Sotheby's prepares to auction MJ's Air Jordan 1 sneakers as writers question whether NBA's ban was truly defied

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      Less than two weeks before the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was a pandemic, I headed down to the Vancouver Convention Centre for the annual Sneakercon event.

      I was curious to learn more about the mainstreaming of sneaker culture, which was launched back in 1984 when a young basketball phenom, Michael Jordan, donned his first pair of Nike Air Jordans.

      Nobody can attend sneaker conventions right now, of course, but it's still possible to pick up a prized pair of his shoes online, provided you have six figures of cash to spare.

      That's because Sotheby's is currently auctioning a rare surviving pair of allegedly game-worn Air Jordan 1 shoes with the legend's signature.

      Bids close on May 17 for these custom-make kicks, which are in sizes 13 and 13.5 and were worn in 1985. The auctioneer is expecting offers in the US$100,000 to US$150,000 range.

      "The vintage originals are in the Chicago Bulls white, black and red – the Air Jordan 1 colorway that Michael Jordan wore the most often on the court," Sotheby's says on its website. 

      Keep in mind that the most expensive Jordan sneakers ever sold were not, in fact, Nikes. His Converse Fastbreaks, worn during the LA Olympics in 1984, went for a reported US$190,373.

      But the Jordan line of Nike footwear still brings in an eye-popping US$3 billion in annual revenues, according to Forbes. And it's built, in part, on the story that Jordan kept wearing his shoes in his rookie year despite being ordered not to do so by the NBA.

      For those interested in learning more about the Air Jordan 1, the Ringer published a detailed history earlier this month.

      Written by Justin Sayles, the piece points out that when Jordan tried his hand at pro baseball in 1994 after his first "retirement" from the NBA, Nike re-released Air Jordans that had ceased being produced eight years earlier.

      These kicks ended up in outlet stores, selling for a mere US$19.99, due to a lack of demand. Now, they are traded for many times that price in the secondhand market and at Sneakercon events.

      Sayles reports that by 1997, Nike was reporting a billion dollars in sales of Jordan-branded shoes in a single quarter.

      Video: Watch the Air Jordan commercials through the ages.

      One of the most fascinating sections questions the widespread belief that MJ wore the Air Jordan 1 in his rookie year—with Nike paying the $5,000 fines imposed for each game he played.

      Sayles references a 2019 article by Marvin Barias, who maintains that Jordan never wore the banned shoe in a league game in his 1984-85 rookie season.

      "There have been no pictures surfaced of Michael Jordan ever wearing the Black/Red Air Jordan 1 in an NBA game," Barias declares in his article. "I've been analyzing this mythical story for a some years now, and have even challenged our Jordan forum to provide a picture and/or video of Michael wearing the shoes.

      "I've been presented with all sorts of unique attempts such as the 1985 NBA Slam Dunk competition, to Patrick Ewing in a one-on-one match up, to screenshots of Michael from the 'Just For Kicks' documentary of 2005."

      Barias concludes that Jordan put on the Air Jordan 1 for promotional purposes and in the preseason, but the writer insists that MJ wore the Nike Air Ship in the black/red colourway in league games to remain onside with the NBA.

      But hey, the apocryphal story still helped build a multibillion-dollar brand. And that's set the stage for this week's Sotheby's auction.