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Cincinnati Basketball’s Air Jordan Era: An Oral History

From BLACKstreet to Bob Huggins and from Rosie O’Donnell to Ruben Patterson, relive how Jordan Brand made the Cincinnati Bearcats a national name with unmatched swag.

In 1989, Bob Huggins took the head coaching job with the University of Cincinnati men’s basketball program.

By 1992, he took the Bearcats to the Final Four.

Over the course of the 1990s, the same school that Oscar Robertson brought to the top in the ’50s was back at the forefront of college hoops. With Huggins at the helm, Cincy was playing a brand of basketball built off football ferociousness and playground pizzaz.

The coach’s charisma carried over into each offseason, as “Huggy Bear” would work a range of summer camps and clinics sponsored by Nike, with whom he had both a contract and a personal relationship.

For years, the Bearcats bore the Swoosh on their shorts and shoes, much like their rival schools across the country.

But in the fall of 1997, that all changed.

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“Hi, my name is Will Smith”

Alex Meacham (former Bearcat guard & host of “The Bearcat Basketball Podcast“): Bob Huggins says we’ve got a meeting and I thought, ‘Fuck, we’re in trouble,’ because two weeks prior, we had a retired FBI agent tell us to watch what we’re doing.

Kenyon Martin’s to my right, and Huggins says, ‘I want to introduce you to two guys, they’ve got some exciting news.’

The first guy says, ‘Hi, my name is Will Smith,’ and everyone laughs.

The second guy goes, ‘Hi, my name is Gentry Humphrey.’ He unzips the bag and lays uniforms and shoes on the ground and says, ‘You guys now are a Jordan school.’

Longtime Nike and Jordan Brand designer Wilson Smith III displays the Air Jordan XVI Low (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Gentry Humphrey (former Jordan Brand VP): It just made a lot of sense to bring them on. The edge that they brought and the great color combination [were] iconic to the brand.

Alex Meacham: We play our first game in four weeks, so we ask again, ‘We’re wearing Jordan shoes and Jordan uniforms?’ and Gentry goes, ‘Yes, you are.’

The place erupted. The locker room went bananas.

Gentry Humphrey: We had Cal on the West Coast and St John’s in New York. So geography-wise, Cincinnati made a lot of sense.

Alex Meacham: We had no idea there were any talks or negotiations, but Hugs had worked it out with MJ the prior summer at his Fantasy Camp in Vegas.

I’m literally shaking because I’m so excited, but I can’t tell anyone because they have a press release coming.

“MJ is not like the guy next door”

Chauncey “Black” Hannibal (Singer, BLACKstreet co-founder): Interscope [Records] told us that because “No Diggity” was so big, it made sense to tie the launch of Michael Jordan’s clothing line to BLACKstreet.

So, we got to go on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and model it.

Just after the 8-minute mark, Cincy’s Jordan Brand warmups are unveiled, along with the Jordan Team One sneaker.

Alex Meacham: We all watched it. Teddy Riley was wearing the whole fit that Gentry Humphrey showed us!

Chauncey “Black” Hannibal: With “No Diggity,” we were doing so much stuff. Mike gave us the newest sneakers and we got to pick what we wore and keep everything. It was definitely a moment.

When I come out, I’ve got a ball in my hand and I made Michael sign it. How iconic is that? I still have it in my studio today.

Alex Meacham: To see BLACKstreet wearing it on a show? That was crazy. For MJ to be on there? He was the biggest star so everybody in the world is watching.

Kenyon Martin in 1997 (Photo by: Andy Lyons / Getty)

Chauncey “Black” Hannibal: Every time Mike moved around there would be a thousand people following him and cameras everywhere. His presence is almost like Jesus is in the room.

Gentry Humphrey: Jordan Brand always has a little different level of swag that’s attached to it because we epitomize MJ. And you know, MJ is not like the guy next door.

Chauncey “Black” Hannibal: There’s something different about him. There really is.

Tyjuan Mathis (Cincy native/All Things Regular): We’ve got our own Jordan stuff?’ There weren’t too many of us back then that could say that. It was a proud moment to be from little Cincinnati but say we had Jordan stuff.

“We sold more gear in New York than the Knicks”

Matt Tomamichel (Cincy native/Corporate Got ’em Owner): It’s 1997 and we’re in school passing around SLAM. When I saw the first image of the jersey, I got kicked out of class because I was screaming so loud.

Alex Meacham: My mom is in fashion design and has been her whole life. She loved them because they looked great on two levels.

