How Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier became MLB’s king of custom cleats Fear of Gods, Space Jams, Travis Scotts — Frazier has worn them all and more on the filed to bring some swag to baseball

The night before a game against the Boston Red Sox in mid-April, Clint Frazier might as well have been a kid picking his outfit for the first day of school.

The 24-year-old New York Yankees outfielder wanted to look fresh for the first series of the 2019 Major League Baseball season between the two rival teams. He specifically envisioned pairing Yankees pinstripes with one of his favorite pairs of sneakers, the Nigel Sylvester Air Jordan 1s. But to take the baseball field in basketball shoes, Frazier needed some help. So he sent the Jordans to Anthony Ambrosini, founder and owner of Custom Cleats Inc., who’s been converting basketball and lifestyle sneakers into wearable footwear for grass and turf for 15 years.

“I texted Clint saying I got them,” Ambrosini recalled, “and he said, ‘Can you have them for me for the game tomorrow?’ … I told him, ‘It’s 10 o’clock at night, and I haven’t even started them.’ ” Yet Frazier pleaded, and Ambrosini obliged. He went into his Long Island, New York, shop after hours and added metal spikes to the bottoms of the shoes. By the next day, they’d make it to Yankee Stadium, ready for Frazier to lace up before the game.

In the bottom of the fourth inning of the Yankees’ 8-0 win over the Red Sox on April 16 — when the two teams partook in the league’s annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day — Frazier launched a 354-foot home run to right-center field, with Robinson’s No. 42 on the back of his uniform and Nigel Sylvester 1s on his feet. It had to be the shoes, right?

“Look good, feel good. Feel good, play good. Play good, get paid good,” said Frazier, paraphrasing the timeless saying from the great Deion Sanders. “I’m trying to do all those.”

That’s certainly been the motto for the Yankees phenom. In the first few months of the season, Frazier has become Major League Baseball’s king of custom cleats. In 39 games, he’s worn 13 different pairs — from Air Jordan 6s to high- and low-top Air Jordan 11s, Nike Fear of Gods and Air Force 1s, as well as multiple models of his most beloved sneaker, the Air Jordan 1. All of his cleats have been converted by Ambrosini, marking a partnership that’s really only just beginning.

“My goal is to have as many pairs of custom cleats as I can over the 162-game season,” said Frazier, who’s batting .270 with 10 home runs and 28 RBIs. “I’m trying to bring a little swagger to baseball.”


With the fifth overall pick in the 2013 MLB first-year player draft, the Cleveland Indians selected the then-18-year-old Frazier out of Loganville High School, near his hometown of Decatur, Georgia. Frazier, who was named the Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year during his senior season, had already committed to play at the University of Georgia. Yet he decided to sign with the Indians and go straight from high school to the big leagues.

Frazier wouldn’t make his MLB debut until July 1, 2017, less than a year after being traded from Cleveland to New York and emerging as the No. 1 prospect in the Yankees organization. He spent his first season in the majors endorsed by Under Armour before Adidas signed him in 2018. Heading into his third MLB season, Frazier was due for a change.

“I dropped my contract with Adidas,” Frazier said, “and told myself I was just gonna go the solo route and convert shoes into cleats.”

Frazier could’ve bought pairs of Air Jordan 11 cleats that debuted in 2018. He also could’ve waited until late March, right before the start of MLB’s regular season, when the Jordan Brand dropped a collection of Air Jordan 1 cleats. But what he truly sought was the liberty to wear whatever he wanted on the field. Frazier was anxious to start commissioning conversions. He just had to find someone capable of transforming any sneaker he imagined into a cleat. In mid-February, three days before Yankees position players were scheduled to report to the team’s spring training facility in Tampa, Florida, he took to Twitter in search of a customizer:

Most of the replies pointed Frazier in the direction of Custom Cleats, and one of his teammates specifically referred him to the company’s owner. Coming off double-heel surgery in 2018, veteran Yankees shortstop Troy Tulowitzki had Ambrosini make him pairs of LeBron James’ signature Nikes that proved to be more comfortable to wear than traditional cleats as he recovered from the injury.

“Troy took those LeBrons to spring training, and I guess Clint saw them,” said Ambrosini, who began making cleats in the early 2000s while playing in the minor leagues within the Montreal Expos organization. The first pair he converted was Kobe Bryant’s Nike Huaraches for his younger brother and Class A teammate, Dominick Ambrosini, a sixth-round draft pick by the Expos in 1999. Now the elder Ambrosini does custom baseball and golf cleats for athletes all across the country, including Chicago Cubs All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, retired seven-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Roger Clemens and future first-ballot Basketball Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Business is booming at Custom Cleats Inc., which boasts 100,000 followers on the company’s Instagram page.

“I got a text from Tulowitzki’s agent,” Ambrosini continued, “letting me know that Clint was gonna give me a call.”

Frazier’s first commission was a pair of “Shadow” Air Jordan 1s that he wanted to wear in spring training. Ambrosini completed the conversion and shipped the shoes down to Florida. Frazier was so excited once they arrived that he sprinted from the mailroom of George M. Steinbrenner Field into the Yankees’ clubhouse to open the package. Ambrosini had passed Frazier’s test. And the focus shifted to what he’d wear during the regular season.

“I don’t think anybody knew how serious I was about trying to make this a real thing,” Frazier said. “I told Anthony, ‘Look, man. This is kind of my vision. I want to make this into something big. I want to continue to send you a bunch of shoes to make into cleats throughout the year.’ ”

Their system is simple: Frazier cops size 10.5s in the dopest kicks he can find and sends them to Ambrosini, who replaces the rubber soles on each pair of shoes with custom-manufactured spiked cleat bottoms. He can turn around a sneaker in less than a day before having it hand-delivered to Yankee Stadium or shipped out to Frazier if the team is on the road.

“We kicked around ideas about shoes we wanted to do. One night, Clint called me from Flight Club,” said Ambrosini of the popular sneaker boutique in New York City’s East Village. “He was on the phone like, ‘Yo, man. What shoes should I get? I’m staring at all these shoes. There’s so many options, I don’t know what to pick.’ I’m like, ‘Just pick something that you love, that’s comfortable and that’s got the colors that you can wear.’ ”

Clint Frazier of the New York Yankees in action against the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium on April 20. The Yankees defeated the Royals 9-2.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

That’s right: Frazier has to remain compliant with the MLB uniform guidelines. He hasn’t run into any trouble so far, although he’s broken out all different kinds of flavors with his cleats. Frazier made his season debut on April 2 in a pair of “Olympic” Air Jordan 6s. He hit his first home run of the year on the road against the Baltimore Orioles wearing those “Shadow” 1s from spring training. A day later, still at Camden Yards in Baltimore wearing the Shadows, he went deep twice in one game.

“It almost felt like whenever I wore a new pair of cleats, I’d hit a home run,” Frazier said. “That’s why I was breaking out different shoes. I was like, ‘Damn, man. I just hit a home run in all of them.’ ”

His next homer came against the Red Sox in the Nigel Sylvester 1s. Last year, Queens, New York, native and professional BMX rider Nigel Sylvester collaborated with Jordan Brand for his own edition of the Air Jordan 1. Frazier loves that shoe so much that he has two pairs: one that he wears off the field and another that he got converted into cleats. Sylvester had never seen or heard of the flashy, red-haired Yankees outfielder until the night his friend sent him a random direct message: “Yo! I’m at the game and homie is wearing your shoes as cleats.” Sylvester was flattered by the gesture.

“Being a New York City kid, I definitely have a spot in my heart for the Yankees,” Sylvester said. “To see Clint hit a home run and run the bases in my shoe — bro, it was so crazy. Definitely a moment in my career I will never, ever forget. … He’s brought a level of excitement to the game that’s needed. … At the end of the day, he’s being creative, and I always respect creativity, especially on such a big stage.”

The day after the game, Sylvester showed Frazier some love on Instagram, and designer Jerry Lorenzo (the son of former MLB player and manager Jerry Manuel) commented on the post. Similar to Sylvester’s collaboration with the Jordan Brand, Lorenzo, founder of the stylish streetwear label Fear of God, has teamed up with Nike for two collections of his own sneakers. Frazier saw Lorenzo’s comment and slyly replied, “I got something for u on Friday.”

That Friday, April 19, Frazier whipped out a pair of the Nike Air Fear of God Shoot Around. Oh, and the heat didn’t stop there. He’s also worn a collection of Air Jordan 11s in the “Win like ’82,’ ” “Space Jam” and low-top “Navy Snakeskin” colorways. Two weeks before the release of the “Cap and Gown” Air Jordan 13s, Frazier had them on his feet in the batter’s box.

“Clint definitely represents the hypebeast culture as far as style,” Ambrosini said. “That’s what makes him stand out so much. He’s so in tune with the awesomeness of all the sneakers that are out, and he’s not afraid to get out there and wear them. There’s a lot of guys I do conversions for that at first glance you really can’t tell it was a sneaker — it blends in so much with the uniform. … But Clint is finding the coolest shoes. … They’re so sick and they stand out so much that that’s what’s making him stand out too.”

Frazier has even paid homage to a true Yankees legend with pairs of Derek Jeter’s “Re2pect” Air Jordan 1s and low-top Air Jordan 11s. In 1998, shortly after the official launch of the Jordan Brand, Jeter became the first baseball player to be endorsed by Jordan. Now, 11 active players represent the Jordan Brand in Major League Baseball: New York Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances, Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler, Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Gio Gonzalez, Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks, Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, San Diego Padres infielder Manny Machado, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price, Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia and Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Taijuan Walker.

Three of Frazier’s teammates are Jordan guys, and 11 of his 13 pairs of custom cleats are Air Jordans. But landing an endorsement deal isn’t necessarily on his mind.

Clint Frazier of the New York Yankees bats during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards in Baltimore on April 4.

Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

“Jordan is my favorite brand,” Frazier said. “I obviously would love to be a part of the brand one day, but I also don’t want to lose my independence or my freedom with the ability to wear whatever cleat I wanna wear.”

Instead, Frazier has modeled his movement after another athlete who’s embraced not having a shoe contract: veteran Houston Rockets forward and NBA sneaker king P.J. Tucker.

“I’m not a huge basketball guy, but I know who P.J. Tucker is from the buzz he’s created because of all the shoes he’s wearing,” Frazier said. “That was kind of my goal, to build off of his platform. In baseball, we don’t have a lot of guys that have done this.”

No shoe deal means Frazier has an expensive hobby — especially if he’s doubling and tripling up on pairs of certain sneakers to wear off the field, during batting practice and in a cleated version during games. Frazier is definitely a sneakerhead, although his collection isn’t as big as you’d think. “I probably have 50 to 60 pairs,” he said. “But that’s gonna continue to grow — I know that. And I know my cleats collection is gonna probably be bigger than my actual shoe collection.”

Inside the Yankees’ clubhouse this season, a few of Frazier’s teammates call him “Canal Street Clint.” It’s a notorious nickname due to the reputation of that area of New York City. Basically, Canal is the mecca of knockoff designer merchandise, a place you go to find cheap Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada and more, albeit fake or counterfeited. Frazier doesn’t shop there, but he earned the moniker because what he plays in aren’t real cleats made for baseball. But they’re real to him, and the people who’ve taken notice: clubhouse attendants from opposing teams who come to his locker asking if they can see a few of his pairs, pitchers and catchers he spots staring at his feet, and even the dudes whose shoes he’s wearing.

“Guys have worn dope a– shoes on the diamond, but the way that Clint’s doing it, it’s kinda crazy,” Sylvester said. “He’s flipping shoes that aren’t meant to be cleats into cleats. Which is so dope.”

Despite the jokes, Frazier plans to keep the customs coming.

“I’m creating a new wave of style in baseball,” he said over the phone from a West Coast road trip in late April, two days after suffering a Grade 2 left ankle sprain with two partially torn ligaments. The injury kept him off the field for 11 games. But when he returned in the second week of May, of course he did so in style.

Frazier debuted five pairs in seven days, including superstar rapper Travis Scott’s “Sail” Nike Air Force 1s and his new Air Jordan 1s, perhaps the most hyped sneaker release of the year. On Twitter, Scott gave Frazier his stamp of approval.

For a game on Mother’s Day, Frazier and Ambrosini teamed up with famed sneaker artist Dan “Mache” Gamache for a pair of custom-painted Air Jordan 1 cleats, featuring his mom’s two cats.

In late May, Ambrosini shared a photo of his latest creation: a pair of suede “Cool Grey” Kaws x Air Jordan 4s, which dropped in March 2017 for $350 but have skyrocketed in value and now resell on GOAT in a size 10.5 for $1,435. The caption on the post read, “Tag someone that might take @kaws to the diamond.” Of course, most people shouted out Frazier, including Houston Astros outfielder Derek Fisher, who commented, “@clintfrazierr might be the only one insane enough.”

And Frazier responded, confirming everyone’s inkling.

“What if i told you those are mine,” Frazier wrote under the comment, “i just haven’t worn them yet?”

The plan: Debut the Kaws 4s at Yankee Stadium when the Red Sox are in town this week. For a four-game series against Boston, it was only right that he broke out a fresh new pair of custom cleats.

But with four months left in the season, the question is, what else does Clint Frazier have in his bag?

