How the ‘Concord’ Air Jordan 11 became sneaker culture’s grail
It’s true: The shoes will be released to the public for the first time with No. 45 on the heels
Marvin Barias can pinpoint the moment he knew he wanted his first pair of Air Jordans.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, like many ’90s kids, he idolized Michael Jordan. So much so, he collected almost everything connected to his hero: basketball cards, magazine covers, newspaper clippings. Yet, by high school, Barias still didn’t own a pair of the superstar’s signature sneakers. Spending more than $100 for shoes just didn’t seem reasonable. But on May 7, 1995, things changed.
It was during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic. Watching from his home in San Diego, where he’d moved with his family around age 10, he saw the fifth-seeded Bulls, on the road facing the top-seeded Magic, take the court in their red away uniforms.
Nearly two months had passed since Jordan ended his 17-month retirement. When he returned, he shocked the basketball universe by switching to No. 45 — not the No. 23 he’d previously worn for his entire NBA career. The new number was what he rocked for the Birmingham Barons playing in baseball’s minor leagues. That’s where he’d spent his time away from basketball — in the outfield, chasing major league dreams.
That night, Chicago’s players sported black sneakers — everyone except for the greatest of all time, of course. The camera panned to Jordan’s feet, showing off the fresh, predominantly white “Concord” Air Jordan 11s. The No. 45 was there as well, printed in white on the heels of each shoe.
Barias, then 15, fell in love. “I’m like, Whoaaaaa,” he said. Now 38 and a professional Air Jordan collector based in Stockton, California, he’s known on social media as @mjo23dan, with approximately 30,000 followers between Instagram and Twitter. “I remember … thinking those are the cleanest sneakers I’ve ever seen.”
On Thursday, Jordan Brand officially announced the return of the mid-top Concord 11s for just the third time, following retro releases in 2000 and 2011, as well as a low-top edition that debuted in 2014. On Dec. 8, the brand will deliver the same model that dropped (fittingly) 23 years ago, down to the cut of the patent leather, details on the insoles, and even the box.
But the real news is that the shoes will be released to the public for the first time with that No. 45 on the heels — just like Jordan wore when he debuted them. Every retail pair to date, even the ’95 OGs, has featured Jordan’s trademark No. 23.
“The Concord will always be the ultimate grail,” Houston Rockets point guard and longtime Team Jordan member Chris Paul told The Undefeated before facing the Golden State Warriors. “That design reimagined what a basketball sneaker could look like. Especially the shiny patent leather.”
That Air Jordan 11 became the first basketball shoe to incorporate patent leather. Crafted by legendary designer Tinker Hatfield, the Concord featured a collection of revolutionary innovations. “The best performance basketball shoe for the best player on earth — Michael Jordan,” reads an Eastbay catalog from 1995. “A lightweight, supportive, and breathable combination of ballistic mesh, full-grain leather … with a nylon strap Speed-Lacing system, Phylon midsole with a full-length Air-Sole unit supported by a full-length carbon fiber spring plate to encourage elevation. The outsole is a combination of clear gum rubber and solid rubber herringbone traction inserts.”
In that Game 1 against Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Jordan’s first night wearing the Concords, he was less than impressive, scoring 19 points on 8-for-22 shooting with eight turnovers.
“No. 45 doesn’t explode like No. 23 used to,” Orlando’s Nick Anderson told reporters after the Magic beat Chicago 94-91. “No. 45 is not No. 23.” The shade from the opposing locker room found its way to the man himself. Moments before Game 2, Jordan not-so-subtly clapped back by wearing No. 23. And once again he donned the Concords.
The league fined the Bulls $25,000 for the jersey change and Jordan $5,000 for violating uniform guidelines by wearing white shoes that didn’t conform with his team’s uniform or footwear. Like he’d done so many times before, Jordan created a cultural moment. He made young kids like Barias want the sneaker the NBA told him he couldn’t wear.
“Him switching numbers and throwing on a shoe like that? It was crazy,” Barias said. “It was like, this is it. I have to have this shoe.”
On Nov. 10, 1995, the Concords released at retail for $125 a pair. Barias, who had called just about every store in the San Diego area, arrived with his father at a now-defunct sporting goods store called Cal Stores. The young Barias made the purchase himself, using money he saved by sacrificing school lunches, doing household chores and selling wholesale candy to classmates.
“I remember that night holding the sneaker on the car ride home and sleeping with the sneaker next to my pillow,” Barias said. “It was weird … but I cherished that shoe.” His collection has now reached 325 pairs — and it all began with this one.
Less than two weeks after the November ’95 release of the Concords, Chris “Daddy Mac” Smith, one half of the rap duo Kris Kross, appeared on the cover for the group’s single “Tonite’s tha Night” in the shoes. Before a Minnesota Timberwolves game in January 1996, a photographer snapped a picture of Kevin Garnett, then a 19-year-old rookie, stretching his legs with the Concords on his feet.
That same season, in college basketball, the shoe became the go-to swag of Georgetown Hoyas star Allen Iverson, the eventual No. 1 pick in the ’96 draft. And nearly two decades later, rapper Fabolous paid homage to the look by rocking Iverson’s throwback No. 3 Hoyas jersey with a retro pair. And on his five-time platinum 2015 single “White Iverson,” Post Malone rapped, You know how I do it, Concords on my toes.
“After M.J. wore them on court, everybody wanted them whether they hooped or not,” Paul said. “People started dressing them up, and now you can wear them for any occasion and know that you’ll have the most classic sneakers on your feet.”
