WORDS BY STEPHEN YU
“I’m back”. With these two words, Michael Jordan announced his return to basketball after almost 18 months away from the sport that had catapulted him to ‘The Beatles’ levels of stardom not reached by any sportsman prior. After an agonisingly long hiatus fulfilling his childhood, and his late father's dream of playing Major League Baseball, the rumours and the uncertainty of ‘will he, won’t he’ had all been put aside, the city of Chicago and basketball had their mercurial superstar back. But, for the rapidly growing market of sneaker obsessives, a market that Michael along with Nike and his eponymous Jordan brand were almost solely responsible for creating, MJ’s return meant something else too, something altogether more tangible, a piece of MJ you could call your own – new Jordan’s. The wait was over, the Air Jordan XI was on the horizon.
“Every Air Jordan model before it was a hit, but the Jordan 11 was the first that sold out on large scales across the country. It’s the first sneaker I remember seeing in catalogues with “SOLD OUT” stamped over the picture. Everybody wanted a pair!” - Zack Schlemmer, Content Manager at Stadium Goods
In the months prior to His Airness’s return, Nike were still wondering how they’d survive without their superstar. The Air Jordan X was the end of the line for their wildly successful Jordan brand footwear. But designer Tinker Hatfield had not lost hope. So confident was he that Jordan would return to the sport that made him, he’d already begun to design what would become the original Jordan 11. While the Jordan 11 project was deemed by most Nike execs as a waste of time, Hatfield’s dedication to it was vindicated when upon Jordan’s surprise return, he could immediately present the NBA MVP with his next shoe. And it was love at first sight. The only problem now was kickstarting production for the Air Jordan that was never meant to exist. Annoyingly for the general public, while MJ debuted the Air Jordan XI’s in May of 1995 it would take another five months before anyone could get their hands on them. The big gap in supply and demand lead to the first ever lineups for a basketball sneaker, something that’s become commonplace in sneaker culture today. With the sheer volume of students who bunked school to try and get their hands on the latest colorways, Nike even had to move Air Jordan 11 release dates from midweek to Saturday. But other than limited supplies, what else made the Air Jordan 11 such an icon?
“Simply put, when the Air Jordan 11 first released in late 1995, the world had never seen a basketball sneaker like it before. The radical design by Tinker Hatfield was the first performance sports shoe to use a large portion of shiny patent leather on its upper. The idea was to make a basketball shoe that looked like it could also be a dress shoe. Obviously it was a success. Technology-wise, the 11 was the first Air Jordan to utilize a lightweight but strong carbon fiber plate in the midfoot for support.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
The design of the Air Jordan 11 was the perfect marriage of performance technology and aesthetic design. The patent leather mudguard – a material Jordan had been pushed for on his shoes since the AJ IX – not only made the sneaker look more formal, it also helped stop MJ’s foot from rolling over the footbed when making quick stops or cuts as it stretched less than regular leather. It was lighter too, especially when combined with a lightweight yet durable ballistic nylon mesh to create the upper. There was technology hidden within it too. The futuristic translucent ‘icy’ sole concealed a carbon fiber spring plate that was stiffer and lighter than ever before meaning it generated more torque when moving on-court, alongside a full-length Nike Air sole unit for maximum cushioning. Basically, the Jordan 11 was a shoe that looked as good as it felt to play in. Although every one of MJ’s signature sneakers has its claim to be the best Air Jordan ever released, the AJ XI is one that most often tops the list and with good reason too.
“The easy answer is that it just looks incredible. It’s sleek and shiny, and can be worn with everything from basketball shorts to a tuxedo. All of the original colorways were impeccable. Historically, it’s also important as the shoe Michael Jordan wore for his first complete season back with the Bulls after retiring, which was their record-breaking 72-10 season before winning the 1996 NBA Championship.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
The Air Jordan XI is the most popular Air Jordan of all time. Nike’s tradition of releasing new editions of the AJ11 every December since 2008 has made it the most important date of the year, beating both New Year’s Eve and Christmas. It’s MJ’s favorite Jordan. And Tinker’s too. And while every one of his sneakers has its fair share of Jordan’s greatest moments and most legendary stories attached to it, the Air Jordan 11 is special in that it charts the beginning of the final act in Michael Jordan’s heroes story – his return from retirement which ending in the second three-peat with the legendary Pippen–Rodman axis at his side. So if you’ve finished ‘The Last Dance’ and are looking for the next best thing, join us and Zack Schlemmer, Content Manager at Stadium Goods as we take a look back at the best Air Jordan 11 colorways of all time.