“I’ve got some stuff in the works,” he said. “Just keep watching.”

Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson — on friendship, Clippers days, and Team Jordan Nearly 20 years after the ‘Knuckleheads’ were drafted together, the NBA vets have a hit podcast

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Right now, the Los Angeles Clippers are battling the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in the first round of 2019 NBA playoffs — despite being projected before the season to win just 20 games. Expectations weren’t high for the Clippers at the start of the 2000-01 season, either. Back then, on paper, the Clippers were the worst in the NBA.

“Led by the 19-year-old Darius Miles, the Clippers could be one of two things” read the final sentence of a New York Times’ NBA season preview, “one of the league’s most exciting young teams or a maddening bunch of knuckleheads still trying to learn the game.”

In June 2000, the Clippers had drafted Miles, a 6-foot-9-inch forward, out of high school with the No. 3 overall pick. Fifteen selections later, the Clippers took Quentin Richardson, a sophomore swingman from DePaul University. The two shared the same home state — Richardson a native of Chicago, and Miles from the streets of East St. Louis, Illinois. They’d known each other since they were kids. And in Los Angeles, they became “The Knuckleheads” — a duo recognized across the league by their on-court celebration of two taps to the head with balled-up fists.

Michael Jordan looked at us like … ‘Why y’all got all this AND1 stuff on?’”

In their only two seasons together with the Clippers, Miles and Richardson emerged as a cultural phenomenon. Michael Jordan handpicked the two phenoms to endorse his brand, and spoiled them with every pair of Air Jordans imaginable. They appeared on magazine covers, and made cameos together in films and on television shows. And both players had the respect of the early-2000s community of hip-hop. “For a minute there, we really were the culture,” Miles wrote in a first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune, published in October 2018 and guest-edited by none other than Richardson.

Now, nearly two decades after being drafted together, Miles and Richardson are the retired NBA veterans with their own podcast. Of course, it’s called Knuckleheads, and just nine episodes in after its February debut, it has a 4.9 rating out of 5 on iTunes.

In the spirit of the podcast — which has produced unfiltered interviews with NBA stars from Allen Iverson and Gary Payton to J.R. Smith, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant — The Undefeated chopped it up with The Knuckleheads about everything from the night they were drafted, to the sneakers they wore in the league and the journey of their friendship.

Quentin Richardson (left) and Darius Miles (right) attend Players’ Night Out 2018 hosted by The Players’ Tribune on July 17, 2018, in Studio City, California.

Leon Bennett/Getty Images for The Players' Tribune


How did you two meet?

D-Miles: AAU ball brought us together …

QR: Many years ago.

D-Miles: Q’s AAU coach came down to Southern Illinois …

QR: Larry Butler

D-Miles: … Yeah, Butler was looking for players to play in a ‘spotlight’ he was having. It was the top Illinois players from the state. We’d come down and play in … kinda like a camp … When I came down, that was the first time I saw who Q was … When Larry saw how good I was, he invited me to a tournament and had me play [on his team] two grades above me. He had me playing with Q and them.

QR: Me and D-Miles hit it off from there. Once he began playing AAU with us and would come to Chicago, he would normally stay at my house. He would stay the weekend, and that’s how we got tight.

We were Allen Iverson’s babies. We were A.I.’s lil bros. That was the culture.”

Fast-forward to the 2000 NBA draft. Was there any idea that you’d both get picked by the Los Angeles Clippers?

D-Miles: We were going through the draft process together. But we never thought it would be a possibility to play on the same team … We didn’t even want to go to the Clippers…I don’t think anybody wanted to play for the Clippers. When I ain’t get picked No. 1 or No. 2, the Clippers weren’t gonna pass on me. They picked me anyway, even if I didn’t wanna go there … Q kinda slipped in the draft.

Q: We didn’t think there was an opportunity for us to play together because the projections were so far apart. He was a top-5 projection. I was anywhere from nine to 20. It was a big gap. And neither of us worked out for the Clippers.

D-Miles: After the draft, we hop on a private jet and go to L.A.? I couldn’t have written it no other way.

How did it feel to be together — at 18 and 20 years old — living in Los Angeles?

D-Miles: We didn’t live close to each other…But we was with each other, shittttt, every day probably.

NBA guard Quentin Richardson (right) of the Los Angeles Clippers and his teammate, guard Darius Miles (left) enjoy a pregame joke before challenging the Sacramento Kings at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Kings won, 125-106.

Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

This is always the first question you ask guests on the Knuckleheads podcast. Who was the first player in the league to bust your ass?

D-Miles: The first one to really give me a lot of buckets was Chris Webber. He was jumping hooking my ass to death. I think he had like 35 or 36. I felt like, I at least got 28 or 30 of them points. Seem like he was scoring every time he got the ball on me.

Writer’s note: On Jan. 27, 2001, Sacramento Kings power forward Chris Webber scored a game-high 33 points and 11 rebounds against the Clippers and a 19-year-old D-Miles, who finished the night with a team-high 16 points.

QR: This was early in my rookie year … I think it was in preseason. We’re out in Denver. This was the first time about to go deal with the altitude. The player was Voshon Lenard. You’re like, Who is VoShon Lenard? I knew he could play. I knew he could hoop, but I was being disrespected out there. The first timeout came at six minutes, I came and sat down … matter fact, D-Miles and Keyon [Dooling] was sitting on the bench. They looked at me and just started laughing. My man had the quickest 17 points I’m talking about in the first six minutes, though … Firing my ass up! Giving me post work … hitting 3s … pump fake, one-dribble pullup. He was cooking my ass. And I was dead tired … But I did get him back! He was on the team when I got career-high against the Nuggets on New Year’s Eve [in 2003]. I had 44 on they ass.

“We thought we was Hollywood, boy!”

You two have probably told this story a million times — but how exactly did you two land with the Jordan Brand?

QR: One of the best moments ever. If anybody knows MJ, you know about his Flight School camp for kids. And they would have some epic counselor games … Flight School used to be held at UC-Santa Barbara … two weeks … two sessions. When I went when I was in college, they brought Darius because he was one of the top high school players. We were both counselors. It was our first time going. Fast-forward to after we get drafted by the Clippers, we’re in L.A., which is an hour [by car] from Santa Barbara. When August comes, we’re like, ‘Man, we’re gonna go out there to the Jordan camp …’ because the runs used to be really good … At this point we had no Nike deal, but AND1 was courting us really hard. They had Larry Hughes, and a few guys we looked up to. We were rocking a whole bunch of AND1. After we get through playing pickup, MJ looked at us like … ‘Why y’all got all this AND1 stuff on? I thought y’all was Nike guys.’ Me and D-Miles were like, ‘We wanna be Nike guys…but a contract ain’t happened.’ He was like, ‘Don’t even worry about it. Y’all gon’ be with us.’ We didn’t even know quite what that meant.’ Because Jordan Brand wasn’t what it was going to be. He just had the first years of it with Ray Allen, Derek Anderson, Eddie Jones, Vin Baker and Michael Finley … Then our agent Jeff Weschler was like, ‘I don’t know what happened, but Michael called up Nike and you guys are gonna be with him on some special team.’ We started getting flooded with the most gear you could imagine. Today they don’t give the same amount of gear they used to give. We got everything they made … Stuff that you wouldn’t wear, stuff that you have to give away because it was so much. We were literally in heaven.

What were favorite Jordans to play in?

D-Miles: Mine were the patent leather 11s … I watched Jordan my whole life, so when we had the opportunity to put them patent leathers on, I was just on superstar status. Nobody else in the league were really wearing these.

QR: We wasn’t those kids that were fortunate enough to have every pair of Jordans. My first pair I ever had came when I played AAU … My pops…the most expensive pair of shoes he was gonna buy me that were cool were Air Force 1s because they were $49.99 back then. My pops didn’t believe in buying Jordans that he knew I’m about to run through in two days … So for us to start getting Jordans? It was out of this world. Coming from Chicago and East St. Louis, being MJ fans, watching everything he did on WGN and public TV — for us, it was a dream. And every kid we knew from our hometowns were like, ‘I can’t believe y’all are on Team Jordan.’ And we could give all our friends, our family, our parents all the Jordan stuff they wanted … That was almost better than money to us at that point.

Do you still have a lot of your old Jordan PEs?

D-Miles: I just have a few. I left and went to Reebok, and I was under Allen Iverson’s line. Most of the Jordans I had, I gave them to these two kids. One was from Texas, and the other was from Memphis. My momma kinda built a rapport with they moms, and they was like me — young kids wearing a size 18 … So they didn’t have no options for shoes. So me and my mom shipped them out, I wanna say 40-50 pairs of shoes apiece. When my mom did it, all three moms were on the phone boo-hoo crying.

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DMiles Cavs Retro PEs 🔥🔥🔥🔥

A post shared by @ qrich on May 2, 2018 at 7:54am PDT

What’s your favorite PE?

QR: Awww, man. That’s hard for me to say … I was fortunate enough to play for teams that weren’t close to the Bulls colors. So a lot of my shoes were different. I think I would have to go with my Clippers, Knicks and Suns PEs … So I probably would go with the Knicks 2s or 5s. But then my favorite pair of shoes to play in — it didn’t really matter which color — were the Retro 13s. I have those is Phoenix and Orlando colors. The Phoenix ones I had different flavors. I had purple and white ones, I had orange and white ones, I had all-black with orange trim. Those 13s, were the most comfortable shoe for me to play in, because they’re wide and I got wide, flat feet.

D-Miles: Mine are the ones I wore in that picture with Udonis Haslem. I was so used to seeing red and white shoes when I was with the Clippers. But I got to the Cavs, it was different colors. When they sent me those bright orange ones, I loved them. You don’t even know.

QR: I’m telling you — the orange did something! They looked superdifferent than any Jordan you’d ever seen. Back then, you’d never seen an orange Jordan.

You two appeared in a commercial for the Air Jordan 17. What comes to mind when you think of that shoot?

D-Miles: Spike Lee. We grew up on Jordan and all the Jordan commercials. When we heard Spike Lee was finna do it, when knew it was a big, big deal.

QR: We thought we was Hollywood, boy!

Writer’s note: The Air Jordan 17, crafted by African-American footwear designer Wilson Smith, drew inspiration from the “improvisational nature of jazz.” The 30-second, Spike Lee-directed spot, featured Miles and Richardson playing maestro on the court, and debuted a special remix the Gang Starr track “Jazz Thing,” which the hip-hop duo originally co-wrote with saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

D-Miles: It was an honor. A real, true blessing. Spike is such a legendary director, and it was with Jordan Brand.

“Like how you see NBA players now. It’s hard for them to let themselves go, because they don’t want nobody to take what they say the wrong way, or their actions be misconstrued.”

QR: It was like, ‘We’re about to have our own Jordan commercial … We really have arrived.’ Me and my bro, together, in a commercial … We went to New York to do it. You get there, and it’s like, ‘Spike Lee is shooting it! … Marsssss is shooting it! This is epic.’ We had our own trailers. They got the gear laid out for us. That was the first time I thought, ‘I’m a star … We some stars up in here, boy!’ This was all new to us. Stuff that you dreamed about as a kid. But to actually live it, it was super dope.

D-Miles: Then to hear Spike Lee, when we first met him, say ‘D and Q.’ Like, ‘Oh, he knows us.’

Forward Darius Miles #21 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots the ball during the NBA game against the Boston Celtics at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The Celtics defeated the Clippers 105-103.

Andy Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

And you can’t forget the Jump Men cover of Slam Kicks

QR: I have a copy up in my office.

D-Miles: Back then, Kicks was big. There were other magazines that were bigger, but we were just happy to do anything with anybody who wanted to mess with us. We came straight from the streets, so we dressed a certain type of way. Of course, they were giving us drip, we put it on. We weren’t the typical people wearing that gear. We turned the jerseys backwards, do-rags on, hats cocked …

QR: I got a do-rag, with a headband on, hat to the back. I got a pinky ring on! We both got big ass chains on. We were Allen Iverson’s babies. We were A.I.’s lil bros. That was the culture. That was what was going on. That was part of why people took to us. We were them — kids. We were 18 and 19, playing in a grown man’s league, representing other 18- and 19-year-olds. We dressed like them and did things like they did. We were trying to get into Hollywood clubs. We were too young, couldn’t get in … Literally, we showed up to training camp with Super Soaker guns. Media day, the first day of training camp, and we have those big ass Super Soakers strapped over our shoulders. They looked at us like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ … We were having fun, for real. And the best part about it was we were on this adventure together. Doing things that we never could’ve dreamed of. We got to spend New Year’s at Shaquille O’Neal’s house. And it was crazy. Like a fucking movie. We’re at Shaq’s big ass crib in L.A. To kick it with Shaq and be around him was enough … But Shaq was really rocking with us. He was showing us a good time and embracing us. Like, this is Shaq!

We turned the jerseys backwards, du-rags on, hats cocked …”

Where did that style come from — especially the backwards jerseys?