It was Jordan who urged Hatfield to use patent leather in his designs. According to Scoop Jackson’s 2002 Sole Provider: Thirty Years of Nike Basketball, Jordan “thought it would be cool to introduce a sophisticated hoop shoe that could be worn with a tux.”
So the Air Jordan 11, and particularly the Concords, drew inspiration from spats, worn by the most dapper gangsters and big-band entertainers in the early 20th century. “This shoe,” Hatfield said in the 2005 documentary Just for Kicks, his right foot on a table showing off his Concords, “I think it’s my all-time favorite. … It was a big leap forward in basketball design.”
It was a sneaker with the defiant transcendence of the banned Air Jordan 1 (or Nike Air Ship, depending on which story you believe) and the unprecedented swag of the elephant-printed Air Jordan 3. But the patent leather on the Air Jordan 11 truly changed the game. “It was the very first shoe that made me look at a basketball shoe as more than a basketball shoe,” said Rainier Doria, a sneaker collector from Vancouver, British Columbia. He was 9 years old when the Concords dropped in ’95. Seeing them on TV in a 30-second Nike spot sold him — even though he couldn’t persuade his parents to get him one of the original pairs. “That was one of the greatest commercials I’ve ever seen,” said Doria.
The rollout for the shoe’s debut didn’t stop there. The back cover of the Nov. 13, 1995, issue of Sports Illustrated featured the now-timeless Concord print ad, with one of the shoes laid across a clean white backdrop above the number to call to place a phone order: 1-800-645-6031. (Dial now and you get a busy signal, as if folks are still waiting to get through to make a purchase.) The Concords soon emerged as the sneaker of the culture. One that’s “on the list of shoes that should be retro’d every year,” said DJ Clark Kent. “The legacy is etched in stone. Absolutely one of the best sneakers ever created.”
Fresh off of taking home two Grammys in 1995, Philly rhythm and blues group Boyz II Men returned to the awards show the following year in style, with all four members walking the red carpet in Concords. The very next night, Martin Lawrence had them on in an episode of Martin (titled Homeo & Juliet). In ’96, Upper Deck used a photo of Jordan wearing the Concords to promote his trading cards. And in Celtic Pride, which hit theaters in April ’96, Damon Wayans starred as a fictional Utah Jazz shooting guard named Lewis Scott, who whipped out the Concords in the NBA Finals at the Boston Garden.
“I have a closet full of Jordans. The ones I liked the best was the patent leather [ones]. Those are crazy. I used to wear them with suits,” Wayans said in an Air Jordan special on SportsCenter in 2005 — a nod to the Concords.
“It was a shoe that pushed the envelope,” said Bulls forward Jabari Parker, 23, a native of Chicago who’s endorsed by Jordan Brand. He was born in March 1995, two months before Jordan first wore the Concords. “Everybody wanted that patent leather shoe. It was even in music videos.”
In the video for Busta Rhymes’ 1996 hit “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check,” the kicks make a cameo. Five years later, all four members of 112 dance in unison with their feet in Concords on the set of the music video for “It’s Over Now.” The track dropped in January 2001, a few months after the shoe returned for a late 2000 retro release. By then, the hype had ballooned. Lines outside of stores stretched beyond imagination. Because if you missed out on the original release, aka the OG pair, you couldn’t take another L the second time around.
“I remember when they first came in ’95 and I couldn’t get them, I was so upset. But my parents couldn’t afford them,” said Tamera Young, the WNBA’s biggest sneakerhead. “In 2000, I begged my dad to buy them for me. I remember going to the store to get them, and I got a pair of black-and-white laces to put in them.” She was in ninth grade, attending Wilmington, North Carolina’s Laney High School, Jordan’s alma mater. “They were cracked up because I played in them so much,” she added. “But I still wore them after that.”
For so long, only die-hard sneakerheads willing to pay thousands of dollars, and celebrity influencers such as DJ Khaled and Drake, were able to get their hands on pairs with the No. 45. In 2011, a rare sample pair popped up on eBay and were auctioned off for $2,000. Two years later, another sample sold for $1,499.
Now, the No. 45 Concords are very much so real for everyone — available in December for $220 at retail. “The Air Jordan 11,” DJ Khaled told The Undefeated via email, “is a representation of greatness that’s timeless!” It’s a shoe that’s kept the people, and culture, going.
In the early 2000s, Lamar Odom wore the Concords under the lights at Staples Center. So did Kobe Bryant during his “sneaker free agency,” as well as in front of a camera for a “This Is SportsCenter” commercial. Hall of Fame defensive lineman Warren Sapp broke them out for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Super Bowl parade in 2003. A slew of celebrities — from Jay-Z to Lil Wayne, Chris Brown to J. Cole, Angela Simmons to Teyana Taylor, Tracy Morgan to Chris Tucker, and even Tom Cruise — have all been spotted in a pair. When Drake hosted The ESPYS in 2014, he took the stage in them. That same year, the low-top version dropped, and Jordan rocked the shoes at his brother-in-law’s wedding. The GOAT has also played beer pong in them.
In 2011, after being traded from the New Orleans Hornets to the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul pulled up to his new team’s facility in the Concords. Ten-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony, another member of Team Jordan, has played golf in them. The shoe has been everywhere.
“The Concord will forever be one of the most sought-after sneakers in the world because of what it represents on and off the court. It’s one of those shoes that crosses generations,” Anthony told The Undefeated. “This year’s pair, my son got an opportunity to model them for the Jordan Brand campaign, and that was a really proud moment for us. I know it’s going to be a special shoe to him forever now too. Certain shoes like that just are timeless. That’s why people call it a grail.”