What Made the Air Jordan a Slam-Dunk Design

The world is bonkers for sneakers. This pivotal 1996 concept for basketball superstar Michael Jordan is a big reason why

Tinker Hetfield design for Air Jordan XIII
Tinker Hatfield’s game-changing design for the Air Jordan XIII in pen and crayon, dated 1996. Matt Flynn / Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Michael Jordan's relationship with Nike started during his rookie season in 1984. But by 1987, the partnership was in trouble. For one thing, Jordan wanted more control over the designs of the shoes that bore his name. The young superstar was even thinking of parting ways with the company and following Air Jordan I and II designer Peter Moore to arch rival Adidas. Nike needed to do something big, so the company turned to Tinker Hatfield.

Hatfield’s journey to design immortality was unconventional. An architecture major at the University of Oregon, Hatfield was also an accomplished pole-vaulter who placed sixth in the 1976 Olympic trials. The Oregon native graduated the following year and in 1981 went to work for Nike, the co-company founded by his college track coach, Bill Bowerman. Originally hired as a corporate architect, designing offices and showrooms, Hatfield switched to designing sneakers in 1985. In March of 1987, the company released his Air Max I’s, which included a translucent window through which you could see the company’s famous pressurized-air design. These revolutionary sneakers signaled that Hatfield was onto something different; they remain so popular that Nike even celebrates “Air Max Day” each year on the anniversary of their release. 

His design for the Air Jordan III’s convinced the superstar to stick with Nike—and soon turned Air Jordans into something bigger than just sneakers. The Jordan III’s, released in 1988, were the first to feature the Jumpman logo, that indelible silhouette of Jordan reaching for a slam-dunk, and came with sleek tumbled leather and elephant-print trim around the toe and heel. It didn’t look like a shoe you’d wear to the gym; it was a luxury item. Hatfield would design every pair throughout Jordan’s remaining time in Chicago. 

Michael Jordan in the 1998 finals
Michael Jordan sports a pair of Air Jordan XIII's during Game 2 of the 1998 NBA Finals on June 5, 1998, in Salt Lake City. Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images

Everybody knew the 1997-98 season would likely be Jordan’s last with the Bulls—the team with which he’d won six championships and five MVP trophies—and possibly as a professional basketball player. The sneakers he wore during that epic season, the Air Jordan XIII’s, not only marked the end of the greatest run by a player in NBA history but also looked like something that could go down the catwalks of Milan or Paris—a bold early leap from athleticwear to haute couture.  

In designing the XIII’s, released in 1997, Hatfield had looked to big cats for influence. When he approached the perennial all-star with this idea, Jordan was thrilled: “The Black Cat” was his best friends’ private nickname for him. On the court, Jordan seemed always on the prowl, snatching the ball from an opponent or posting a fadeaway game-winning shot in a split second. The shoe’s design captured that lithe energy, and the XIII’s were an instant hit, selling out promptly across the country despite their $150 price tag. 

Looking at Hatfield’s design for the XIII’s, dated August 8, 1996, and shown here, you can see how far ahead of his peers he was. He included extra cushioning on the bottom and a lightweight midsole, creating the most comfortable Air Jordans yet. While his earlier shoes had helped establish an unmistakable template for the Jordan line, the pair Hatfield created for Jordan’s last season as a Bull was widely praised and continues to influence the look of basketball shoes to this day. It’s sleeker-looking than its forebears, combining functionality and form into a work of modern art.

Jordan wore the XIII’s for nearly all of his last season with the Bulls—before his two-year return to the NBA with the Washington Wizards in 2001, before his inevitable election to the Hall of Fame, before he bought the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets) and before it was reported in 2014 that Michael Jordan had become a billionaire. He is now the world’s richest athlete either active or retired. Most of that cash came from his sneakers. In his 13 years with the Bulls, products with the Jumpman logo had made a staggering $2.6 billion for Nike.


Hatfield would go on to be named one of the most influential designers of the 20th century by Fortune magazine and other publications—his work is routinely displayed in museums—and eventually he became Nike’s vice president for design and special projects. In 2019, the Cooper Hewitt museum honored Hatfield with its National Design Award for Product Design.

And Jordan’s unforgettable last shot as a Bull, to win the NBA final against Utah? It was pure drama—a spectacular end to his Chicago career and an early display of the Air Jordan XIV’s, designed by Hatfield to look like Jordan’s beloved Ferrari 550 M. They didn’t have the same feline grace as the XIII’s, but the superstar still made them work.  

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