D-Miles: Kriss Kross started it, but that was just hip-hop culture. We grew up in hip-hop culture. The trend had kinda died down, because Kriss Kross did it in the early ’90s. Nobody was really taking chances, especially during photo shoots, except for Allen Iverson. We were young. Didn’t really care what people thought about us. It’s real traditional when you do photo shoots. They tell you to put your hands on your hips, like you’re a superhero. Put one hand on your hip, hold the ball on the other side. I used to be like, ‘Nah … ’

What was your relationship like with MJ during his last few years in the league?

D-Miles: Once MJ came back to the league [in 2001], we’d already known him for six or seven years, and it was a blessing. I love when I see the picture of me standing on the court next to Michael Jordan. I got that in my house. Those moments, those games we played against him, I’ll cherish them forever. We were on a West Coast team, so we only played him two times a year. But those times we played them those last two seasons? It was a dream come true.

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Me and the GOAT#tbt

A post shared by Darius Miles (@blackking.21) on Oct 25, 2018 at 2:02pm PDT

July 30, 2002: D-Miles, that’s when you got traded from the Clippers to the Cavaliers.

D-Miles: One of the worst days of my life. I ain’t wanna leave, or play with nobody else. I didn’t know how good I had it until I got traded. The crazy thing about it is when I did get traded, I was doing the movie The Perfect Score. I was all the way in Vancouver, when I heard the news like, ‘What?’ It wasn’t a good feeling. But I did understand the move. I loved Andre Miller. He led the league in assists on the worst team in the NBA. So I understand why the Clippers traded for him. But, I wanted to stay.

Writer’s note: The Clippers traded Miles and power forward Harold Jamison to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for point guard Andre Miller and shooting guard Bryant Stith.

QR: We were kids. We were having all this fun. And that was the first time it was like, ‘This is a business … This is real … This ain’t a game or haha fun.’ … I love Andre Miller to this day, but I didn’t want that trade to happen. I was upset. I was mad. I was hurt.

We didn’t even want to go to the Clippers … I don’t think anybody wanted to play for the Clippers.”

Can you pinpoint an NBA friendship quite like D-Miles and Q since you guys?

D-Miles: A lot of guys didn’t grow up together like we did. We were around each other when we didn’t have money. One of the bonds I do see that’s close to what me and Q got is Udonis Haslem and D-Wade. They’ve played so long together that they got that brotherly love like me and Q got. They changed that culture in Miami.

QR: They’ve been together for so long on the same team and same journey. And I don’t even count when D-Wade left. Let’s just throw that whole Chicago and Cleveland window out …

D-Miles: When did that happen!?!

QR: UD and D-Wade played their whole 15, 16 year careers together. They came in, got married, had families, brought kids up at the same time, have businesses together. They rebuilt that organization. But I’ve known Darius since he was in seventh grade, and I was in ninth grade. We got drafted together, played together and now 20 years later, we’re doing a podcast because we’re still tight like that.

Quentin Richardson of the Los Angeles Clippers dunks against the Charlotte Hornets at the Staples Center on Jan. 5, 2001.

Robert Mora/NBAE via Getty Images

How’s it feel to be reunited on the Knuckleheads podcast — and why was now the right time for it?

QR: The thing that makes the podcast is so dope, is it happened organically, almost accidentally. I did my story with The Players’ Tribune. He did his story with The Players’ Tribune. A third party was like, ‘Y’all should do something together.’ And D-Miles, he was originally opposed to the whole media thing. He was like, ‘I don’t want no microphones in my face.’ I’m moving into the media space, so I was open to it. We did a trial demo here on my patio, and it was cool.

D-Miles, is it weird being on the other side now — asking the questions instead of answering them?

D-Miles: It’s definitely weird. I’m not sure if I’d do too much more after this. Like Q said, I’m not big on microphones or cameras. I gotta feel comfortable to let my personality go. Kinda like how you see NBA players now. It’s hard for them to let themselves go, because they don’t want nobody to take what they say the wrong way, or their actions be misconstrued. So you kinda got your guard up. With the podcast, I can kinda let go, laugh, joke and not worry.

QR: We’re tryna spark a real conversation. We don’t feel like we’re going to interview this person, that person. We feel like we’re about to see what’s up with this person and that person.

“Udonis Haslem and D-Wade. They’ve played so long together that they got that brotherly love like me and Q got. They changed that culture in Miami.”

Are there any players you really want to get on the podcast?

D-Miles: Michael Jordan.

QR: That’s the GOAT. That’s our unicorn. But we got a lot of other players already committed that we can’t really share right now. We have some really, really, really big and good names … for season two.

What do you think you two have meant to basketball, and the culture, in the past two decades?

D-Miles: We carved out our space. I think that’s why we get the love and the respect that we get now. It’s overwhelming, and I’m definitely thankful and blessed to even have that. I only played two years with the Clippers, but every time people see me, they associate me with being a Clipper. I think it’s dope.

QR: I’m just superhumbled … I appreciate all the love, respect and support we get, from people who rocked with the Clippers. And we also get a lot of people that talk to us about the fact that we had that little bitty part in Van Wilder. It’s unbelievable to me how many people acknowledge that … To still be able to do stuff with D twenty years later, and they still remember us? People still remember that celebration, and still rock with it. That’s really cool to me.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

LeBron James stares down Michael Jordan’s scoring record at a crazy time in his career The victory coincides with James potentially missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years

The old barber, “Georgia,” is fed up. Around the Northern Virginia barbershop, a friendly argument about money has turned into a heated discussion about respect. It feels as if a fight might erupt.

Georgia is never the loudest man in the shop, though he’ll talk your head off — if he likes you. The man’s tongue is slicker than a can of motor oil, too. On the day in question, anger is building inside Georgia, evident by the way he snatches blades from his clippers. Then he says something I’ll never forget. “How can I really care about this wedding,” he says, “when the church is on fire?”

“It was like meeting God for the first time. That’s what I felt like as a 16-year-old kid when I met MJ.” — LeBron James

It’s one of those classic, old-black-men phrases. No clue from where it originates. Maybe on the farms of Mississippi, or the jazz-filled speakeasies of Harlem. But it makes absolute sense the moment it leaves Georgia’s nicotine-stained lips. Can celebration coincide with chaos? Georgia has no idea he could be easily be talking about LeBron James. More specifically, James’ pursuit of Michael Jordan’s receipts, and the blazing situation of the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers.


Sometime between Tuesday night and Saturday — when the Lakers play three must-win home games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and the Boston Celtics — James will pass Jordan for fourth all time in scoring with his 32,293rd point. History will be made. And with it perhaps a brief moment of joy and serenity in James’ season of chaos.

James is already looking back at Jordan in other scoring areas. Two years ago, he overtook Jordan in playoff points. And James also looks back at Jordan in consecutive double-digit scoring games. Only two players have surpassed Jordan in career points: Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the game’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, never surpassed Jordan, because in the NBA space-time continuum, he’s never had to.

This particular mark is deeply personal for James’ generation. It’s a generation born in the ’80s and who came of age in ’90s at the height of Jordan’s reign of dominance over not just basketball, but pop culture as a whole. This is personal —

  • for the kids who grew up eating Wheaties and drinking Gatorade — because Mike did so.
  • for the kids who wore sweat bands on their wrists, or their elbows or on their knees — because Mike did.
  • for the kids who really believed Air Jordans would make you fly — because they did for Mike (and who took that addiction into adulthood).
  • for the kids who did play ball and stuck their tongue out — because Mike did.
  • for the kids who both enjoyed and agonized running with “Player 99” in NBA Live ’95 — because Mike wouldn’t allow his likeness in video games.
  • for the kids whose favorite channel growing up was WGN — because you knew Mike and the Bulls would always be there even, if you weren’t a Chicago native.

LeBron James celebrates after he hits a 3-pointer to pass Michael Jordan in career playoff scoring during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on May 25, 2017, at TD Garden in Boston.

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

A classic marketing campaign suggested people “Be Like Mike” not “Better Than Mike,” and meeting Jordan, “was godly,” James said earlier this season. “It was like meeting God for the first time. That’s what I felt like as a 16-year-old kid when I met MJ.” So imagine how a 10-year-old LeBron felt about Mike. Imagine how he felt as a high school freshman. Imagine how robbed he felt as he entered the league only months after Jordan retired for good in 2003.

Yet, James is the rare talent who grew up not only to make a name for himself in the culture of basketball but to be the unicorn who looks Jordan in the eye. This week, James will surpass Jordan on the scoring list. It’s one of the most relevant individual titles in all of sports — in the rarefied air of career home runs in baseball, and career grand slams in tennis.

The James-Jordan debate is the debate. It dominates sports talk radio, podcasts, and television sports talk shows. The arguments — who is the greatest of all time, aka “the GOAT?” — takes over movies, barbershops and beauty salons, bars and churches, dinner tables and courtrooms. Ivy League debates have gotten heated as well. Yet even as James prepares to rise even higher in the annals of basketball immortality, the honor coincides with the hysteria of James potentially missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

In the 70 days since Christmas Day, when James injured his groin, which caused him to miss a month of action, the Lakers have won only nine games. They haven’t won back-to-back games in more than six weeks.

On March 2, the Lakers suffered an embarrassing loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns. James had 27 points, nine rebounds and 16 assists, but did miss a pair of late free throws. So continued a trend of pathetic losses to some of the league’s most inept teams: New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers. Without James, the Lakers fell from fourth in the Western Conference to ninth. The chronology of this chaos is already loud in the public vernacular.


James and New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis have been tight for a good while. The two met for a postgame dinner days before Christmas that sent league officials into a tizzy that included a charge of tampering. “People get caught up in bunches, sometimes when they wish you can control what they say, but they can’t control me at all,” James said then of the allegations levied against him. “And I play by the rules.” But it wasn’t until Davis made his trade demand public in late January that the Lakers drama took center stage.

On a weekend that was supposed to feature the NFL and the Super Bowl as the unrivaled sports story in America, a supposed megatrade between the Lakers and Pelicans dominated headlines. It was a trade that involved parts, if not all, of the Lakers young core including Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram, who is currently playing his best basketball of the season — and several veterans. James and longtime agent and close friend Rich Paul (who also represents Davis via Klutch Sports Group) were seen as the ringleaders in this trade scenario.

LeBron James of the Miami Heat hugs Michael Jordan after defeating the Charlotte Bobcats, 109-98, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 28, 2014.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

And now, with an unsuccessful trade deadline having passed, reports, rumors and sports talk shows are hot on the topic of a fractured Lakers locker room. James, fairly or not, sits in the crosshairs of a very public debacle. A season that began with pageantry and fanfare, with (vandalized) murals depicting James as the franchise’s savior, is suddenly primed for an epic collapse.

Without James, the Lakers fell from fourth in the Western Conference to ninth.

More than even the Celtics, the Lakers are this season’s train wreck. But limping, crawling or walking backward, the Celtics at least appear to be playoff-bound. Lakers controlling owner and team president Jeanie Buss attempted to quell the narrative of a blockbuster trade for Davis ever being on the table, calling the assertion “fake news.” But even if what Buss says is true, the organization allowed the angle to live far too long. There’s blood on the hands of every power player within the Lakers these days. No one, not Magic Johnson or anyone, is exempt. And with an impending free agency that will both dictate the immediate future of the Lakers and the sunset glimmer of James’ prime — this is the reality of what a marriage looks like between basketball’s biggest star and its most storied franchise.

The Lakers now sit at 10th in the Western Conference and are 4.5 games out of the eighth seed with 19 games left in the season. And the eighth seed essentially plays for the right to get embalmed by Golden State in the first round. While James’ offensive production on his way to breaking Jordan’s record, remains at an elite level, his defense has been lambasted as everything from lethargic to noncommittal. James, of course, refutes all of this, as his off-court activity remains in the fast lane.

He recently announced the 2021 launch of Space Jam 2 — the sequel to Jordan’s 1996 animated blockbuster. James has also A&Rd 2 Chainz’s soulfully stellar new project Rap or Go to the League, an album Complex has already dubbed 2 Chainz’s definitive body of work. James also recently dropped the third episode of his HBO talk-series The Shop, which featured Davis. This flurry of activity off the court has spurred questions.

But it’s hard to interrogate the work ethic of a man who has gone to eight consecutive Finals, a player who admits to chasing Jordan’s ghost, and who has logged more minutes than anyone over the past decade.

That being said, the last time a James-led team missed the playoffs was 2005. The same year Steve Nash won his first MVP with the Phoenix Suns. Bryant, in his first post-Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson campaign, missed the postseason, too. Kevin Durant was finishing his junior year in high school. James was but an infant. A postseason without James isn’t just unfathomable. It’s unnatural.

Following the crippling loss in Phoenix on March 2, head coach Luke Walton said, “We need to be a lot better.” Pockets of the Lakers fan base, including Snoop Dogg, have all but turned on the team. Bryant isn’t even paying attention to them these days.

James passing Jordan in scoring this week is a milestone — an achievement James will take with him for the rest of his career, and certainly the rest of his life. Flash back to that kid from Akron, Ohio, who found peace and inspiration watching Jordan play basketball. See now the icon standing in a class all his own. The connection, the symbolism is far deeper than the jersey number they share, or the fictional, yet coveted title of GOAT neither will never solely possess. If only James’ ultimate moment with Jordan came under far sweeter circumstances. If only.

Georgia, the elder barber, would know how to put it.

