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29.03.23

Unbanned – Return of the Air Ship

Nike and Jordan Brand dig deep and pull out a real deep-cut from the archives to revive the Air Ship – the original "banned" shoe.
Nike Air Ship White/Pine Green – Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship
Nike Air Ship White/Pine Green – Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship
Nike Air Ship White/Pine Green – Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship
Nike Air Ship White/Team Orange – Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship
Nike Air Ship White/Team Orange – Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship
Nike Air Ship White/Team Orange – Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship
Nike Air Ship White/University Gold – Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship
Nike Air Ship White/University Gold – Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship
Nike Air Ship White/University Gold – Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship

It's one of the most famous moments in sneaker history – the Jordan "banned" saga. As the story goes, in the lead-up to his rookie season in 1984-85 Michael Jordan was sporting a pair of Nikes in black and red. The lack of white on them breached the NBA's strict uniform guidelines, leading to them reportedly fining Jordan $5,000 each time he wore them on-court and eventually leading to a letter being sent to Nike from the NBA after MJ wore them against the Celtics in '84. This iconic moment would only add to the lore of the Air Jordan and the "banned" commercials Nike made off the back of this saga cemented the Air Jordan 1 as the must-have sneaker.

The only problem, is that Jordan never wore the AJ1 in 1984... Indeed MJ never even wore the famed "banned" Jordan colourway on-court during a game. So what's the deal? Instead of his debut signature model, in 1984 Jordan was wearing a black and red version of the Nike Air Ship complete with "Air Jordan" branding on the heel tab. To be more specific, Jordan was wearing custom one-off versions of the Air Ship with different collar heights and a rotation of different outsoles which were all part of Nike both trialling ideas for MJ and also due to supply chain issues. History is a funny thing, as the internet has been illuminated to the fact thanks to the work of people like Marvin Barias the myth still persists.

This historical inaccuracy has plagued the Air Ship’s legacy — creating a sort of block on peoples ability to appreciate what could be one of Nike’s most important basketball shoes. Indeed the Air Ship was the second Air-equipped basketball sneaker ever. Designed by Air Force 1 designer Bruce Kilgore, the Air Ship was made in response to athletes concerns over the weight and instability of another shoe he designed called Air Force 1… The high-stack midsole of the AF1 wasn’t great on the court, so Kilgore went back to the drawing board and with the help of an engineer friend developed a midsole with pillar cushioning and an Air bag in the heel. The result was a shoe which was lower to the ground which still possessed the fantastic cushioning which made Air sneakers so popular.

The Air Ship itself almost never came to fruition, having shown poor future sale prospections when shopped around by the sales team to prospective retailers. The design team had to fight for the moulds to even be made, but eventually they won-out. The Air Ship was positioned as a team shoe, allowing for squads to be outfitted with matching pairs in colours that worked with their uniform. Even though it was an improvement over the AF1 in almost every way, the Air Ship never received the backing by Nike’s marketing team as they were readying to push Air Jordan in 1985. Most of the marketing money was otherwise tied up in running and tennis categories — two far-bigger markets at the time.

Sadly over time the Air Ship was lost to history, stuck between the Air Force 1’s transition into cultural icon and the beginning of Jordan-mania. Although often overlooked, the Nike Air Ship is an important moment for the intersection of so many sneakers we place on a pedestal to this day. The best Nike basketball sneaker of (arguably) the best moment for basketball sneakers, which few people know about. With a reputation like that, it’s exciting to see Nike finally acknowledge and appreciate what the Air Ship represents.

Now, almost 40 years since the Air Ship first graced the hardwood, Jordan Brand are revisiting this overlooked moment in history by bringing the Air Ship back. They’re doing it the right way, bringing it back in collegiate colourways which honour the teams which allowed the Air Ship to make production. These colours honour the white-based versions which first graced the pages of sporting goods catalogues in 1984.

The Jordan Air Ship will release 11am AEDT this coming Friday, March 31st, 11am AEDT

Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship
Up There Journal: Unbanned – Return of the Nike Air Ship