When Nike first introduced the first Air Jordan sneaker in 1985, the then-fledgling footwear company expected to garner $3 million in sales in three years. It sold $126 million in the first year alone, 42 times above the projection. The rest, as they say, is history.
Michael Jordan, for the better part of 40 years, has been the most influential figure in not just basketball, but also all of sports and footwear, inspiring generations to embark on their own athletic or design careers, and to strive for greatness. The brand that bears his name is a testament to his influence. Many that haven’t witnessed Jordan play on the court still clamor for his sneakers; they’re willing to pay top dollar at auction to own a piece of sports history, with game-worn styles setting global sneaker records.
Air Jordan sneakers were first designed for performance, but today, they are grails for sneaker collectors and works of art revered by connoisseurs. The brand continues to innovate and evolve, all while maintaining the gold standard set by Tinker Hatfield, who designed many of the first and most popular sneakers in the lineup. While everyone has their favorite pair, only a few can hold the universal distinction of being the very finest in design, performance and luxury. Below, the 15 best Air Jordan sneakers of all time.
The best of the best came first. Michael Jordan wasn’t interested in signing with Nike, having played in Adidas for much of his college career at the University of North Carolina. But his agent, David Falk, and Jordan’s parents implored him to meet with the running-shoe upstart. The company offered him six figures and his own sneaker line, which was unheard of back then; companies at the time had several ambassadors to support one basketball shoe. Jordan competed in the Air Ship before the first-ever Air Jordan sneaker debuted, but history was made once his signature style hit the hardwood.
The first Air Jordan sneaker is the epitome of great sneaker design: performance, comfort and versatility in sport and leisure are are all there. During the height of Jordan’s career, the Air Jordan I fell to the wayside in favor of newer styles that were hitting the court. Then, in 2007, Jordan released the “Old Love/New Love” pack, two versions of the Air Jordan I in the Chicago Bulls colors to commemorate Jordan as a basketball player, and in black and yellow to nod to another passion of his, motocross.
From that point, the brand has leaned on the Air Jordan I for storytelling and unique collaborations. It has retold many stories from Jordan’s career through this method, including his 69-point game versus the Boston Celtics. It also revived grail styles like the black and blue “Royal” colorway, and birthed several collaborations with Virgil Abloh, J Balvin and Dior. The Air Jordan I has been the brand’s premier canvas for designers, musician, artists and more to apply their craft and push the boundaries of design.
Performance and luxury perfected: The XI is Jordan’s official comeback sneaker and an undeniable favorite amongst collectors. MJ retired from the NBA in 1993 only to return toward the end of the 1995 season and playoffs, where he would see an early exit versus the Orlando Magic. The second-round exit from the playoffs was Jordan’s first early exit since 1991. Naturally, the Bulls came back with a vengeance, and the Air Jordan XI was his weapon of choice.
Unlike its predecessors, the Air Jordan XI has a full-length carbon fiber plate for movement, a nylon upper made from nylon (initially used on camping backpacks) and nylon webbing loops for the lacing system. The XI’s main draw is the patent leather panel on the toe and around the sneaker, which hasn’t been replicated by Jordan or any brand since. Jordan requested a shiny basketball shoe, and Hatfield obliged by applying the lustrous material.
Jordan, in the XI, would lead the Bulls to a record-setting regular season, and would take home the MVP Award, All-Star MVP and NBA finals MVP, as well as his fourth NBA Championship, further cementing his status as the greatest of all time. Also notable, the XI birthed two coveted styles: the Space Jam XI that appeared in the 1996 film, Space Jam, with the phrase “Jumpman Jam” on the tongue instead of the regular “Jumpman Jordan,” and the Defining Moments Package XI sneakers with a gold outsole and gold Jumpman logo on the ankle.
With a storybook regular season performance, the XI is already a special sneaker, but its unique design is the hallmark for the Jordan brand. It’s the original tuxedo sneaker and statement shoe and, every year, collectors look forward to the XI closing the Jordan calendar during the holidays.
The Air Jordan lore begins with the Air Jordan III. Sure, the Air Jordan I gained recognition as a banned sneaker, and the Air Jordan II as a luxurious style, but the Air Jordan III is the perfect blend of high performance, fashion and pop culture.
The III is Hatfield’s debut sneaker for the Jordan line. His first try at a Jordan sneaker is a simple, clean high-top style with an elephant print on the heel and toe, which would go on to be an integral piece of the Jordan design language and heritage. Jordan would wear this style for the NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago in 1988. He took flight in the “White/Cement” pair, dunking from the free-throw line at the Slam Dunk Contest, one of the most iconic moments in sports history. Jordan was already larger than life by 1988, but after he soared through the air on one fateful February evening, he became a superhero. The moment the world all wanted to be like Mike.
On the silver screen, the sneaker was worn by Spike Lee in his film She’s Gotta Have It, who would star alongside MJ in Nike adverts. But when it comes to fashion and prestige, the III rivaled the Nike Blazer, Adidas Superstar and other high-top sneakers upon its release, and designs from Louis Vuitton, Dior and Balenciaga sneakers today. Its simplicity makes it easy to wear every day, on special occasions and for a pick-up game of basketball. Also, DJ Khaled, retailer A Ma Maniére and Hiroshi Fujiwara’s Fragment Design have all put their spin on the style.