When you saw them up close the detail was amazing and if you were sitting up high in the stands at a game they looked so cool from a distance because of those blocks.

Keith Langford (Kansas legend, Cincy recruit): The first thing that stuck out was everybody was on those uniforms. They were the first ones with the stripes on the side and the cut-off look. It was just so dope.

Alex Meacham: That design was so different for that time. In that space, uniforms got very boring and those uniforms were so far left. But they weren’t so far left that they looked bad. Ours garnered a lot of attention and everyone thought they were slick.

They were what a high-end fashion uniform would look like as if a Ralph Lauren or a Dior designed it. If you could see the actual material the uniforms were made of? There was suede on the numbers. Every detail was unbelievable in person. It was like a designer suit.

Matt Tomamichel: In the city, there were so many teams that bootlegged the jersey. We played a rival school that had them and we beat them. Our student section started chanting, ‘Fake-ass Bearcats!’

We had to rub it in because that was sacred.

Bob Huggins (former Bearcats coach) via “The Bearcat Basketball Podcast“: They were so catchy. Cincinnati basketball was everywhere.

Kenyon Martin and the Cincinnati Bearcats taking on Southern Utah at the Great Alaska Shooutout, 1998 (Todd Warshaw/Allsport)

Alex Meacham: We got shipped out to Idaho for the NCAA Tournament. They don’t have any college gyms to practice at so we pull up to a high school gym in Boise. Even coming from Cincinnati, we’re not thinking Idaho is very cultured. When we walk in the gym all these kids are like, ‘Oh, shit, it’s the Bearcats!’

They wanted to meet Kenyon and everything. One kid goes, ‘Those uniforms are the sickest, we have those!’ And what do you know, they have knockoff uniforms with cheap vinyl.

Bob Huggins (via “TBBP“): We sold stuff, man. We sold shoes, we sold warmups — we were what everybody wanted to be.

Matt Tomamichel: If you hooped in Cincinnati, you had the jersey, both of the shorts, you had all the stuff. All the gear was everywhere.

We had a store called All About Sports — it looked like Macy’s, but it was all Jordan stuff merchandised everywhere. I had everything Bearcats because of the pride we had in the brand being here.

Bob Huggins (via “TBBP“): We sold more gear in New York than the Knicks.

Alex Meacham : We played Rhode Island and Cuttino Mobley was like, ‘Yo these are crazy!’ And you know Cuttino was a fashion guy and still is. He just kept looking and looking.

Everywhere we’d go, every team would be so jealous of our gear, our uniform, our shoes. Guys would say, ‘Man, I shoulda went to Cincinnati, man…’

Bob Huggins (via “TBBP“): I can remember the AD coming to me and saying, ‘Those uniforms are awful, they’re terrible! Why would you wear them?’ I said, ‘I’m not wearing them.’

If that’s what makes them feel good, that’s what they ought to wear.

Alex Meacham: No one had the swag we did, because Hugs wanted us to be us.

“You had to tune in to see what we were rocking”

Tyjuan Mathis: Damon Flint was my older brother’s best friend and I remember watching the games on Fox just for the shoes sometimes.

Bob Huggins and the Bearcats at the 2000 NCAA Tournament in Nashville (Jonathan Daniel /Allsport)

Pete Mickeal (former Bearcat forward) via “The Bearcat Basketball Podcast”: I’ll never forget the SLAM magazine with me and Kenyon. It started to build momentum.

We’re wearing the black socks, Bearcats on the shoes with the Jordan jerseys. Is this the old Michigan team or what?

Alex Meacham: Michigan, they were all rocking the same kicks on the court: they all had the Barkleys on or they all had the Huaraches on. But if you looked at us? Ken’s rocking the 12s, I’m rocking 11s, Melvin’s rocking the Team Js and somebody else is rocking the 13s.

We were rocking all kinds of stuff all across the board. That made our swag super unique because you had to tune in to see what we were wearing and what we were rocking.

Keith Langford: When they take the recruits in, they make up the locker with your name on your jersey.

In the locker, there are all these Jordans. Team Jordans, Air Jordan 11s, Jordans that aren’t even released, and they’re in the locker piled up.

James White (former Bearcats wing) via The Bearcat Basketball Podcast: I took my visit to Cincinnati and I remember the trainer Jade Grossman bringing me the Jordan book.

That might have been the thing that sealed it! He told me I could pick whatever Jordan I wanted.

