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The Hyperbola Hype of the ‘Gratitude’ Air Jordan 11

Boardroom breaks down the numbers and nuance behind a commemorative collectible that detonated sneaker culture in 2006 and is finally set for a modern rehash.

28 years ago, Black Friday was supposed to be another fourth-quarter victory for Michael Jordan.

Jordan Brand, less than a decade in as its own Swoosh subsidiary and still far from being an annual earner in the billions, was wrapping a massive 2005 full of big swings.

From introducing collaborations with UNDFTD to bringing back Tinker Hatfield for its 20th flagship shoe, the Air Jordan empire was defining life after MJ. Carmelo Anthony had become the brand’s first signature hooper, while hybrids like the Dub Zero were turning heads at American malls.

Air Jordan 11
Image courtesy of Sneaker Hunt / yomzansi

Regardless of where Jordan Brand saw its future customer shopping, the answers appeared in the past.

Retro releases were the catalyst for commercial success, with major moments at retail being the street-level equivalent of MJ flying on SportsCenter.

To make a moment, the marketing minds at Jordan Brand brainstormed an event unlike any other: the Air Jordan Defining Moments Package.

“The concept of putting two shoes together hadn’t been seen,” Gentry Humphrey, former Jordan Brand VP, told Boardroom.

Reviving retro rarities tied to three-peats in pristine packaging, Air Jordan 6 and Air Jordan 11 exclusives would be adorned in gold accents and sold in one big box for a scale-tipping $295.

“MJ loved the idea and was ready to push it,” said Humphrey. “He was a little nervous because we were going to command an extremely high price point, but he thought it was well worth it, and it was disruptive — the way we should be doing things.”

The dual drop was unlike anything sneakerheads had ever seen, appearing in acclaimed accounts just weeks before Santa started making his rounds.

Instead, a production problem pushed the Defining Moments Package into January 2006, sending the box set buzzer beater into overtime and overdrive. The result? Inordinate energy.

“There wasn’t hype like that at that time,” Sneaker Politics owner Derek Curry told Boardroom. “Now? That hype is a normal thing. But back then? It was new to us.”

Back for the first time as a patent leather proper, this holiday season’s Air Jordan 11 drop sees the DMP retro retold in retooled fashion. From acute hysteria to mass momentum, learn why 2023’s “Gratitude” take is giving nostalgia in the most mature of manners.

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Season on the Brink

When Michael Jordan jumps, so do the stock prices.

In 1994, Nike was a $3.7 billion brand but also one on the decline. Following MJ’s surprise retirement and baseball sabbatical, the Swoosh — despite having a slew of signature athletes and a global presence across sports — reported its first revenue decline in seven years.

Even off the equity of Jordan’s three NBA titles and the business model he built in Beaverton, Nike lacked the same lift with MJ away from the game. Nine months after reporting revenue decline, Jordan jumped back into basketball, announcing he was back to the chagrin of Swoosh shareholders.

Wearing No. 45 upon return, it only took a matter of weeks for MJ to go back to his old number and debut new sneakers. In the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the most missed man in all of pro sports unveiled the avant-garde Air Jordan 11.

Designed in the darkness by Tinker Hatfield when higher-ups at Nike told him Mike was never coming back, the patent leather look inspired by a lawn mower cut through TV screens across the country as millions of fans tuned in. It was an aesthetic Jordan had been begging for since the early ’90s but couldn’t get until he came back in ’95.

“MJ at the time wanted to put patent leather on the Air Jordan 9,” Humphrey told Boardroom in 2021. “But at that time? We weren’t ready for it. When we showed him the Concord? He went nuts.”

So did America.

“It was validated by everyone that had influence,” said Humphrey. “Once it hit? It was crazy. From day one, the product blew out.”

Seeing the shoes in action on MJ and on the feet of Ahmad Rashad, kids clamored around the idea of wearing the latest Air Jordan after two years of believing another Air Jordan would never happen again.

Historically, Mike would debut his new shoe at All-Star Weekend, adjoined by a retail release that same February. Due to his unplanned comeback and rogue wear of the Air Jordan 11 in the playoffs, Nike had to scramble while the masses had to wait.

Because of this, the Air Jordan 11 debuted in May 1995 and didn’t drop in stores until October 1995. The result was madness unlike any shoe release ever before.

While the Air Jordan 1 got its official airtime in February 1985 and was released at retail weeks after in April, there was no precedent for the signature shoe or even MJ. Listed for only $65, the new factor pushed sales into the millions and made Nike a model they could copy for years but never quite duplicate.

