The Air Jordan I may not hold the No. 1 spot on this list, but there’s little doubt that it’s the most important model in the history of basketball sneakers—hell, maybe sneakers period, of any category. In a literal sense, the Air Jordan I kickstarted the most popular signature sneaker line in hoops history: Air Jordans. In a historical sense, the Air Jordan I was responsible for the beginning of the basketball sneaker industry as we know it today.
“Before Michael Jordan, sneakers were just for playing basketball,” writer Roy S. Johnson said in the Netflix documentary The Last Dance. “All of a sudden, sneakers became fashion and culture.” Indeed, MJ’s marriage with Nike would redefine the sport’s connection with style, creativity and the intersection between hoops and pop culture. And it all began with the Air Jordan I.
The AJ I is even more popular now than it was when it first came out. Nearly 40 years later, the classic silhouette is so special that you see it everywhere from weddings to NFL football fields. The I is made up of the iconic Air Jordan “Wings” logo, the instantly recognizable Swoosh, the leather upper and Nike Air logo on the tongue. The Jordan I got its first re-release in 1994 (one of the first-ever retros, mind you), and in recent years, collabs with the likes of Off-White, Dior and Fragment have kicked the Jordan I’s high-fashion game into overdrive.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the super-OG AJ I would be a favorite among disruptors in fashion and music. After all, this was a sneaker born to shake shit up. See, before the Air Jordan I, basketball shoes were all cookie-cutter, white-based colorways. Sure, maybe the three stripes of your adidas Pro Model or the Swoosh on your Nike Blazer had team accent colors, but that’s about it. When the Air Jordan I burst on the scene in 1985, it was among the first pairs with multiple colors to be worn in the NBA. That might sound funny to you now, but at the time, having so much color on the sneaker was so groundbreaking that it actually violated the League’s uniform policy. Yup, the original black/red colorway of the Nike Air Ship (the style Jordan wore until the XI was available) earned Mike a $5,000 fine every time he stepped on the court, which only made the “Banned Is” even more legendary for fans of His Airness.
In 2023, between all the advanced technology available to serious hoopers and the “don’t crease my Js” mentality of most sneakerheads, it’s safe to say the Jordan I is more popular off the court than on it. But in 1985, the Air Jordan I was about as advanced a basketball shoe as you could make, with its newfangled Nike Air cushioning and plush leather quarter panels. And in March 1998, MJ’s final season with Chicago, he pulled out an OG pair of Jordan Is for his last game in a Bulls uniform at The Garden—and promptly dropped 42 points on the Knicks in the Bulls’ 102-89 victory, proving that they were always good enough for the GOAT.