James White with the Bearcats at the 2005 NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis (Elsa/Getty Images)

Alex Meacham: There was a book. Jade Grossman, who was our trainer, handled the gear and yearly he’d have this book that had our choices of what we were wearing.

Guys like Kenyon Martin and Kenny Satterfield got to pick from another page than myself and other guys who didn’t get the burn.

Keith Langford: The first thing I noticed is that all the players have on Air Jordan 11s — Concords, Breds, all of them.

Kenny shows me his locker and he’s pulling out every Jordan any kid would have ever wanted in their lifetime. He’s like, ‘Yo son, what else you want?’ Kenny had the visit jumpin’ from minute one.

Kenny Satterfield (former Bearcat guard) via “The Bearcat Basketball Podcast”: I’m coming from pretty much the #1 high school in the country. I’ve got over 100 pairs of sneakers in my house already in high school.

I’m playing for an Adidas AAU team and my high school is Nike, so the Jordan stuff didn’t really mean much until I got there.

Keith Langford: Kenny was the guy. He had just got the matching tattoos with Kenyon Martin. He came in and his whole New York energy and swagger was crazy. He controlled the room.

Kenny Satterfield (via “TBBP”): Other people comment on what you guys got. That’s when you know it’s different.

One game, they gave us travel sneakers and they were retro Jordans that hadn’t come out. Dudes were like, ‘Yo, you got those already?’ And I’m thinking like, ‘Y’all don’t get these?’

Gentry Humphrey: What I loved about the Cincinnati connection is that that team had edge and swag to them.

Keith Langford: I remember watching Cincy on TV when they came to Houston and played. DerMarr Johnson does this dunk and just stares at the camera.

He epitomized the whole attitude and the era — and he was only a freshman.

Alex Meacham: When Kenny Satterfield and DerMarr Johnson came in, they brought that East Coast swag which was completely different. Kenny’s from the Bronx and DerMarr is from the DMV, which is a completely different swag.

DC and Baltimore at that time wore headbands and mid-level socks with writing on it. Nobody else was doing that anywhere, it was a DC thing and DerMarr brought that swag. They were rocking Coogi sweaters to the game when most of the country didn’t know what it was until Biggie wore it.

DerMarr Johnson (former Bearcats wing) via “The Bearcat Basketball Podcast“: I was wearing Cannon Sports sweatsuits and headbands every day. As I started wearing it, Kenny started wearing it and Kenyon’s wearing it. Then at the Draft? The guys started to wear it.

I had a whole room full of it at one point in one of my houses.

Alex Meacham: From a marketing standpoint, Gentry and his team understood that all eyes were on us because we were the No. 1 team. It was us and Mateen Cleaves at Michigan State.

We were going to end up meeting in the championship game, so Gentry knew we had to get certain exclusive shoes on Kenyon so people can see them before they dropped and build up that hype.

That was happening in 1999-00. You see that happening a lot in the NBA now, but that was happening back then with Kenyon, Pete, Sat, and DerMarr.

DerMarr Johnson (via “TBBP“): I liked to keep my Jordans, I didn’t want to mess them up. ‘Posites were a DC thing.

Pete Mickeal takes on the UNC Tar Heels in the 1999 NCAA Tournament (Photo: Jonathan Daniel / Allsport)

Ruben Patterson (former Bearcats wing) via “The Bearcat Basketball Podcast“: I couldn’t wear the same shoes all the time, I had to switch them up.

Alex Meacham: When Kenny Satterfield and DerMarr Johnson came in, they were definitely getting taken care of.

They got Air Jordan 15s way before anybody else. Pete Mickeal even had the White/Red ones.

Matt Tomamichel: I was at Finishline looking at the Black/Red Air Jordan 15s. It’s 1999, so I’m maybe 14 years old and I’m saying, ‘I don’t know if I want these. They’re kinda ugly!’

All of a sudden, I hear this voice with a southern accent that says, ‘You should get them.’

I look over, and it’s Kenyon Martin! So, you already know I got them.

“Kenyon was the heart and soul”

Gentry Humphrey: Kenyon was awesome. We would do a focus group with the schools and they were great sources for feedback and wear testing.

He was definitely the face of that team. Again, you talk about edge? He was the guy that had that edge and that power game.

Bob Huggins via TBBP: Kenyon was the heart and soul. I’m never going to coach another Kenyon Martin. To have somebody that tough, that competitive, and that athletic? And the thing I’ve ever appreciated most about him is his understanding of how the game is supposed to be played.

And he had it in high school. They told me when he was in the NBA, he knew every set of every team. And he used to do it in college — he knew every set of every team.

