Setting Straight the Story of the Nike Air Ship

Nike Air Ship 1984 Sotheby's

The recent $1.472 million sale of a pair of Michael Jordan-worn Nike Air Ships prompted another spike in intrigue for the mysterious model. A brief stint in these sneakers by the GOAT birthed one of the most persistent myths in sneaker history, which has only been more widely debunked in the past few years. Here’s an abridged explainer of exactly what this shoe is – without sailing away from historical facts.

Nike Air Ship 1984 Sotheby's

Jordans Before Jordans

When Michael Jordan first officially signed with Nike in October 1984, he played in the Air Ship. While formidable in its own right, this Bruce Kilgore creation was really an incremental update to the game-changing Air Force 1 that he had designed just two years earlier.

Jordan was pictured in some training sessions wearing them, presumably in red and black (the original photo is in black and white), which were also a Player Exclusive edition with ‘Air Jordan’ printed on the ankles, as opposed to ‘Nike Air’. Some of MJ’s PEs also had different midsoles.

He also made his regular season NBA debut on October 26, 1984, wearing a pair in white and red. This was verified recently with the aforementioned pair that sold at Sotheby’s: they were dated to MJ’s fifth-ever game for the Bulls on November 1, 1984. Interestingly, the heels on this example are simply branded ‘Air’.

Rewriting History

Nike’s savvy marketing has always underlined their success. Some of that can be attributed to their penchant for lore and, at times, historical revisionism. The genesis of this legendary storytelling can be traced back to the infamous ‘Banned’ commercial, which perpetuated a tall tale (in the case of MJ, 6’ 5” – or 6’ 6”, depending who you ask) for over 30 years.

NBA Nike Banned Letter 1985

In February 1985, the NBA sent a letter to Nike informing them that MJ’s ‘red and black NIKE basketball shoes’ violated the league’s strict uniform rules, ‘on or around October 18, 1984.’ The ambiguity of the shoes referenced in this letter allowed Nike to conjure up the ‘Banned’ story – with some creative liberties.

The ‘Banned’ television ad depicts a sweaty MJ bouncing a basketball with the camera slowly panning towards the floor. On his feet was a pair of red and black Air Jordan 1s, which soon had black bars placed over them on-screen, with the voiceover message: ‘Fortunately, the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them. Air Jordans from Nike.’

Thus, the AJ1 became associated with this notorious event thereafter, to the point Nike and the industry at large created a Mandela Effect with the ‘Banned’ story. The brand even released a commemorative ‘Bred’ colourway back in 2011 via Nike outlets – just another layer of white lies.

Nike Air Ship 1984 Michael Jordan PE
Goodwin Sports Management

The Real Banned Shoe

Let’s rewind the clock back to that NBA letter. The uniform infringement was cited on October 18, 1984, which was a pre-season game against the New York Knicks. MJ did indeed wear a red and black pair of Nike shoes: the Air Ship.

Also, MJ didn’t debut the Air Jordan 1 until November 17, 1984, and that was in the iconic red, white and black colourway now known as the ‘Chicago’. So, there was no way the ‘Banned’ shoe was actually the red and black ‘Bred’ AJ1.

Furthermore, there is actually no photographic proof that he even wore red and black shoes in-game during the 1984-1985 regular season. The closest instance to that happening is the Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA All-Star Weekend in 1985.

Decades later, Nike finally distanced themselves from that ‘Banned’ story. In 2014, Jordan Brand tweeted a clear image of MJ’s feet clad in white and red Air Ships to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his NBA debut. This tacit admission to the shoes His Airness wore before the AJ1 set the rumour mill ablaze of a possible retro, but it’d be a few years more before that would come into fruition.

Nike Air Ship New Beginnings 2020
Nike Air Ship Pro 2020 Retro
Back-Door Bottega

Sailing Once More

2020 provided multiple key corrections to this ongoing story. In February, Nike/Jordan Brand released the highly limited 'New Beginnings' pack inspired by MJ’s NBA debut. That pack included an Air Jordan 1 and, more significantly, the first-ever retro of the Air Ship, in white and red.

Then in April, another nail was nailed into the ‘Banned’ coffin, with an original red and black Air Ship PE from 1984 emerging, which was modified for and signed by the GOAT himself.

Come August, Nike finally revived the red and black edition – the true ‘Banned’ shoe. And, in recognition of its historical significance, the stock photos depict double-lacing in the same style as that obscure black-and-white training snap from all those years ago.

Then in October of 2021, the Nike Air Ship worn by Michael Jordan in his fifth-ever NBA game sold at Sotheby’s. Its $1.472 million sale marked a new record for sneakers sold at auction, and provided some indisputable concrete clarity on the true origin story of the most storied signature line of all time.

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