In 1996 four seemingly unrelated worlds collided: Michael Jordan, basketball, the revered Air Jordan XI and a humble lawn mower. At first glance, these things inhabit very different realms. The Air Jordan symbolises the pinnacle of coveted footwear, while the mower performs the mundane task of tending to well-manicured lawns. However, a little look into the history of the Air Jordan, and you’ll discover a remarkable and surprising connection.
When MJ was experiencing a crisis of faith in the game that brought him to the spotlight, the entire sports world fell to its proverbial knees. Nike was convinced that he was done with basketball permanently. There was nothing indicating a return, but Tinker Hatfield believed that it wasn’t the end for Jordan on a basketball court. His belief was logically not shared by the executives at Nike, so they channelled all their energy towards producing the Jordan 10, a sneaker that would serve as a homage to Jordan’s iconic career and a decade of top-tier performance. With Jordan sitting out the 1993-94 season, Nike did this as a final push to increase sales. Re-releasing some retro sneakers and celebrating all his accolades.
Jordan’s sudden exit from basketball was likely due to his father’s untimely death at the hands of an unknown gunman. He was also experiencing an insurmountable level of burnout following three Finals trips in a row. After witnessing Jordan’s demeanour during his final press conference, most media personnel were sure that he was never going to make a return. Meanwhile, somewhere in Nike HQ, Tinker Hatfield trusted his gut and began to brew a sneaker that would change the game forever.
Tinker was determined to keep the line of Jordan’s going, even past Nike’s intended stop line of the Jordan 10s. Sketching a pair of sneakers for MJ to play basketball in, Nike’s executives weren’t thrilled to learn about Hatfield’s new pet project. They even ensured that he wouldn’t work on the project while at the offices. In response, Hatfield went rogue with the idea and began to design it at home. This allowed for the outlandish ideas to flow in. The Jordan XI was yet to be crowned with that name just yet, so you’ll find that Hatfield had the name “Jordan Beyond” in his early notes.
Hatfield’s approach to the Jordan 11’s was quite unconventional. Designing this sneaker from the bottom up, the Jordan 11’s had carbon fibre as its foundation. This decision was thanks to the strength of the material. The way it could handle sudden movements and cuts was a cemented idea from Hatfield. According to him, this element was an ingredient that would help Jordan with explosive movements on the court.
The upper part of the design is where things get off the beaten path. Hatfield realized that this sneaker would need a massive mudguard in order to handle the torque underneath. For this, he took inspiration from lawn mowers. The way they use sleek designs that mould the shape of the explosiveness underneath was just right for this sneaker. It also served as a bonus because the mudguard idea transformed into a patent leather that created the iconic shiny look from the Jordan 11s.
It was the perfect blend between function and design. Jordan had also been expressing a desire for a flashier sneaker for 3 years prior, so this shoe was basically the perfect Jordan sneaker with no muse. Thankfully, the only desirable muse for a pair of Jordans made a return to basketball in 1995, and it took only a few games for him to drop the Jordan 10s in exchange for a pair of Jordan 11 Concords.