Tinker Hatfield nailed several elements early on in the Air Jordan lifecycle. The Air Jordan IV takes this up a notch, dropping the III’s elephant print on the heel and adding a new toe box, netting on the side and unique lacing eyelets.
The sneaker was immortalized in Jordan’s game-winning shot versus the Cleveland Cavaliers in game 5 of their playoff series, a replay for the ages that has stood the test of time. But non-sports fans will recognize the style more for being scuffed beyond repair in the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing, a scene so pivotal to popularizing sneaker culture around the world. As sneaker technology and craftsmanship innovate, older styles are better suited to wear every day. This is where the IV shines. The shape of the IV is the standard in casual footwear and is one of the few styles from the 80s to age the best. Many aspects of this design didn’t carry forward into the next iterations of the line, which makes this style more unique.
Of course, collaborations are a great signifier of a great design. Entertainers Eminem, Travis Scott and Mark Wahlberg made their own special versions of the AJIV, as well as retailers Union and Undftd and designer Virgil Abloh. But most notably, famed artist Kaws put his spin on the sneaker, producing a work of art—literally.
The Air Jordan XIII is Michael Jordan’s last sneaker as a Chicago Bull. This style rushed up to the top five on this list for its unique design, which hasn’t been replicated since, and for being one of Jordan’s most-stunning shoes that performs well on the court, even after two decades.
MJ first debuted this style 25 years ago with the inception of the Jordan brand as a separate entity from Nike. The style is inspired by a panther, nodding to MJ’s nickname “Black Cat,” and boasts a leather upper and plush side panels, and more notably, a holographic eye panel and outsole that resembles a panther paw.
The XIII also played a supporting role in ESPN and Netflix documentary The Last Dance, which helped its recent resurgence. The sneaker is coveted for being his sneaker of choice in his last season, and sold for $378,000 at Christie’s “Six Rings” auction this year. In addition, Denzel Washington wore a pair in the Spike Lee film “He Got Game,” which is also the name of the sneaker’s original colorway.
The Air Jordan VII can be regarded as the VI’s bubbly younger sibling. Between the high ankle, pronounced tongue and midsole detail, the two styles share quite a bit in common, but the VII has seen more when it comes to color play than its predecessor.
The sneaker also marked MJ’s second NBA Championship and his Olympic Gold Medal win at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. The Jordan brand was really hitting its stride at this time. The VII retains touches expected of a Nike sneaker, such as the sportswear company’s Huarache technology by Hatfield, but steps away from Nike by dropping the company’s branding and losing the Air window in the ankle that first appeared on the III. Hatfield also drew inspiration from African tribal prints for the colorful and vibrant outsole and tongue designs.
Jordan also wore all five original colorways, including the Olympics pair with #9 on the heel, his number on Team USA, and the “Bordeaux” style that he sported on Michael Jackson’s music video “Jam.”
The first NBA Championship sneaker is also one of the best designs ever. The VI sports a unique midsole and new tongue that separates it from the V, along with an upper that has two layers to allow for color blocking. Hatfield looked to fighter planes and Jordan’s love of German sports cars.
The VI is special for being one of the few styles to create a demand around the outsole color, which is often released in plain white or icy blue. The sneaker is also noted for its enduring design, maintaining its hype through changes is men’s fashion, from the arrival of skinny jeans during the all-black-everything era in the late 2000s to streetwear’s takeover a decade later to the rise of brand collaborations, including ones with rapper Travis Scott, designer Aleali May and the Paris Saint Germain football club.
In terms of the history, the VI aided MJ in his quest to topple the rival Detroit Pistons and ultimately dethrone the Los Angeles Lakers in their first-ever NBA finals.
Many sneakers from the late 80s look like the Air Jordan V, but it is one of the few chunky shoes that has endured. Hatfield pulled loose inspiration from Jordan’s game for this sneaker. He drew comparisons between the dogfights under the basket and dogfights between planes in midair. This inspired the WWII fighter plane-era, shark-tooth shape on the midsole, which separates this style from all Jordan sneakers in the line. The V borrows elements from its predecessor, particularly the breathable mesh side panel, but stands alone with a prominent tongue that was common on sneakers in that era.
The Air Jordan V continues to be one of the more popular styles in the zeitgeist. The cool “Grape” colorway became synonymous with Will Smith; he wore the style in the opening theme of NBC sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel Air and throughout the pilot episode. Also, friends of the Jordan brand would apply their design spin on the style, including Supreme, Clot, Paris Saint Germain football club, music producer DJ Khaled and Virgil Abloh, who did two colorways for Off-White.
The Air Jordan XII is celebrated for serving as a bridge between the iconic Air Jordan XI and XIII sneakers, and for being Jordan’s sneaker of choice for his fifth NBA Championship game.
Hatfield dropped the XI’s patent leather strip for simpler contrast panels on the inside and outside of the foot, and added stitching on the upper that borrows from the XI’s lacing system. Hatfield also continued to tell the brand story on the tongue with the phrase “Two 3” spelled out between the laces.
