"The Shot": A History of the Air Jordan IV
"The Shot": A History of the Air Jordan IV
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date February 19, 2019
One night in Cleveland 30 years ago, Michael Jordan rested his hands on his knees and tried to catch his breath. There was three seconds left on the clock and the Bulls were down one, enough time left for one shot, one crack at the next round of the playoffs. Jordan had already poured in 42 points, yet Cleveland still clung to a lead with one possession left to go.
Craig Ehlo and Larry Nance shadowed Jordan’s every move as he tried to wriggle free and catch the inbound pass. Nance wouldn’t even turn around and look at the inbounder. They knew where the ball was going. Anyone else could catch the ball and attempt the game-winner, carve their name into the history books. They could live with that. Anyone but Jordan.
There was a quick stutter step to the right that sent Nance leaning just a smidge, opening a gap for Jordan to receive the inbounds. He caught it and turned towards the free-throw line all in one stride, sensing the impending doom of the ticking clock. One dribble. Nance never recovered in time. Two dribbles. Ehlo still stood in his way. He rose up and Ehlo met him at the summit.
But suddenly as Ehlo rose up, Jordan stopped. Everyone knew Jordan could fly. He soared in the dunk contest from the free-throw line and rocked the basketball under his arm before throwing down a thunderous dunk with the ease of an autumn breeze. He dunked over Patrick Ewing so many times it felt routine. Jordan was flying since he first wore his banned Air Jordan Is his rookie season and took the world by storm. But here he was with the game on the line and a nemesis defending his last gasp attempt. And he just...hung there.
Watching the YouTube clip now almost feels like it’s being replayed in slow motion. Mid-air, Jordan double-clutches, pausing his jump shot as Ehlo flew right past him. By the time Jordan releases the ball, now with a clear view of the basket, Ehlo is nearly out of the frame entirely. He summoned every ounce of strength and energy to contest one last shot, to prevent an inevitable heartbreak. Jordan hits the shot, the Chicago Bulls go to the next round, and the thousands of screaming fans in Cleveland stand there in stunned silence. Jordan lands from one of his signature pursuits of flight in a pair of Black Air Jordan IVs. He jumps and pumps his fist before being mobbed by teammates, and one of his iconic moments, “The Shot,” is born, and the Air Jordan IV is engrained in sports lore for the next three decades.
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In February of 1989, the Air Jordan IV released to the masses for $110. Designed by Tinker Hatfield, the mad genius behind the Jordan III, Nike and Jordan embarked on a global release of the IV for the first time in the franchise’s history. The four original colorways—Black/Cement Grey, White/Black, White/Fire Red and Off White/Military Blue—boasted a Jumpman (Flight) logo on the tongue,a Nike Air logo on the heel tab, along with a visible Nike Air bubble on the midsole, much like the Hatfield-designed III which preceded it.
When designing the III, Jordan brand felt that the shoe should not only feature high-performance functionality for the highest-flying athlete in the world, but also reflect his personal on-court aesthetic. So, Hatfield was diligent in involving Jordan himself in every step of the process, even encouraging his input. That process continued on the IV, however this time Hatfield placed an even greater emphasis on performance.
The most noticeable stylistic difference was the addition of molded layer of urethane-coated mesh netting for added breathability. The shoe featured two lace locks on either side, with enough holes to create 18 different ways for Jordan—as well as other athletes—to lace his shoes, and added layer of customization for optimal comfort while playing. Seeking style and substance, Hatfield introduced Durabuck, a synthetic performance fabric on the black/cement grey colorway. Aesthetically similar to Nubuck leather, Durabuck was lighter and more durable ideal for a performance sneaker designed to last. The sole was rubber, assisting Jordan’s signature bounce and forgiving during his many intense movements on the court.
The Air Jordans that transcend simple basketball sneakers and become pop culture icons typically do so for two reasons: They are attached to an indelible on-court Jordan moment or season—in this case, “The Shot”—and they are accompanied by an iconic Nike marketing campaign. The IV checks both those boxes.
Following the major success of Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon character as part of the rollout for the Jordan III, Lee reprised his character for the IV marketing campaign as well. Blackmon’s message, ”this you can buy...you can’t do this”—essentially while you can’t play like Jordan, you can buy his shoes—was met with rave reviews. In addition to his comedic presence in commercials, Lee took things a step further for the IV, making the sneaker a focal point in a scene from his cult classic Do The Right Thing.
