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Act II: The Nuanced Narrative of the Air Jordan 2

author
Ian Stonebrook

By most measures, the Air Jordan 2 didn’t arrive until the 1986-87 NBA Season. However, one could trace its origins back to a more memorable event: the 1985 NBA All-Star Weekend Dunk Contest.

Taking flight in the Black/Red Air Jordan 1, Michael Jordan had been making money and enemies since the day he signed the dotted line and became Nike’s leading man. 

Sure, the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving all had shoe deals. However, they had battle scars, hardware, and the time-tested respect of their peers.

 

Conversely, at only 21 years of age, Michael Jordan had his own shoe with his own name on it. 

Not only did the Black/Red Air Jordan 1 defy the NBA’s dress code as a means of marketing Mike, it was merched at the ‘85 Dunk Contest with matching Nike apparel from head to toe.

With gold chains.

While every other vet was wearing their team warm-ups and team uniforms.

From the jump, Michael Jordan was positioned as better than everybody else.

Michael Jordan in the Air Jordan 2 White/Black (via Getty Images)

 

Not only was Nike validating it, they were paying him handsomely for it and exploiting this positioning at the cost of his peers. 

Earning a quarter-million dollars from the Swoosh alone his rookie season – and selling over $100 million worth of product for Nike in ‘85 – Mike was breaking the bank and shattering box scores seemingly without paying dues or respecting the league totem poll.

Disgusted, the Eastern Conference All-Stars led by Isiah Thomas and backed by others, froze out the brazen Jordan who was already elected a starter as just a rookie. Hence, this year’s Trophy Room Air Jordan 1 inspiration. 

Still, Mike made his mark, winning an array of awards that season and for many to follow.

As a victory lap after Michael Jordan’s Rookie of the Year campaign, Air Jordan 1 designer and then-Nike creative director Peter Moore gifted Jordan’s friends and family with a Black/Gold Air Jordan 1 exclusive made in Italy.

Original Air Jordan 2 tech sheet

Because annual signature shoes weren’t a thing then – and maybe shouldn’t be now – the Air Jordan 1 remained at retail and on Michael Jordan’s feet for the remainder of his injury-plagued second season. 

Already owning the eventual Spike Lee laden nickname, “Money,” Michael Jordan needed a new shoe to both recaptivate the market and better establish his status in the NBA. 

Marketing mind Rob Strasser had already rolled out the idea to continually release new products as a way to keep fans on their toes wondering what was next.

The Air Jordan 2 was exactly that – an unprecedented surprise.

Originally marketed as the “Air Jordan Imagination” as seen on the shoe’s promo posters turned into retro cards, the AJ2 was an Italian made basketball shoe priced at $100. 

In many ways a ripoff of what Adidas had done to make and market the Forum in 1984, the overseas engineering and luxury price point were a stark departure from the introductory Air Jordan 1 and a shock to the market.

It was aspirational, not accessible.

Michael Jordan in the Air Jordan 2 Low White/Red (via Getty Images)

Coming in at almost twice the price of the $65 Air Jordan 1, the $100 Air Jordan 2 leaned even further into individualism by removing the sidewall Swoosh and instead leveraging Michael’s signature Wings logo on the tongue. 

Iguana textured Italian leather on the upper made the Air Jordan 2 the equivalent of a Balenciaga basketball shoe while TPU support around the ankle upped the ante from its all-leather predecessor. 

Even if the average fan couldn’t afford the Air Jordan 2, aficionados took notice.

“It was the Air Jordan 2 that really set that model apart and gained ferocious acceptance with hip hop heads and ballplayers in New York,” Bobbito Garcia said in his classic book, Where’d You Get Those. “It was the first Nike basketball shoe that didn’t have the long swoosh on the upper. Even connoisseurs who rejected the shoe because of its popularity had to applaud the design.”

Heavy D and The Boys in the Air Jordan 2 (via HHV)

Said to look great with a tux by a Nike exec at the time, the Air Jordan 2 was essentially the Air Jordan 11 before the Air Jordan 11 in regard to regalness.

Don’t get it twisted though, the Air Jordan 2 did more than just put on the ritz. 

For fans of flight, the real sauce came from the model’s sole. Calling in The Godfather of Air – designer Bruce Kilgore of Nike Air Force 1 fame – the Air Jordan 2 featured plush cushioning that was meant to be swifter, stronger, and softer than anything on the market. 

Keep in mind, the original Air Jordan 1 didn’t actually have an Air sole. Additionally, MJ was coming off a broken foot, thus needing more padding on each land. 

By all aesthetic and technical measures, the Air Jordan 2 was better than the competition.

So, was Mike?

Michael Jordan in the Air Jordan 2 White/Red (photo via Getty Images)

On the Opening Night of the 1986-87 season, the answer was yes. 

Debuting the Air Jordan 2 in Madison Square Garden, Michael Jordan scored 50 points in a win over the New York Knicks. He’d go on to drop 41 the next night, averaging 37.1 points per game that season and taking home his first of ten career scoring titles.

Whether the chicken or the egg, Michael Jordan was the GOAT and Nike was marketing him as such. Over the course of the 1986-87 NBA Season, Michael Jordan would absolutely ball out in the Air Jordan 2 in high and low top fashion. 

Much quieter in composition than the intentionally bold Air Jordan 1, the lavish sequel hit the nail on the head in regard to imagination and mystique but failed to captivate fans at retail like the original due to its whopping price point and understated elegance.