The XII is one of the few sneakers that continues to be re-released; its simple design lends itself to variation. Fashion brand Public School reinterpreted the sneaker multiple times in grey, camel, army green and eggplant colorways, to name a few. It’s also becoming a popular style on the golf course. Jordan is known as much for his play on the greens as his career on the hardwood nowadays, which is why XII has been refitted with cleats in at least two colorways. Golf brand Eastside Golf also did a golf version of the sneaker in rich hues fit for champions.
The Air Jordan XIV instantly became a star upon its release. MJ played his last game for the Chicago Bulls in the 1998 NBA finals in a pair, which might be the most viewed sneaker debut ever (the match still holds the record for the most watched NBA game ever). The sneaker is also the star of one of Jordan’s most iconic photos: shooting his game-winning jump shot over Bryon Russell.
Jordan also wore the sneaker months before its official release. Hatfield sent Jordan a prototype of the XIV, and His Airness took such a liking to it that he decided to play in it for the pivotal game. This is why the black and red colorway is dubbed “The Last Shot.”
Hatfield drew inspiration from a Ferrari, again nodding to Jordan’s love for cars and motorsports. This is reflected in the low profile, dual zoom units and mesh vents on the outsole. The XIV has also been revived a number of times, including collaborations with Supreme and designer Aleali May.
Don’t call it a comeback. The Air Jordan II was inevitable given how Jordan took the world by storm in just his rookie season. His first sneaker had the same impact. There just had to be a sequel.
Designers Peter Moore and Bruce Kilgore retained the Air Jordan I outsole and wings logo, but the II is much more minimal and stripped down when compared to its older brother. The sneaker bears many design elements, including the faux lizard leather in white that blends in with the monochromatic upper and red ankle details.
The II was originally made in Italy with Italian leather in an attempt to make it the most luxurious sneaker at the time. It is also distinguished for being the first original design that didn’t bear any similarities to Nike high-tops. It may not have gotten much play on the court when it was first released, and thus received less praise than others on this list. But the its starting to gain momentum, especially after recent collaborations with Billie Eilish and J Balvin.
The Air Jordan VIII is MJ’s third championship sneaker and the second to be worn by Bugs Bunny. Here’s the scoop: you don’t have Space Jam without these sneakers. Nike promoted this pair with their second commercial starring Jordan and Bugs, teaming against Marvin the Martian and a gang of extraterrestrials. The Air Jordan VII may have the “Hare” colorway as a tribute to the iconic Looney Tunes star, but the Air Jordan VIII has the honor of being nicknamed after the beloved character.
As for the design, the VIII is Hatfield’s final high-top sneaker, sharing similarities with its predecessors, the V, VI and VII. It also sports a chenille tongue Jumpman graphic, along with straps. What’s more, the ankle and heel feature a ridged fabric that unintentionally resembles the Looney Tunes intro background.
Considering the connection between MJ and Bugs, it makes sense that he’d, after winning his third championship in this sneaker, summarize his premature retirement from the NBA with the remark, “That’s all folks.”
One of the most inventive Air Jordan sneakers from the first 20 years, the Air Jordan XV is often overlooked for its design, which deviates from its 14 older brothers. It’s still a standout nonetheless.
Hatfield drew inspiration from the X-15 fighter jet, the world’s fastest manned aircraft to date. With a woven Kevlar fiber upper and protruding tongue, Hatfield pushed the Air Jordan brand to its design limits. The XV is celebrated for its forward-thing design, one that has been ushered into the spotlight through collaborations with award-winning brands Public School and recently with singer Billie Eilish.
The Air Jordan X is the first milestone sneaker, chronicling the first 10 years of the Air Jordan brand and celebrating MJ’s accomplishments throughout the decade. This style was first introduced when Jordan announced his first retirement after winning his third NBA championship in 1993. To commemorate Jordan’s departure, Hatfield designed 10 marks on the outsole to represent some of his Airness’s triumphs, including winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1985, winning the Slam Dunk Contest in 1988, winning the NBA Championship and Most Valuable Player Awards and one for the year of the X’s release.
The style also continued in the same design direction that began with the IX. The high-tops that dominated the early 90s were becoming a thing of the past. Low, more streamlined styles started gaining traction, and the X’s silhouette, along with its monochrome side panels and lacing system, definitely fit better with the times. More recently, the brand collaborated with Drake on a special “OVO” colorway, so named after the rapper’s music label.
This unsung design by Hatfield and Mark Smith holds the distinction of celebrating 20 years of Jordan’s greatness and the Air Jordan brand. The XX is a unique mid-cut style with a floating ankle strap and 69 dimples on the side, which references MJ’s highest scoring game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1990.
But the main draw of this style is the collage on the upper that tells Jordan’s story through illustration. They include the Jumpman logo, championship trophies and rings, the number 45 (worn by Jordan on his return to basketball in 1995), baseball bats for his brief baseball career playing Double-A for the Chicago White Sox and his children’s names. Different versions of this collage would appear on other Jordan sneakers and apparel in the decade, most notably special versions of the Air Jordan XV and the Dub Zero sneaker.
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