The iconic sneakers that defined Michael Jordan's title runs

How significant was MJ's impact off the court? (1:04)

Paul Pierce describes how big of an impact Michael Jordan had off the court, including in his own life. (1:04)

"It's gotta be the shoes."

For many basketball fans in the 1990s, that wasn't just a line said by Spike Lee's Mars Blackmon character in a commercial -- it was a way of life. Michael Jordan helped turn basketball sneakers into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Episode 5 of "The Last Dance" (9 p.m. ET, Sunday on ESPN and the ESPN App) delves into the global phenomenon that was the Air Jordan sneaker franchise and the off-court business surrounding the Chicago Bulls.

In advance of that episode, longtime designer Tinker Hatfield and Jordan VP of Footwear Gentry Humphrey spoke with ESPN about the iconic Air Jordan line and the sneakers that were on Jordan's feet when he won each of his six championships.


Air Jordan 6

Jordan established himself atop the NBA hierarchy, knocking off Converse icon Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in his first NBA Finals. Jordan ushered in a new era in the NBA in an amplified shade of Bulls red -- dubbed "infrared" -- with a molded heel tab inspired by the rear spoiler on his Porsche.

"Michael actually started influencing more design power over the process, and I was cool with that," Hatfield said. "He started feeling like his signature look shouldn't have a [toe] tip. He was wearing dress shoes at the time that had a cleaner toe and a molded toe."

Gone was the extra toe panel that defined each of his models to that point, while the heel tab was complemented by a taller, rubberized tongue that allowed for easier entry.

"We always say that if some things are similar from one year to the next, there should always be something that's radically different," Hatfield said.


Air Jordan 7

The VII marked a new chapter for the Air Jordan series, dropping the "Nike Air" branding and iconic swoosh logo entirely.

"I recognized early on that MJ, especially with his Jumpman, I felt could survive and even flourish without a Swoosh," Hatfield said. "It was part of the strategy of mine to sort of create a Brand Jordan before there ever was one."

Hatfield never looked back, sticking with just the Jumpman branding going forward. With angular lines and accent colors inspired by Afropop art and music of the early 1990s, the outsole was highlighted by a dotted halftone traction pattern. While Jordan wore the shoe in black, purple and red during the '92 Finals, it was the Barcelona Olympics edition with gold accents that would define the model.


Air Jordan 8

The reductionist approach of the VI and VII was thrown out the window for the Air Jordan VIII, for which Hatfield used a "baroque design philosophy."

"[It was] adorned, complex and with lots of detail," he said. "It's what was happening in his life at the time, as well. The Bulls were about to win their third straight championship, and everything was getting bigger for Michael, on and off the court."

The only Air Jordan worn by Michael to feature a strap -- two overlapping ones, at that -- the sneaker also featured a cubic dipped graphic heel and a new textured tongue logo.

"It ended up looking like a chenille patch on a letterman's jacket, and by combining that with a sort of a Mercedes Benz-esque Jumpman logo, I think made for an interesting look," Hatfield said. "People probably either loved it or hated it, but at least people had some sort of response."


Air Jordan XI

The Jordan XI is instantly recognizable because of its patent leather accent, a design feature that Jordan himself had pushed for years earlier.

"Michael actually wanted to put patent leather on the IX. We weren't ready for that. When you talk about being comfortable with being uncomfortable -- we were hella uncomfortable," Humphrey said with a laugh.

The patent leather served a performance benefit, providing strategic support in a lightweight solution. The shoe also featured a full translucent bottom, showcasing the carbon-fiber plate that ran from heel to toe.

"The XI became the foundation of what performance greatness was going to be in a truly high-performing basketball product," Humphrey said.

The first time Jordan saw the final sample, the unmistakable look prompted him to predict it would be worn for basketball, sure, but also with tuxedos and suits. Amazingly, the shoe almost never came to be. Hatfield began designing it in 1994, after Jordan had stepped away from basketball. Many at Nike thought the Air Jordan line should stop, but Hatfield and longtime Jordan VP Howard White felt it should continue.

