A History of the Nike Air Ship
A History of the Nike Air Ship
- Words Jake Woolf
- Date February 13, 2020
Most people know 1984 as the year George Orwell predicted the world would be in an apocalyptic surveillance state, while others know it as when Apple launched the Macintosh (alongside an Orwellian, hall-of-fame Super Bowl commercial). To basketball and sneaker fans, 1984 means something else entirely: It was when the league and signature sneakers would be changed forever by a man named Michael Jordan, who made his debut with the Chicago Bulls on October 26 of that year.
Few knew it at the time, but Nike—thanks in large part to the foresight of marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro—had struck gold with MJ. (Today, Jordan Brand earns Nike more than $3 billion a year, and Jordan himself pulls in north of $100 million off royalties.) In college, Jordan wore Converse (as all players at the University of North Carolina did), and just months before his NBA debut, wanted to sign a deal with adidas. But the Three Stripes ultimately never even made MJ an offer, as adidas execs evidently wanted to sign star centers, which is the same reason the Portland Trail Blazers went with Sam Bowie over MJ with the number two overall pick in the ’84 draft. (Note: You hate to see it.) But given that Jordan didn’t actually ink a deal with the Swoosh until the day the season kicked off in 1984 (despite the fact that he had already been posing for photoshoots in Air Jordan 1s and wearing Nike sneakers in August and September), there wasn’t enough time to get the new Air Jordan perfected for game wear and on Michael in time. So, instead, Nike had to outfit Jordan in another one of its signature styles. Two years earlier, the Air Force 1 was a landmark event as Nike’s first-ever “Air” sneaker, but by the time Jordan was ready to don a Bulls jersey, it had a new flagship model in its arsenal—the Air Ship. As such, this would be the sneaker Jordan would wear when he first suited up in the NBA, and—infamously—the one that the NBA banned when he wore it in a black/red color scheme during the pre-season.
In 2020, with the Air Ship set for its first-ever retro release next month alongside a pair of white/red Air Jordan 1s as part of the “new beginnings” pack (according to rumors), let’s take a look back at the mystery and legend that surrounds Michael Jordan’s first ever on-court kicks.
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An Important, If Nothing Special, Design
The Air Ship was designed by Bruce Kilgore—the same man behind the Air Force 1—and at first glance, Kilgore’s design language, as well as then-Nike creative director Peter Moore’s, is all over the Air Ship. In somewhat reductive terms, the Air Ship was kind of an Air Force 1 minus the iconic strap. There was the high-top design, the leather upper, the Swoosh, the thick rubber sole with “Nike” in raised lettering (which is “Air” on Air Force 1s), and, put simply, the same overall styling. They also, of course, had Nike’s then two-year-old Air bubble inserted into the sole unit. In that regard, if it weren’t for its place in history as Jordan’s first on-court kicks, the Air Ship doesn’t really stand out. Ultimately, it didn’t add much newness to Nike’s basketball sneaker line-up other than being, surely Nike argued at the time, an improvement on the Air Force 1.
So, because of its similarities to the preceding Air Force 1 and successive Air Jordan 1, style-wise, the Air Ship has many of the traits of a classic Nike basketball sneaker from the 1980s. Still, it never took flight (pun not intended) as a go-to for Nike—and as we’ll learn, that really was by design in the case of the Swoosh and its marketing efforts. Ultimately, however, this is a case of a shoe being overshadowed and bookended by two truly legendary kicks—even if the Air Ship ultimately has importance to Nike, Michael Jordan and Jordan Brands’ stories.
Banned by the League?
Nike’s first Air Jordan campaign remains one of the all-time great sneaker advertisements. As Michael Jordan dribles slowly, the ball’s bounces echoing, the camera pans down from his face to his feet over the course of 20 seconds. Meanwhile, a voiceover states the following: “On September 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. October 18, the NBA threw them out of the league.”
While this is ingenious “rebellion” marketing, and made the Air Jordan 1s seem like sneakers from the future that were “too good” to be allowed in the NBA—not to mention, gave the black and red Air Jordan 1s the “banned” nickname they have to this day—it’s based on a lie. (At least kind of—more on that in the next section.) The real story is this: On October 18, 1984, during a preseason game against the Knicks, Michael Jordan did in fact wear a pair of black and red Nikes, and the league did tell Jordan that they violated uniform policies of the time (which stated that sneakers had to be white and that teammates’ shoes had to match one another, a rule which clearly is not the case today. In fact, starting last season, NBA players were officially allowed to wear whatever color sneakers they desire. Whether that’s turned out to be a good or bad thing aesthetically is for another time). The NBA later confirmed that it had outlawed MJ’s sneakers worn “on or around” October 18, 1984, though this letter did not arrive until February 1985. They also only referred to “a certain pair of black and red Nike basketball shoes,” not Air Ships or Air Jordans. This of course only helped Nike’s marketing campaign for the Air Jordan 1, which was released for the first time to the public just a month later in March.
