The Air Jordan that charted a new course for the brand.

Jordan 2
© Jordan

A bold new direction

When Michael Jordan signed a deal with Nike in 1984, it was the beginning of something special, but neither could have predicted just how important a moment it would turn out to be. The following year, the first model in the Jordan signature line was released, its astounding success hinting at the potential of this exciting footwear venture. However, its popularity created challenges as Nike prepared to work on the follow-up. The pressure was on to make a sneaker that could reach the same heights as the debut Air Jordan or maybe even surpass it, but with so many basketball shoes on the market, it would be difficult to craft something distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd. Nike’s solution was to give its footwear experts the freedom to design a completely different sneaker that would take the Jordan line in a bold new direction. What they came up with was the groundbreaking Air Jordan 2 – a shoe so unique that it changed both the course of the brand and the notion of what a basketball trainer could be.

© Jordan

Two formidable designers

Nike would require the very best of its designers to make the successor to the Air Jordan 1, so the brand drafted in the creator of the iconic Air Force 1, Bruce Kilgore, to work alongside the man responsible for giving the Jordan line its great start: Peter Moore. With these two brilliant minds in charge of the project, the Jordan 2 was in good hands, and it needed to be. Despite not being enamoured with Nike initially, Michael Jordan had been persuaded to choose the brand over other basketball heavyweights thanks to the excellent deal they had offered him. He had even come round to the design of the AJ1, but his loyalty was far from guaranteed at this point, having only signed a short-term deal that allowed him to leave after just a few years.

© Jordan

An unfortunate injury

Even more challenging was the fact that Jordan himself was laid up following a foot injury sustained in the third game of the ‘85-’86 season against the Golden State Warriors on 29th October 1985. He sat out the next 64 matches, not returning until 15th March 1986, when the Bulls lost to the Milwaukee Bucks. This began a run of 5 straight losses that threatened the team’s place in the playoffs, but they rallied in April to make the end-of-season tournament. Jordan returned to form as the Bulls faced the formidable Boston Celtics in the first round, scoring 63 points in Game 2, which still stands as a record for the most points by a single player in an NBA playoffs game. His total for the series was a massive 131 points, eclipsing the nearest score of 85 made by Celtics’ stars Kevin McHale and Larry Bird, who referred to Jordan as “God disguised as Michael Jordan” after his record-breaking second match. Ultimately, though, the Bulls lost 3-0 and MJ ended the season having played in a total of just 21 of the team’s 85 games.

© Jordan

An Italian connection

The spectre of potential future injuries now hung over Jordan’s head, so he would need a supportive shoe for the following season. Kilgore travelled to Italy along with footwear designer Mark Parker, who decades later would become Nike CEO. Once there, the pair connected with footwear pattern engineer, and future Director of Nike’s Innovation Concept Creation Center, Claudio Innocente in the northern city of Montebelluna. At the time, the area was well-known as a hub for footwear manufacturing and was one of the few places that had the technology to produce a basketball trainer with both the necessary cushioning and a sole unit low enough to the ground that Jordan could feel the court as he played. It was also the ideal place to craft a stylish model that emulated the dress shoes Jordan would wear at formal events or on nights out – something he had specifically requested.

Testing prototypes

Being so close to the production process, Kilgore and Parker were able to have their sketches quickly made into workable prototypes. Amongst these was the Air Jordan 1.5, which was a hybrid shoe tested by MJ himself at the end of the ‘85-’86 season. It combined the upper of the AJ1 with a chunky sole planned for use on the Jordan 2 that the team hoped would give Michael the support and protection he needed to prevent further injury. Another notable prototype with a thinner sole unit, perforations around the collar and a Nike Wings logo on the flank ended up as a low-top worn by the Chicago Bulls cheerleaders, but it didn’t quite have the elegance or sophistication to make the final cut for the Air Jordan 2.

© Jordan

A luxurious sneaker

When the team finally settled on a finished product, it represented a brave departure from the first Air Jordan, especially in terms of its aesthetic. Kilgore had aligned its look with that of a formal dress shoe to reflect Michael’s passion for high-end clothing, in particular Stacy Adams footwear, which clearly inspired the Jordan 2’s sleek shape, the immaculate presentation of its stitching and the elegant layout of its overlays. The designer’s ambition to elevate the Jordan line with a more luxurious sneaker was also evident in his use of genuine Italian leather across its upper and the addition of faux iguana skin overlays on its flanks – something never applied to a basketball trainer before.