On the 20th anniversary of an iconic Game 6, six facts about the ‘Last Shot’ Air Jordan 14s Was the XIV gang-related? Was the sneaker patented? We have answers

It was a missed shot, not just the most revered game-winner of Michael Jordan’s career, that made the Air Jordan 14 iconic. It began with the final play in Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. With 0.8 seconds remaining on the clock and the Bulls trailing 83-81, head coach Phil Jackson drew up a play to get the ball into the hands of the greatest of all time. A 2-pointer would tie the game and force overtime. Yet, with Chicago leading the series 3-1, a make from beyond the 3-point arc would mean a victory and a championship. Of course, Jordan was going for the win.

The referee handed the ball to the inbounder, Ron Harper, which triggered His Airness to employ an explosive burst from the free-throw line to the sideline. Harper tossed the ball in, and a swift, one-motion move became a 35-foot, off-balance heave. The potential game-winning 3 fell about a foot short, as Jordan landed back on the hardwood in a pair of his signature Air Jordan 13s.

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls watches his final shot as Bryon Russell of the Utah Jazz looks on during Game 5 of the NBA Finals at the United Center in Chicago on June 12, 1998. Jordan missed the basket, and the Jazz won the game 83-81.

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

The air ball extended the series to a Game 6 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, where Jordan wouldn’t miss in crunch time this time around. With 5.2 seconds left in the game, Jordan put a helluva (albeit controversial) move on his defender, Utah’s Bryon Russell, and drained a 20-foot jump shot from the top of the key to give the Bulls an 87-86 lead that would deliver their sixth championship in eight seasons. By January 1999, Jordan would retire for the second time in his career, making the heroic Game 6 jumper his final shot as a member of the Bulls. (Jordan came out of retirement in 2001 to play two seasons for the Washington Wizards.) The ending of the ‘98 Finals also cemented a legacy for the shoes he wore in that moment: a pair of Air Jordan 14s, which have since taken on the nickname “Last Shot.” Had Jordan hit the 3-pointer to win it all in Game 5, the 13s, not the 14s, would’ve become “Last Shot” Air Jordans. But both the basketball and sneaker gods had other plans. In honor of the 20-year anniversary of Game 6, here are six facts about the timeless “Last Shot” Air Jordan 14s.

Had Michael Jordan hit the 3-pointer to win it all in Game 5, the 13s, not the 14s, would’ve become “Last Shot” Air Jordans.

Jordan only wore the 14s in three games

Jordan opened the 1998 Finals on the road in Game 1 against the Jazz in the “Bred” Air Jordan 13s. He began Game 2 in an all-black pair of player-exclusive, low-top 13s (which would never release at retail) before switching back to the traditional mid-top version of the shoe after halftime. In Games 3, 5 and 6, he’d don the Air Jordan 14. Because, if you remember, in Game 5 he returned to the 13 by breaking out the “Playoffs” colorway. By the time of his debut with the Wizards in ‘01, he’d be rocking the “College Blue” Air Jordan 17s.

The shoe was inspired by Michael Jordan’s Ferrari

Michael Jordan leaves the arena in his Ferrari after the Bulls win Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals at the United Center in Chicago. The Bulls defeated the Jazz 90-86 to win the series and claim the championship.

On Oct. 27, 1998, a few days before the commercial release of the sneakers that debuted on the court months earlier in the Finals, The Associated Press reported that designer Tinker Hatfield was influenced by the luxury cars Jordan owned, particularly his Ferrari 550 Maranello, when crafting the Air Jordan 14. “He told us directly that we should be looking at automobiles,” Hatfield, Nike’s vice president for design and special projects, told The Associated Press. “He actually suggested that I come out and look at his Ferrari, just to be inspired by it.” Hatfield’s clean and simple design of the 14 includes an air-intake pocket similar to what was found on a Maranello in the late ’90s, as well as the same type of paint and bumper materials implemented in high-end vehicles of that era. The shoes dropped at retail for $150 a pair on Halloween 1998 in a “Candy Cane” white-and-red colorway. The “Last Shot” black-and-red model that Jordan wore in the ‘98 Finals wouldn’t hit stores until March 1999.

The shoe was awarded a landmark patent

According to The Associated Press, the United States Patent and Trademark Office presented Nike with patent No. 400,000 in the governmental agency’s then-(ironically)-23-year history for the sports car-inspired elements incorporated into the Air Jordan 14. A news conference was held to celebrate the occasion.

The 14 quickly became a top 100 sneaker

In December 1998, less than two months after the Air Jordan 14 went on sale, Dallas-based shoe retailer Footaction (acquired by Foot Locker in 2004) unveiled a list of the top 100 athletic shoes of all time. At No. 82 sat the 14, which checked in ahead of notable sneakers such as the Air Jordan 8, the Converse Jack Purcell and the Adidas Powerphase. It’s a testament to how much of an impact the shoes — and the epic shot the greatest of all time made in them — had in the early days of their release, without Jordan even playing in the NBA. It didn’t take long for the 14 to reach cult classic status.

“Michael Jordan, the Jordan Brand and Nike condemn violence and vigorously assert that any Jordan brand product and, specifically, the Air Jordan XIV has no connection to any gang or gang-related activity and is intended for use as a basketball product.” — Statement released in 1999

The shoe falsely became associated with gang-related activity

“Nike has learned from local police departments and school administrators that the Roman numeral ‘XIV’ on this year’s Air Jordan is coincidentally associated by some with a gang based in Northern California. Michael Jordan, the Jordan Brand and Nike condemn violence and vigorously assert that any Jordan brand product and, specifically, the Air Jordan XIV has no connection to any gang or gang-related activity and is intended for use as a basketball product.”

This is an excerpt from a statement released on March 26, 1999, denying any link between the shoe and the Norteños street gangs, which use the No. 14 and Roman numerals XIV as a representation of the 14th letter in the alphabet, “N,” to pay tribute to the Mexican-American organization of prison gangs known as Nuestra Familia.

The 20-year anniversary of Game 6 marks the 14’s third retro

Since the shoe’s original release in 1999, the “Last Shot” Air Jordan 15 has been retroed on three separate occasions: in 2005 for $130, in 2011 for $160 and on Wednesday, in celebration of 20 years since Jordan’s jumper, for $190, as part of Nike’s Art of a Champion collection. Moral of the story: Every sneakerhead’s closet deserves a pair of the Last Shots.

Fifteen years ago, Reebok and Adidas wanted him badly — so how exactly did LeBron James end up with Nike? Seven-figure checks were flying and at 18 years old, a young king had to make a huge decision

It was a typical Saturday morning at Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon, global headquarters. A spring day in May 2003 so quiet on the billion-dollar brand’s campus that only mild rumblings hinted at the arrival of such an esteemed guest. Yet for months, a cohort of employees, designers and top-level executives had been making preparations fit for a king.

Who was so deserving of the royal treatment? An 18-year-old from Akron, Ohio, named LeBron James, whose skill in the game of basketball made his decision to skip college and jump straight to the NBA far too easy. He’d been dubbed “The Chosen One,” and folks were salivating at the best player to grace the hardwood since Michael Jordan.

His long-awaited visit to Nike took place in the lead-up to the 2003 NBA draft lottery. The Cleveland Cavaliers would win the top selection, and effectively earn the right to acquire the local phenom. To sign a young James to his first sneaker deal, Nike had to come correct.

“It was the single-greatest plan I’ve ever seen put together,” said E. Scott Morris, then a senior footwear designer for the Nike Basketball division. The night before James and his camp — including his mother, Gloria James, his best friend, Maverick Carter, and his agent, Aaron Goodwin — stepped foot onto Nike’s campus, Morris got a sneak peek. Countless hours of research went into the presentation. It took hundreds of people to bring it to life.

“It sucked, to sum it up. There’s no second place in this game. It’s either you win or you lose, and we lost.”

What sticks out in Morris’ mind is the setting. At the time, co-founder Phil Knight, then Nike’s CEO, was in process of moving his office from the John McEnroe building to a wing of his own tucked away in the Mia Hamm building. But before he’d even spent a single day behind a desk there, Knight allowed his new working quarters to be dedicated to another purpose: pitching James.

The door of the space — so massive it could’ve been an entryway to Jotunheim — opened to a motion-activated video that flashed the Swoosh, and other personalized welcome messages. On either side of a long corridor stood cases of Nike sneakers made iconic by some of the NBA’s biggest stars — Air Jordans, Barkleys, Pippens, Pennys. “You see all these shoes leading down to one case, all the way at the end, in the center,” Morris remembered. “That case had a light over it, and there’s nothing in it. It’s empty, as if to say, ‘Your Superman costume is waiting for you … if you’re ready for it.’ ”

Walk left of the empty case, and there was a conference room, where any and everything that could imaginably be branded LeBron was on display. Towels, shorts, bathrobes, swimwear. “They made this guy underwear,” Morris said. “I didn’t even know we made that.” A reception area housed more custom swag, from basketballs to bags to sunglasses.

And if James needed a snack break, Nike had actual Fruity Pebbles waiting for him — because someone, somehow, found out that was his favorite cereal. “No detail was missed,” said Morris, via phone from Oregon. “Everything they thought he might think, somebody’s job was to make sure it was available for his use, or experience.”

There were two conditions: He had to sign with Reebok, and give his word that he wouldn’t engage in conversations with Adidas or Nike.

Walk right of the empty case, and you entered essentially a king’s treasure room. Its marvels included a mini model of James’ 2003 pewter-colored H2 Hummer, and the pelt of lion (think King Joffy Joffer’s shawl in Coming to America). There were also sketches of sneakers crafted by the brand’s top designers — Tinker Hatfield, Aaron Cooper and Eric Avar. It was here that Nike brass — most notably his future brand manager Lynn Merritt — and James’ team discussed product, and the potential of a partnership. “It’s definitely,” said Goodwin, “the greatest presentation I’ve ever seen.”

Weeks later — and 15 years ago this week — on the day of the lottery, Nike and James agreed to the richest initial shoe contract in the history of sports. “A landmark deal,” said Alexandria Boone, James’ former publicist, “one that people will remember.”

That original alliance has since transformed into a lifetime deal worth more than $1 billion. “It’s gotta be,” said Goodwin, “outside of Michael Jordan, the best signing that Nike has ever made.” But back in ‘03, Nike wasn’t the only company after the No. 1 pick.


Reebok, first. Adidas, second. And Nike, third. This is the tactical order in which Goodwin, then James’ agent, scheduled his client’s in-person meetings with the top three sneaker brands during that era of basketball. Before the first pingpong ball was drawn at the lottery, Goodwin wanted a deal finalized.

“We felt like LeBron’s market was not going to be predicated by where he played, but by how he played, and how his brand [would grow],” said Goodwin via mobile. “Whether he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Sacramento Kings, he was going to make a huge difference for whatever [sneaker] company it was.”

LeBron had deep connections to all three of his suitors. On March 26, 2003, he was named the MVP of the annual McDonald’s All-American Game after a 27-point performance while rocking a custom pair of red-and-white “L23J” Reebok Questions, signature sneaker of Allen Iverson. James had worn Pro Models and T-Macs in games for his team at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron and for his AAU squad, the Oakland Soldiers (yes, for three summers, he traveled all the way to California to play ball). And it was no secret how much he idolized Jordan, the most important athlete in the history of Nike’s brand. “LeBron grew up loving everything Nike did,” said David Bond, then-vice president of U.S. sports for Adidas. “It was easy for them to sign him. It was their game to lose.”

On his first visit to Reebok’s Canton, Massachusetts, headquarters, James spent the first part of the day listening to a comprehensive pitch and marketing plan. The company’s top designers had been pulled from projects to focus on James, and James only. They cooked up more than 50 logos, and 10 sneaker designs, which Reebok executives presented in the meeting.

“We were trying to demonstrate that we were a brand that was going to pay attention to him,” said Todd Krinsky, then-president of the RBK division, which focused on fusing sports and music via footwear and apparel. “We didn’t have 1,000 NBA players, so it was a big opportunity for him to work with a brand that was really going to prioritize him.”

“It’s gotta be, outside of Michael Jordan, the best signing that Nike has ever made.”

About a month before sitting down with James, Reebok released Jay-Z’s first signature sneaker, the S. Carter. And by October 2003, the company had agreed to a licensing deal with Pharrell Williams, and would drop his signature line of shoes, Ice Creams. Iverson, still in his prime, was the face of Reebok basketball, and the brand was anxiously planning for James, the soon-to-be rookie, to be the face its future. “He was really engaged,” continued Krinsky, now the general manager of Reebok Performance. “We felt pretty good.”

What happened next has become the most lasting legend of James’ sneaker saga.

Reebok chairman and CEO Paul Fireman was a man of theatrics, with a win-at-any-cost mentality. In 1996, he signed Iverson, the top selection in the draft that year, though he’d played in Nike at Georgetown University, and his college coach, John Thompson, served on Nike’s board of directors. Fireman wanted secure another surefire No. 1 pick in James, and was willing to pay more than anyone to do so. He escorted James, his mother Gloria, and Goodwin into a private room, and whipped out a cashier’s check. LeBron could leave with it, Fireman informed said. But there were two conditions: He had to sign with Reebok, and give his word that he wouldn’t engage in conversations with Adidas or Nike.

