The Air Jordan 13 is back — how Tinker Hatfield and the ‘Black Cat’ changed the game
The legendary designer gives exclusive look at the first computer-designed Nike sneaker
“This shoe,” said Tinker Hatfield, “actually … it was kind of an emotional moment when I was presenting the original idea to Michael.”
It was 1996, and for months, Tinker, the world’s greatest sneaker designer, had been working on a new shoe for the greatest basketball player in the world. But Tinker wasn’t getting anywhere. Then, while watching the Chicago Bulls on television, Tinker saw Michael Jordan through a different lens. On the court, the chiseled 6-foot-6 shooting guard was smart and sinewy. He was powerful and instinctive. He could conserve his energy like no other. At the right time and moment, he’d attack. Jordan displayed predatory behavior, reminding Tinker of a feline — specifically, a black cat. He sketched his vision on trace paper. Then he boarded a plane.
Jordan was at The Forum in Inglewood, California, on the set of what would become the iconic “Frozen Moment” commercial. Between takes, secluded behind a prop while seated in director’s chairs, Tinker unveiled a presentation board to Jordan. It featured the side and bottom views of his design for the Air Jordan XIII. Flanking the shoe were illustrations of two black cats with glowing eyes.
“When he saw the board and heard me mention the words ‘Black Cat,’ he stopped me. He just stopped me dead and said, ‘How did you know?’ ” Tinker recalled. “I’m like, ‘How did I know what?’ He goes, ‘How do you know what my secret nickname is? It’s only used by best friends.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know anybody ever called you the Black Cat.’
“He connected with the idea, instantly,” said Tinker from the Michael Jordan Building at the Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. “It meant something to him.”
A year later, in 1997, after countless changes to the shoe’s look and a then-revolutionary design process geared toward maintaining Jordan’s high level of on-court performance, the Air Jordan XIII was released. The sneaker celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and on Jan. 21, for the first time, Nike released the Air Jordan XIII “Black Cat” — the first time in this colorway, and a tribute to the journey that began two decades ago, when Tinker channeled an alter-ego of Jordan few people could put their finger on.
“This was a moment where there was something unspoken that just sort of occurred between the two of us. We sort of were truly on the same plane. He immediately loved the idea, because it struck him the same way it did me,” Tinker recalled of that day in an interview with Jacques Slade, two days before the Black Cat release. “It’s safe to say that was a pretty important moment in the history of basketball shoes, because that shoe ended up being like no other.”
There are 127 sketches of the Air Jordan XIII — at least those that have seen the light of day. For every shoe he designed for Jordan — his first was the Air Jordan III, released in 1988 — Tinker completed between 100 and 200 sketches, all of which he signed and dated.
The first sketch of the XIII is dated Sept. 11, 1995. It only includes two small drawings of the sneaker, as most of the space on the page is taken up by Tinker’s extensive notes. Trained in architecture at the University of Oregon, and originally hired at Nike in 1981 to design offices, apparel showrooms and retail outlets, Tinker penned thoughts on everything from the “rigid plate technology for quick response and support” he envisioned for the shoe to the “Warner Bros. Movie” (the then-unreleased Space Jam) to Jordan’s return to the NBA in 1995 after retiring for nearly two full seasons, to what the return meant for Jordan’s place in both the world of basketball and world of sneakers. “B-ball needs a classy spokesperson wearing a classy shoe instead of a crazy shoe,” wrote Tinker, who began his product design career at Nike in 1985.
But even after receiving Jordan’s blessing, Tinker had a lot of work to do, because Jordan’s idea of perfection trumps all. “I could show him the best drawings in the world,” said Tinker, “and he’d go, ‘Well, those are good drawings, but show me a shoe. I can’t judge it until I can hold it in my hands or maybe even try it on.’ ”
Once he developed the “Black Cat” concept, Tinker employed it throughout the entire structure of the design, while taking into account the point at which Jordan was in his career and the elements he needed in a shoe to reinforce his reign. Out of retirement, Jordan won back-to-back championships in ’96 and ’97, and was hungry for the second three-peat of his career. His adversaries were hungry for a changing of the guard, so they defended him harder than ever before. Jordan took beatings every night, but preserving his speed and physicality was crucial on his run to another championship.