"I've never seen [the Jordan brand] as [only] basketball," White said. "Hope is something that the world needs every day, and they need it in large supplies. And I think Michael Jordan represented that to a lot of people."


Air Jordan 12

The expected move would've been to simply repeat the use of patent leather, the unique shimmery material that made the beloved Air Jordan XI an instant classic. But as Hatfield and Humphrey both often joke about competition and expectations, the brand would rather "zig when they zag."

The Jordan XII was defined by its luxury, with thick, full-grain leathers used throughout, along with contrasting lizard-textured panels and metallic eyelets. Jordan specifically added the "TWO 3" lettering down the tongue. The brand then added its own daringly confident badging along the heel strip, which read, "Quality inspired by the greatest player ever."

The Jordan XII has become forever associated with "The Flu Game." Wearing the red-and-black XII, Jordan poured in 38 points while ill to lead the Bulls to a win over the Jazz in Game 5 of the Finals. The iconic image of an exhausted Jordan leaning on Pippen has since become a hallmark of that Bulls title run.

"No matter how great you are, you always have to be humble enough to accept someone else's hand," White said. "For me, that moment signified the achievement that this brand was built on. It may have been forged in the likeness of an individual, but it took many individuals to bring it into greatness and the light."


Air Jordan 13

When the 13th annual Air Jordan was unveiled at a New York media conference just weeks before the start of the 1997-98 season, launching yet another new sneaker wasn't the main purpose of the day. Jordan was joined onstage by the first five roster members of Team Jordan as the group announced the launch of Brand Jordan. That laid the foundation for what has become a $3 billion brand nearly 23 years later. "CEO Jordan" commercials soon followed.

"People needed to believe that," White said. "They needed to believe, 'Michael Jordan, CEO. Wow, he's the CEO of his brand. Oh my goodness, you can be anything in life.' And those are the building blocks that started it."

The shoe's design was inspired by a nickname for Jordan that few people outside the NBA used.

"By the guys in the league, he was called the 'Black Cat,'" Humphrey said. "If you think about how he moved on the court, he was pretty relentless. Very smooth, stealthlike, but could strike at any time. It was a pretty good analogy for a player that moved like that."

The sneaker took on a paw-like shape featuring articulated pods. The midsole was wrapped in suede, a first for a basketball sneaker. The green hologram Jordan logo along the heel channeled a panther's peering eyes. The project pulling from MJ's behind-the-scenes persona was fit for Jordan's final season in Chicago, though he had one more surprise in store before leaving the Bulls for good.

Air Jordan 14

When the Bulls returned to Chicago for Game 3 of the Finals, Jordan took to the floor in a never-before-seen model. Long before early online leaks made sneaker surprises a rarity, the curiosity among collectors was rampant.

"We had an opportunity to showcase him in something different," Humphrey said. "Also, knowing that literally, this could be the last dance."

Shifting gears once again, the design inspiration for Hatfield and crew drew from Jordan's new Ferrari 550 Maranello.

The high-gloss midsole and shape mimicked the car's silhouette and body, and the stitched leather panels pulled from the interior's seat construction. An air duct vent could be found along the arch, with molded accents throughout adding to the detailing. The Jumpman was also housed inside of a yellow shield, no small coincidence.

"Tinker did a masterful job of bringing in details that drafted off of the car," Humphrey said.

Jordan went on to wear the sneakers in Games 3, 4 and 6, closing out the Jazz with an iconic Finals-clinching shot to win his sixth championship. With the black colorway not slated to release until March 1999, some nine months later, Jordan's "Last Shot" ramped up anticipation for the sneaker.

"You can't write a better ending," Humphrey said. "It just doesn't get any better than that. Everybody likes to be associated with a winner, and the success that comes with that. It just allowed the brand to evolve to the next level."