words & interview // Nick DePaula:
There are quite a few moments in hoops history that you can instantly recall where you were when they happened. Vince Carter’s Dunk Contest. LeBron’s first game. Kobe’s 81 points. The Decision. Bringing up any of those iconic moments in time can draw a quick reaction and response from any fan.
Michael Jordan’s first retirement from the game of basketball is most definitely near the very top of that list.
For fans, teammates, and apparently even his very own signature sneaker designer, it was a shock to everyone when Michael walked away from the NBA in the fall of 1993. Jordan said he had simply lost his sense of motivation and desire to prove himself on the basketball court.
As Michael and the Bulls capped off a three-peat of titles with a ’93 Finals victory over the Phoenix Suns, he closed the series out in the Air Jordan VIII.
Tinker Hatfield, at that time the Air Jordan designer since the III, had already knocked out the IX’s design for the 94-95 season. During October of 1993, he was just getting started on the line’s 10th anniversary model.
As Hatfield recalls in vivid detail, Michael’s first retirement only further inspired him to continue the Air Jordan series, regardless of the countless Nike executives calling for the line’s demise. When MJ returned to the game on March 19th, 1995 — exactly 20 years ago today — Tinker certainly felt vindicated.
As told by Tinker Hatfield:
“I was home on a Sunday. I was at home working on this design, which was typical for me and still is today. I do most of my designs at home away from Nike, because here I get dragged into meetings all the time. [laughs] I’ve always had to design at home or someplace else. I was at home, designing in the living room. I got a phone call, and it was from Phil Knight. My wife Jackie took the call, and she brought me into the kitchen and said, ‘It’s Phil Knight. He’s on the phone.’
I answered it, and I was actually sketching this bottom at the very second he called. Well, again, this was a Sunday. He said, ‘Pack your bags. First thing in the morning, wheels up at 8 a.m. We’re going to Chicago.’ He’s like that; he always says these cryptic things and doesn’t tell you why. [laughs] So I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll go, but—what are we doing?’
He said, ‘We’re going to Chicago because Michael Jordan is going to announce his retirement on Wednesday.’ I’m just going, ‘Whaaaaat?’ So he says that there’s going to be a huge press conference and he wants me and Howard White to be there. He was really, really sad. Phil was almost morose. To him, you could just tell in his voice that he was super sad, and to him it was almost the end of an era. So, I hung up the phone and tried to process it for a few seconds, and then I said, ‘You know, so what,’ and I went right back to my design studio and worked on the shoe.
I just said to myself, I could tell that there were going to be people that were going to say it was the end of an era, but I just thought and knew immediately that it was just a little break. Knowing Michael, I just knew him. So, I went back to the studio and began working on how these stripes were going to be drawn. I was trying to come up with these different milestones of his career and focus in on the 10th year of his career. I think I may have also drawn the infamous tip of the shoe then too. [laughs] Admittedly, when I finished the IX, it was off to the races, but hadn’t been worn by Michael, but I started working on this. It was a little bit different than it is now. When we’re doing shoes now, there’s bigger teams, things are more complicated, and more people are contributing to the design. Back then, unless I actually went out and asked Mark Smith to design a particular thing that was usually graphic, I was the one doing it all. There [were] no big meetings; I was just doing it at home. I wanted to just make a feature out of the 10 years of his career, even though there wasn’t going to be a 10th year. [laughs]
So, I came up with this striped theme. I thought I’d reflect that also in the upper from a style perspective. It went from the hard plastic loops in the IX to what I felt was a little more contouring loop system here. The thing that I think should be mentioned here was that I figured Michael would just take a break from basketball. I was thinking he could even un-retire in as soon as six months. So I was thinking to myself, we had better have a shoe ready for him, whenever he un-retires. The whole thing can’t be a broken string; he’ll just wear the newest shoe that we’ve designed for him.
I do remember I lost a little bit of steam from the innovation side. It just takes so much energy out of you to come up with these types of ideas and to rethink basketball shoes all the way around. I think I dialed back and didn’t put as much effort into trying to rethink a basketball shoe as much as I just wanted to talk about the 10 years of Michael. I just wanted to style it and keep it simple and somewhat cleaner like the year before. That’s how this one got done.
There were people who said, ‘Why even sample it up? Why even do it? The Jordan thing is done.’ I even got calls and letters from people after Michael announced his retirement, and people were saying, ‘Well, I guess we had a good run.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I’m still rolling with this, and people were upset, because they figured I was wasting my time and others’ time, and wasting Nike’s money.
People thought we couldn’t sell Michael’s shoes if Jordan wasn’t playing. I’m going, ‘Yeah you can!‘ I was just in total belief that that would be the case. I talked to Howard White about it, and Howard didn’t think that Michael was going to un-retire, but he totally supported the fact that this thing would still keep going. I thought that also, but I also just knew that he was going to un-retire. It’s more than a gut feeling. I had been around sports my whole life, and outside of Jim Brown, I had never heard of an athlete retiring at the peak of their ability. Jim Brown – and Barry Sanders was another one, but he came after Michael. I just knew it was very rare. People might just take a break, and need that time away. I just knew that. It just didn’t make any sense for him to not play again. He had more games to win. He’s such a competitive guy. To me, it wasn’t as mystical. I’m an athlete, and you don’t stop when you could still kick somebody’s ass. [laughs] When you still can go out and rule the day, that’s too much fun. It turns out I was absolutely right on, and I felt vindicated.”