 

 

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A post shared by Pablo (@pablojordan23og)

Infamously, Peter Moore and marketing man Rob Strasser left Nike after the Air Jordan 2 with hopes of convincing Michael to do the same and start his own brand. Famously, Nike tasked up-and-coming designer Tinker Hatfield with creating the next Air Jordan, keeping MJ at the brand, and giving birth to the Jumpman logo.

Once again, the formula had changed.

While triple-digit price-points and Air cushioning would remain on the Air Jordan line, the limits of luxury and reliance on multiple cuts of the game shoe would ebb in and out of Mike’s signature series.

1994 Air Jordan 2 Retro (via Pinterest)

In 1994, the Air Jordan 2 returned as a retro in celebration of Mike’s ten years with Nike, releasing in commemorative packaging but missing the mark in a market not yet infatuated by nostalgia.

For the decades to follow, the Air Jordan 2 faded to the background of sneaker fandom. 

From the Air Jordan 3 and on, signature elements of personality and technology defined the rationale as to why consumers loved each model as much as the moments did. 

Conversely, the Air Jordan 2 was defined by a level of luxury that was impractical in its arrival and thus unmatched with every retro release.

Carmelo Anthony in the Air Jordan 2 “Melo” (via Getty Images)

From 2004 and on, the Air Jordan 2 released in retro form with familiar lines yet lackluster composition. Leather that was once Italian was now standard quality, prone to crease so quickly that some fans wore their Retro 2s with heel cups in the toe box as a way to minimize the damage. 

Both high and low homages lacked the sharpness of the original while the Nu Retro 2 went totally round. 

In its second life, the Air Jordan 2 had gone from aspirational luxury to real replica. 

Still, it wasn’t all bad.

Vashtie Kola with her Air Jordan 2 collaboration via (Hypebeast)

Because of its second fiddle stance in the Air Jordan hierarchy, the Air Jordan 2 took to new themes that brought it new life. 

Pairs tied to ballers like Carmelo Anthony and creatives like Vashite Kola kept the model alive even if Italian leather wasn’t in the mix. A Doernbecher drop and Bin 23 take added esteem in purpose and premium placement while an Eminem exclusive played the middle on both ideals.

Through the 2010s, the Air Jordan 2 would be utilized mostly for mall missions, weaponized as a colorful upgrade to Vans Sk8-His (see the “Stoplight” Pack) or Team Jordans (see “Infrared 23” and “Nightshade” styles). 

Relegated as an accessory through flashy colorways, longtime aficionado Don C flipped that notion on its head in 2015 by way of his first Jordan Brand collaboration.

Don C & his wife, Kristen Noel Crawley, in the Just Don x Air Jordan 2 (via Jordan)

Fittingly, the Just Don x Air Jordan 2 leaned into luxury by bringing quilted composition to the ‘86 favorite as an homage to his wife’s Chanel handbag. Premium composition, elevated pricing, and tonal styling all harkened the idea of the original – a foreign idea in recent eras.

For the back half of the 2010s, the Air Jordan 2 would go on an underappreciated rebranding campaign. Don C styles would continue to release while remastered versions of the Air Jordan 2 Low would release at retail in original and new styles. 

The Air Jordan 2 Decon continued the elevated repositioning of the AJ2, dressed in smooth suede styles that were tonal in nature and without lining for sleekness. A “Quai 54” colorway relayed the same message, later leading to a ‘if you know you know’ Air Jordan 2 “Melo” re-release and a spirited “Black History Month” makeup.

In 2021, the Air Jordan 2 is back in the limelight by way of the OFF-WHITE x Air Jordan 2 Low SP. 

Deemed luxury by collaborator namesake, the Virgil Abloh homage to the original plays less upon the AJ2’s strengths and more upon its weaknesses.

OFF-WHITE x Air Jordan 2 Low SP (via Nike)

Famously, 1985 Air Jordan 1s remain the most coveted product in sneaker culture for the fact that they remain wearable even as relics. Conversely, the Polyurethane midsole Bruce Kilgore used to make the Air Jordan 2’s sole soft causes archival pairs to decompose with time. Because of this, Abloh offers a marbled midsole that mimics a decomposed original pair.

In a world where coveted collaborations and sought-after retros resell for the same amount as a pair of sneakers sold by Prada, the Air Jordan 2 should be the most popular basketball bring-back on the market. 

“This was a shoe ahead of its time,” Peter Moore said in his design portfolio. “Today, the shoes are collector’s items.”

With Air Jordan 1 fatigue taking two years in the 1980s and suddenly never stopping decades later, will the Air Jordan 2 matter that much once OFF-WHITE, Union, or J Balvin don’t appear before it? 

Only time will tell as the hype machine formula suggests collaborations only exist as a means to excite customers for eventual general releases. Regardless of one’s feelings on Abloh, SNKRS, or reselling, the Air Jordan 2 is oddly back where it began: so aspirational it’s almost inaccessible. 

Michael Jordan in the Air Jordan 2 White/Black (Photo via Getty Images)

While consumer demand has flipped in the OFF-WHITE instance, the ability to bring back Mike’s second signature shoe with premium leather and refined colorways puts the ball in Jordan Brand’s court to decide whether the Air Jordan 2 is the next fashion favorite or a consolation retro meant for mass audiences.

However, the tail of the tape begs for a homecoming.

From Dunk Contest audacity to Italian craftsmanship, the Air Jordan 2 was where arrogance meant elegance. Perhaps it’s fitting that its real second life starts now.

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