As the legend goes, the league threatened to fine Jordan $5,000 if he wore the black/red shoes again, which Nike agreed to pay, allowing Jordan to give the black/red Nikes even more of a “bad boy” patina. But, when MJ actually did start wearing Air Jordan 1s in games around November 1984, it’s unclear if he actually wore them in the “banned” colorway, if he ever was fined, or if Nike ever paid said fines. (Actually, most of the evidence, photos, game footage, or otherwise, seems to suggest Jordan never wore the black/red Air Jordan 1s or Air Ships in a regular reason or playoff NBA game.) But the fact that most sneakerheads and Jordan fans simply know this as fact speaks to Nike’s brilliant myth-making.
But, Maybe They Were Air Jordans After All?
Here’s where things get particularly sticky in terms of determining the Air Ship’s legacy. See, despite the fact that they weren’t Air Jordan 1s, Michael Jordan’s particular Air Ships weren’t exactly stock, either. For one, Nike never released the Air Ship in a black/red colorway to the public. Then there’s the fact that MJ’s black/red pair did in fact feature the words “Air Jordan” on the heel. But beyond these cosmetic additions, the Air Ships Michael Jordan wore were heavily modified from the ones sold by Nike at the time. They were shorter than the regular high-tops, making them much more similar to what ultimately would become the Air Jordan 1. And the actual sole unit was thinner too, whereas the stock Air Ships had a sole much thicker and more similar to the Air Force 1.
When you add all of these elements together, it makes the case of Michael Jordan’s “Air Ships” even more complicated than just calling them Air Ships. It also calls into question Nike’s advertising claim that it “created a revolutionary new basketball sneaker” which was then banned by the NBA. If you take a basketball shoe and make it an inch or so shorter, then completely redesign its sole unit, do it up in a new colorway and add a new brand name to the heel, isn’t that kind of a brand new sneaker altogether? We’ll let you debate that in the comments.
Erased From History
Still, Nike was so dedicated to its brand new Air Jordan 1s—and the Air Jordan brand in general—that by the time March 1985 came around and the shoes were released, the Air Ship was all but dead. As far as one can tell, the shoes stopped being sold around that same time, while later in 1985, Nike would debut a new flagship non-Jordan sneaker, only this time, it was one built around the Swoosh’s push to take over the college hoops market: The Nike Dunk.
In fact, Nike did not even acknowledge the Air Ship’s existence at all for decades, despite the fact that sneakerheads knew quickly that it, not the Air Jordan 1, was the shoe “banned” by the NBA. It’s as if the model was essentially erased from the brand’s history—no retros, no modernized versions, nada. At least, until 2014. On October 26, 2014, @jumpan23 (the official Jordan Brand account) tweeted a photo out of MJ’s feet in the Air Ships to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his debut in the NBA. As you might expect, everyone thought this meant a Nike Air Ship retro was imminent. It turns out, this tweet essentially meant nothing other than Jordan Brand finally paying homage to its roots.
Finally, a Retro Has Arrived
So, over 35 years since MJ first laced up a pair of Nike Air Ships, a retro now finally appears to be on the very near horizon. In December of last year, seemingly out of nowhere, a picture of a new pair of Air Ships emerged via the Instagram of Hiroshi Fujiwara (designer of Fragment and the “H” in Nike HTM products). They are a pair of white/red Air Ships, and they, according to all indications, will come as a pack alongside a new, never-before-released pair of Air Jordan 1s, also done up in white/red.
The box for this new pack shows how Nike is finally taking the opportunity to connect these two legendary sneakers, with the Air Ships on the left under the number “1984” and the Air Jordan 1 on the right under “1985.” It’s also worth noting that these Air Ships are much more similar in design to the ones Michael Jordan wore on court, not the actual Air Ships that were sold by Nike in 1984. (And to be fair, we actually don’t even know for certain what Nike will call these sneakers, as they have not officially announced them, so for all we know, they could receive some new name, like the “Air Jordan 0,” altogether.)
However, there is one thing noteworthy about this pack, in that the Air Ship Nike is releasing is the white/red color scheme, i.e., the ones that Jordan wore in his first NBA game and many times after—not the black/red colorway that was banned by the league. That said, perhaps Nike felt that if they were to release the Air Ships in the banned colorway, it would damage the average consumer’s perception of the Air Jordan 1 “Bred,” which, as we know, is what most people to this day think was the shoe the NBA kicked out of the game. By releasing the Air Ship in this MJ-worn colorway, the Swoosh gets to appease fans who have clamored for an Air Ship retro forever, while still maintaining the mythology surrounding the original Air Jordans.