© Jordan

Performance features

An imagination board from the time highlights these premium elements, as well as some of the shoes key performance features, including its “dynamic fit tongue straps”, which, allied with its speed lacing system, made it quick and easy to put on and adjust. The moulded external heel counter is also mentioned, its exaggerated size and solid build providing the wearer with extra stability on the court, as is the two-tone rubber outsole. Polyurethane was the favoured outsole material for most of the basketball shoes of that era, but Kilgore’s switch to rubber on the majority of the tread formations and polyurethane on the high-pressure part of the heel offered a good balance of grip and support. As with the Jordan 1, Air cushioning was placed inside the sole unit, where it added extra underfoot protection. At the time, this was still quite polarising for players as many wanted a thin sole with good court-feel, while others could see the benefits of having bouncy Nike Air under their feet, especially those who had suffered foot injuries. From Nike’s perspective, the heavy planting and sharp rotational movements of a professional basketball player’s feet put them under a lot of pressure during games, so the brand persisted with its innovative Air technology, which today stands out as one of the defining features of the Jordan line.

© Jordan

Bold changes

As well as blending performance technology with a high-fashion aesthetic, the Air Jordan 2 represented a departure from the style of Nike’s other basketball trainers. While the AJ1 resembled sneakers like the Air Force 1, the Dunk, the Terminator and the Airship, its successor was utterly unique, in part due to its removal of the classic Nike swoosh. The lack of any sidewall logos, which were and still are a mainstay of most Nike designs, made the Jordan 2 stand out, precipitating the line’s move towards its own distinctive brand. Instead of the swoosh, the Air Jordan Wings became the key motif, taking pride of place on the tongue, while Nike lettering appeared on the heel tab. This bold change of direction distinguished Air Jordans from Nike’s popular Force line and allowed Tinker Hatfield to be even more daring when he took on the design of the Air Jordan 3 and its successors. In fact, while Tinker’s shoes tend to get heaps of attention, Moore, Kilgore and Parker’s influence on the identity of the Air Jordan can be seen in more than just the AJ2’s branding. The lizard skin overlays were a precursor to the AJ3’s elephant-print panels, its dress shoe aesthetic was a theme that returned on many future Jordans and its use of technological features to aid Michael as he played was carried over into the Tinker era.

“It’s all in the imagination”

With the Air Jordan 2 complete, it made its first TV appearance in the summer of 1986, when MJ himself wore it while performing his famous “Rock-A-Baby” dunk. In it, he is depicted wearing the new basketball trainer, a pair of black shorts and a white Air Jordan Wings T-shirt as he runs up to the hoop, leaps in the air and swings the ball around one-handed before looping it up and over into the net. All of this occurs in slow motion and is presented from a number of different angles to showcase Jordan’s athleticism and finesse. The advert finishes with a close up of a pair of AJ2s below a white Nike Air logo while the voiceover reads: “Air Jordan: It’s all in the imagination”.

© Jordan

A special performance

Just a few months later, in September 1986, Michael was seen wearing the shoe on the court for the first time during an alumni game for North Carolina University. However, the real show was yet to come as, on November 1st 1986, he arrived at Madison Square Garden for the Bulls’ first game of the regular season. As he strode onto court in the brand new Air Jordan 2, the audience could see the sleek elegance of its white full-grain leather upper, the power of its black midsole and the glamour of its red heel accents. Along with getting to see the sneaker in all its glory for the very first time, they got to experience a special performance. By the end of the game, Jordan had reestablished his on-court prowess, breaking the scoring record for an away player at the New York Knicks stadium with 50 points in a 108-103 Bulls win and delivering the best possible advert for his second signature basketball trainer.

A new strategy

Around the same time, the Air Jordan 2 was released to the public, and Michael’s excellent start to the season, which saw him lead the Bulls to three wins in a row, boosted initial sales. Nike went with a different strategy than the one used for the AJ1; rather than distributing it far and wide, for the first few months they made it available in a select number of stores, giving it more exclusivity and ensuring that it wouldn’t be devalued by oversaturation. As it was made in Italy with premium materials, it came out at a higher price point than many other basketball trainers, but it still did well thanks to its innovative blend of style and practicality. On top of this, MJ’s growing reputation as a great of the sport also brought success to the Jordan 2, just like the outstanding exploits of his rookie year had supported the release of his first signature shoe.

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A record-breaking season

The ‘86-’87 season turned out to be a record-breaking one for Michael. Switching between the White / Black Jordan 2 he had worn in the first game, which became known as the Away colourway, and the White / Red Home edition, he continued his excellent form from the first three matches, finishing the regular season with a monumental return of 3041 points at 37.1 points per game. Not only was this the highest score he ever reached in his career, it was also one of the top NBA scores of all time. In fact, it remains so to this day, with Wilt Chamberlain the only other player to have broken 3000 points in a season. Aside from these two, the closest anyone else has got to this mark is the great Kobe Bryant, who made 2832 in the ‘05-’06 season, which just emphasises the magnitude of what Michael achieved in the Air Jordan 2.

