One of my favorite parts of watching “The Last Dance” the last few weeks has been seeing all the random Air Jordan sneakers popping up. Because as some of us understand, shoes are not just shoes. As I explained to my non-basketball-obsessed wife, when I pull out a pair of Jordan XIs, it’s not only because they look cool, it’s because MJ wore them in the ‘96 Finals and in Space Jam. Yes, sometimes shoes come with history or memories attached, and there are days I’ll wear some kicks not because they’re comfortable or because they match my shirt, but because they put me in a state of mind in which I want to dwell for a day.
Considering we are now on the 34th version of the Air Jordan shoe, the jewel of the Jordan Brand signature line, there are plenty of shoes to look back on. And I’ve been lucky enough to have a front row seat for most of it. Spending over a decade at SLAM magazine put me smack in the middle of the sneaker world, and I loved getting to attend shoe launches, talking to designers, talking to the athletes, obsessing over the midsole or the trim or the colorways or the materials. (And getting free shoes isn’t so bad either.)
I’ve been obsessed with sneakers ever since I saw an ad for the adidas Forums in a basketball magazine as a kid, and then watched Len Bias play in Nike Terminators and knew I had to have a pair. That set the hook, and ever since that day, shoes have mattered to me. I remember details and colors and brands, and when I meet you, I will 100-percent judge you based on what kind of shoes you have on.
That being said, my closet is mostly full of various Air Jordans. And as I’ve watched Mike each week in all the different shoes, I started thinking about which ones I liked the most and least. So I decided to rank them all…
34. Air Jordan XIX – Oof. The patent-leather toe is a nice nod to the XIs, although it also kinda looks like a Reebok Question. Not sure what’s going on over the laces with that giant sieve.
33. Air Jordan XV – These are just weird. It’s somehow fitting that Reggie Miller wore them when Mike was retired.
32. Air Jordan 2010 – The Jordan Brand line has always been, if nothing else, bold. So to release a shoe with a huge porthole in the side was kinda on brand, when you think about it? Maybe? This was also the year Dwyane Wade stepped up and took the lead as Jordan Brand’s main athlete. Perhaps because he played in Miami they had a big porthole on them? I clearly have more questions than answers when it comes to this shoe.
31. Air Jordan 2011 – I’ve completely blocked these from my memory. These almost look like a pair of Team Jordans, which isn’t a good thing.
30. Air Jordan XXI – Similarly, I barely remember this shoe even being out. The one thing I do know is I do have a pair of these stashed away somewhere.
29. Air Jordan XX9 – The deal on these was that they were woven, which made them super light, but they were also just kinda forgettable.
28. Air Jordan XVI – Continuing a run of Jordans that were, well, non-traditional, these actually came with their own wrap-around covering, almost like a jacket. This is another shoe that Mike didn’t wear at the time, since he was on this second retirement at this point.
27. Air Jordan XXXIII – I’ve never worn a pair of these, but I used to watch Mike Conley warm up in them before every game two seasons ago, and I always thought they looked pretty good on-foot. These also apparently don’t have laces, which is confusing.
26. Air Jordan 2012 – This shoe gets a lot of hate, but I liked how it continued the occasional theme Jordan Brand would return to of basketball shoes as dress shoes. These look like a pair of shoes that Jordan Brand would turn into cleats for Jeter to wear.
25. Air Jordan 2009 – This is technically the 24th Air Jordan, but for the first time Jordan Brand flipped the Roman numerals to use years instead. These were never that popular when they first dropped and have never been retro’ed, but I appreciated the details, particularly the ruffled fabric on the sides.
24. Air Jordan XXXII – Basically the XXXI with a few more bells and whistles.
23. Air Jordan XXXI – This is kinda like what would happen if you looked at a Jordan I without wearing your contacts.
22. Air Jordan XVIII – Another pair of Jordans that continues the sleek theme, as these basically just look like one smooth piece, with a few slits on the sides. These were the final Jordans that MJ wore, in his last dance with the Wizards. Kinda wild to look at one of these next to a Jordan 1 and think about them being from the same family.
21. Air Jordan XXX – They kinda just threw it all into this shoe: Flyknit, woven uppers, printed logos, FlightSpeed. There’s nothing terrible about it, but it’s also just kinda meh.
20. Air Jordan VIII – I never really liked these, at the time when they dropped or now, decades later. Straps, abstract paint designs, the fuzzy Jumpman on the tongue made out of a high school sport letter, it all just never really meshed for me. Bonus points, though, that these were the last shoes he wore before retiring. The first time.
19. Air Jordan XXXIV – The most recent Js, I like a lot about these, including the hole in the sole, which resembles the exposed Air on some of the early Js. There’s a lot going on with these, in a way that feels very 2020.
18. Air Jordan X – Another shoe that would seemingly inform the XIs, at least in silhouette. Since MJ was playing baseball when these dropped, he only wore them briefly on the court. Lots of dead space on the sides, with all the action happening underneath on the sole.