Jordan needed more comfort, flexibility, contact with the floor, and traction from his shoes. The XIII’s outsole, which mimics the paws of a cat and is still a part of the 2017 design, delivered just that. For much of the design and sketching process, Tinker also visualized a mid-foot strap for Jordan to make quick microadjustments to the tightness of the shoe. But the strap never materialized past the prototype. “As Michael tried on the shoe, laced it up and went out to play around a little bit, he said, ‘It doesn’t need a strap. Let’s not put anything on it that it doesn’t need.’ I agreed with him … and so, we dropped it,” said Tinker.
As hard as this might be for sneakerheads to fathom, the strap isn’t the oddest secret surrounding the shoe. Following the meeting with Jordan in California, Tinker returned to Portland, where he began struggling to fine-tune the catlike details of the design while using only markers and colored pencils. Going through layer after layer of tracing paper became tedious, so Tinker recruited Mark Smith from Nike’s graphics department to help.
Late into the night, Tinker and Smith, who designed T-shirts for Nike, went over revision after revision. The two added flowing lines and vibrant color. Together they enhanced the shoe’s piercing green holographic eye, a recreation of a cat’s gaze, and the reflective mesh side panels, which represent the flecks of color in the fur of a black panther or leopard. The Air Jordan XIII came to life while Tinker stood over Smith’s shoulder as he sat in front of a screen. For the first time at Nike, a shoe was designed using a computer.
“The very first Air Jordan ever designed on a computer was this shoe. A lot of the refinements were done on a Macintosh.” Tinker said. “It’s very likely that it’s the first shoe in our entire business that was designed on a computer, using Illustrator and Photoshop. I’ve never mentioned that to anybody other than talking to the people at Apple.”
On Sept. 9, 1997, Nike made what is still to this day one of its biggest announcements. The company gave Jordan his own brand, marking the “first time a team sports player turned himself into a brand on such a sweeping scale,” according to a USA Today cover story. The Jordan Brand was launched as a subset to Nike, estimated at the time to generate more than $225 million a year in sales from his signature line of sneakers as well as a new line of sportswear.
The Air Jordan XIII was the first shoe released under the Jordan Brand. “This particular product is a literal example of our historical approach to design for Michael, which is to program his performance needs and personality into the product,” said Tinker in a Sept. 9, 1997, press release announcing the Jordan Brand, for which he was named the creative director. “Likewise, the Jordan Brand family of products will represent the ultimate union of athlete and design.”
The 1997-98 NBA season began nearly two months after the debut of the brand, and as Jordan and the Bulls chased their third consecutive title, he donned a fresh new sneaker that a championship could cement as a classic. In 1996, he won in the Air Jordan XI. In 1997, he won in the Air Jordan XII. In 1998, he was destined to win in the Air Jordan XIII, which Nike marketed as “the lightest Air Jordan ever made.”
“In many ways, I think you could say, he was at the true pinnacle of his career, in the process of winning his fifth and sixth championship,” said Tinker. “Even though I was trying to keep up with him in terms of his needs as a player, I was also just philosophically thinking that the shoe needed to be the same way — that it needed to be at the pinnacle of all basketball shoes.”
By the time of the ’98 playoffs, Tinker had already turned around the Air Jordan XIV, which Jordan wore in the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz in rotation with the XIII. Only one shoe, however, is remembered from that Finals series.
With 5.2 seconds left in Game 6, Jordan drilled a 20-foot game-winning jumper over Utah’s Bryon Russell to claim his sixth and final NBA championship before retiring for the second time in 1999. The shoes on his feet for arguably the greatest shot in NBA history were the XIVs, not the XIIIs. (Jordan had a shot to win it all in Game 5 while wearing the XIIIs, but missed a last-second 3-point heave.)
The Air Jordan XIII doesn’t have a signature on-court moment — not like Jordan’s “Flu Game” in the XIIs, or his “Last Shot” in the XIVs, or even his free-throw line dunk in the IIIs. In Tinker’s eyes, the shoe doesn’t need one. The XIIIs still made history. The Black Cat design — eternal.
“This shoe, I think, wasn’t like anything before it. It was really quite a departure. Sometimes, shoes are more evolutionary. They’re a little bit like the previous one. This one wasn’t like anything before it,” he said. “Of course, that makes the salespeople nervous and the marketing people nervous, but Michael wasn’t nervous at all. He felt like this design, even though it was really different, was going to be successful for him as a player, but also in the marketplace. Of course it was, and here we are reissuing it again. So it’s proven itself.”