He was a dream to coach, he really was.

Keith Langford: When I visited, Kenyon had just got drafted #1 and the Nets were playing an exhibition game at The Shoe, and everybody’s got on something red and black or Jordan.

From Big O to random fans, Jordan was well represented.

“Hugs was wearing the same windbreakers Eazy-E had on!”

Alex Meacham: Most people don’t know this, but Hugs has graduated top of his class at every school he’s gone to. He is a complete genius.

He knew he had to rock the windbreakers and the Jordans.

Keith Langford: Listen, man. I really don’t think words can do Hugs justice, because if you weren’t on campus and in that energy at the time, you can’t get a grasp on how iconic he is and was. The aura that he projected was second to none.

Bob Huggins on the sideline at the 2004 NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Alex Meacham: Hugs was wearing the same windbreakers Eazy-E had on! He knew that was important to building that brand because college basketball is all about the coach. Coaches run the show, all eyes are on the coaches.

Hugs knew that his swag had to be on 1000: slicked back hair, the windbreakers. That was just part of his plan and it worked, it absolutely worked. Not only are the players on the court swagged out, our coach is as well.

Matt Tomamichel: All those baggy old sweatsuits and the nylon jackets? That was just him.

Chauncey “Black” Hannibal: He was a great inspiration to the culture. He was the originator.

Keith Langford: Hugs stood out. It was indescribable. This guy and what he created? I haven’t seen anything like it since.

Matt Tomamichel: He didn’t give a damn, he just wanted to win. That’s also Cincinnati if you think about it: mental toughness and not caring about the praise. It’s about getting the job done and doing it right.

“Cincinnati will always be Jordan to me”

Bob Huggins via TBBP: When I first came to Cincinnati, I’m going into the malls and there’s no Cincinnati gear anywhere! There’s Kentucky gear, a little Ohio State gear, but no Cincinnati gear anywhere.

I’d go in and ask for a replica Cincinnati uniform and they didn’t carry them. We’re in Cincinnati, why wouldn’t you carry them?

Alex Meacham: When Bob Huggins took over the team, the Bearcats were at a really low point. Bob took over and had this grandiose idea of what he wanted to turn the program into.

He found this gap: there weren’t any college basketball teams that were tough like football teams that were making big runs.

DerMarr Johnson via TBBP: We were the best thing in town. Kids were sleeping overnight trying to get in games.

Alex Meacham: You couldn’t get a ticket. You’ve got to remember, the Bengals sucked, the Reds sucked, there was nothing else in town but the Bearcats.

Our arena, the Shoemaker Arena aka The Shoe, held 13,176 people and every game was sold out. It was the biggest thing in town.

Nick Lachey was at every home game when he wasn’t touring with 98 Degrees. Whatever he wore on Newlyweds, was how every kid in Cincinnati looked.

(Steve Dunn/ALLSPORT)

Matt Tomamichel: Even new kids at school would wear Bearcats stuff just to be accepted. It was the bridge between a lot of us. To be connected to Cincinnati and Huggins made me feel proud.

Now my customer at Corporate has grown up with me. They’re hoping that we go back to Jordan Brand with the football team being ranked and the basketball team being good.

Mel Levitt still comes into my shop today. We still talk about Jordan Brand and Midnight Madness.

Keith Langford: The one thing of my career, all the games I’ve lost and all that, I still go back and forth with if I should’ve been at Cincinnati or not. I definitely would’ve been in the running for the meanest shoe game in college basketball history. 100%.

My shoe game was nice at Kansas, but can you imagine if I had been at Cincinnati? It would have been epic and iconic. I would have played in Air Jordan 3s, 4s, 2s — everything.

Cincinnati will always be Jordan to me.

Alex Meacham: I’ll go to the grocery store today and see someone wearing a Cincinnati Jordan shirt from back in the day. Once a week it happens. People love that time period.

Matt Tomamichel: It’s crazy what Cincinnati basketball did for the kids and the community. You’ve gotta credit Hugs for that culture being contagious around the city.

The first time I met Michael Jordan, the guys introduced me as, ‘Hey, this is Matt from Corporate in Cincinnati.’

MJ goes, ‘How’s Huggy Bear?’

Because he knew I was from Cincinnati, he’s always treated me so good, and that’s Michael Jordan.

Gentry Humphrey: The Miami Hurricanes in football? [Cincinatti] represented that for basketball. Bold attitude, swag, and in-your-face.

They weren’t afraid to be different. Those were the good old days.

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