Air Force Ones: 25 Y.O.

First things first. When you roll up on Nike’s “unofficial” Air Force One showcase hall, one thing becomes clear. There’s some top secret ish going on up in here. The doors are black, marred with blotchy, rusted paint. There’s no gigantic sign. No bright colors. No posters of MJ — or even a swoosh. Just a no-nonsense dude (complete in black Jordans, a black Nike T-shirt, and a fresh fitted hat, of course) sitting at a table with a laptop and a pre-printed waiver.

A nondisclosure agreement? Say what?

Basically, you’ve gotta promise not to share any of this confidential info you’re about to see with anyone, before the launch day. So that means no pictures, no blurbs, not even a color description gets out before Nike kicked off the 25th Anniversary celebration on December 10th. So sign on the dotted line. That’s easy enough, right? Wrong. Wait till you see the pics.

In 1982, Nike changed the game of basketball by introducing a shoe that literally changed the game. Want to know the real reason those old-school players wore such big, thick socks? It was for cushioning. Pre AF1’s, there was no such thing as shock absorption or arch support. Playing ball was murder on an athlete’s feet. The AF1’s shined a light on Nike’s breakthrough technology — they used the word “air” because that’s what was inside the sole of the sneaker. When Moses Malone became the first unofficial “ambassador” of the sneakers, he didn’t just get some kicks. He got more endurance, more stamina and more support. All thanks to Bruce Kilgore and the rest of Nike’s blossoming Research and Development team.

The original six players, who got to rock Air Force Ones, reads like a roster from the NBA Hall of Fame. Moses Malone, Calvin Natt, Bobby Jones, Mychal Thompson, Michael Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes have 13 Championship rings between them. Because their teams manhandled the NBA in the 80’s, they were Nike’s first advocates. You can’t really call them spokesmen. Even back then, promoting the AF1’s to the mainstream wasn’t a top priority. Giving the players the kicks wasn’t a marketing ploy, it’s what a sports footwear company was supposed to do.

So how did a sneaker that started with a purely athletic purpose become the cornerstone of an entire generation’s wardrobe? Blame it on one of the most compatible marriages on Earth. Hip-hop, meet the Air Force One. Air Force One, meet hip-hop. They’ve been inseparable ever since.

Special edition Nike Air Force Ones (Photo: BallerStatus.com)
Special edition Nike Air Force Ones (Photo: BallerStatus.com)

The thing is, Nike never pushed the Air Force Ones on the market. There’s never been a fancy “It’s gotta be the shoes” commercial. They rarely feature contests, or billboards, or big publicity stunts. Buzz for the AF1’s has always been created on the courts and in the streets. And although New York might be the first place that comes to mind when you think of “Uptowns,” it really all got crackin’… in Maryland.

It started with three stores in Baltimore — Cinderella Shoes, The Downtown Locker Room and Charlie Rudo’s Sports. In typical Nike style, the company released a limited number of kicks, with no plans to make any more available. But once the first run of AF1’s sold out, the demand only got stronger. So those original store owners sat down with Nike top brass, and worked out a deal for one more shipment. There was a catch, the owners had to take 1,200 more pairs and deal with the profit or loss themselves. But they took that chance, and it paid off. They sold out again, and this time, Nike was paying attention.

Other people were too. The I-95 has always been a thoroughfare for… goods and services. So, it was only natural that the demand for AF1’s spread from DC, to Philly, to New York City. In the late 80’s, rap music’s influence grew larger than what got played on the radio. Slang and fashion came along with it. And the gear rappers rocked on stage came from the gear neighborhood ballers wore on the courts. The AF1’s were a reflection of the style, the swagger, and the soul of the streets. “We can credit hip-hop 100% with the Air Force One’s exponential success,” says KeJuan Wilkins, the Nike PR rep leading this history course. “There’s no one rapper who put the kicks on the map — it’s been the whole culture.”

25 years later (yeah, they’ve really had a choke hold on the kick game for that long) and AF1’s are culturally accepted worldwide. On the court or off, wearing them is not just a part of your outfit, it’s a social statement. Who are you in your Air Force Ones?

Are you a skilled ball player? Are you soft-spoken and smooth, or are you a flamboyant fashionista? That’s another part of the appeal. You can choose your AF1 flavor. There have been 1,700 different options released in the past two decades — and that’s not counting the custom color combinations you can find at websites like NikeiD.com, AirMagination.com, and Methamphibian.com. Kicks have always been a source of bragging rights, but now sneaker couture has taken things to a whole new level.

The thing that separates the Air Force Ones from the rest of the fashion pack is Nike’s dedication to the athlete. “We’ve never tried to be anything we’re not,” Wilkins says. While Nike has always embraced the urban culture that made the sneakers so successful, they’ve never strayed from the ultimate goal of “delivering a performance-based product.”

Perfection is all about the evolution of your game, so after 25 years, Nike decided that it was time for some improvements. But why did the company feel the need to upgrade the prototype? “We listened to all the consumer feedback,” KeJuan answers. “We didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t really broken, but did want to find out what things they wanted. What more did they need from an AF1?”

So here’s the rundown: The next-generation Air Force Ones will look the same. Basically, Nike only changed the guts.

There are over 500 factories worldwide that manufacture the sneakers, and it all starts with the sole. “Customers complained that you could buy a size 10 in Detroit and a 10 in L.A. and they wouldn’t fit the same.” Nike realized that inconsistencies at the factories attributed to this, so they fixed it. Now every size 10 Uptown you buy has been padded and stitched together the same exact way.

The new & improved soles (Photo: BallerStatus.com)
The new & improved soles (Photo: BallerStatus.com)

They also made other subtle changes. The next-gen AF1’s conform to a more natural shape of the foot. “There will be less irritation from the shifting of the tongue,” the “cushion at the back of the ankles won’t buckle,” and the swoosh clasp “won’t flip up anymore.”

So what was the number one request?

“People have always asked if we could make them whiter.” For those of you who love your white-on-whites, Nike has found a new leather quality, one that’s brighter, but won’t compromise the comfort. Add stain-resistant laces and that’s pretty much it. The redesigned AF1’s drop January 1st, and you can expect to pay the same price you would for them at your local retailer.

But for its 25th birthday, the Air Force One deserves a huge party, don’t you think? That’s what the new collection of twelve limited edition designs is all about.

Think fast. Moses Malone or Bobby Jones? LeBron James or Kobe Bryant? One pair of kicks, or two? These are the questions you’ll be asking yourself come mid-February.

In honor of the six original players — and the six new jacks who are defining the game today (Tony Parker, Vince Carter, Amare Stoudemire, Rasheed Wallace, LeBron and Kobe), Nike is releasing an exclusive line of supremely-designed AF1’s. So from the linen and turquoise pair that pays homage to Mychal Thompson’s Bahamian roots, to the see-thru soles on Stoudemire’s kicks, everything from the player’s strengths on the court, to his personality in front of the camera, is reflected in the overall design.

If you want to get your hands on the limited edition anniversary jump-offs, you’ll have to wait until February. The old school ballers get the spotlight first, with the new school kicks dropping about a month after. And yeah, be prepared to dig a little bit deeper in those pockets… the price tags on them will range from $150 to $250 a pop.

So the question remains … who are you in your Air Force Ones? Whatever the answer, in 2007, Nike’s making sure that you continue to find an AF1 to fit your description.

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