“I was lost for words … looking at a $10 million check,” LeBron James said in 2017 during a conversation with Maverick Carter on UNINTERRUPTED’s Kneading Dough, an interview series focusing on athletes and business.

“I remember getting the check, then giving it to LeBron …,” said Goodwin. “He and his mom looking at it, and his mom’s eyes watering up … It was an emotional time … the reality of this thing that the two of them had lived their life and worked so hard for was actually happening.”

Krinsky can’t forget the contrasting reactions of James and his best friend. “I remember Mav unbuttoning his shirt and getting some air, and I remember LeBron just being stoic,” Krinsky said. “He wasn’t fazed … I looked at him, and thought, he’s a man already. He knows everything that’s about to come to him and he’s ready for it.”

The kid then indeed made a man’s decision. “LeBron understood that he had to give that check back to Paul Fireman,” said Goodwin. “Gloria did not. Gloria wanted to keep that check and walk out. But even with that being offered, we had to see what Adidas had to say, and then finally what Nike had to say.”

“I looked at him, and thought, he’s a man already. He knows everything that’s about to come to him and he’s ready for it.”

The next meeting took James to Malibu, California, where the brand he’d worn on the court for years had rented out a house in which to share its strategy. “I was hired by Adidas to sign LeBron,” said Bond, director of basketball at Nike for most of the 1990s. In 2001, he joined Adidas, and partnered with Sonny Vaccaro, a longtime (and controversial) marketing executive. Vaccaro, who was fired by Nike in 1991, is credited with being instrumental in signing Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to their first sneaker deals.

Together, Bond and Vaccaro spent approximately a year and a half shadowing LBJ the high school star and brainstorming a radical approach to luring him. Bond suspected Nike would tell James he could be the next Michael Jordan. However, using Muhammad Ali as an archetype, Adidas pitched the idea of the young James emerging into more than an athlete (which he’s become), who could represent not just the sport of basketball, but also stand for important social issues. Bond even surmised that if presented comparable monetary offers, James would pick Adidas over Nike based upon the longstanding relationship they’d built.

But the day of — an hour before presentation — Adidas panicked. “We had agreed ahead of time, for the final contract, to offer him $100 million guaranteed, which is about what he ended up signing for,” Bond said. “At the last second, the CEO at the time [Herbert Hainer] got cold feet. He wasn’t a hundred percent certain LeBron would have $100 million worth of impact … We didn’t know what Nike’s final offer would be at that point, but as soon as we slid ours across the table and they saw the number, we knew right then it was over. It sucked, to sum it up. There’s no second place in this game. It’s either you win or you lose, and we lost.”

Following the final meeting in Oregon, negotiations concluded in Akron: all three companies on the eve of the lottery. Adidas was the first to be eliminated from contention, bringing James to the brink of a decision between Nike and Reebok. “Up until the end, I thought we were going with Reebok,” Goodwin said in 2003. According to the Associated Press, the company offered $75 million. But Goodwin says now that Reebok came in far higher (he won’t name precise terms), and in the end, James took less money to join Nike.

“Nike is the right fit and has the right product for me at the right time,” James said in a statement released on May 22, 2003, the day he signed a letter intent. “They are a good company that is committed to supporting me throughout my professional career, on and off the court.” The deal with Nike was worth a reported $90 million — with a $10 million signing bonus. In 1984, Nike had signed Jordan for $2.5 million over five years. In 1992, Shaquille O’Neal signed with Reebok for $3 million. In 1996, Iverson signed for 10 years and $50 million with Reebok. In 1997. Adidas signed Bryant for $5 million, and secured a six-year commitment from McGrady for $12 million. Before playing a single second in the NBA, James landed a deal worth more than the initial contracts of five All-Stars, MVPs and league champions combined.

That night — moments after Cleveland was presented with the top pick, and team owner Gordon Gund with a No. 23 LeBron James Cavs jersey — the man of the hour appeared on ABC from a party in Akron. The interview was with in-studio reporter Mike Tirico. LeBron wasted no time repping his new brand, sitting in front of the camera in his outfit of choice: a black Nike Air sweat suit, and white Nike headband.

“He knew he was with Nike, so he just put it on,” Goodwin said. “That’s him. That’s LeBron.”


On July 14, 2003, 2½ weeks after Cleveland drafted him, James and his new team traveled to Boston for a slate of games during the Reebok Pro Summer League. Krinsky sat courtside at the Clark Athletic Center for a matchup between the Cavs and Boston Celtics. During pregame warmups, James broke his layup line routine and approached the brand executive he hadn’t seen in months.

“LeBron says, ‘Listen, man, I just want to tell you that you guys gave a great pitch. It’s nothing personal. In the end, I just went with my heart, and went with what I thought was right for me,’ ” Krinsky remembers the 1½-minute conversation clearly. “S—, this kid is 18 — and he didn’t need to do that. But I really do feel like that’s a reflection of who he is. That’s how he handles business. He’s honest. He’s personal. Outside of the depressing saga of building up, building up, and not getting him, I’ll always remember that story.”

On James’ feet in that moment — a black-and-white pair of Nike Zoom Flight 2K3s. By Oct. 29, 2003, the night of his NBA regular-season debut, he’d be wearing the Nike Air Zoom Generations — the first signature sneaker of his career. Nike had lived up to its promise to LeBron James. And James more than lived up to his implicit promise to Nike. That empty case — and so much more — has been filled.

The ‘He Got Game’ Air Jordan 13s starred in Spike Lee’s film — and became one of the most famous ever In a freakishly authentic bit of product placement, Ray Allen and Denzel Washington gave the Jordan Brand’s first shoe a backstory

This is the first of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The film, directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, hit theaters on May 1, 1998.

His IMDb page features nearly two dozen television and film credits. His résumé boasts a master of fine arts and expertise in classical acting, with 25 stage appearances, including Broadway. But in airports, on trains, pretty much whenever he travels, Avery Glymph is still recognized for a 30-second scene from his decades-old film debut.

In 1997, Glymph received a call from his agent about an audition. It was something called He Got Game, written and to be directed by Spike Lee. The project would star Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth, the father of the No. 1 high school basketball recruit in the nation, Jesus Shuttlesworth, who would be portrayed by the then-NBA youngster Ray Allen. Glymph originally read for the part of Sip, one of Jesus’ teammates at Abraham Lincoln High School in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York.

“I remember going in and doing the scene,” said Glymph, now 44. “It was going well, and then at the end … Spike was kind of mulling it over, and his last question was, ‘You play ball, man?’ Kind of like, ‘Listen, do you really play ball?’ ”

Lee decided to go in a different direction, casting Travis Best, then a member of the Indiana Pacers, as Sip. But he still wanted Glymph in the film. So he gave him the role of an unnamed sneaker clerk who shares a brief, yet very much so important on-screen moment with Washington.

Jake Shuttlesworth has been released from prison and is desperate for some fresh footwear. Glymph’s character sells him a pair of new Air Jordan 13s. When the scene was shot, during the summer of the 1997 NBA Finals, when the Chicago Bulls won their fifth title in seven years, not even Michael Jordan had worn the unreleased sneakers in a game.

“I’d never seen a pair of shoes that hadn’t come out yet,” Glymph said. “I was all about Jordans, and to have those shoes in my hands, knowing I was like the first person to hold them, was kind of cool.” Back then, they were just the latest installment of Jordan’s signature line of sneakers. Twenty years later, they’re widely regarded as the He Got Game Air Jordan 13s. This is how the film, with the help of Lee, Washington, Allen — and don’t forget Glymph — solidified the shoe as one of the most recognizable in the sneaker culture pantheon.


On Halloween Night 1997, the Chicago Bulls’ season opener, Jordan broke out the Air Jordan 13s at the Fleet Center court in Boston. It’s a primarily white shoe, featuring a black midsole, toe box and tongue, with red accent. The Bulls fell to the Celtics, 92-85, but Jordan dazzled in his new kicks, with a team-high 30 points, six rebounds and four assists.

It was the debut shoe of the Jordan Brand, officially launched in September 1997, as an unprecedented partnership between Nike and one of the company’s star athletes. After signing an endorsement deal with Nike in 1984 — and becoming the greatest player of all time, with the most revered line of signature footwear on the planet — Jordan’s own brand was projected to yield more than $225 million in sales in the first year alone.

Hyped as “the lightest Air Jordan ever made,” the 13 became the first sneaker in Nike’s history to be designed on a computer, using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator on an Apple Macintosh. “This shoe … wasn’t like anything before it. It was really quite a departure,” legendary Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield told The Undefeated in January 2017. “Sometimes, shoes are more evolutionary. They’re a little bit like the previous one. This one wasn’t like anything before it. Of course, that makes the sales … and marketing people nervous, but Michael wasn’t nervous at all. He felt like this design, though it was really different, was going to be successful for him as a player, but also in the marketplace.”

Nobody had the 13. But Spike had it. And Denzel had it. So I’m like, ‘How in the hell did you get the shoe, and I don’t have it?’ ” — Ray Allen

The Air Jordan 13 wasn’t available to the public until the 1997 holiday season. But, of course, Lee got his hands on a pair of the shoes long before then. They’d already made their way into He Got Game, which had wrapped principal photography days before Jordan and the Bulls faced the Celtics. Spike finessed early samples of the shoes for Allen and Washington to wear on camera based on a relationship with Nike and Jordan that dated to 1988, when he first appeared alongside Jordan in an iconic series of TV and print ads as Mars Blackmon, the Air Jordan-loving character he played in his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It.

Even Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks and one of the first NBA players to be endorsed by Jordan Brand, was surprised by Lee’s sneaker pull. One of the perks of being a part of the original Team Jordan (along with Michael Finley, Derek Anderson, Eddie Jones and Vin Baker) was exclusive pairs of Jordans before they hit the market. But when Allen arrived in Brooklyn for production of He Got Game, there was no size 13 box of the newest shoe awaiting him.

Nobody had the 13,” Allen told The Undefeated at Nike’s New York headquarters in early April. “But Spike had it. And Denzel had it. So I’m like, ‘How in the hell did you get the shoe, and I don’t have it?’ ”

Glymph remembers the day he shot his only scene, and there they were. “When he brought out the shoes, Spike gave them to me, and gave me a little reading of how he wanted me to present them,” he said. “He pulled out these shiny new shoes and said, ‘These are the new Jordans.‘ ”

They rehearsed the sequence a few times before the camera started rolling. “I was doing the scene really well … I thought,” Glymph said. “Then Spike gave me direction … ‘Avery, you’re too happy.’ I toned it down a bit, and you can kind of see me playing it more cool.” But his nerves continued to get the best of him, making him forget to give the shoes as much camera time as the director requested. So Washington improvised. “The last time we did it,” Glymph continued, “Denzel actually holds up the shoe, to give it a nice little closeup. That was his professionalism … knowing what needed to be in the shot.”

The scene made the final cut of the film, which premiered on May 1, 1998. By then, the Bulls had reached the NBA postseason, and Jordan was sporting two different versions of the Air Jordan 13 — the “Playoffs” and “Bred” colorways. In June, he’d hit the winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals to claim his sixth and final NBA championship of his career. But his heroics came in a pair of Air Jordan 14s. Save a game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 13, 1998, Jordan doesn’t have a signature moment in the “Black Toe” Air Jordan 13s.

But He Got Game made the kicks eternal. In spring 1998, the New York Daily News reported that Jordan took it upon himself to push back the Wednesday release date of one of the shoe’s models when he received word that kids were skipping school to cop pairs, which were sold at retail for $149.99. That’s how popular the 13s were then — and they remain so now. Jordan Brand brought back a retro version of the sneaker worn in He Got Game in a countdown pack (along with the Air Jordan 10) in 2008, and in 2013 for $170. The shoes will return for the third time in August for $190, in honor of the film’s anniversary.

“Every time I see these,” said Nick Young, one of the NBA’s biggest sneakerheads, while holding 2013 retros during an interview, “I think about Jesus and Denzel.”

His nerves continued to get the best of him, making him forget to give the shoes as much camera time as the director requested. So Denzel Washington improvised.

Allen finally got his pair. He wears them in the last scene, as Jesus sits in his college dorm room and reads a letter Jake sends from prison. “Your great-grandfather used to always tell me, ‘You keep trying on shoes, and sooner or later you gonna find a pair that fits you,’ ” Washington recites, staring into the camera. The line is appropriate — because the Air Jordan 13s fit perfectly in He Got Game.

“It was great product placement,” Allen said. “Because when the movie came out, everybody’s like, ‘Yo, Jesus got the new Js on his feet.’ ”

Jordan Brand is giving kids full rides to college — no basketball experience needed ’To see young people learn they can go to college and don’t have to worry about money, it’s hard to put into words’

 

Rozzie Cribbs never thought he’d make it to the promised land. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the idea of being a full-time student on the campus of a four-year university was a seemingly unattainable goal. He hadn’t seen many kids like him ever reach it — and not for a lack of trying. For some, life circumstances simply dictated the mindset. “I wasn’t really thinking about college,” said Cribbs.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, the year Cribbs graduated, 69.7 percent of high school students (ages 16-24) went on to junior and four-year colleges. But within the African-American community, that number shrinks to 58.2 percent. “My family wasn’t real big on it,” said Cribbs, 20. “They felt like you’re just putting money to debt, with a low probability of getting work.”