In the beloved scene, Giancarlo Esposito’s Buggin’ Out is on the street talking to Lee’s Mookie when a neighbor bumps into the former while finishing a bike ride. The camera focuses down on the shoes as Buggin’ Out proceeds to famously say, “you just stepped on my brand new white Air Jordans!” With that, the Jordan IV becomes a part of pop culture like no other Jordan before it. The sneaker moment was so iconic that in 2017, Jordan Brand released a limited edition “Do The Right Thing” Jordan IV, complete with the red/yellow/green lace crown a la Buggin’ Out with the signature scuff to match.
The shoe’s pivotal role in the movie was a huge moment for both Jordan brand and for sneaker culture in general. More than simply highlighting the shoe, the sneaker was used as a device to discuss race relations, gentrification and the outsize role Jordan Brand would have on a generation of young people. A year before the controversial Sports Illustrated article, “Your Sneakers or Your Life,” Do The Right Thing put highly sought after sneakers in the national spotlight.
“There would have been no sneaker culture if this guy didn’t make that shoe a character in a movie,” said DJ Clark Kent, known sneaker historian and cultural icon, at an event celebrating the legacy of Do The Right Thing and Lee’s association with Jordan Brand. “We’d like shoes, and kids would like shoes, but we wouldn’t think it was something special unless it became a character, so good looking out,” Clark said. While sneaker culture had permeated amongst different pockets of urban communities for years, Buggin’ Out’s on-screen fanaticism took the culture to new heights.
In 1999, ten years after its initial release, Jordan Brand began issuing retros of the Jordan IV. First, the original white and black colorways were released, followed by other colorways in 2000, and other iterations most years from 2004-2018. The shoe gained a cult-like following—not as popular as the I or III, but for those in the know, a much more subtle flex. Popular colorways included the White/Pure Platinum, “Mars Blackmon” Fire Reds, “Oreos” and “Motorsport” Blue.
While today Jordan collaborations are common—Off-White, Union, Supreme, etc.—they were unheard of in the early ‘00s. The Jordan IV was in fact the first in the line to ever lend itself to an outside collaboration. In 2005, LA-based sneaker boutique Undefeated created its own unique take on the IV, inspired by the colors of the flight jacket. Only 72 pairs were made, which were auctioned and raffled off, making the Undefeated x Air Jordan IV one of the rarest and most sought after sneakers ever made.
Later that same year, the most successful musical artist of the decade—and known Jordan fanatic—Eminem was gifted a special edition Air Jordan IV “Encore,” commemorating the release of his album of the same name. Reportedly limited to just 50 pairs, the friends and family exclusive was never publicly sold and nearly rivals the Undefeated Jordan IV in price. Considering the legendary status of the sneaker, Eminem partnered with Jordan Brand twice more on a pair of IVs, first on a limited collaboration with Carhartt in 2015 which were auctioned off for charity, as well as a limited rerelease of the original in 2018. Limited to only 23 pairs, the second pair is just as covetable, and similarly commands a five figure price tag.
In 2018, thanks to two different successful collaborations, the IV ventured into true hypebeast territory. First, there was the collaboration with Levi’s, which covered the shoe’s upper in denim. In three variations—blue, white and black—the shoes received a mixed response, however videos of DIY bleach and distressing jobs helped start a viral trend that made the sneakers a favorite amongst streetwear fiends. Then, Travis Scott put his spin on the shoe. Featuring a cool blue upper with red and black accents, the “Cactus Jack” IV officially cemented Scott’s relationship with Jordan Brand. Paying homage to his hometown of Houston, the colorway was reminiscent of the old Houston Oilers jerseys and became one of the most sought after non-retros of the year. Additionally, a number of Friends & Family samples have surfaced, including an olive and purple colorway.
Coinciding with its 30th anniversary, the original Black/Red Jordan IV is making a return later this year. Featuring the original Nike Air logo on the heel—like recent Jordan III retros—it’s sure to receive a warm welcome from devotees. It’s those very sneakers that started a legacy. Since it released in 1989, the Jordan IV has seen some spectacular moments, both on and off the court. Jordan finished another season averaging 32/8/8 before dispatching Cleveland thanks to his last-minute heroics in the playoffs. Nearly thirty years later, “The Shot” continues to play over and over on highlight reels every season. Off the court, the IV made movie appearances and is responsible for the proliferation of sneaker culture in mass media. While Jordan Brand already had a strong global presence—with fans around the world seeking out people who would ship Jordans abroad for a heavy tax—the IV created widespread international demand for the aspirational yet accessible product. What was once basketball and sneaker fans’ dirty little secret became a worldwide pop culture phenomenon. Like Jordan himself, the IV is untouchable.