With the Air Jordan 11 in 1995, the drought of newness at Nike and months of missing Mike made demand otherworldly. Add in the factor that premium patent leather and a $125 price point made the model even more of a status symbol, and the yearning only ascended.

“It was a perfect storm,” said Humphrey. “You have MJ coming back from baseball and Allen Iverson at Georgetown rocking ’em. It was positioned in a way so that all eyes were on it. It was so different than everything else that you really didn’t need a ton of marketing efforts to tell the story. Even though the 100 ft tall ad was phenomenal.”

In only an 11-month window, the Air Jordan 11 had been released in three different patent leather looks, and the Bulls had completed a record-setting 72-10 season.

In his first full season back, MJ won MVP, Finals MVP, and NBA scoring champ. While he was putting up numbers in Chicago, his impact was felt most back in Beaverton.

By 1997, Nike’s revenue was up to nearly $9.2 billion — more than double what it was when MJ traded his hoop shoes for baseball cleats. The patent leather phenomenon and Air Jordan halo were as real as they got, with soaring stock prices to show for it.

Three years later, history would have to repeat itself, rearing yet another classic comeback.

Deja Vu All Over Again

When Michael Jordan kicked his feet up for his second retirement, each one of his prior partners saw their numbers go down.

The Chicago Bulls went from the best in basketball to the worst team in their conference. The NBA Finals fell in ratings by 40% in 1999 despite boasting a team from America’s biggest media market.

And worst of all, Nike’s revenue dipped by almost $1 billion.

Out of the mid-post and into the corner office, MJ was spearheading his subsidiary under Nike, Jordan Brand. Launched ahead of his Last Dance season, the succession plan from basketball was a natural shoo-in for the GOAT.

Already establishing himself as a marketeer and a poised professional, ushering in a new era of mature cool was intended to establish the Jumpman as a luxury umbrella meant to resonate from the ball court to the boardroom.

Unfortunately, business was not booming.

In 2000, Jordan Brand was coming off of its worst quarter to date. Down 42%, the dip was indicative of Mike’s break from basketball and slumping sales for Nike as a whole. For the first time in four years, Nike revenues dropped rather than rose.

As it turned, a new millennium meant old shoes.

Bracing for the fourth quarter, Jordan Brand brought back the Air Jordan 11 for the first time ever despite debuting only five years prior.

“That set the tone for Jordans still being prevalent to this day,” Colin Teagle, Kicking It general manager and Fresh Out the Box podcast host, told Boardroom. “The 11 was a gateway to a lot of us becoming full-time sneaker enthusiasts.”

Returning the classic “Concord” style and launching the cinematic “Space Jam” edition for the first time, the retro release caused commotion at malls nationwide. Typically, Air Jordan signatures received the retro treatment 10 years after their introduction as a means of anniversary sentiment.

Rewriting the formula, the Air Jordan 11 proved so hot that it cut the line and cut its time in the vault in half.

“It was a thing at that point,” NBA legend and Jordan Brand ambassador Quentin Richardson told Boardroom in 2021. “That was part of why me and Darius [Miles] became a popular duo. It was pandemonium when we went to the mall.”

“The Retro 11 was always on a pedestal,” said Teagle. “It was the release of the year.”

Existing as the release of the year meant holding a special responsibility for those inside the Air Jordan headquarters.

“I’ve always been overprotective of the 11, maybe to a fault,” Humphrey said. “Trying to be strategic in how we introduced it was part of the master plan because it was the holy grail of the sneaker industry. If you do the wrong thing, you run the risk of ruining the holy grail.”

Additionally, it turned the page from the new Jordans being the must-have to the old ones mattering more. None mattered more than the Air Jordan 11 Retro, soon an annual mainstay around the holidays.

As alluded to, this meant new Air Jordan 11 Retro colorways debuting on the court before erupting in mall madness across America.

False Start

In 2005, Michael Jordan was fully retired from basketball after two comebacks.

The Air Jordan 11 was not.

“If it were up to the number crunchers? They’d want to see an 11 every year,” Humphrey said. “I tried to be strategic to create other plans so that it would only add to the success when we’d bring back the 11 at the right time. Trying to keep some space in between when we launched that model was important.”

Since rolling out as a retro in 2000, the patent proper returned in “Playoff” and “Columbia” iterations as well as an instant-classic “Cool Grey” colorway.