In high school, Cribbs dreamed of working in graphic design, and he says he owes some of his artistic creativity to his older brother, who for a while pursued a career in animation. “It didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to, and he kind of gave up on it,” Cribbs said. “So from that point on, I just said OK, I’m only gonna treat it like a hobby.”

“I used to consider myself a realist, thinking college ain’t gonna happen. This scholarship taught me to think, just put the work in and try. It’s changed me as a person.” — Rozzie Cribbs

Rozzie Caribs (center) greets his friend Calvin Stewart during a “study jam” at the library at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale on April 10. Cribbs received a full-ride college scholarship through the Jordan Brand’s Wings program.

Carolina Hidalgo for The Undefeated

But in 2014 during his junior year, his high school, Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy, welcomed Larry Miller, president of the multibillion-dollar Jordan Brand, as a keynote speaker. The academy is a charter school in service to students labeled “at risk.” Miller had considered rescheduling his visit, which fell on a day in which the surrounding community was mourning the loss of one of the school’s students — to gun violence.

But Monica Haslip, Little Black Pearl’s executive director, persuaded him to stay and inspire her pupils with his story. Haslip and Miller eventually teamed up under the umbrella of Jordan’s revamped community outreach initiative, “Wings.” Soon there was the creation of the Jordan Design Studio at the brand’s flagship store on South State Street, where Cribbs and his peers spent Saturdays learning the X’s and O’s of design, marketing and merchandising. Cribbs showed off his skills as a gifted freehand artist with a design that was schemed into a T-shirt and placed on sale at the store. In just two days, it sold out.

“That shirt [was] something from the heart,” he said. A photo of the tee, which features a young Boondocks-Afroed hooper looking down onto the city of Chicago, is his profile picture on Facebook. “I did it because I wanted to try something new. I didn’t think I was going to get a scholarship from it.”

“When I first went to high school, I didn’t expect to go to college.” — Kiara Garcia

Yes, Cribbs made it to college, and he did it with help from the Jordan Brand. After Cribbs was admitted into the Jordan Brand Wings Scholars Program, he was awarded $10,000, which he figured would be enough money for only two semesters at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, and then, in a reverse move, he’d transfer to a community college. But while sitting in a freshly moved-into dorm room, on just his second day at SIU, the phone rang.

“‘You got a full ride,’ ” Cribbs, now a sophomore studying communication design, recalled Haslip telling him. “I was like, ‘Wait, what?! A full ride?’ I used to consider myself a realist, thinking college ain’t gonna happen. But this scholarship taught me to think, just put the work in and try. It’s changed me as a person.” Cribbs and two other young people in this story are but three of the more than 200 students since 2015 who’ve received full scholarships to attend college through Wings.

“If you got wings, you can fly,” Miller said. “And our goal is to give everybody wings.” Michael Jordan wouldn’t have it any other way.


Kiara Garcia, 21, attends her Transitional Justice class inside Susan P. Luek Hall at Millersville University of Pennsylvania on April 11. The international studies major and Spanish minor said she wouldn’t be at MU without the Jordan Brand Wings Scholars Program. “It’s a privilege,” Garcia said. “It allows me to extend beyond academics.”

Corey Perrine for The Undefeated

“People see Michael as the greatest, the GOAT, with six championships,” Jordan Brand vice president Howard White said by phone from his Beaverton, Oregon, office. “But they don’t think about the person who, when he was already a millionaire, went back to school to get his degree.”

In 1984, the Chicago Bulls selected Jordan with the third overall pick in the NBA draft after his decision to forgo his senior year at the University of North Carolina. But two years later — after a broken bone in his left foot suffered on Oct. 29, 1985, forced him to miss 64 games — Jordan returned to Chapel Hill, where he completed his major in geography and graduated.

“Most of you admire what Michael does in basketball, but those are not my proudest moments,” his mother, Deloris Jordan, once told the Chicago Tribune. “As parents, we tried to explain to Michael what was important from day one — and that was education.”

In 1988, Michael and Deloris co-founded the Michael Jordan Foundation (now dissolved, although the family founded the James R. Jordan Foundation in 2000, in honor of Michael Jordan’s late father), through which he formed the Michael Jordan Education Club as a way to motivate sixth-graders from economically disadvantaged communities to reach goals in academics, attendance and community service. “Michael is as dogmatic about kids getting educated as he is about winning,” said White, one of his closest confidants.

Also in ’89, Nike released a poster featuring a photograph of a young, stone-faced Jordan with his arms outstretched — a powerful depiction of his nearly 7-foot wingspan. The word “Wings” drapes over the picture, and its anchor is a quote from poet William Blake: No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.

Jordan’s first nonprofit organization and that iconic poster provided inspiration for the Jordan Brand’s educational impact program, which was rebranded in 2010 under the name of Wings. Previously it had been called the Jordan Fundamentals Program, and from 1999 to 2009 it gave more than $10 million in financial aid to schools in underserved communities. “My mother and my teachers inspired the creation of the Wings program by placing a high value on education and passing that on to me,” Michael Jordan told The Undefeated via email. “Education is the most valuable tool we can provide young people today to help them achieve greatness.”

“My mother and my teachers inspired the creation of the Wings program by placing a high value on education and passing that on to me.” — Michael Jordan

Bennett College student Ophelia Murray, a junior political science major, poses for a photograph in her room in the honors dorm on campus in Greensboro, North Carolina, on April 4.

Eamon Queeney for The Undefeated

Ground zero for Wings was Philadelphia, where the brand collaborated with a local retail partner to launch an incentive-based program known as A’s for J’s. It operated the way it sounds: If students showed up for class and worked hard toward earning good grades, they were awarded pairs of Air Jordans.

“When I first went to high school, I didn’t expect to go to college,” said Philly native Kiara Garcia, now 21, who attended the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. “[But] when I got into my junior year and entered college readiness programs for SAT prep, along with having A’s for J’s come in, it was a push. Like, ‘Oh, my God, this could actually happen.’ ”

As successful as A’s for J’s became, the brand had more to give than sneakers. In 2015, Wings established its Scholars Program to financially assist students in college. Garcia quit both of her after-school jobs to focus on getting the scholarship. Meanwhile, Ophelia Murray, who’d also participated in the A’s for J’s program at the suggestion of a counselor at Imhotep Institute Charter High School in Philly, had been admitted to Spelman College. Yet the acceptance letter came with zero financial aid, an immovable barrier for her mother, the leader of a single-parent household after the death of Murray’s father. While searching for a more affordable option for college, she found Wings.

“The process of applying for the scholarship … I don’t know if I was really confident in myself,” said Murray, 21. “I really didn’t think I could get this. Actually getting it … was nerve-wracking and amazing to me. I felt really relieved, and really grateful, because somebody actually believed in the work I put in.”

Cribbs, now a sophomore studying communication design, remembers the call. “I was like, ‘Wait, what?! A full ride?’ ”

Bennett College student Ophelia Murray, (center) a junior political science major, signs papers after speaking to a freshman orientation class in Pfeiffer Science Hall on campus in Greensboro, North Carolina, April 4.

Eamon Queeney for The Undefeated

Garcia and Murray became two of the first three recipients of the Jordan Wings scholarship, receiving full rides to attend their school of choice. Garcia is a junior international studies major, with minors in Spanish, government and social justice, at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. She’s studied abroad and taken on leadership roles as a resident assistant and volunteer mentor. Murray is a junior at the historically black Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her college experience has included traveling to China, joining Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and taking part in Duke’s pre-law program last summer.

In the past few years, Wings has sent hundreds of students to approximately 65 different colleges and universities around the country. The program has also gone global, expanding to China and extending scholarships even to high schools. In the United States, Wings joined forces with 23 community partners in five different cities: Portland, Oregon; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; New York; and Chicago, where the program has continued to support Little Black Pearl. Jordan is also working with middle school students on the South Side through a nonprofit called Triple Threat Mentoring.

“In a lot of cases, my students don’t believe they can go to college, and it’s largely because they don’t have the resources,” said Haslip. Little Black Pearl has produced 14 Wings Scholars to date. “To see young people all of a sudden learn that they can go to college for four years, and they don’t have to worry about money — it’s hard to put into words. You know that these kids now have a real opportunity now to live the lives that they choose.”


From left to right: Kiara Garcia, Rozzie Cribbs, and Ophelia Murray all received full-ride scholarships through the Jordan Brand Wings Program. Garcia and Murray also received summer internships with Nike.

Corey Perrine, Carolina Hidalgo, Eamon Queeney for The Undefeated

Inside of a small cafe in Chile, while studying abroad last year, Garcia received a message that made her break out into a different language. This summer, for the first time, the Jordan Brand is bringing on interns to work at Nike’s global headquarters in Oregon, and Garcia was selected as part of the first class.

“I remember saying, ‘What! … an internship?’ You can imagine, I’m speaking English and everybody was looking at me all weird. In that moment, it was a lot of emotion. I’m thinking about what this could mean for me professionally, exploring more of my international interests, knowing that Nike has a big influence in the world.”

“Being able to be a Jordan Wings Scholar has proven that there are no limits. That really, anything is possible.” — Ophelia Murray

Murray got a similar notification, offering her the opportunity to join Garcia with an internship. She’s always joked with people that she’d envisioned herself becoming a corporate lawyer for Nike. Cribbs, who is a year younger than both of his fellow scholars, won’t intern until the summer of 2019, but he’s already made it out to Nike’s Pacific Northwest campus to see where he could be designing apparel and sneakers one day.

“ ‘Wow, my dream has really come true,’ ” Murray said she thought upon getting the call. “It was … surreal for me. Being able to be a Jordan Wings Scholar has proven that there are no limits. That really, anything is possible.”

A committee of 16 volunteer Jordan Brand employees is now a week into reviewing this year’s pool of scholarship applications. In mid-May, they’ll convene and complete their decisions. By the first week of June, 30 more students will receive calls, and full rides to go to college, as the latest crop of Wings Scholars.

“Throughout the years, Wings has positively affected so many young people’s lives,” said Michael Jordan, “and nothing gives me greater pride than seeing those kids learn and succeed.”

How Michael Jordan’s original starting five — from Ray Allen to Michael Finley — became Team Jordan’s first stars Before Russ, Kawhi, Melo, CP3 and Jimmy Buckets, Jordan Brand got its start with All-Stars and future champions

Oct. 15, 1996, will forever be ingrained in Ray Allen’s memory. It was the night he met Michael Jordan for the first time. A young player like Allen viewed Jordan as a god in a league that had already deemed him the greatest of all time. As Jordan chased his fifth NBA title that year, he brought with him a $33 million contract, the richest in team sports history. Off the court, Jordan had brought in millions of dollars for Nike through the sale of his signature Air Jordans, the single most important line of sneakers to hit the market. Yet, as Jordan began looking toward life after basketball, he needed the help of Allen, and others, to continue to make his mark on the business world and the culture.

A 21-year-old rookie, and four months removed from being selected with the No. 4 overall pick in the NBA draft, Allen entered a matchup between his Milwaukee Bucks and Jordan’s Chicago Bulls at the United Center. He’d face his hero, the man from the posters Allen hung on his wall as a kid, in an exhibition game. “I’m intimidated,” recalled the future Hall of Famer, now 42, “because I’m not supposed to be in this moment. I’m supposed to be on the other side, watching and cheering for him. I’m like, ‘You know how many times I rooted for him to destroy whoever was on the other end of the floor? Now I gotta beat him? Now I gotta stop him?’ Now I’m this kid in this position … thinking, ‘Is this situation, this moment, too big for me?’ ”

Before tipoff, Allen and Jordan walked out onto the hardwood, met at half court and shook hands. “ ‘What’s up, Ray?’ Welcome to the NBA,’ ” Allen remembers Jordan saying. “I was like, ‘Man … Michael Jordan knows my name.’ ”

Jordan actually knew Allen quite well. He was the one who’d decided which shoes the rookie wore on his feet that night — and for most of his NBA career. Months before this pregame moment, Allen backed “out of a deal with FILA,” he said, to sign with Nike. The company planned on giving Jordan his own brand and imagined Allen as the young face of a fresh new line of products. So, in his first encounter with Jordan, Allen took the court in Team Jordan Jumpman Pros — the first sneakers designed outside of the Bulls superstar’s signature Air Jordan line.

“I was like, ‘Man … Michael Jordan knows my name.’ ”

“I was the one guy in the league who had Brand Jordans on my feet,” Allen said of his rookie season. “But I didn’t know how connected and linked in M.J. was with what was going on … if it was the company, or if he was making all the decisions. Not yet did I understand what the Brand Jordan meant, or what it was.”

M.J. had in fact selected Allen to be the first player to endorse Jordan Brand, which wouldn’t officially launch until September 1997. His Airness, however, imagined a whole squad of ambassadors representing his brand in the NBA. As a reflection of his own skills, style and swag, he wanted to build “Team Jordan” — and every team needs a starting five.


