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 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.
“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.)
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”