Among hardcore hoops fans and sneakerheads, the myth surrounding Nike’s original Air Jordan shoe is canon. Michael Jordan enters the NBA in 1984 with a new style and swagger that, beyond his high-flying dunks, includes a pair of black and red high-tops that violate the league’s uniform policy. The move prompted Nike to tap into that rebellious streak and create a now legendary ad that helped propel Air Jordans to become the most coveted piece of footwear in pop culture.
Except, according to former NBA commissioner David Stern, the shoes were never banned at all. But does it even matter? The mid-’80s pop cultural confluence of basketball, hip-hop, and fashion was ready for a legend, and the marketing minds at Nike giddily spun the tale. Except that isn’t entirely true either.
Both of these seemingly obvious storylines are debunked and discussed at length in the documentary Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1, directed by Dexton Deboree. The film, which debuted in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, is part social history, part brand history, and part product design history, featuring a long list of celebrities, artists, and athletes, as well as Nike execs past and present. Everyone from Phil Knight to Spike Lee, NBA commish Adam Silver to Nike design head Tinker Hatfield, all wax philosophical on why the shoe, its story, and design have endured.
Deboree says the idea for the film came from pondering that very same question. “I wasn’t really satisfied with the answer that it was just about Michael,” says Deboree. “That’s true for a lot of people, but it’s not true for an equal amount of people. There are those who love this shoe, kids who never saw him play basketball, people who don’t even like basketball, people from all over the world. It wasn’t enough to say the shoe is just really cool. But that doesn’t explain the depth of the obsession and resilience this shoe has.”
One of the more interesting revelations was just how contentious a lot of Nike’s moves were at the time, from signing an unproven rookie with the bulk of its sponsorship budget to the impact of the shoe’s design.
“Talking to the guys who were there, it became clear to me that the marketing was a reaction to what the shoe was doing, and the events around it, more than it was this perfectly plotted plan,” says Deboree. “They weren’t trying to disrupt the sneaker game, piss the NBA off, or launch a cultural icon, they were just trying to make a shoe that was different. It’s the same with Phil [Knight], not really getting why MJ was the guy to put all their chips on, put his name on the shoe, even though that went against their instinct, but it ended up being a genius move. These moves were initially resisted, but in the end it was almost like, fuck it, let’s just see what happens.”
The doc was produced by the film division of Deboree’s ad agency Los York, which has worked with Nike and Jordan Brand in the past. But the director says Nike had no creative or financial involvement. “I had the idea, I pitched it to them, they blessed it, and I basically licensed it from them like you would a celebrity’s estate for their life story,” says Deboree. “Because I’ve had a working relationship with them, we had long conversations about the separation of church and state, and how this was a different dynamic than we had before. I wasn’t sharing rough cuts with them, and it wasn’t work for hire. We own the film outright. And as long as we didn’t disparage their name, then we could do and say whatever we needed to to tell the story.”
Overall, it’s worth a watch for anyone curious about not just the Jordan/Nike origin story, but also the impact, consequences, and evolution–both intentional and not–of a brand marketing phenomenon. As actor Anthony Anderson (Blackish) sums up the story perfectly in the last line of the film: “It’s some crazy shit to say about a fucking shoe.”