The thought of Michael Jordan flossing Three Stripes seems about as likely as Donald Trump in a Jheri curl. But it’s not as far fetched as you might think. There was a time when Jordan’s heart wasn’t stuck on the Swoosh. Much like the vacuum cleaner fluff dangling from Donald’s ginger dome, the young MJ wavered awkwardly when Nike first wooed him. You see Jordan was an adidas man, and he was stubbornly set on wearing his favourite sneakers when he cracked the big show. All of which begs the question – what would the sneaker game look like had Michael followed his heart to adi’s Herzogenaurach headquarters? Yep, it’s time to wind the shot clock back and drop some Sliding Doors type shit as we ask what would have happened if Mike didn’t like Nike?
STORY BY ANTHONY COSTA / ILLUSTRATION BY JAMES ROGERS
The year is 1984 and business isn’t great at Beaverton. The Swoosh has been shaken up after suffering its first ever quarterly profit slide the previous year. Once a brand for hardcore jogging kooks, Nike is now stretched thin. Court sports are their biggest seller, but sales are declining, particularly in basketball. The share price is plunging and Wall Street’s message to twitchy Nike stockholders is ‘Just sell it!’ Reebok now rules the roost with their Tubbs and Crockett approved all-white garment leather Freestyles. Nike needs to find the next big thing and soon.
Nike’s college hoops guru Sonny Vaccaro has an idea. A natural hustler and basketball promoter with impeccable connections, Vaccaro has been watching a kid called Michael Jordan come through the ranks. He knows the kid’s going to be something and convinces Nike bigwigs to make an all-or-nothing bet on the flubber-footed rookie. Instead of scattergun player endorsements across the NBA, they devise a plan to put all their chips on the single chosen one. Their pitch is seductive. They will market Jordan as a brand in his own right, complete with his own line of sneakers. Everyone agrees it’s a brilliant, ballsy play that could redraw the sports marketing map.
Everyone, that is, except MJ.
On the eve of the October NBA pre-season, MJ stuns Phil Knight and signs with adidas. The UNC Tar Heels may have been a Converse team, but Jordan has always coveted the Trefoil. He loves the stripes and the way their lush leather feels fresh out the box. Nike’s vision is broader and their paper is greener, but adidas shrewdly up their final offer just enough to make the Bulls-bound prodigy feel he’s being feted. The deal is done.
Outflanked, Nike re-jig their strategy around the explosive athleticism of number one draft pick Hakeem Olajuwon. The impending 1984-85 NBA season is fast shaping as a head-to-head battle for air supremacy. Meanwhile, adidas is taking a cautious, softly-softly approach to their new star signing. Jordan pushes hard for his own model, but there’s no time for product development. Besides, why invest in a brand new shoe for an unproven rookie when he can wear the newly released Forum Hi, the most advanced and expensive basketball sneaker ever made? Retailing for the wallet-wilting price of $99.99, the Forums quickly gain high currency on the street corner thanks to its Colombian cartel pricing. Jordan’s dazzling debut form pushes demand for the Forum Hi over the edge. Forums – or ‘Jordans’ as they quickly become known – become the most visible shoe on the street in Chicago and New York.
In contrast, Nike’s Air Hakeem becomes outlet fodder. Halfway between a Dunk and a Terminator, the derivative design isn’t setting feet alight. While the shoe is inoffensive, the red and yellow Houston Rockets colourway is impossible to wear unless you have an after-school shift flipping burgers. Known as ‘Ronalds’, the first Air Hakeems become sneaker culture’s most notorious clown shoes. It’s a far cry from the spanking clean Forums with their pristine white uppers and classic red or blue accents.
When Jordan is the only rookie voted into the All Star Game things suddenly go loco due to MJ rocking a special Chi-toned player edition with killer red and black stripes. Banned by the NBA for being too cool for school, the limited edition All Star Jordans become an object of carnal street court desire, doing for sneakers what Flashdance did for oxy welding. Overnight queues form at Foot Locker stores in 14 cities, an unheard of phenomenon. Unfortunately an overweight mall cop is asphyxiated when a huge crowd bumrush a Florida sports store. Later it turns out he choked on a jelly donut, but it is the first death attributed to the sneaker game and makes the front cover of Sports Illustrated.
