Colourway Corral: Our Favourite UNC-Inspired Sneakers
This feature was originally published September 5, 2019.
Jordan and the Tar Heels have been inseparable ever since MJ’s standout freshman season and the iconic national championship–winning jumper against Georgetown. Once Jordan got into the league, Nike even celebrated the release of his very first signature sneaker with a colourway that was an unmistakable tribute to his time playing for the late Dean Smith in Chapel Hill.
Naturally, the Jumpman has dipped back into that well over the years, even prepping a ‘UNC’ Air Jordan 5 release!
With those AJ5s on the way, we thought we’d shine a spotlight on some of our favourite UNC-inspired drops that have seen the light of day (innumerable Tar Heels player exclusives notwithstanding).
So, without further ado, scroll on to peep some of the best-ever nods to college basketball royalty.
Air Jordan 1 ‘Dark Powder Blue’ (1985)
MJ’s partnership with the Swoosh has included tributes to his alma mater from day one, and 1985’s ‘Dark Powder Blue’ Air Jordan 1 was the very first Jordan drop to get the ‘UNC’ treatment. Marked by a White/Dark Powder Blue combo, this classically colour-blocked OG was finally resurrected in 2015 as an Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG when the Jumpman celebrated the 30th anniversary of the AJ1.
Air Jordan 4 ‘Military Blue’ (1989)
The ‘Military Blue’ Air Jordan 4 may not be an official nod to the Tar Heels, but it might as well be. Jordan Brand have gone back and forth between ‘Dark Powder Blue’, ‘Columbia’, and ‘University Blue’ hues over the years for their North Carolina–inspired drops, so why not throw a little ‘Military Blue’ into the mix? Plus, for our money, this is still the best-ever AJ4.
Air Jordan 9 ‘Powder Blue’ (1993)
It’s unfortunate that the Air Jordan 9 has been primarily relegated to NRG Boot makeovers in recent years. The original version of the silhouette is still one of the most distinctive Jordans to date and one that celebrated MJ’s unparalleled impact on the game of basketball with a unique Mark Smith–designed outsole. The upper also makes for some slick colour-blocking, especially on the classic ‘Olive’ edition. Black and olive 9s aside, the best AJ9 was unquestionably 1993’s ‘Powder Blue’ drop, which expertly employed just the right amount of blue to go with a predominately white and black look.
Air Jordan 10 ‘Powder Blue’ (1994)
Hot on the heels of 1993’s ‘Dark Powder Blue’, Air Jordan 9 was a matching rendition of its AJ10 successor. The design offered up the same colour-blocking as the shoe’s beloved ‘City’ pack and came in white and black with blue hits to the lining and striped outsole.
Air Jordan 11 ‘Columbia’ (1996)
For many, the Air Jordan 11 ‘Columbia’ is still the best-ever UNC-inspired drop. One of the 11’s OG colourways from 1996, the ‘Columbia’ was laced up by MJ himself only once: for the 1996 NBA All-Star Game in San Antonio, which saw Jordan lead the East to a 129–118 win on his way to MVP honours. The beloved look got a retro in 2001 and another in 2014, but the icy icon has been missing from the Jumpman’s lineup ever since.
Air Jordan 4 ‘Columbia’ (1999)
The Air Jordan 4 ‘Columbia’ was one of the Jumpman’s first remastered ‘Retro+’ AJ4 drops in 1999, switching out the moulded wings and mesh of the original in favour of premium leather to complement the rest of the shoe’s build. Like many of Jordan’s best UNC tributes, these went light on the ‘Columbia’ hue, opting instead for a predominately white and ‘Midnight Navy’ look so the ‘Carolina Blue’ could pop on the Jumpman logos.
Air Jordan 11 Low ‘Columbia’ (2001)
Depending on who you ask, the low-top version of the Air Jordan 11 ‘Columbia’ is even better than its iconic high-top counterpart. We’re torn as to which one should actually wear the crown, but you really can’t go wrong with the bold blue patent leather.
Air Jordan 12 ‘Nubuck’ (2003)
The Air Jordan 12 ‘Nubuck’ is important for a variety of reasons, ‘University Blue’ accents aside. As the name suggests, they were the first 12s to swap out the silhouette’s prototypical leather build for nubuck construction. Outside of that, though, these also unofficially kicked off the ‘Black Friday’ footwear craze that manifests on the last Friday of November each and every year. They dropped on November 28, 2003, and were Jordan Brand’s first-ever online exclusive.
