Instead, we’re going to say something perhaps a little obvious: that like all collections of great things (movie franchises, Philip Roth novels, Tyler, the Creator fits) there are hits, misses, and plenty of weird things in between. Which means they’re ripe for a ranking—one both arbitrary and definitive.
And so, with The Last Dance premiering tomorrow night on ESPN, we took this opportunity to re-assess all 34 Air Jordans. The good, the bad, the great, and, especially, the completely wacky—of which there are many. We judged them based on their looks, their on-court performance, and their pop cultural footprint, with a healthy dose of personal nostalgia mixed in for good measure. We look forward to you judging us back in our Twitter mentions. —Yang-Yi Goh
Look at it! I mean, look at it. This is the future—of basketball, of sneakers, of style, of Nike, of MJ—in a single high-top sneaker. This is the black-and-red colorway that the NBA deemed illegal, leading Nike to pay Jordan’s fines, literally every sneaker to follow to drop in its own “bred” iteration, and, really, sneakers to turn into vectors of personal style. Its popularity has fluctuated over the years, but ever since a guy from Chicago named Kanye West started wearing them, they catapulted to the top of the Jordan list. It’s not likely they’ll go anywhere soon. —Sam Schube
MJ hit his pinnacle as an athlete during the ‘90s, and the pinnacle of his sneaker line during that decade—without question—is the Air Jordan XI. Like all great Js, the XI is a seamless marriage of neck-snapping style and elite performance. Even now, that gleaming, tuxedo-aping patent leather is astonishing enough to elicit goosebumps from me, a grown man who has stared at these sneakers thousands of times over the past 25 years. And in 1995, people looked at these things like they’d just crash landed from another galaxy. The real brilliance of the patent mudguard, though, is that it wasn’t just there for the shine: because it’s lighter and less stretchy than full-grain leather, it resulted in a more explosive shoe that held your feet snugly in place. Outside of the Is, the XI is the Air Jordan people are still most likely to camp out overnight to cop: a 2011 retro of the Concord—a colorway so perfect that Jordan wore it for the entire ‘95-96 regular season—incited actual riots outside malls across the nation. Part of that lasting appeal is also due to the fact that it’s the shoe Mike had on in Space Jam, cementing them in the imaginations of an entire generation of kids forever. —Y.G.
“Yo man, your Jordans are fucked up!” By 1989, Air Jordans had become so ingrained in the culture—a shorthand for excellence—that they could anchor a pivotal scene in one of the best movies of the decade. As Jordan’s high-flying antics started to turn heads overseas, the IV became the first Js to get a global release, coinciding with Tinker Hatfield really coming into his own and flexing his muscles: experimenting with mesh and molded plastics, and using nubuck leather on a basketball shoe for the very first time. Outside of its Do the Right Thing cameo, the IV’s earned their place in history when MJ hit The Shot in them, meaning you’d do well to steer clear of rocking these anywhere in Ohio. —Y.G.
Visually, the VIIs are nearly identical to the VIs: same geometric panelling on the uppers, same jagged edges along the midsole. So why is it ranked a full four spots higher than its predecessor? For one thing, it’s because of what’s not there: this was the first Air Jordan to be released under the Jordan Brand moniker rather than Nike, which meant no Air bubble (a staple of Js from III through VI) and no Swooshes of any kind inside or out. That’s a critical juncture for Michael Jordan, the businessman. Oh, yeah, and Michael Jordan, the basketball player? That guy had a pretty good year in these, too: he picked up his second ring, repeated as MVP and Finals MVP, and then became the talk of the Barcelona Olympics—and the world—with the original Dream Team. —Y.G.
Following up the showstopping XIs was no easy task, but Tinker managed it by adjusting the dials on looks (swapping out the flashy patent for subtle pebbled leather and cascading quilted panels) and performance (the XII is still considered one of the finest, most durable on-court Js ever). Factor in the indelible moments on its resume—perhaps you’ve heard of the Flu Game?—and you’ve got another instant classic from the line’s hitmaking heyday. —Y.G.
Thanks to Will Smith and a little show called The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, these might be the first shoes you picture when you close your eyes and think “Air Jordan.” The V carried over a couple of elements from the IV—namely, the plastic mesh on the quarter and the mix of nubuck and smooth leather—and supercharged them with a confluence of aggressive lines inspired by WWII-era fighter planes. (This kicked off a recurring theme of Js taking cues from famous vehicles.) On the court, Jordan delivered his career-high in points wearing these fellas, hanging a cool 69 on the Cavs. —Y.G.