More incredible accolades

As well as being the league’s Scoring Champion for the first time, beginning a run of seven straight seasons as the leading points scorer in the NBA, Jordan earned several other accolades that year. He was resolute in defence, becoming the first player in the history of the NBA to make over 200 steals and 100 blocks in the same season as he racked up 236 and 125 respectively. This determination took the Bulls to yet another playoff series, where they lost again to the Celtics despite Jordan scoring 107 points over the three games. Unfortunately, he missed out on a first league MVP award, finishing second to Magic Johnson in the overall standings, but his popularity amongst the fans was unwavering, and he received the most votes for the 1987 All-Star Game. During the same exhibition weekend, he won his first Slam Dunk Contest, and at the end of the season, he was named in the All-NBA First Team – yet another new achievement that would almost become a habit throughout the rest of his career. All of this was accomplished while wearing the Air Jordan 2, giving it a unique place in the history of both the player and the Jordan line.

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The Air Jordan 2 Low

During its debut year, the Jordan 2 only came out in two colourways, and, unlike every other silhouette in the series, had no black-based edition amongst its OG releases. White was more closely aligned to the Chicago Bulls home kit, which was white and red, and also fit in with the prevailing trend of the time for white basketball trainers with colourful accents. It did, however, receive a low-top version early on, with two colourways being produced in 1987 that matched the high-top originals. MJ himself took to wearing the Air Jordan 2 Low during the second half of the ‘86-’87 season, even playing in a special UNC pair in the famous Collegiate Legends Classic Game of June 28th, when the UNC Alumni defeated the UCLA Alumni 116-111 after a Jordan-inspired second-half comeback.

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Retro designs

UNC blue would not be seen on a general release of the shoe until many years later as Nike shifted its attention to the next Jordan design. Although it was brought back as a High and a Low retro in 1994 with the Chicago colourway, the original moulds were supposedly lost, and it would be another ten years before the next set of retro Jordan 2s came out. In the meantime, the sneaker made a big screen appearance in Space Jam as Bill Murray chose to wear the White / Black colourway during the 1996 film, thus proving its enduring cultural relevance. Then, in 2004, Nike’s footwear experts reverse engineered the original ‘86 version to recreate the same OG model and craft new colourways like the Midnight Navy low-top and the Melo, which was based on a Player Exclusive worn by Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony.

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High-profile collaborations

After its reemergence, the Air Jordan 2 only grew in popularity over the years, thanks in part to the Melo and other PE models for players such as Ray Allen and Chris Paul. The release of women’s exclusives from 2005 onwards also helped, as did a high-profile but limited edition collaboration with Eminem in 2008. Just a year before, it had become the first Air Jordan to appear in Nike’s prestigious Doernbecher collection when patient Sheridan Brenton chose it as the template for his own unique design, and as the decades passed, it became more and more desired as a collaborative template. In the 2010s, it attracted partnerships with music video director Vashtie Kola and luxury streetwear designer Don C, while the 2020s brought collaborations with Virgil Abloh’s high-end fashion label, Off-White™, popular retail brand Union LA, fashion boutique A Ma Maniére, Colombian music superstar J Balvin and American contemporary artist Nina Chanel Abney.

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The outlier

Even with its long-running success, the Air Jordan 2 is often seen as somewhat of an outlier amongst the larger Jordan collection. Perhaps this is because it looks so different to its peers, or perhaps it’s due to the huge influence Tinker Hatfield had on many of the subsequent models. It could also be because, despite producing an incredibly high-scoring season in the AJ2, Jordan failed to take the Bulls past round one of the playoffs and didn’t win the MVP award. Or maybe it’s down to the changes within Nike that followed its release, with Peter Moore leaving the company halfway through designing the Jordan 3, and Bruce Kilgore being moved to other projects, never to return to the Jordan line.

Influencing the brand

Whatever the reason, the profound effect of the AJ2 on Nike, the Jordan signature line and sneaker culture in general is undeniable. Kilgore and Moore had the courage to cast off the safety net of Nike’s powerful branding and design a new kind of basketball shoe. In doing so, they implemented certain aspects that became highly important for the distinct identity of Jordan Brand, paving the way for future designers to be even more radical in their approach. As well as removing the sidewall swooshes, they added exotic animal panelling and introduced a luxurious dress shoe aesthetic on a basketball trainer for the first time in history – all things that influenced Tinker as he forged some of the most memorable Jordan silhouettes of all time. Without their work, these iconic sneakers might never have been made, and Nike may have lost Michael Jordan to another brand.

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A historic silhouette

After more than three decades, the Air Jordan 2 remains an important shoe both for Jordan Brand and the wider sneaker community. Its smart, elegant presentation gave it a unique style that set it apart from other basketball trainers and its technical prowess matched Michael’s unbelievable athleticism. In short, it was the perfect combination of fashion and performance. Today, its connection to Nike’s history makes it a highly collectible model, and, although it might not be as ubiquitous as MJ’s title-winning sneakers or Tinker’s popular designs, it is still a distinctive and historic silhouette that is more than worthy of bearing the legendary Jordan name.

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