Written by John Gotty
Few college basketball teams are more revered than the University of Michigan’s Fab Five. Michigan’s 1991 recruiting class of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson played with a brashness that made an instant impact on college hoops. Their play was matched by the moxie in how they dressed, donning baggy shorts, black sneakers and black socks all by Nike. The young phenoms ran the court with confidence beyond their years. Even though their run was limited to two seasons, the five true freshmen changed the way the college game was played and how players looked.
Their dominance ran parallel with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls first three-peat from 1991-1993. The fact that both entities shared direct connections with Nike gave the brand a combo punch as it came to captivating fans’ attention and focusing it on what the players were wearing. The two driving forces shaped what cool looked like on the court and essential to transforming basketball footwear into a sales juggernaut for decades to come.
Michigan’s trendsetting history on the court stretches back to mid-‘80s with Jordan’s parent company Nike. The school’s hoops squad became one of eight chosen to receive team-issue Dunks as part of the “Be True to Your School” campaign. At the time, the move stood out as it created a color punch over the usual white-based shoes most teams sported. Michigan’s navy and maize, Syracuse’s orange and white and St. John’s red and white Dunks still resonate with buyers. It’s the reason why they’ve seen numerous reissues since the original release.
Over the years, we’ve seen countless colleges connect with footwear brands for apparel, equipment and footwear partnerships. The Oregon Ducks benefit hugely from being the alma mater of Nike’s Phil Knight. Michael Jordan makes sure athletes at the University of North Carolina stay laced in the finest baby blue kicks and apparel on the planet. Likewise, UNC’s main rival Duke sported illustrious blue-based shoes. And lest we forget Kentucky, another original “Be True” school, whose basketball players have taken the court in both Nike and Jordan signature models over the years.
Each school gets their own unique kicks dipped in bold team colors with branding specific to them. Player exclusive versions gain their desirability since they seldomly launch with limited runs. Sneakerheads immediately started buzzing when North Carolina debuted special Jordans like the ‘Win Like ‘82’ pair during a preseason scrimmage in October 2017. Seeing the shoes first in that setting created an energy which fueled sales when the shoes released to retail a month later. Pairs like the ‘Oregon’ Air Jordan 3s and OVO Jordan 8s made for Kentucky pique the interest of even the most casual observer. While more and more player exclusives have made it to store shelves in recent times, most stay locked away in equipment closets where they’re reserved for student-athletes.
Thankfully, the sneaker gods in Beaverton, Oregon decided to give buyers a slice of the good life by releasing the ‘Michigan’ Air Jordan 12 Retro. The model is rich in history since its the shoe MJ wore for his legendary “Flu Game” performance. The Michigan-specific version bears close resemblance to the PSNY pair reserved for members of the school’s football squad. A supple navy nubuck dresses almost the entire upper save for a few hits of golden yellow on the eyelets, the midfoot TPU and heel tab. The M logo emblazoned on the right tongue is the biggest visual nod to the Wolverines.
Athletes still work as influencers with a strong sway over buyers, particularly youth actively participating in sports. Making special make-ups available for the general public to purchase makes perfect sense for footwear companies. Magical moments made on the court evoke memories marketing money can’t supply. The kids want to wear what they see players wearing on the TV screen and in YouTube highlight clips. They want the jersey, the shorts, the socks, and wristbands, too. And, of course, the shoes.
Of course, most sneaker enthusiasts young and old know their hoop dreams may never materialize into anything larger than that. But it doesn’t mean they still can’t have nice things, like the “Michigan” Jordan 12 Retro.