8. Air Jordan II
There’s maybe no Jordan more criminally underrated by sneakerheads than the II, probably because it arrived wedged between the two icons at the very top of this list. But don’t get it twisted: this was no sophomore slump. Long before NBA stars were style gods, or streetwear scions were calling the shots at age-old European houses, or anyone had even considered the idea of wearing sneakers with a suit, the Air Jordan II attempted to bridge the worlds of sportswear and high fashion. It did so by minimizing the Nike branding, wrapping its understated silhouette in luxe materials—a swath of faux lizard skin and brogue-ish perforations around the toe box—and crafting the whole thing in Italy for an extra air of sophistication (pre-dating Common Projects and its many copycats by almost two decades). —Y.G.
When, five short weeks from now, Michael Jordan definitely doesn’t push off Bryon Russell while bringing both the 1998 Finals and The Last Dance to a close, he’ll be wearing these. That’d be worth a high spot on this list alone, but the XIVs earn their place with a Ferrari-indebted design that looks fast even on this page. Those little dino claws up front, that tech-y tongue attachment, a logo badge that screams “Forza!”: it’d be harder to invent a shoe better for Jordan to speed into retirement wearing. —S.S.
This was the shoe Jordan wore for long chunks of the 1997-1998 season—his last one as a Bull, and the centerpiece of The Last Dance. By that point, Jordan was a global icon: McDonalds, or Xerox, or the Statue of Liberty, but a person. And the 13—luxe, textured, vaguely organic—is the shoe of a very wealthy basketball player. This thing looks like it weighs ten pounds and costs its weight in gold. —S.S.
Bizarrely, the XVI isn’t the first Jordan to play with the idea of spats, those shoe coverings that haven’t been seen since the 1940s. (That’d be the XI.) But the XVI is the first to make those spats removable—silly, maybe, but the latest, most notable step in the line’s groundbreaking, unceasing interest in exploring what a basketball shoe could do and be. Spats? Why not! —S.S.
Everything you need to know about the VIII is on its tongue: that, friends, is chenille. This is perhaps the most ‘90s shoe in the Air Jordan line, from the Haring-adjacent patch to the X straps to the wax-paper-cup-indebted teal-and-purple colorway. Think of this less as a fine-wine-aging J than a shot of tequila chased with blue Gatorade—not refined, necessarily, but a pleasure all its own. —S.S.
The very last dance: Jordan wore the XVIIIs to close out his career in Washington, D.C. A little odd a the time, they’ve aged bizarrely well: nods to Jordan’s love of very fast cars (that driving shoe heel!) and a vamp cover that looks like a goddamn loafer make this thing a real pair fit for a sendoff. —S.S.
After the 1997-98 season, Michael Jordan retired for the second time (then thought to be for good). For the 98-99 season, his shoes went weird. The line’s first (but not last!) dip into the bizarre, the gothic, the Lovecraft-indebted, the XV nonetheless looks incredibly cool some 20 years on. Inspired by the X-15 fighter jet, the shoe looks more like a piece of postmodern architecture—a very public example of sports and fashion grappling with the GOAT’s absence. —S.S.
The IX was released during Jordan’s baseball-playing hiatus, and it shows: it’s a little bulky, more like a baseball cleat than the sleek, visionary kicks he’d worn on the hardwood. —S.S.
Jordan’s first Wizards-era sneaker received mixed reviews upon launch—partially owing to its then-unheard of price tag of $200—but its clean-lined look has aged nicely. The single greatest thing about the XVII, though, is what it came in: a Jumpman-branded, Mission: Impossible-esque metal briefcase, complete with an oh-so-2002 CD-ROM. —Y.G.
The Air Jordan X suffers in stature among sneakerheads mostly due to poor timing. Because it was designed and released while MJ was still off cosplaying as an outfielder in the minor leagues, the X was intended as a tribute to Jordan’s basketball years, with a list of his career highlights engraved down the soles. That quickly became obsolete when Jordan returned to the hardcourt wearing 45—and even then, he only wore these for a handful of games before switching to a prototype of the XI during the 1995 Eastern Conference Semis. From a design standpoint, the X is sort of bland and innocuous, most notable for paving the way shape-wise for the far more beloved XIs and XIIs. —Y.G.
Jordan Brand has always had a vexed relationship with players not named Michael Jordan. Jordan himself picked the brand’s first endorsers; a generation of kids who grew up wondering why Derek Anderson got to wear Js got, in their lesson, an object lesson in crony capitalism. By 2012, though, the brand had found in Russell Westbrook an endorser capable of both the breathtaking athletic feats and the incredible obstinacy required of a true Jordan wearer. And Russell “Why Not?” Westbrook was the perfect figurehead for the XX8s: a stripped-down drop-top racecar of a shoe, a midcalf stunner often done up in wacky prints. Known by pickup legends as among the best-performing Js of recent memory, these are a cult classic in a line lacking for them in recent years. —S.S.
