What's black, white and red all over?
An Air Jordan.
What's an Air Jordan?
"WHAT'S AN AIR JORDAN?" your 14-year-old screams in disbelief.
It's that high-top basketball shoe you probably bought your teen-ager a few months ago. If you wince at the memory of the $65 price tag, be consoled. You're not alone; between 2 1/2 and 3 million other people bought the sneaker this year in a street-fad whirlwind that made it a legend, at least in the annals of sports shoes. And perhaps in the annals of feet.
The shoe has brought Nike about $105 million since last March, according to the company. "It's far and away the most successful shoe in the history of athletic footwear," says Chris Van Dyke of Nike. "We would have considered it successful if we had made $2 million to $8 million the first year."
In its 10-month sales blitz, the Air Jordan far outdistanced even the Stan Smith tennis shoe, which has sold about 7 million pairs over a period of more than 10 years, according to David Falk, senior vice president of ProServ, the sports management company that represents both Jordan and Smith.
It all started on Oct. 15, 1984, at a preseason game, when the Chicago Bulls' heroic Michael Jordan landed on the court sporting his team's colors on the most unlikely looking pair of high-tops -- black leather with a red Nike "swoosh" stripe and red laces.
As legend goes, the NBA soon threatened to discipline the high-jumping Jordan. There would be a fine of $5,000 if he dared to play an NBA game in those unorthodox things again. Wearing them was some kind of technical foul.
This was more than the seduction experts at Nike could have hoped for. The ads appeared immediately: "Air Jordans, too hot for the NBA."
The rest is shoe history. The world of basketball watched Jordan return to the court in modified shoes; Nike had added white, a traditional basketball shoe color, to the Air Jordan line. Then the NBA said, "Okay, okay. We give in."
Since March, parents around the country have been saying the same thing.
It is widely supposed that black urban teen-agers were the Air Jordan trendsetters. "In our business, it's all you do, look at feet," says Dave Fogelson at Adidas, which is coming out with its own autograph Patrick Ewing shoe in May, "and the kids in the urban areas are the first to recognize the new trendy shoe. It's very important to them, it's a part of their interests and culture, and so they save up and buy these shoes."
If the parents didn't give in, the kids themselves lined up with the cash to blow. And, according to Phillip Fenty, owner of Fleet Feet in Adams-Morgan, the D.C. summer job program for young adults put many a kid in Jordans. "They were fashion-conscious kids," Fenty says.
From the city the craze spread to the suburbs, and from the young it spread to the younger and to teens at heart. In most cases, claims the corps of shoe sales clerks, the kids came in dragging their parents to the Jordans. Many, but not all, parents were convinced. One mother in Silver Spring says when the craze "for expensive tennis shoes started, I put a ceiling of $35 on all my kids' shoes."
"They were a pretty price-insensitive product when they first came out," says Pete Cain, manager of the all-Nike store on M Street, about the rather hefty price tag of the shoes. "But nobody was complaining about it. People were so hot after the shoe that they didn't care. We got 65 pairs in mid-March which sold almost immediately . . . There really hasn't been anything like it before, which added to the excitement."
Now, however, "they're just another basketball shoe on the shelf," says Cain. "They're definitely not at their peak anymore. The hysteria is gone."
Trying hard to keep the fad alive, Nike may be running rubber into the ground. The company introduced all kinds of Jordans in time for the holidays: "Sky Jordans" for ages 5 to 11, and even high-top "Baby Jordans" in infant sizes. And for those turned off by a hard-to-coordinate black-and-red pair of shoes, there are new colors, much more white with a timid blue swoosh.
Nike's Van Dyke explains that "the life cycle for shoes in this industry is getting shorter and shorter. Many companies aren't going to be able to keep up with the pace. We spend $80 million a year in product development just to keep up."
The "air" in the Air Jordans is a snappy reference to both the basketball player with a reputation as a "flyer" and the "air-cushioned" innersole that Nike claims cushions the feet against shock.
"We tend not to see a problem with a shoe design until the shoes have been out two years," says Dr. Paul Taylor, podiatrist for the Washington Bullets, "but I don't expect any with the Air Jordan because the air-cushioned sole has been used on their running shoes very successfully."
Nike turned its focus to creating a better basketball shoe three years ago by incorporating improvements used in the company's running shoes since 1978. "There's more impact in basketball than in running, and fortunately because of their popularity, the shoe industry has decided to improve basketball shoes," adds Taylor. Now, he says, "all the top shoes made by the major manufacturers are excellent," but need to be individually fitted because "everbody's feet are different."
Coincidentally with the down-to-earth trend of his namesake shoe, Michael Jordan himself has been grounded lately. The 6-foot-6 player has been recuperating since Nov. 4 from a broken navicular tarsal (a tiny bone in his left foot).
The influence of the Jordans on the athletic shoe industry, however, isn't fading. People have gotten used to the look of high-tops in often strange team-color combinations. Reebok, the biggest name in tennis and aerobic shoes this year, has come out with a women's high-top, in solid colors and in the thin, soft garment leather Reebok has made popular. Although many women have been stealing over to the men's shoe section for years, Fenty says, " Reebok created a whole new market in women's high-tops . . . particularly in solid black."
And, probably because of the Jordan, team colors are big news for sneakers. Georgetown's basketball team shoe is new this season, in light gray with dark gray trim (and "Hoya" written on the back), made for them by Nike as part of its new "college colors program." It will be sold in area stores as well. Ten other colleges this year ordered team-color sneakers, including St. John's, Syracuse, North Carolina State and Villanova.
On a recent Saturday, Patrick Ewing stepped onto the Madison Square Garden court for the first time wearing his new shoe. No, it's not the "Patrick Ewing shoe." It's called "The Conductor," and Ewing will wear it in the Knicks' team colors -- royal blue and orange.
Come this spring, the teen-agers' new chant may be, "Patrick Ewings, gotta have 'em, gotta have 'em, gotta have 'em."