In 1997, before playing a single minute in the NBA, Derek Anderson traveled to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, ready to be pitched a potential endorsement deal. “I had no idea who I was meeting,” he says now. “I thought I was meeting with Nike itself, because I didn’t know anything about the Jordan Brand.” He finally got to a boardroom, “ … and there’s Michael Jordan. He says, ‘Hey, D.A., how’s it going?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, Michael Jordan actually knows who I am.’ ”

His Airness sat before the now-retired NCAA and NBA champion Anderson, having done his research on the 22-year-old prospect. Anderson played only 19 games during his senior year at the University of Kentucky before tearing the ACL in his right knee, so Jordan asked about the progress he’d made in his recovery, and Anderson informed him that he could, once again, throw down windmill dunks. The conversation soon turned into an offer from Jordan that Anderson couldn’t refuse.

Derek Anderson (right) of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 3, 1997, at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

“The way I worked hard, and how I fought back from the adversity of my injury, he really appreciated that, and wanted me to be a part of the Jordan Brand family,” said Anderson, who the Cleveland Cavaliers took with the 13th overall pick in the 1997 draft. “I gave him a, ‘Yes, sir, absolutely … I would be honored.’ It wasn’t even a thought process.” Anderson had previously met with Converse but turned down the opportunities discussed there. He also canceled the rest of his scheduled visits with other shoe companies.

Eddie Jones, then a third-year shooting guard with the Los Angeles Lakers, found himself up for endorsement renegotiation with Nike after rolling with the sneaker giant for the first few years of his NBA career. In hopes of luring the 1997 All-Star (the first of three such honors) who played in the glamorous Hollywood market, Reebok, Adidas, FILA and PUMA all went after Jones. Yet the bidding war came to a screeching halt once Jordan came calling.

“When the best player on the planet, the best player to have a basketball in his hand, really wants you to be a part of something, I mean, you jump onboard,” said Jones, now retired and living in Florida.

Allen’s All-Star Milwaukee Bucks teammate Vin Baker also joined the mix (Baker struggled with alcohol over the course of his All-NBA and Olympic gold medal-winning career, but now sober, he coached this summer at a Massachusetts summer camp). Michael Finley of the Dallas Mavericks began hearing rumors swirling around the league about a master plan that Nike and Jordan had cooking.

“My agent called me,” Finley remembered, “and said, ‘Michael Jordan and his reps are starting their own Jordan Brand and want to know if you want to be a part of it.’ I was like, ‘C’mon, man. That’s a no-brainer. Of course.’ To have M.J. pick you as one of the originals, that’s an honor. It was just us five … our own little fraternity.” (These days, Finley, an assistant vice president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks, is something of a film producer.)

“The goal was to hopefully find athletes that had a little bit of Michael in them.”

Jordan, the alpha and omega of the basketball universe at the time, had handpicked and created an eclectic group of players in his own image to put on for the new brand. “The goal was to hopefully find athletes that had a little bit of Michael in them. In our mind, Michael was the greatest at what he did, and he was great because he did so many things really well,” said former Jordan Brand product director Gentry Humphrey, now vice president of Nike Golf footwear. “And while you may never find that one guy that has the complete package, you can find a little bit of some of those things in several athletes.”

A pure shooter in Allen, a high-flying, acrobatic athlete in Anderson, a Swiss army knife guard in Jones, a skilled stretch four in Baker, and a versatile swingman in Finley — together, they formed Team Jordan.

“Everyone brought something different, but everyone brought something from him. Everything from us was an entity of M.J.,” Derek Anderson said. “It’s almost like we were his kids. Like every kid has genes from his parents, we were a genetic build of him.”


On Sept. 9, 1997, Nike officially announced the launch of the Jordan Brand.

“A sub-brand of NIKE, Inc. the JORDAN brand is a pure, authentic basketball brand of premium, high-performance basketball footwear and apparel inspired by the performance legacy, vision and direct involvement of Michael Jordan,” reads the third paragraph of Nike’s press release from this historic day. “The brand will carry the Jumpman logo and will be packaged together to make its retail debut on November 1 for the Holiday ’97 season.”

Never before in the history of sports had a player, not to mention an African-American one, “entered into a solo venture on such a sweeping scale,” according to a Chicago Tribune report published the day the brand debuted in 1997.

“I have been involved in the design of everything I have worn from Nike since we began our relationship in 1984,” Jordan said at the introductory news conference in New York. “The launch of the Jordan Brand is simply an extension of that process.”

The Air Jordan logo is displayed at a Jordan promotional event July 31, 2001, in Harlem, New York.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

More than a decade had passed since Nike signed Jordan before his prolific rookie season and released his first signature sneaker, the timeless Air Jordan 1.

“I always felt like Jordan was its own brand, and I approached it that way,” said iconic Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, who believed the move that catapulted Jordan into his own stratosphere of the sportswear industry was long overdue. “Jordan’s shoes were as advanced as possible for the best player in the world, but also were a little more sophisticated and with … nicer materials,” continued Hatfield, who’s crafted some of Jordan’s most legendary shoes, starting with the Air Jordan 3s that dropped in 1988.

“I placed Jordan on a pedestal in my own mind, like it was its own separate brand. I was actually the one who thought up the Jordan Brand in the first place,” Hatfield makes clear, “and tried to pitch that numerous times over the years and didn’t get anywhere with it, until it finally did happen. I’m glad it did.”

Nike celebrated the momentous occasion with a huge launch party at NikeTown in New York. The guest list was loaded with stars from all walks of the culture. NBA Inside Stuff host Ahmad Rashad emceed the event, attended by everyone from Sheryl Swoopes, Kym Hampton and Dawn Staley, to rhythm and blues singer Kenny Lattimore, musical groups BLACKStreet and A Tribe Called Quest, and actors Kadeem Hardison and Damon Wayans. “It was like All-Star, Grammys and Emmys all mixed up into one,” Finley remembered.

From day one, everyone wanted a piece of Jordan Brand, which analysts projected to generate more than $300 million in worldwide revenue in the fiscal year 1998 (the Air Jordan line alone raked in $70 million in sales for Nike in fiscal 1997). On Nov. 1, 1997, the Air Jordan 13s, the first shoe under the Jordan Brand umbrella, were released at $150 a pair. The brand’s first Team Jordan sneakers, the Jumpman Pro Quicks and Jumpman Pro Strongs, wouldn’t hit until May 1998. Until then, Jordan entrusted only Allen, Anderson, Jones, Baker and Finley to wear them on the court, and to promote Jordan Brand in its inaugural NBA season.

“The brand was big before I even knew it,” Derek Anderson said. “It took off that way.”


At the end of the NBA calendar, when the season finally ends, players partake in the annual ritual of cleaning out their lockers at their home arenas. During his first season with Team Jordan, after the playoffs ended with Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz sweeping the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, Jones recalls arriving at The Forum in Los Angeles a little late.

By the time he got there, boxes of his Jordans were missing. And the ones that were left? Jones’ teammates were already calling dibs — and mustering up the courage to see if they could get Jones to come up off of his shoes. “I swear, every guy that wore a size 13, size 14, they were like, ‘Eddie, man, I gotta have these. I didn’t want to take them without you knowing, but can I have them?’ ” said Jones, one of two members of the original team to ever get his own signature Jordans: 1999’s Jumpman Quick 6 and 2000’s Jumpman Swift 6. The brand also gave Baker the Jumpman Vindicate in 1999. “I gave them so many sneakers that day, it was crazy. I had no sneakers by the time I left.”

To get a pair of even Jumpman sneakers in the early days of the brand, you had to go through one of the members of Team Jordan. “As original endorsees of the brand, we had exclusive rights to shoes that [other players] didn’t have, and shoes before they hit the market,” Finley said. “We had the ups on guys who considered themselves sneakerheads in the league, whether it was teammates or opponents. Even referees commented on my shoes at the jump ball.”

Eddie Jones (second from right) of the Los Angeles Lakers passes against the Utah Jazz in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals played on May 22, 1998, at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

This was the era before the brand diversified its color palette, so most Air Jordans released in a combination of red, black and white, the team colors of the Chicago Bulls. Yet, for Team Jordan’s Jumpman sneakers, the brand blessed its ambassadors with pairs in their own team colors. Lakers purple and gold for Jones; Cavs sky blue for Anderson and Mavs royal blue for Finley; Bucks purple and green for Allen; and white and black Pro Strongs, with SuperSonics green, red and yellow accent, for Baker, who was traded from Milwaukee to Seattle a few weeks after the brand launched.

“I always feel very humble about being having been with Jordan Brand since day one.”

“Most people were like, ‘I want THAT color right there.’ I had colors that were against what was normal in the market, and what people would see in shoe stores anywhere in America. It created a fervor for wanting those shoes,” Allen said. “The ball kid used to come in the locker room almost every game and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so wanted to know if you could send him your shoes.’ ”

The requests didn’t only come from hoopers.

“Fat Joe literally chased me down from the time I started. That dude, he would be on my heels for shoes,” Anderson said of the Terror Squad rapper from the Bronx, New York (who in 2016 opened up his own sneaker store, which was greenlit by Michael Jordan).

Jones has his own stories: “I remember Usher asking for some sneakers!”

When they weren’t rocking exclusive Jumpmans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Team Jordan members could be seen on the court in custom, player exclusive (PE) Air Jordans, especially after Jordan retired for the second time in 1999 and not many players were wearing his retros on the court. Jones, who landed with the Miami Heat in 2000 after a trade, received red and black Air Jordan 13s with “E. Jones” inscribed across the tongue.

Ray Allen (right) of the Boston Celtics dribbles down the court wearing a pair of green and gold Air Jordan 11s on Dec. 31, 2010, at the TD Garden in Boston.

Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Anderson loved playing in low tops, so he persuaded Jordan and the brand to make him low Air Jordan 11 Space Jams and Concords. Finley’s PE Air Jordan 16s, with “FIN 4” on the lace cover, became such a go-to shoe in his arsenal that players across the league thought they were his own signature Jordans. Baker also wore PE 16s, as well as PE Air Jordan 9s with his No. 42 on the heel. Allen’s extensive collection of PEs could fill a museum. His favorites? The green, white and gold, and red, white and gold Air Jordan 11s that the brand presented him to honor his two career NBA championships in 2008 with the Boston Celtics and 2013 with the Miami Heat.

“I gave him a, ‘Yes, sir, absolutely … I would be honored.’ It wasn’t even a thought process.”

Nowadays, there’s of course a new Team Jordan, featuring Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook, who all get the PE Air Jordan treatment like their predecessors. In the Oklahoma City Thunder’s opener to the 2017-18 NBA season, Westbrook took the floor in a pair of PE Air Jordan 32s, a little more than a month after signing a 10-year extension with Jordan Brand. The reigning NBA MVP struck the most lucrative deal in the company’s history on Sept. 13, almost 20 years to the day that Nike hosted the event to announce the launch of the Jordan Brand.

Westbrook is the new face of the now billion-dollar brand’s Team Jordan, which all began with Michael Jordan’s first pick in 1996, Ray Allen.

“I always feel very humble about being having been with Jordan Brand since day one,” said Allen. “For me, long term, it ended up being one of the best decisions I made in my career.”

The other original members would say the same. All five took a leap of faith when Jordan asked them to be a part of his vision. And the rest is history.

“We were young kids who admired M.J. so much. He was our mentor, and was putting this thing together,” Jones said. “We knew it was going to be big, only because it was him. Whatever he does, it kind of works out … it’s always big. And everybody wanted to wear Jordans.”

Randy Moss talks the making of the ‘Super Freak’ — the NFL’s first signature Air Jordan The legend and his shoe designer recall the early Jordan Brand moments

Randy Moss didn’t always need a football field to put his inhuman speed on display. All he really needed was a treadmill, and a few spectators.

During one workout at a Florida gym back in the early days of his NFL career, the young Minnesota Vikings wide receiver pushed the limit of human athleticism. His training circuit began with a 15- to 20-second treadmill sprint at 15 mph, which Moss and a friend who joined him completed with ease. Next came 17 mph. They both jumped on and, for about 10 seconds, busted out another run.

Then Moss did something crazy: He upped the speed to 19 mph. “F— that, I’m done with this,” one spectator recalls Moss’ friend saying before tapping out. Moss, however, completed the rep and kept going. He cranked the treadmill to an unfathomable 21 mph and prepared to make his move. While holding on to the rails, Moss planted one foot on the machine’s foundation and used his other foot to judge just how fast the belt circulated as he nailed his timing down. The gears in his brain synced with the mechanics of his body.

“He jumps on and whips out 21 mph, just hauling a–,” said the aforementioned spectator, Gentry Humphrey, product director for Jordan Brand at the time. “Just watching him do that, to me, he was a freak of nature … purely a super freak.”

“I just wanted to pay tribute to Michael Jordan. But at the same time, I looked at the shoes and I was like, ‘Oh, those would look good with my uniform.’ ” — Randy Moss

Humphrey can’t recall the exact date or time of year that the treadmill incident unfolded before his eyes, but he does know it took place sometime between 1999 and 2000, within the phenom wideout’s first two NFL seasons. During this period, Humphrey spent as much time as he possibly could with Moss while in the process of designing Moss’ first signature shoe: the Air Jordan Super Freak.

“I realized,” said Humphrey, “that Randy was very, very different.”