After countless Jordans modeled after MJ’s cars, it was nice to finally get one based on the GOAT’s one true passion: golfing. I mean, just look at that fancy stitched argyle, and then tell me you don’t want to crank out a few long balls at the range. Not mad at it, honestly! In truth, the XX3—a notable release, given Jordan’s jersey number—was meant to be the most personal J ever: Jordan’s thumbprint is embossed on the rear, his signature is etched on the toe, and that argyle we were admiring earlier is actually meant to invoke his DNA patterns. —Y.G.
Yet another instance of novelty—that floating ankle strap, and the crazy-embellished, history-of-MJ one at midfoot—coexisting with real technical leaps forward. That midsole housed a next-level cushioning system, even if all anyone wanted to talk about was the laser etching. —S.S.
This is the Air Jordan with a hole in it. No further questions, your honor. —S.S.
Thirty-one shoes in, the design minds at Jordan Brand officially ran out of ideas. So they started back at one—literally, with this hypermodern flip on the Air Jordan 1. Points for trying, I guess. —Y.G.
Same logic as the XXXI: this is a high-performance, turbo version of the 2. [Shrugs.] —Y.G.
The entirely woven uppers made this the lightest Air Jordan ever, and the designers used that novel construction to screen print graphics directly onto the shoes. Sometimes that worked out fine—like this so-so nod to the Air Jordan III’s iconic elephant print—and sometimes it wound up looking like a knickknack you’d buy at one of those stands in the mall where you get a mug with your baby photo on it made for your mom’s birthday. —Y.G.
So close on this one, fellas. The XXXIV, the newest addition to the Jordan lineup, so very nearly nailed exactly what we’d want, both looks- and performance-wise, from a hoops shoe in 2020. Unfortunately, that doggone hole in the middle of the outsole pushes it a little too far into something-Tom-Cruise-might-wear-in-Oblivion territory for us to really take it seriously. —Y.G
The XX2 had the great misfortune of being just one model number short of the XX3—i.e. 23, His Airness’s jersey number—which, at the time, many sneakerheads were anxiously anticipating as a monumental moment for the line. As a result, it felt like the designers sort of looked past this one, too: it’s a relatively plain and straightforward design, with some fighter jet-inspired detailing that makes it look fast. As in, “the faster we get this shoe out the door, the sooner we can get to the one you’re all waiting for.” —Y.G.
The 33s take MJ’s otherworldly leaping ability a bit too literally, resulting in a silhouette best described as “high-tech moonboot.” The ditching of laces for a quick-pull system is laudable (late period Jordans are nothing if not elaborately, ostentatiously technical), but the result is somehow a few feet to the left of what we understand as an Air Jordan. —S.S.
Some Jordans take inspiration from MJ’s beloved world of racing: lines borrowed from sports cars, parts modeled after spoilers or shoes or helmets. The XXI, though, takes that borrowing a little too liberally. These just…look like a pair of legit racing shoes, the sort that pass as stylish footwear in certain European cities. Jordans are best when they interpret and interpolate—less good when they look like something an F1 driver would wear to work. —S.S.
You know things are getting tough in JordanWorld when the designers start taking inspiration from—and yes, this is correct—“defense” and “fencing.” Defense might win championships, but high scorers make great shoes. And this one just doesn’t have it. (This is the 2009 and not the XX4 because the brand retired the number system with MJ’s own XX3—only to bring it back a few years later.) —S.S.
Sensing a theme? The Jordans of the 2010s, while perhaps the best-performing shoes in the history of basketball, nonetheless suffer from a distinct lack of charisma. Maybe it’s because the brand was lacking a true figurehead—“Ray Allen PE” doesn’t exactly send me running to StockX—or because the line’s focus on tech came at the expense of looks. Either way: another tough one for the GOAT. —S.S.
You ever have a friend who, instead of celebrating their 30th birthday, just asks everyone to kind of ignore it, and maybe just hangs out at 29 for another year? Yeah, me neither. —S.S.
The official copy for the AJ 2012 explains that the shoe pulled inspiration from “some of basketball’s ancestors”—which is to say, not from the greatest player of all time. The intentions were good, but the results (“wingtip-like shapes and perforations,” anybody?) leave plenty to be de
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