The following year, Nike tries to wrestle back momentum with Olajuwon’s second signature model. A radical attempt to trump the Forum Hi and its criss-cross ankle support system, the shoe features a giant velcro support strap blanketing the laces. Big and bulky with more padding than William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry, Nike claim the Air Hakeezy is ahead of its time. Unfortunately for them, it is.
With the glow of their strong showing at the LA Olympics fading, Nike need a major mojo transplant. Unfortunately their sales are still flatlining and a savage second round of staff and development cutbacks does little for team morale. One of those to move on is an architect-come-shoeguy named Tinker who is rumoured to be working on a crazy inside-out runner with an Air heel the size of the Hindenburg. Frustrated by the company’s growing conservatism as it kowtows to investor anxiety, Hatfield takes off to live in Moab, Utah. With his final payout he buys a nice ostrich leather couch he’s had his eye on.
By 1986 adidas has made New York a stronghold. Michael Jordan mania keeps building, and Patrick Ewing, the Knicks’ great Hoyas hope, brings adidas home to The Garden. With Run DMC booming from every playground beat box and three adi-clad whiteboy brats from Brooklyn putting hip hop on the mainstream map, the Trefoil has become as much a symbol of youth culture as the peace sign was in the 60s. You still see the odd pair of Nikes around; there were even whispers that the old Uptown might be brought back, but the court connoisseurs have all moved on. Now it’s all about Striders, Centennials, Concords, Forums, Decades and of course the slammin’ Shelltoe.
Flash forward to 1991 and Jordan wins his first NBA crown, cementing adidas’ status at the apex of the footwear food chain. The brand now owns basketball much like they own world soccer. Nike still has the popular Olajuwon on their books, and his aeronautic exploits regularly thrust the Swoosh into play-of-the-day clips, but he’s no Mike. The Nigerian star just can’t match Jordan’s charisma and his uncanny knack for the incredible. Whether he’s swathed in a puffy parachute Trefoil tracksuit or one of his favourite floppy adidas sweatshirts over some distressed-to-death denim, Michael the brand ambassador is always on message. Nike have cooled their heels on blockbuster athlete endorsements after the lacklustre reception to the Air Hakeem line, however it manages to stay on the map thanks to two of the most arresting stars of the 90s. The brand that once had the fiery Illie Nastase and John McEnroe on their books rekindle their bad boy image thanks to the volatile brilliance of Charles Barkley and a towering rim-trashing rookie from Louisiana State named Shaquille.
Courted heavily by Reebok, Shaq finally signs with Nike after they promise to deliver a four-album music deal with Def Jam, including a duet with his favourite singer Mariah Carey. Nike’s pneumatic Air Shaq causes a stir when worn by Woody Harrelson in the Reebok-baiting ‘White Men Don’t Pump’ movie, while the streets take notice and give props to Barkley’s reborn Force franchise. Both Shaq and Sir Charles bring bucket loads of personality to the court, but neither can match Mike’s squeaky clean All-American aura. Barkley’s hopes of appearing on a Wheaties box take a dive when he allegedly spits on an eight-year-old girl sitting courtside during a road game against the Nets. It’s an ugly moment, but nothing compared to the damage done to kids with front-row tickets to Kazaam.
Right at the peak of his powers, Jordan pulls off his most brilliant publicity coup yet – he retires to Paris where he learns how to speak French and cook crépes. His retirement is the talk of the sporting world. Olajuwon finally wins a ring, but it’s a hollow victory with the achievement forever bearing an asterisk noting Jordan’s absence.When Michael finally returns, adidas is ready with a bold new ‘Heat You Wear’ shoe line for MJ to spearhead. The giant rubber bunions of the bubble-shaped MJ32 might have taken some getting used to, but it didn’t matter – Michael Jordan was back! And the sorcerer finally had an apprentice named Kobe to continue the Trefoil dynasty.
Back to reality. It’s 2012 and the Swoosh is an all-conquering behemoth. This slightly smart-assed alt-history probably undersells Nike’s ability to press athletes into our imagination with their maverick marketing. Nike cast Jordan as athletic royalty and gave his products a personality that no other brand could conjure. But in the end it all comes down to the man’s greatness. You can’t manufacture an MJ. Jordan routinely made the unbelievable seem believable like no one before him or since. Had he worn adidas he’d still be the best there ever was. Who knows, had he gone to adi then maybe today maybe we’d all be saying, ‘It’s gotta be the Stripes!’.
For a more accurate account of the history of Brand Jordan, check out our Billion Dollar Jump Man feature.