It is a cultural ritual, like the unveiling of a new classic car model. Each fall for more than a decade now, basketball players, collectors and Michael Jordan fans have counted the days until the unveiling of the latest Air Jordan model.
"If I get some extra money," says recreational ballplayer Taka Okubo, 25, "I would rather buy two pairs this year. One for playing, one for fashion."
Indeed, although Nike has been particularly quiet this year about "Air Jordan XII"--due out Wednesday--demand seems as high as ever. The design--already circulated on the Internet and now seen in a low-key Nike commercial--is a futuristic departure from the generic-looking Jordans of recent years. This year's stitched-and-padded shoe looks like a proper moonwalker and will probably come in white and black with combinations of black and red trim, the traditional Air Jordan color scheme.
And, of course, Jordan is back in the media spotlight with his short-lived retirement forgotten, a championship ring from last year's NBA finals and a movie, "Space Jam," in theaters now.
"People are calling the stores to ask when they are coming out," says John Horan, publisher of the Sporting Goods Intelligence newsletter in Philadelphia. "Nike doesn't have to go out and do a major television campaign when they can sell out of Air Jordans in a week."
Even the popularity of boutique sneakers and skateboard shoes, bad press about deplorable labor conditions at Nike-approved factories in Indonesia, and the bloody "sneaker killings" of the late '80s haven't tarnished the shoe's success.
Jordans have in fact changed the athletic-shoe landscape, reintroducing nonwhite sneakers to the fray with red and black uppers, de-emphasizing the name-brand logo (Jordans were among the first Nikes to lose the traditional "swoosh" insignia on the side) and introducing a tugboat look that has swept the market.
And although even the best basketball shoes were once seen as disposable, the spaced-out Air Jordans have become the anchor for a new wave of high-end athletic shoes that some would rather store away than wear on a blacktop court. Collectors are fetching several hundred dollars for vintage Air Jordans at flea markets, and now some Nike models, including last year's Air Jordans and Air Max, are becoming collectibles almost as soon as they're out.
This is perhaps the first year, in fact, that the Air Jordan or any other athletic footwear will be considered collectible the instant it hits store shelves. Some stores are taking deposits on the $140 model and are already sold out. Others--such as Niketown in Beverly Hills--anticipate lines and even a one-day sellout. "Better come early and bring your sleeping bag," warns one salesman.
Fans buy them for different reasons. Many want a piece of the Jordan mystique. Some just want a collectible shoe that will appreciate in value; others think their Jordan-assisted engineering is unbeatable on the court.
"I think Air Jordans are revolutionary basketball shoes," says Okubo, who plays basketball at Venice Beach in every pair of his half-dozen Air Jordans. "The design, the style, the color. . . ."
Although competitors have tried to topple the 12-year reign of the Air Jordan (Reebok with its Shaquille O'Neal model, Fila with its Grant Hill shoe), none has come close. Even in the early '90s when collectors complained that the shoe had a boring, generic design ("The fourth through the 10th models were not so popular because they looked really similar and people were tired of them," says a collector), it remained the most prestigious shoe in the sports world.
Nike keeps a tight leash on the Air Jordan, keeping catalog pictures from retailers until the weeks before its release, limiting information (Nike representatives did not respond to interview requests for this story) and limiting supplies so that few stores expect to carry the shoes longer than a week.
"They almost create the anticipation and demand and then hold back the supply," says Larry Weindruck, spokesman for the National Sporting Goods Assn. in suburban Chicago. "They're pretty astute when it comes to knowing what needs to be produced."
Even advertising for the Air Jordan has become decidedly soft-sell, with little in the way of print ads and only a silent commercial featuring Jordan and his "jump man" logo in a flash. In Japan, fashion magazines circulated early pictures of the model in the same way car enthusiast magazines display "spy" photos of, say, an upcoming Porsche.
It works, leaving fans even more giddy with expectation. On the Internet, unofficial Nike and Jordan Web sites circulate bootleg photos of the upcoming shoe ("The '97 Jordans!" gushes one) while stores get flooded with phone calls about the shoe's release date.
"We don't even get a chance to put them on display," says the manager of one Westside athletic shoe store. "People put down a deposit early and they're out the door the day they come in."