Tar Heels standout Caleb Love has captivated fans all season by rotating retro Air Jordan 11 models. The relationship between the school and the shoe goes way back.
The NCAA Tournament has been the time for Caleb Love to shine — both figuratively and literally.
Over the course of North Carolina’s March Madness run, the St. Louis-bred combo guard has hit shots and broken necks by playing every game in the immortalized Air Jordan 11.
First featured on the feet of Michael Jordan in the 1995 NBA Playoffs, the patent leather sneakers designed by Tinker Hatfield helped MJ and the Bulls go 72-10 in the 1995-96 regular season. The stretch was capped with a fourth title that started Chicago’s second three-peat.
The legacy of the sneaker could be rooted in another generation’s championship moment if Love leads the underdog Heels to an NCAA title — UNC’s first in five years — over the No. 1-seeded Kansas Jayhawks on Monday night.
Since arriving at retail in October 1995, the Air Jordan 11 has been a fixture in fashion thanks to its iconic design and rich nostalgia.
“I always felt like the best shoes are the ones that work on and off the court,” former Jordan Brand vice president Gentry Humphrey told Boardroom last December. “You’ve got generations that have grown to fall in love with that shoe. The fever today is probably hotter because of sheer numbers.”
While the shoe has dominated high school hallways and holiday shopping for the better part of three decades, it’s remained somewhat of a cultural constant on the hallowed hardwood of Chapel Hill.
Nike’s New Chapter
When a young Mike Jordan arrived on campus at Chapel Hill in the fall of 1981, his favorite basketball player was Magic Johnson, and his shoe of choice was Adidas.
Despite Jordan’s Three Stripes fanfare, Dean Smith and his basketball program were sponsored by Converse, then considered the gold standard in performance hoops.
Throughout his three seasons as a starting shooting guard at North Carolina, Jordan and his teammates wore Converse sneakers — most notably the Pro Leather. After declaring for the 1984 NBA Draft, Jordan and his agent David Falk took meetings with an array of athletic suppliers, selecting Beaverton-based Nike as the winning bidder.
In MJ’s first season with the Swoosh, he’d become a signature athlete by way of the Air Jordan 1: an absolutely game-changing model for the brand, the athlete, and the industry.
While Nike and Mike paid homage to Chapel Hill with a “UNC” themed take on the Air Jordan 1 in the mid-80s, the Tar Heel hoop squad remained in Converse for the course of the decade. Though Jordan returned to his home state to play pickup ball and participate in alumni games in painted PEs of his new signature shoes, the school and its superstar remained relatively untied when it came to footwear for years at end.
Finally in 1993, the Tar Heels cut down the nets at the national championship that spring for the first time since MJ won it all in ’82. By defeating Michigan’s famed Fab 5, Dean Smith’s squad was once again the toast of college hoops.
With powder blue popularity on the rise, Nike signed the school to a five-year, $4.5 million endorsement deal.
For consumers and college athletes alike, the stars had finally aligned.
To celebrate, Foot Locker shot a print campaign with MJ dressed in the new Nike North Carolina authentic uniforms, complete with matching Air Jordan 9s.
“That advertisement was the first time I remember having to have a pair of Jordans,” Caleb Cattivera, the historian behind the Goodbirger, NiceKicks and NiceKicksVault Instagram pages, told Boardroom on Monday. “Seeing Mike in something other than a Chicago Bulls jersey was mind blowing as a kid.”
In that era, Nike began producing Air Jordans in powder blue for the first time since Mike’s introductory model, with the Air Jordan X soon following.
Additionally, North Carolina claimed a renowned recruiting class in 1993, headlined by Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. Throughout the ’90s, Nike uniforms accented in argyle would cover the best players in the nation — providing hot real estate for matching Mikes on their feet.
While plenty of Carolina blue Air Jordans turned heads and sold by the bunches, a particular pair still strikes a chord with the college and its feverish fanbase.
On February 1, 1996, Nike released the Air Jordan 11 “Columbia” — an homage to MJ’s alma mater on his surging signature shoe. However, a few famous student-athletes scored their Air Jordan 11s before the rest of the world.
North Carolina junior Jeff McInnis and freshman forward Antwan Jamison received their pairs days prior, breaking them out at home in a nationally televised win over Duke. Jamison, who had won Mr. Basketball for the state of North Carolina as a high school senior just months prior, was suddenly #TeamEarly when it came to kicks simply due to his school.
Adored by a high school-aged Kobe Bryant and professional scorer Nick Anderson, the “Columbia” 11s were still singular to UNC. Honoring his roots, Michael Jordan even won the 1996 NBA All-Star Game MVP in the “Columbia” 11s just weeks after the Heels donned them over Duke.
By this point, the patent leather sneakers were now privy to the public on college and pro basketball’s biggest stages. Though the shoes speak to numerous narratives regarding the history of hoops, they remain relevant in the context of Chapel Hill in any era.
