Pokémon cards, smelly shirts, shredded art, NFTs … just when you thought you’ve seen all the money there is to be made selling random stuff to strangers, something new comes out and blows the lid completely off the game. Recently, an old pair of basketball sneakers sold at Sotheby’s in Las Vegas for a staggering $1.5 million. Sheesh.
Except, these particular kicks aren’t your common ‘90s British Knights or vintage Converse All Stars. These history making shoes were once owned and worn by basketball superstar Michael Jordan — and are themselves a part of basketball myth and lore.
When you break it down, that $1.5 million paid for by card collector Nick Fiorella might just be a steal, because the Nike Air Ships — worn in game by Jordan during his 1984 rookie year — are one of the most sought after pair of shoes out there. The transaction also shattered the previous record held by another set of Jordans sold last year. Those went for a little more than $600k. Double sheesh.
Before being auctioned off by Sotheby’s, these classic white and red Nike Air Ships belonged to former Denver Nuggets ball boy Tommie Tim Lewis III. They were given to him by Jordan after a game he’d worked sweeping the court and fetching balls the night of November 1, 1984. That game the Bulls lost to the Nuggets 129-113. It was only Jordan’s fifth professional appearance at the time.
It was also exactly 12 years before Space Jam would hit theaters. That's just an FYI though, it really has nothing to do with the shoes. …
The reasons why a worn pair of sneakers fetched such a lofty price are many. The obvious answer is, yes, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player to ever do it. And yes, those are one of the rarest pairs of shoes in the world. But also, the Air Ships are what started it all. You see, when Jordan was signed to Nike it had to figure out a way to best its competitors— mostly Reebok and Converse who were doing way better than the soon-to-be sports behemoth.
Sports agent David Falk, who met a young Jordan as he was coming into the league, says the budding basketball star wanted nothing to do with Nike though. He hated the shoes and didn’t want to be where no one else was. Converse had the greats signed to its brand, namely Larry Bird, Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Dr. J.
Nike just wasn’t it.
Yet after convincing Jordan to sign with the growing sports apparel brand, the company had to develop his signature line. But the season was in full swing so before Nike had a chance to get things rolling in the paint, Jordan wore two different colorways of the Nike Air Ships — white and red, and also black and red — to the ire of NBA officials.
The black and red ones were against uniform rules. Nike received a letter stating Jordan would be unable to wear them during normal play unless they wanted to cough up the $5,000 fine each time he did. Quick to flip the letter into a genius of marketing, Nike claimed the newly released Jordan 1s were what the NBA didn’t like. And what’s a better way to get kids to buy something than to tell them adults won’t allow it?
This story actually held this way for decades, until sneaker sleuths got into a few vintage photos and saw that there was no way it could have been the Jordan 1s that were banned; he hadn’t even worn them in a game prior to the marketing campaign’s launch.
So it’s a case of mistaken identity that quickly shot the Air Ships into sneaker celebrity status. And with the legit signature of Michael Jordan tagged on the side (and taken great care of over the years by Lewis III), these ball boy freebies netted the staggering price setting a new standard in sports collectibles.
Photo Credits: Julian Cassady Photography / via Sotheby's