The 11 Best Air Jordan 11 Colorways Of All Time
Original release date: November 1995
Retro release dates: 2011 & 2018
“This was the first colorway seen on Michael Jordan’s feet in an NBA game, and the first colorway to release at retail. The white and black color scheme provides the perfect contrast. It’s just beautiful.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
The undisputed king of all Jordan 11’s, the Concord was introduced in a typically memorable way which only adds to its allure. Michael Jordan was so enamored with the design of the 11’s that he went against Nike and Tinker Hatfield’s advice by wearing the Concord samples alongside his new number ‘45’ (his baseball number, Jordan retired the number 23 when he left basketball) during game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semi-finals. Sadly, after the ball was stolen from Jordan in the dying moments of the game by Nick Anderson of Orlando Magic, the resulting loss for the Bulls was far from the sexy origin story many would have imagined for one of the most iconic sneakers ever. Not to worry though, by game 2 off the back of Anderson’s post-match comment of “No. 45 doesn’t explode like no. 23 used to” Jordan reverted back to his original jersey number bringing his trademark explosivity back with it too. That shutdown any further comparisons.
Secondly, as the Chicago Bulls wore all black sneakers, the white and black “Concord” AJ11’s broke NBA Apparel regulations so Jordan was fined $5,000 for every game that he wore them. So while the Concord may not have started as a championship winning shoe off the bat (baseball pun intended), it did have a touch of romance and nostalgia attached to it – the situation mirrored MJ’s first outings in the Air Jordan 1 ‘Banned’ some ten years earlier when he was similarly fined for breaching ‘uniformity of uniform’ rules.
Original release date: April 1995
Retro release dates: 2001, 2008 & 2019
When prior to the ‘96 playoff openers Michael Jordan floated the idea to Bulls manager Phil Jackson that the whole team should wear black shoes to look more menacing, all the right ingredients were there for the makings of a legend. When MJ stepped onto the court wearing the “Bred” 11’s he stood out amongst a sea of all black shoes. But this wasn’t to be the OG Bred 11’s most iconic moment, that would come after the Bulls clinched the championship after six grueling games against the Seattle Supersonics. With the win falling on fathers day, it was a bittersweet moment for Jordan as it was the first time he’d celebrate an NBA championship without his father James R. Jordan Sr. by his side. Rather than celebrating on the court, he was photographed crying on the floor of the Bull’s changing rooms with these original Jordan 11’s on-feet.
But while for MJ this shoe may bring up mixed emotions, for many retailers this instantly sold-out shoe has only positive connotations as the best selling shoe they ever carried. This was confirmed by Nike themselves who stated that the 2019 retro release was the best selling sneaker in their history.
“The colorway Michael Jordan won his fourth NBA Championship in. Every original black and red Air Jordan is classic, and this is certainly no different.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Original release date: December 2000
Retro release dates: 2009 & 2016
“First seen in the 1995 NBA Playoffs, and then in “Space Jam.” The subtle purple accents against the all black upper and icy clear outsole is perfection.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
A shoe of both highs and lows for his Airness – as the shoes worn to defeat the Monstars in Space Jam, but also the sneakers on-feet when the Bulls were defeated by Orlando Magic in game 4 of the Eastern Conference playoffs – it’s rumored that Nike only created six pairs of these sneakers during the 95-96 season. However, high demand for the shoe after the movie was released led Nike to bring the shoe back into production, which is why we had to wait until December 2000 for the retros to drop.
Original release date: February 1996
Retro release date: 2001
The third original Jordan 11 colorway debuted at the 1996 NBA All Star game in San Antonio where Jordan won MVP. Perhaps the cleanest Air Jordan 11 colorway of all time, the shoes paired white uppers with the now trademark icy sole unit in Columbia Blue. In true AJ11 fashion, the 2001 retro was one of the highest grossing shoes of all time for the Swoosh raking them in a cool $140 million.
“Also known as “Legend Blue” after its last retro release, the Columbia colorway is another OG masterpiece. The thing that really sets them off for me has always been the black inner lining that perfectly contrasts the rest of the bright white and blue color scheme.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Original release date: March 2001
Retro release date: 2010
“This colorway is so good, you sometimes forget it’s not an original from 1996. The “Cool Grey” look was the Jordan 11’s first non-OG retro colorway, and it’s still the best.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
If you need proof of the “Cool Grey” Jordan 11’s status as one of the best non-OG retro 11 releases, know that upon their release these shoes were so sought after that they kickstarted riots across America which resulted in some serious property damage to the stores that stocked them. Though cool in colorway and name, there’s nothing cool about the resulting violence that happened upon their release.
Retro release date: January 2006
One half of the two packs (the other half was the black/gold Air Jordan 6) that introduced the concept of Air Jordan packages to sneakerheads worldwide, this spin on the classic Concord colorway featured a gold Jumpman logo and accents to commemorate MJ’s 1996 championship win. They came in an ornate golden box complete with imagery of black Jesus himself and with accompanying golden dog tags and booklets. They sold out instantly, so if you weren’t on first name terms with your local sneaker emporium you had no chance of getting these, and even then there were no guarantees. The original samples spelled out ‘JORDAN’ in gold on each of the lace loops, but due to problems with production only a few with this detail ever saw the light of day. Legend has it this is why the DMP missed the AJ11 traditional holiday release date by a month, not that this affected sales.