Jordan Brand x Converse ‘The 2 That Started It All’ Pack (2017)
The story behind 2017’s ‘The 2 That Started It All’ pack may be a bit of a farce (MJ rocked Pro Leathers and Pro Stars during his time in Chapel Hill, after all), but the Jordan Brand x Converse collaboration is still incredible and highly underrated. Not only did it include a retro of sorts of MJ’s very first PE, but it also included a special ‘UNC’ rendition of the cult classic Fastbreak – a shoe that he may not have laced up as a Tar Heel, but one that he did rock throughout the 1984 Olympics on his way to gold. The 2017 edition even added the iconic ‘Wings’ logo to the insoles, which came in the form of drop-in Lunarlon.
Off-White x Air Jordan 1 ‘UNC’ (2018)
What can be said about Virgil Abloh’s Air Jordan 1s that hasn’t been said already? The kicks are the perfect combination of Off-White design cues and classic Jumpman style, complete with ‘Cone’ accents and Abloh’s signature zip ties. The best colourway of the bunch remains up for debate, but all three are instant classics, including the reimagining of the original ‘Powder Blue’ look.
Air Jordan 3 ‘UNC’ PE (2018)
The University of North Carolina’s Air Jordan 3 Player Exclusive dropped with a bang in 2018! OG colour-blocking came through with classic elephant print overlays and an embroidered logo tongue. They were so good that 13 Tar Heels football players were suspended for reselling their pairs, which, weirdly, is an NCAA violation!
Two years later, the Air Jordan 3 ‘UNC’ was given a wide public release with the same build, although the tongue logo was changed to a Jumpman.
Air Jordan 1 ‘UNC Patent’ (2018)
Patent leather has helped bolster plenty of OG and iconic Jordan Brand colourways, giving us a fresh new perspective on everyone’s old favourites. In 2018, it was decided that the ‘UNC’ would be the next to get adorned in the shiny material, releasing in February as a women’s-exclusive.
Air Jordan 1 ‘Obsidian’ (2019)
The Air Jordan 1 ‘Obsidian’ was all over social media when it released in 2019. ,‘Sail’ and ‘Obsidian’ made up most of the upper, but the highlight for us is the hit of ’University Blue’ on the rear.
Air Jordan 4 ‘UNC’ PE (2019)
In 2019, the University of North Carolina’s wide receiver coach for the Tar Heels was gifted a pair of Air Jordan 4 Player Exclusives. The whole upper dons a cohesive ‘University Blue’ tone with speckled additions on the midsole. Apparently, there are only 23 pairs in existence.
Air Jordan 5 ‘UNC’ PE (2021)
The University of North Carolina revealed their 2021 Player Exclusive model in January. Jordan Brand graciously gifted the Tar Heels with their own Air Jordan 5, boasting premium details like the Carolina Blue-coloured elephant print and suede tongue with UNC’s logo.
New Balance 550 ‘UNC’ (2022)
The New Balance 550 has become a force to be reckoned with in 2022, selling so fast that NB can barely keep up! Kicking off the new year, the brand dressed their hardwood hero in a crisp white and ‘University Blue’ that exuded the classic ‘UNC’ feel.
Air Jordan 6 ‘UNC’ (2022)
The Air Jordan 6 ‘UNC’ came through as part of Jordan Brand’s Spring 2022 collection and leaned heavily on the collegiate ‘UNC’ theme. The ‘University Blue’ nubuck was the highlight, with complementary white leather overlays and icy blue outsoles.
Air Jordan 6 ‘UNC’ PE (2022)
The University of North Carolina love to flex their Jordan Brand Player Exclusives, and this year, they were keen to show off their Air Jordan 6! Made for UNC’s Tar Heels basketball and football teams, the upper boasts a powder blue, with their logo on the rear and lace lock.
Air Jordan 5 ‘UNC’ (2023)
The latest Jordan Brand model to don the ‘UNC’ colour scheme is the Air Jordan 5. This pair has been circling the rumour mill for some time now, and finally, the first look arrived earlier in October this year. Rocking suede up top in a Carolina blue hue, they’re already one of the most anticipated releases of 2023. Stay locked to SF for further release details.