In 1999, two years after Nike and Michael Jordan came to terms on Jordan Brand, Moss — then 22, and coming off a monster rookie season — became the first football player to sign an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand. “Jordans were a basketball shoe, but when I came into the league, I was still infatuated by Nike shoes and Jordan shoes,” says Moss now. “My first year, I was just pulling Jordans off the rack and lacing them up.” And playing in them.

Remember, by this point in 1999, Michael Jordan had already retired from the NBA for the second time in his career and had shifted his focus to the business world. In his early formation of Team Jordan, His Airness wanted to branch out from creating products solely for basketball, so he signed New York Yankees All-Star shortstop Derek Jeter to represent the brand through baseball and light heavyweight world champion Roy Jones Jr. to represent boxing. For football, Moss was his guy.

Randy Moss of the Minnesota Vikings plays in a preseason game in a pair of Air Jordan Super Freaks.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“I just wanted to pay tribute to Michael,” Moss said. “But at the same time, I looked at the shoes and I was like, ‘Oh, those would look good with my uniform.’ ”

Originally, Jordan Brand’s plan for Moss didn’t include a signature shoe. Instead, he was envisioned as the face of products set to be rolled out as part of a cross-training division. Two factors contributed to a change of plan. First, Humphrey took a look at some of the NFL’s fields and the type of shoes players needed to flourish on them.

“A lot of athletes at the time that were playing on AstroTurf were using basketball shoes,” said Humphrey, who’s now Nike’s vice president of footwear for profile sports. “They were using nubby-bottomed outsoles to really get the traction that they needed on the field. I looked at it as an opportunity to create a new silhouette for training by using that nubby bottom.”

Randy Moss was too athletic, and too much of a superstar-in-the-making, to not have his own shoe.

The second factor was simple: Randy Moss was too athletic, and too much of a superstar-in-the-making, to not have his own shoe. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Moss gave defenses matchup nightmares. “With 4.25 speed in the 40-yard-dash … an impressive 39-inch vertical leap and huge hands with tentacle-like fingers that rarely drop passes,” is how The Associated PressJim Vertuno put it in 1997. That was the year Moss emerged as a Heisman Trophy finalist at Marshall University with 90 catches for 1,647 yards and a Division I-A single-season record 25 receiving touchdowns. “Nobody,” Ball State coach Bill Lynch said of Moss after he caught five touchdown passes against his team in 1997, “in America can cover him.”

The Minnesota Vikings selected Moss with the No. 21 overall pick in the 1998 draft, and what the franchise quickly realized it got in him was a football player in a basketball player’s body. Before the start of his rookie season in Minnesota, Moss — a two-time basketball Player of the Year at DuPont High School near his hometown of Rand, West Virginia — flirted with the idea of trying out for the Minnesota Timberwolves and eventually playing in both the NFL and NBA. “I don’t think so,” said Vikings president Roger Headrick in June 1998. “Overlapping seasons.”

In his first year of pro football during the 1998-99 season, Moss recorded 69 catches for 1,313 yards (third most in the league behind Green Bay’s Antonio Freeman and Buffalo’s Eric Moulds) while grabbing an NFL rookie-record 17 touchdown passes, earning him a trip to the Pro Bowl and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

“The things that he did on the field, the way he ran past people, the way he caught things,” Humphrey says, “he was like the Michael Jordan at the wide receiver position. I think that was kind of the obvious.”

After that record-setting rookie season, Humphrey and Team Jordan embarked upon the 16- to 18-month development process of Moss’ first shoe, seeking to incorporate every aspect of his life, training habits and style of play into the design. “ ‘All right, Gent! What do we got today?’ ” Humphrey remembers Moss animatedly saying in his Southern accent as he took the wide receiver through initial concepts and updated samples. “It was almost like watching a kid at Christmas … how much fun he had designing his first shoe.”

Moss knew exactly what he wanted to call the shoes he’d soon be donning on the field. “He’s the one that kind of came to us and told us that he had been given the name ‘Super Freak,’ ” Humphrey said. It was a moniker that Moss picked up during his high school days in West Virginia, and one that stuck with him through college and into the NFL.

To personify Moss’ freak-of-nature identity, especially after that otherworldly treadmill workout, Jordan Brand attempted to channel the wide receiver’s blazing speed into the shoe. Moss, in Humphrey’s mind, moved as fast as fire, leading the designer to test a metallic-sheen, flame-retardant material on the Super Freak as a unique play off the patent leather featured on the Air Jordan 11s. Humphrey, who began contributing to Jordan designs in 1990 with the Air Jordan 5, also toyed with a material worn on the uniforms and footwear of race car drivers. But because of bonding issues, neither material made it to final production. After trial and error, Humphrey finally found something with the stability and durability to match the tempo at which Moss moved.

“The great thing about someone who is so frickin’ fast is … we always found ourselves using analogies and inspiration that represented speed to show what Randy was all about,” Humphrey said. “We wanted to provide a product that could ultimately give people a piece of the Randy dream.”

By July 25, 2000, in the brief section of a St. Paul Pioneer Press story published at the start of Minnesota Vikings training camp, the last line read, “Randy Moss debuted his new cleats. The high-topped, black cleats are called the ‘Super Freak.’ They will be commercially available soon.” With the arrival of his first signature shoe, which he wore throughout his 77-catch, 1,437-yard and 15-touchdown 2000-01 season, Moss lived and breathed the “Super Freak” persona that matched his fresh new Air Jordans.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss of the NFC runs a pass pattern against the AFC in the 2000 NFL Pro Bowl on Feb. 6, 2000, at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. The NFC defeated the AFC 51-31. (Photo by Martin Morrow/Getty Images)

“I mean, they call me ‘Super Freak,’ ” Moss told a reporter after making a 39-yard game-winning catch in a 31-27 win over the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 22, 2000. “Ain’t nobody out there that can really do it like myself.”


It was Jan. 6, 2001, in an NFC divisional-round playoff matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints at Minneapolis’ Metrodome. For the game, Humphrey designed Moss a custom pair of purple and yellow Air Jordan 11s, with his No. 84 emblazoned on the heel of each shoe. But everywhere Moss turned on the AstroTurf field, a different player was sporting his signature Super Freaks — from his Vikings teammates, most notably veteran wide receiver Cris Carter, to Saints opponents, including wide receivers Joe Horn and Jake Reed, as well as running back/return specialist Chad Morton.

“About eight to nine guys had my Super Freak shoe on,” said Moss. “I’m sitting there thinking like, ‘Wow.’ It was kind of overwhelming to see some of the guys with my shoe.” During an era when Jordan Brand had just begun to expand outside of hoops, Moss had sparked a cultural movement in the NFL that witnessed players taking the field in Jordan cleats on grass and Jordan basketball shoes on AstroTurf.

“He was definitely the right guy for Jordan Brand at the right time,” Humphrey said. Soon, the league witnessed Donovan McNabb, Charles Woodson, Warren Sapp, Marvin Harrison and Michael Vick join the exclusive Air Jordan-rocking football fraternity that Moss founded. Nearly two decades later, that family has grown to include Jamal Adams, Dez Bryant, Corey Coleman, Michael Crabtree, Thomas Davis, Joe Haden, Malik Hooker, Melvin Ingram, Alshon Jeffery, DeShone Kizer, Jalen Ramsey, Jordan Reed, Golden Tate and Earl Thomas as active NFL players endorsed by Jordan Brand.

Yet, Moss still remains in a league of his own as the only football player in history to have his own signature Air Jordans — first with the Super Freak and then with the “Mossified,” released in 2001.

“You still got guys out there wearing Jordans, but it started with me,” Moss said. “I don’t know who it’s going to end with, but I am happy to say that I did start that trend.”

Growing up Gucci Mane With a new book, new album and new reality show, the Atlanta star is ready for prime time

Radric Delantic Davis wanted the Christmas his mother couldn’t afford to give him — and the eighth-grader was willing to sell slabs of dope to make it happen. Toward the end of 1993, Davis, then 13, had his eyes on a pair of jeans, some new Air Jordans and a Starter jacket. Going back to school, postholiday break meant his classmates would show off their gifts from Santa.

But when his mom told him that bills were really tight and that she could only give him $50, Davis, today known as hip-hop star Gucci Mane, left the apartment with the money and walked to the other side of Mountain Park in East Atlanta’s Zone 6. Davis, who was already selling marijuana for his older brother, Duke, handed a dope man his mother’s $50 in exchange for two tightly wrapped slabs of crack cocaine, roughly 1.5 grams each.

“Now you owe me $50,” Gucci recalls the drug dealer telling him. “Get it?”

It was the moment Gucci realized he was officially waist-deep in Zone 6’s drug game — even if he didn’t have a clue of what he was getting himself into. “I remember … trying to carve out my own individuality,” he said. “I felt like fashion [was] a way to express myself, and I knew the only way I could get it at the time was that route: selling crack. I felt like dope would be the best route … at that time. That wasn’t one of the best decisions I ever made, but I was young.”

“There’s a lot of pain and heartache associated with the drug game that kids need to know about.”

Gucci’s family life, drug dealing and arrests — as well as the perfection of a musical style that would help elevate the careers of a slew of young Southern artists such as Migos, Young Thug and Zaytoven — are on full display in the new The Autobiography of Gucci Mane. In the book, co-authored by Neil Martinez-Belkin, Gucci, who has four top-10 rap singles — including this year’s hit with Migos, “I Get the Bag” — digs deeper into his upbringing than ever before, offering insight into how a kid caught up in Atlanta’s drug game made it through violence, rap beefs, a crippling addiction to the drug lean and run-ins with the law, including a 2005 murder charge (which was eventually dropped), to become the undisputed king of trap music.

“I finally know what it’s like to be a professional, to feel what’s going on,” Gucci said just ahead of the release of the book and his 11th studio album, Mr. Davis (due Oct. 13). The BET reality show Gucci Mane & Keyshia Ka’Oir: The Mane Event, featuring his fiancée, is set to debut Oct. 17. “I now appreciate that, and I’m not trying to take my talent or those opportunities for granted.”


By the time Gucci moved to Atlanta with Duke and his mother, Vicky, in August 1989, he had already experienced the highs and lows of family life.

Growing up in his grandfather’s house at 1017 First Ave., an olive-green two-bedroom near the train tracks in Bessemer, Alabama, young Radric took to his grandfather, the closest thing he had to a father. Gucci remembers Walter Davis Sr. as someone he’d run to and help walk with the rest of the way. He’d dive under his bed in laughter when his granddaddy chased him. But his granddaddy was a drinker, with bourbon often fueling those drunken stumbles home.

Amanda Dudley

When Radric was 7, his grandfather suffered a fatal heart attack. Losing the patriarch of the family triggered infighting that went on for years — his mother and aunts spilled blood on multiple occasions. “My granddaddy’s death divided the family,” Gucci said somberly. “Eventually, we figured it out, to be a tight-knit family again. But I learned a lot in that house.”

“I didn’t want to get caught up in that corner again, so I had to get creative.”

His brother Duke would head down to the Bessemer Flea Market and come home with whatever hip-hop cassettes he could find. The brothers would listen to the albums they could get their hands on, from Run-D.M.C. to N.W.A., committing lyrics to memory, rhyming back and forth. Soon, the bedroom they shared was covered in posters ripped from Word Up! magazine. “He definitely helped shape my taste in music,” he told me. “It kind of formed my love for hip-hop.”


This was long before Gucci’s idea of reaching out to local bootleggers (as a way to get his music out to the locals) came to fruition. With Bessemer in the rearview mirror, Gucci was living in deep financial fear in East Atlanta, worried about how his mother was seemingly always behind on rent and why they couldn’t pay the light bill. “I learned young that if I ain’t got s—, then I just ain’t got s—,” Gucci writes in the book. “If I wanted something in life, I would have to find a way to get it myself.”

Gucci said that while he’s glad he experienced what it was like to sell drugs, it’s a part of his life he never wants to return to — a point he’s trying to make clear to young people tempted by the hustle and the money. “Everything isn’t as glamorous as it seems,” he said. “It ain’t all glitz. … There’s a lot of pain and heartache associated with the drug game that kids need to know about in order to deter them from taking that route.”

Brandon Putmon

By the time he was 21, Gucci was hustling every day on the corner of a Texaco gas station, which had become a place of trade. He was in college at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College when his formal education came to an end. In April 2001, he was arrested for criminal possession of a controlled substance and sentenced to 90 days in jail. It was the first time Gucci had been charged with a crime — and the experience made him think about pursuing music.

“It forced me to make a choice,” he said. “I didn’t want to get caught up in that corner again, so I had to get creative. It made me go, What else can you do? I wanted to challenge myself to try to make a career of being a rapper.”

More than a year removed from a stint in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, Gucci, who started writing the memoir while incarcerated, knows his comeback was never a sure thing. If he could do some things over again, he would. But the trap king’s roots, and his past, remain close to his head and his heart.

Cam Kirk

“I would tell my young self, ‘Hey, Gucci, you got an amazing future ahead of you. You’re a fascinating person. You’re going to be one of the most remarkable people to ever walk the face of the earth,’ ” he said. “So with that being said, you gotta conduct yourself with class, you gotta conduct yourself professionally, because the world is going to watch you and the world is going to imitate you.”