“The original “Concord” colorway, but with metallic gold accents. What more needs to be said?” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Retro release date: May 2003
“Originally, the Air Jordan 11 was released as a low-top only in this “IE” version. (The patent leather low-top wasn’t until the first retro run of the 11 in 2000.) The IE has always been pretty funky with its die-cut mesh and elephant print textures, but Jordan wore them on court for a few games, so they’re legendary by default.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Rather than simply creating a low top AJ XI (don’t worry Jordan 11 low colorways came later), in ‘96 Tinker Hatfield wanted to reengineer his favorite sneaker design for summer. To make the shoe wear lighter and easier in the heat Tinker switched out the patent leather which was too stiff and heavy and added mesh panels for increased breathability. The concept of the shoe focused on marrying textures with stitching, as evidenced in the elephant print leather and decorative stitching, and is seen as a precursor to the design of the AJ XII.
Retro release date: December 2017
“This colorway celebrates the 1996 championship of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, with a lush all-red upper. Nothing too fancy here, as the shoe’s original construction in ballistic nylon and patent leather with an icy sole keeps it looking clean and classic.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
A new twist on the classic Chicago Bulls color scheme, a flip of the iconic ‘Bred’ colorway, and the closest we’ll ever get to all red 11’s, the ‘Win Like ‘96’ AJ11s revisited the season the world was first introduced to the Air Jordan 11 silhouette. While you can never be Mike, these shoes made you feel like you could ‘Win Like Mike’, which perfectly encapsulates what every person who’s ever slipped on a pair of Jordans has felt like.
Retro release date: November 2017
“Jordan Brand has a yearly tradition of releasing one colorway of the Air Jordan 11 for the holiday season. In 2017, not just one, but two colorways dropped, the “Win Like ‘82” and “Win Like ‘96,” each celebrating key championships in Jordan’s basketball career. The ‘82 version honors his NCAA title-winning shot for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels in the 1982 Championship Game. Some non-OG Jordan 11 colorways released throughout the years haven’t been hits—after all, it’s hard to top the original looks—but Jordan Brand managed to drop two of the very best non-OGs in the same year with the two “Win Like” colorways.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Not just celebrating his Airness’s professional career, the ‘Win Like Mike’ pack celebrates the clutch performance that led to his first collegiate championship win too with this AJ11. UNC’s 1982 win over Georgetown is the game MJ credits with being the moment that Mike Jordan became Michael Jordan, giving him the confidence to go on to become the greatest basketball player of all time. On multiple occasions, Jordan has stated that he often thought back to this exact jump shot in the moments prior to executing other game-winning shots throughout his career. Now you know what shoes to reach for the next time you need a bit of MJ magic in your life.
Retro release date: May 2017
“This could be a lot higher on the list, but for its sheer unavailability, I’ll rank it at #10. This premium all-suede masterpiece was created in 2017 to honor the career of New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter. Only five pairs exist and each was released via a scratch-off card lottery system outside of Yankee Stadium on the day of Jeter’s retirement ceremony.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
Let’s be real, you’ll probably never even see these in real life let alone own them, but that doesn’t stop you from soaking in those premium navy suede uppers, leather laces and that translucent white outsole over the internet. Swapping Jumpman’s ‘23’ on the back of the heel for Jeter’s number ‘2’ for the Yankees is a classy touch too. Easily the most rare Jordan 11’s on this list.
Retro release date: May 2018
“Jordan Brand officially acknowledged the Air Jordan 11’s presence as a dress shoe worn at graduations with this special edition “Cap and Gown” colorway. The Jordan 11 usually releases during the holiday season each year, but in 2018 the brand fittingly dropped these during the summer high school and college graduation season. They were also made available early only to select high school graduates. Clever marketing aside, the shoe itself is very nice. It features a blacked-out look constructed in premium suede, a metal Jumpman logo, and rope laces to mimic the cords worn with graduation gowns.” - Zack of Stadium Goods
In the back of Tinker Hatfield’s mind when he was designing the AJ11 was Jordan’s desire to have a shoe that he could wear with suits, and the patent leather helped imagine that. Jordan himself, in an act that only brings him closer to being more god than human, prophesied that people would wear the AJ11 on red carpets and other formal occasions. A couple of months later and Boyz II Men were spotted in white tuxedos and AJXIs at the 1996 Grammys. These shoes aka the ’Prom Nights’ are a nod to the Air Jordan 11’s ability to go with even the most formal of looks, especially as alongside graduations it’s not uncommon to hear of people getting married in their beloved 11’s too!