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Originally published January 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 10, 2008 at 10:27 AM

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23 years later, Air Jordans maintain mystique

It's gotta be the shoes, right? No other basketball shoe has changed the face of business, athletics and marketing like the Air Jordan. This month, Nike releases the...

The Associated Press

BEAVERTON, Ore. — It's gotta be the shoes, right?

No other basketball shoe has changed the face of business, athletics and marketing like the Air Jordan. This month, Nike releases the 23rd edition, and it is expected to be just as venerated as its predecessors.

The sleek design and link to Michael Jordan's jersey number make it a touchstone in the line. It's also Nike's first basketball shoe designed under its "Considered" ethos, which aims to reduce waste and use environmentally friendly materials wherever possible.

The Air Jordan XX3 will be released in three hyped-up rounds from January to February, starting with a limited edition to be sent to only 23 retailers to be sold for $230 and concluding with the national launch at $185.

There had been talk at Nike about retiring the shoe at No. 23, because of his iconic jersey number. But company officials won't say whether this will be the last of the line. Neither will Jordan.

"You'll just have to wait and see," said Jordan, who has been a part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats since 2006.

Before launching the first shoe in 1985, Nike had just signed Jordan for $2.5 million over five years. Nike won't say what Jordan's current contract with the company is worth.

Jordan's deal with Nike opened the door for sneaker manufacturers to chase after athletes, signing them up — sometimes just out of high school — for multimillion-dollar contracts in hopes of being able to cash in on the next superstar. It sent sneaker prices to new heights, which has since generated a backlash against selling pricey shoes to basketball-loving kids.

"The Air Jordan franchise created the most coveted basketball footwear in the world and changed the basketball landscape forever," said Nike Brand President Charlie Denson.

Unlike most basketball shoes to date, which were often white and utilitarian, the Air Jordan was a shock of black and red. It was initially banned by the NBA for not conforming with other players' shoes.

Jordan continued to wear them and was fined $5,000 a game, which Nike paid.

"Nobody expected the mass hysteria created by its release," said Jordan said.

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A new edition was launched each year, and release dates had to be moved to the weekends to keep kids from skipping school to get a pair.

The frenzy got dangerous. People were mugged and even killed for the shoes.

The Air Jordans helped spawn a subculture of collectors, who line up at stores to buy the shoe's latest edition.

Jordan said he never expected that the shoe would become an icon.

"Like every kid growing up, I dreamed of making winning shots at the buzzer and I was fortunate to live out that dream, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever entertain the idea of the success of the Air Jordan franchise," he said.

The Air Jordans moved basketball shoes from true high-tops or low-tops to a middle range and used never-before-seen styles, such as patent leather toes and elephant print.

As Jordan's success grew on the courts, so did Nike's in the shoe industry.

People from the streets to the suburbs were wearing $100-plus basketball shoes, which was unheard of at the time.

That price is the norm today, but it has launched a backlash, such as the partnership between New York Knicks player Stephon Marbury and the Steve & Barry's store chain to sell basketball shoes for $14.98 — a direct stab at pricey sneakers like Air Jordans.

Nike quickly moved from a running-shoe company and newcomer to the basketball category to the market leader. Some industry estimates put Nike's current share of the basketball-shoe market at about 85 percent. Far behind are Adidas and Reebok.

The idea of adding such unusual style to a product or so closely aligning with a personality was novel at the time, but it paid off.

Other companies tried to follow suit but it was like trying to come up with the next Harry Potter or iPhone for basketball.

The relationship completely changed the idea of sports marketing. Companies now make athlete sponsorships the centerpiece of their business, spending millions signing them and designing product lines and marketing platforms around them.

Jordan's original deal seems like a pittance compared with multimillion-dollar contracts inked these days, such as Nike's $90 million agreement with LeBron James.

"The beginning of the Jordan era marked a new and more sophisticated approach to leveraging an athlete," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

Jordan was spun off into its own division in 1997, a move that some high up in Nike questioned when Jordan retired.

But the business is a key component, with new players signing on under the brand. Nike has spun that Jordan swagger into performance and luxury apparel for men and woman.

The Air Jordan remains the pinnacle piece for shoe collectors. The original Air Jordan 1 can sell for thousands of dollars, depending on various factors.

Jordan said: "It blows my mind that even after five years removed from the game the shoe would be stronger than ever and I would still be greeted by fans as if I had just won a championship all over again."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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