17. Air Jordan XVII – This shoe was as much about the hype as it was the story or the design—these came in a metal suitcase with a pricetag of $200, and at the time people went nuts about the release, moreso than the design. I liked the Wizards-adjacent blue colorway, though I didn’t love the wrap-thingy over the laces.
16. Air Jordan XII – Much like the IIs, the XII had to follow a legend, which is tough to match. Also like the IIs, these shoes had that snakeskin accent. Probably the most memorable thing about these was Jordan wearing them in the Flu Game during the ‘95 NBA Finals.
15. Air Jordan XXII – Since these were based on the design of an F-22 fighter plane, when these dropped, Jordan Brand flew a bunch of sneaker writers to an Air Force base outside Atlanta and, after passing security clearances, we walked around with the designer and saw where he drew inspiration. The little-known basketball leather colorway was actually my favorite version.
14. Air Jordan XIV – These were based on MJ’s Ferrari, and when you’re starting to design shoes to match your car, maybe the ideas are running a little short? Whatever, the yellow Jumpman really pops, and I like the mismatched collar heights on the ankle.
13. Air Jordan XXIII – Everyone knew the 23rd shoe in the line was going to be special. And I think this one, in retrospect, still holds up. When I first saw it, I was reminded of a ski sweater, with the repeating design across the sides. You can see the influence of the XIs, and also it just feels like a shoes Jordan would wear. An underrated kick.
12. Air Jordan XX – Original Jordan Brand designer Tinker Hatfield returned for this one, and he brought frickin’ lasers! I’m glad the detached ankle strap thing never caught on. I was working at SLAM when these dropped, and got invited to a special private press meeting with Mike and Tinker, which was pretty surreal.
11. Air Jordan IX – Looking at these now, you can see where some of the ideas for the XI would come from just a few years down the line. Anyone remember Penny wearing these as a rookie?
10. Air Jordan XIII – Everyone knew Michael Jordan went by MJ or had seen the “Air” nickname. But did you know his closest friends called him “Black Cat,” thanks to his similarity to a lithe feline who would stalk his prey? That’s what the XIIIs ended up being based on, right down to the cat’s eye on the rear.
9. Air Jordan XX8 – Tinker was involved with these, and the Roman numerals returned after a brief hiatus. The XX8s were the shoes that came all the way up to your knees, almost like wrestling boots. (When Russell Westbrook is the face of the brand, you have a lot of leeway.) They looked wild, sure, but I got a pair as a perk of my job, and they were great shoes. I still break out my camo XX8s from time to time.
8. Air Jordan VI – The VIs have become copiously colorway-ed out, especially the last few years (washed denim!), and even Travis Scott took a crack at them. But the original VIs, in all black with red accents, look so sleek on the court.
7. Air Jordan IV – This has probably become the most popular silhouette in recent years, and I particularly love the height of the shoes and the shoe’s ability to be translated into so many different colors—it’s probably the most versatile Jordan other than the 1s. However, I’ve had the plastic fan on the back of more than one pair of the IVs slice into the back of my legs and leave me looking like I just came out of achilles surgery. So that drops them a bit in my book.
6. Air Jordan VII – The Jordan VIIs were also known as the Hare Jordans, for the Bugs bunny collaboration. But what I really liked were the Barcelona colorways, since this was the shoe MJ wore while playing on the Dream Team. Fun fact: This was the first Air Jordan completely without a swoosh.
5. Air Jordan II – It’s always difficult to follow a legend, and the IIs probably get dinged a bit only because they had the misfortune of having to come along after the 1s. But in retrospect, I think the IIs are pretty dope, especially the use of different leathers and the black laces. The lows, which came around later, were also great.
4. Air Jordan III – This was the first pair of Jordans I was able to buy, back in elementary school. I bought the whites and then spent months cleaning them meticulously, using Q-Tips and nail polish remover to carefully keep my shoes as spotless as possible. This was also the first Jordan with the visible air bubble, which felt revolutionary at the time.
3. Air Jordan V – These are one of the most underrated Jordans ever, to me. I loved that there was no logo on the sides, the way the ankle kinda bubbled out, and the reflective tongue, which you could stick out over your jeans. I brought a pair of these to Paris a few years ago and they fit right in everywhere, from shopping to dining.
2. Air Jordan XI – This, to me, is the classiest basketball shoe of all-time. Doesn’t matter the colorway, whether it’s high or low, that strip of patent leather around the bottom is so unique and cool and just looks classy, like you could hoop in it or wear it to the prom. (When the managing editor of SLAM got married, I wore a pair of BREDs with my suit, because if there was ever a wedding where Jordans were appropriate, that was the one. And the XIs were the shoe.)
1. Air Jordan I – The GOAT for the GOAT. MJ’s first signature shoe was so different that at least one colorway got banned by the NBA. But being different is also what has made it so iconic, up there (IMHO) with the Converse All-Star as probably the greatest basketball shoe of all-time. Tinker’s masterpiece. I still wear these all the time, and even now, 34 years later, they look completely current.