A cavernous sound of a bouncing ball echoes. The audience catches sight of a basketball in mid-air, then the camera pans downward to reveal rookie Michael Jordan effortlessly passing the ball back and forth. A narrator’s voice launches the legend: “On September 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game.” The camera stops on the red and black Air Jordan Is; then two black bars appear over the sneakers, censoring the shoes that the NBA deemed unacceptable. The narrator resumes, “Fortunately the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them. Air Jordan from Nike.”1 This 1985 commercial marked the sensational beginning of what became one of the most influential sneaker franchises in history.

More than 31 years after the ban of the Air Jordan I, it is useful to present a brief history of the NBA’s longstanding regulation of players’ dress both on and off the court. The original Air Jordan I was banned by NBA commissioner David Stern for not complying with the “uniformity of uniforms” rule,2  which requires that players wear the same apparel and footwear as their teammates to ensure aesthetic unity.  Jordan was tacked with a fine each time he wore the sneakers because they did not have enough white to coordinate with fellow Chicago Bulls team members.3  The bold shoe was an effort on Nike’s part to differentiate Jordan not only by his superior athleticism but also his distinguished footwear.4  Nike parlayed the ban into a testament of the shoe’s ability to enhance athletic performance despite the reality that the restriction was based solely on the footwear’s defiant red and black colorway.5

Nike, Air Jordan I

Nike / Air Jordan I, 1985 / Nike Archives / Photo: Ron Wood

In 2005, Stern established another prohibition with the NBA Player Dress Code that was witnessed across the league. This code demands business casual dress for any and all NBA-related events. “Business Casual” footwear is explicitly defined as “dress shoes, dress boots, or other presentable shoes, but not including sneakers, sandals, flip-flops, or work boots.”6  The code prohibits sneakers from all team or league business unless players are uniformed for a game or attending a special event where athletic attire is appropriate, such as a basketball clinic. Despite sneakers being an integral component of not only basketball culture but the ability to play the game, they were deemed unprofessional. The Dress Code brought about a host of criticism from in and outside the league, arguing that it impinged on the individual and cultural stylistic expression of the players. Vince Carter, shooting guard and small forward for the Memphis Grizzles, remarked in 2005 that, “I just think people should be able to express themselves. I know they took out the ‘do rag stuff; I understand that. As far as guys wearing what they want to wear, I am all for that. Who really cares about what they wear from the bus to the locker room?”7

The only other sneaker that has been banned by the NBA is the Concept 1 from Athletic Propulsion Lab (APL). For the 2010–11 NBA season, the Concept 1 was prohibited because of its ability to provide an “unfair advantage” to players.8  The advantage, created by sibling founders Adam and Ryan Goldston, is the patented Load N’ Launch Technology, which advertises that it will instantly enhance your vertical leap by simply strapping on a pair of the sneakers. Again, the NBA flexed its ability to restrict the footwear of players, but credits the ban to the shoes providing a possible competitive advantage. Similar to the trajectory of the Jordan brand, the shoes went viral, and APL sold nine months of their sneaker inventory in just three days.9

adidas, Crazy 8 "Nightmare Before Christmas"

adidas, Crazy 8 “Nightmare Before Christmas”

As intrusive as the NBA can be in dictating what is acceptable for players to wear, there are a considerable amount of “sneaker holidays.” Sneaker holidays are days within the season when players can wear shoes outside of the team’s colorways.10  These special events range from major holidays, such as Christmas, to heritage months, like the entire month of February for Black history. Even the Grammy Awards are considered a valid reason for players to flaunt a new sneaker colorway.11  Christopher Arena, Vice President of Identity, Outfitting and Equipment for the NBA, said these allowances in sneaker colorways evolved after sneaker corporations were submitting requests for players to wear more adventurous colorways.12  Christmas is the most important sneaker holiday, as the court becomes a runway for the upcoming year’s collections. Embracing different colors, as well as special and limited-edition sneakers, it truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Adidas served up the Crazy 8 “Nightmare before Christmas,” with a royal purple colorway that featured glow-in-the-dark accents, in 2013.13  Nike premiered the Jordan CP3 VII “Flight before Christmas,” the title referring to the increased travel that happens during the winter season, complete with radar motifs to symbolize the hustle of the holiday period.

Bans, restrictions, and regulations have a particular history within both sneaker culture and the NBA. However, despite the background of censorship of sneakers by the NBA, the Association has contributed to the vibrant lineage of bold styles that continue to challenge institutional standards and set fashion trends.

Footnotes:

[1]“Michael Jordan’s NBA Banned Shoes,” YouTube video, 0:42, posted by “The AD Show,” November 10, 2010, https://youtu.be/wa35n82vSxE. An argument exists claiming it was never the Air Jordan I that was banned but rather a Nike Air Ship in a red and black colorway. Although Michael Jordan wore the Air Ship in the early phases of his rookie career, it was the Air Jordan I that made the brand notorious and ushered the Jumpman to the forefront of sneaker history. According to e-mail correspondence between Elizabeth Semmelhack and Kristi Kieffer (October 13, 2015), the Nike Archives has a letter from the NBA that specifically states that the Air Jordan I was banned on October 18, 1984.
[2] Mary Flenner, “Sneaker: Putting on Airs,” Philadelphia Daily News, April 3, 1985, 37.
[3] Elizabeth Semmelhack, Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture (New York: American Federation of Arts/Rizzoli, 2015), p. 117.
[4] Ibid.
[5] The legend of the banned Air Jordan I red and black colorway lives on in the 2011 special red and black Air Jordan I retroes “Banned” that feature a red “X” above the top of the back sole, “10.18.85” printed on the inside of the shoe, and the infamous lines of the Air Jordan I commercial repeated on the inserts.
[6] “NBA Player Dress Code,” accessed October 19, 2015, http://www.nba.com/news/player_dress_code_051017.html.
[7] “One-Size-Fits-All Dress Code Draws Divergent Views,” accessed November 20, 2015, http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=2197012.
[8] Rachel Heller Zaimont, “Banned By The NBA, A Shoe Company Branches Out,” October 23, 2014, accessed October 19, 2015, http://www.fastcompany.com/3037402/innovation-agents/banned-by-the-nba-a-shoe-company-branches-out.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Brendan Dunne, “When NBA Players Can Wear Special Sneakers,” March 22, 2015, accessed October 19, 2015, http://solecollector.com/news/nba-dress-code-sneaker-guidelines/.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid. It is interesting to note that these sneaker holidays are in response to demand from sneaker corporations.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.

Shayla Black

Shayla Corinne Black served as the microsite curatorial intern for “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture” exhibition for the Fall 2015 term. In addition to working with the AFA, Shayla is a second year Master candidate at Bard Graduate Center where her academic focus is African-American Menswear from the 20th-21st centuries.

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