jordan Brand, Hatfield in particular played to his fashionable sensibilities. Whether it was installing elephant print or patent leather, Jordan wasn’t afraid to go outside the box to create the most fashion-forward sneakers. Despite the XII being a somewhat traditional basketball sneaker in terms of its shape, its profile gives off a similar effect to a high heel, with the leather upper rounding down by the heel, often traversing a contrasting color midsole. As with every Air Jordan that was released, Jordan and Hatfield wanted to make sure it was as stylish off the court as it was durable on the court.
In addition to the design influences, Hatfield made sure to step up the sneakers’ on-court technology, as always. The Jordan XII would be the first Air Jordan to feature Zoom Air in any capacity, adding necessary cushioning for Jordan’s aerial pursuits. The carbon fiber plate, which was a big part of the design upgrades on the previous Jordan XI, saw a marked improvement on the XII as well.
The sneakers would often feature gold or silver (black on the “Flu Games”) lace locks up by the collar, as well as a small Jumpman logo on the tongue. While we’ve grown accustomed to Jordan’s number 23 being featured on most Air Jordan models to that point, Hatfield tweaked that tradition on the XII, spelling out “TWO3” below the Jumpman logo, behind the laces.
Despite a stellar season in which the Chicago Bulls nearly won 70 games for the second year in a row, Jordan did not win the coveted NBA MVP award. He finished second in the voting, during a historically close vote, to Utah’s Karl Malone. In typical Jordan fashion, he would exact revenge on Malone during the Finals, as the MVP snub would motivate him to prove he was the superior player and captained the superior team. Jordan wasn’t the only Bull who would lace up Jordan XII’s that season. Pippen would often opt for the XII over his own Nike sneakers, and role players like Bill Wennington and Luc Longley, among others, sported the XIIs en route to their championship win.
It would be six years before the Jordan XII would receive its initial run of retro releases. Beginning in 2003 and extending into 2004, Jordan Brand would release an incredible amount of XIIs in brand new colorways, including some in low-top variations for the first time.
A “Flu Game” and “Playoff” retro release would be the only original colorways dropped in 2003-04, but we were introduced to all new colorways which proved to be successful, including the “Flint Grey,” “French Blue” (which were worn by Kobe Bryant that year), a “UNC”-inspired colorway in women’s sizing, and low-top iterations of the “Taxi” and “Obsidian” colorways.
In November 2003, Jordan Brand released the first-ever internet-exclusive Jordan, which would be the Black and University Blue-clad “Nubuck” colorway. Actual invitations were mailed out to registered members of the Nike Store and Jordan Brand’s website, with a special date, time and URL printed on the invite for you to log on and purchase the shoe. On release day, in a sign of things to come over the next two decades, the site crashed due to the amount of traffic. The release was delayed and message boards like NikeTalk had a lot of angry sneakerheads lamenting the release’s malfunction.
While the Jordan XII was experiencing a renaissance throughout the 2003-04 NBA season, Carmelo Anthony was completing his first year as both a member of the Denver Nuggets and as a Jordan Brand athlete. He would receive a “White/University Blue” player exclusive colorway of the Jordan XII during the season. Ultimately, due to Anthony’s and the sneakers’ success, the “Melo” PE would receive a proper release in May 2004.
The XIIs would be put on ice until 2008, when they would be released as a part of Jordan Brand’s “Countdown Pack” series. Paired with the “Bred” Jordan XI would be the “Taxi” XII, forming the most popular Pack in the series. It would be the first time the Taxi colorway released in its original form since its debut in 1996. While the “Countdown Pack” proved to be hit and miss, the XI/XII Pack was the most formidable duo in the entire series, thanks in part to the Taxi’s anticipated return.
This proved to be the beginning of another retro run for the Jordan XII, which culminated in 2009 with the release of some controversial colorways. The popular “Flu Game” XIIs returned in 2009, albeit in a nubuck upper, as opposed to its original leather. Jordan Brand would also once again double back on its original design inspiration, the Japanese Rising Sun flag, for an all-white “Rising Sun” colorway, which was met with negative press.
The 2009 “Rising Sun” colorway was supposed to feature graphics of the Rising Sun flag printed on the insoles, which upset many around the world, because of the flag’s overt connection with an Imperial regime and its connections with Nazi Germany. Nike and Jordan Brand would eventually listen to the complaints and would replace the graphic insert with a plain white one instead.
Over the ensuing decade, the XII became a centerpiece of some high-profile collaborations. One with the popular streetwear brand Public School New York and one with Nike ambassador and worldwide megastar Drake, and his OVO imprint, in particular.
Public School’s “Dark Grey” colorway of the Jordan XII released in 2015 alongside a small capsule collection of apparel. The all-grey suede upper was an elevated look for the XII and a hit for the brand. So much so that Public School dropped three more colorways of the XII in 2017 for its “City Pack.” Wheat, Olive and Bordeaux colorways of the XII dropped in conjunction with the corresponding cities they were designed to represent, New York, Milan and Paris respectively.
After tackling the Jordan X in 2015, Drake opted to collaborate with Nike on the Jordan XII in 2016. Releasing in both white and black colorways, the sneakers dropped in limited quantities via Draw on the SNKRS App and in various OVO flagship locations. The sneakers featured trademark OVO accents like hits of gold throughout and OVO branding on the sole.
The “Flu Game” XIIs would also return once again in 2016, this time back in their original leather construction. In 2018, a suede maize and blue Jordan XII would be released in honor of the University of Michigan, a Jordan Brand-outfitted sports program. They featured a big Michigan “M” on the tongue as opposed to the traditional Jumpman logo. Other colorways like the “Chinese New Year,” “Reverse Taxi” and “FIBA” would drop as well, along with many other unique variations in both men’s and women’s sizing, to varying levels of success.
In keeping with tradition, Nike released two different (and equally excellent) 30-second commercial spots for the Jordan XII’s original release. The “Frozen Moment” featured Jordan attacking the Los Angeles Lakers, as onlookers at the game and spectators watching on TV stood transfixed at the magical moment that was about to happen, while his “Challenge Me” spot featured a sweaty, determined Jordan, taking off from the foul line once again, in case you dared to doubt whether or not he still had it at this point in his career.
Despite being flu-ridden and exhausted from years of heavy minutes and Championship battles, it would prove to be insane for anyone to doubt Michael Jordan in 1997. Whenever he was slighted, whether it be intentional (Bryon Russell calling him “Michelle” in the 1997 Finals) or unintentional (Karl Malone winning the 1997 NBA MVP), Jordan was ready to retaliate. And that year, he retaliated as only he could, by winning another NBA Championship while wearing the iconic Air Jordan XII.