This proved particularly true years later as one decade ended and another millennium began.
Over the course of North Carolina’s first Nike contract, Michael would build his own empire with the birth of Jordan Brand: a subsidiary under the Swoosh made in the image of Mike. New signature shoes, team takes, and performance apparel released around the world while the Air Jordan 11 returned to the archives.
In the summer of 1998, Michael Jordan retired from the game of basketball for the second time — focusing not on baseball, but business.
By the following fall, the Jumpman logo would start appearing on North Carolina apparel to include the team’s game shorts.
Around the same time, retro releases from Jordan Brand began rolling out with the return of the Air Jordan 4 and Air Jordan 5. Though some purists paid full price for what were essentially “old shoes,” the tide turned on retros in October 2000, when the “Concord” Air Jordan 11 re-released for the first time.
“When the 4 and the 5 retroed prior, they sat on shelves where I lived,” Cattivera recalled. “But when those Jordan 11s started dropping? That was the first time people were saying, ‘I have to get these.'”
People that had to get them included the 2000-01 North Carolina Tar Heels roster.
Newly minted in Jordan Brand jerseys, the perks of playing at Mike’s alma mater, and now for his company, came in the way of “Concord” 11s for the whole team. While some players kept their pairs on ice, only reserved for off-court stunting, numerous starters and rotation members made a statement on the hardwood.
Famously, 2000 ACC Rookie of the Year Joseph Forte spent much of his explosive sophomore season playing in the patent leather classic — commonly matched on court by the likes of Jason Capel, Brian Morrison, Brendan Haywood, and Julius Peppers. Just like Jamison and McInnis made the “Columbia” 11s their own in ’96, the new class of Tar Heels had their own run of highlights in the infamous “Concord” 11 retros.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is Dick Vitale going nuts yelling, ‘Curry to Peppers!'” Cattivera said, smiling.
For the better part of the 2000s, North Carolina continued to reign as a national power — winning it all in 2006 and ’09.
Throughout the aughts, Jordan Brand leveraged the Tar Heels’ winning ways as a platform to promote team models and new signatures from the flagship franchise. In 2008, the college crafted a new Nike contract that paid the school an average of $1.83 million a year. A decade later in 2018, the two parties would sign another 10-year extension worth an $6.27 million per year, as Forbes reported in December 2018.
This was big business for both Jordan Brand and UNC.
However, all the money in the world couldn’t compete with an innate appetite for nostalgia.
By the 2010s, recruits that came up watching Jamison and Forte flourish in Air Jordan 11s were ready to rock retros, with one swingman proving the poster boy and another combo guard playing the role of successor.
Back to School
Theo Pinson grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, just 50 miles away from Chapel Hill. By his senior season of high school, Pinson proved himself as a McDonald’s All-American in 2014, signing with Roy Williams and the powder blue ballers he watched throughout his youth.
After arriving in Air Jordan 10s — a model made famous by Jerry Stackhouse and Raymond Felton in Chapel Hill — Pinson pivoted to Air Jordan 11s shortly into his freshmen season. Over the course of his college career, Pinson played in “Cool Grey,” “Legend Blue” (the copyright-corrected new name for “Columbia”), and MJ-honoring “Win Like ’82” Air Jordan 11s.
In 2017, Pinson won it all while wearing the “Cool Grey” 11s — a retro release last launched in 2010 at that time.
Even as a pro, Pinson plays exclusively in Air Jordan 11s. He has remained faithful to the patent leather favorite with the Brooklyn Nets (2018-20), New York Knicks (’20-’21), and now, the Dallas Mavericks.
The North Carolina Tar Heels are back in the national championship game for the first time since Pinson cut down the nets. Carrying on the tradition is Love, taking Air Jordan 11 endorsement to new heights in the era of NIL.
Love, perhaps the hottest star of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, is making the most out of NIL by scoring sponsorships and paid posts from the likes of Outback Steakhouse. This iconic run has served as a sizzle reel for Love as NBA teams evaluate his talent at the next level and brands look to leverage his growing audience of eyeballs.
Thanks to NIL income and Jordan Brand school sponsorship, Love has played the entire 2021-22 season exclusively in Air Jordan 11 retro releases ranging as far back as 2013 launches. In the Sweet 16 against UCLA — a fellow Jordan Brand school — Love even went as far as to switch colors of his AJ11s at half.
Since signing on with Nike in 1993 and becoming a Jordan Brand program in ’99, North Carolina has played an ongoing role in keeping the Air Jordan 11 relevant. This year alone, Love has laced the same “Concord” and “Columbia” colorways popularized by his predecessors, while adding energy to 2010s sleepers such as the “Gamma Blue” and “Ultimate Gift of Flight” styles.
Long gone are the days of Carolina clad in Converse, a brand which Nike now owns, setting the stage for more royalties and retro releases for Mike. Now and forever, it appears the Air Jordan 11 is here to stay in Chapel Hill, continuing to shine in its most memorable home.