Air Jordan 11
M. Caulfield / WireImage for Bragman Nyman Cafarelli

For the better part of the early aughts, an Air Jordan 11 provided the spark for the brand’s bigger lifestyle business, being able to redress past favorites in Pantones of the original and new variety.

“The first batch of 11 Retros were great,” said Curry. “That started a line for our stores. We saw Finish Line having lines for retroes after that, whereas before? We’d open, put the Jordan on the shelf, and they’d sell throughout the week. But it wasn’t a day-of sellout.”

“The Retro 11 was kind of dangerous,” Teagle said. “If you go to the wrong mall? It could’ve ended badly.”

Rather than flood the market or be a one-trick pony, Jordan Brand possessed the pace not just to bring back the Air Jordan 11 ahead of schedule but also to put it back in the vault. After a retro run in 2000 and 2001, the Air Jordan 11 Mid made its way back to the archives.

For the shoe’s 10th anniversary, the footwear franchise had something big in mind. Real big.

Rather than run back the “Concord” Air Jordan 11s once again, Jordan Brand looked to make a major splash with the advent of the Defining Moments Package: a box set celebrating the shoes worn by Michael Jordan while starting each of his championship runs.

Air Jordan 11
Image courtesy of Sotheby’s

Internet leaks suggest the original brief included three pairs of shoes — the Air Jordan 6 to celebrate his first ring in 1991, the Air Jordan 11 to celebrate his comeback championship in 1996, and the Converse Pro Leather to coincide with his college championship in 1982.

“Originally, it was a three-shoe pack,” said Humphrey. “The company had just purchased Converse, and the original plan was to also celebrate his first championship with UNC. We were thinking somewhere around $550.”

Famously, Nike, Inc. had acquired Converse in 2003 for $305 million. Two decades later, they’ve seen incredible ROI, as Converse did over $2.3 billion in revenue in 2022. However, the crossover collaboration would not take place in 2005.

“The day I got the final approval on the logistics, we happened to have a quarterly business review meeting,” said Humphrey. “Mike came in, and we started talking about this project. We were ready to roll, and MJ flipped the script on me in front of all these people! We had to pull the Converse shoe.”

While the acquisition of Converse was a long-game win for Nike, fitting it into the first Jordan Brand box set was not meant to be. The golden grails were paired down to that of the 11 and 6, replacing original ‘Concord’ and ‘Infrared’ accents for that of the Midas touch.

“We have to make a concerted effort to deliver the future,” Humphrey said. “The way you connect is by grounding it in great, authentic stories. Because if you do authentic stories? People will at least respect what you’re bringing to the game.”

In its inception, the Air Jordan 11 “DMP” was designed not just to storytelling around MJ’s second three-peat but also to offer collectors an updated alternative to the classic “Concord” colorway. This tempted those who still had pairs of “Concords” from 1995 or 2000 while also protecting their love and loyalty.

Aging aside, when a retro release returns, it somewhat devalues that of the original. By offering slight twists, you appease both the old and new customers, telling an amended story while keeping the classic coveted.

Just the same, only basketball’s best, brightest, and youngest talent were afforded early access to the premium pairs.

“If you’re going to build a sustainable brand, you’ve got to see the future and paint a picture for the next generation,” said Humphrey.

Thus, an age-old story was retold in revived fashion.

Famously, championship gold graced and differentiated the DMP 11, offering a nod to MJ’s fourth NBA title. Additionally, J-O-R-D-A-N lettering down the eyelets was intended to pay tribute to a scrapped sample from Air Jordan’s past, adding even more equity to the story.

“My biggest fear was samples going out before we could tell the concept the way the concept was to be told,” said Humphrey. “We kept it as close to our chest as close as possible. We went to some select accounts to share the story and give them some visual imagery, but we would never leave anything behind.”

Unfortunately, the adhesive issues kept this detail from literally sticking, forcing the brand to push the major moment release from the peak holiday season of 2005 to January 2006, a general dead zone for sneaker shopping and retail as a whole.

What happened at American malls was something much different.

“It was insane,” said Curry. “Stores were scared to open.”

Double Up

After months and months of internet build-up, the Air Jordan Defining Moments Package was released at select stores nationwide on Jan. 28, 2006.

The result was absolute chaos.

From glass barricades shattering at malls in Texas to people going bonkers in Boston, the select stores across America both blessed and cursed with receiving the Air Jordan Defining Moments Package experienced hysteria they’d never seen.

“There was so much pandemonium,” Curry said. “It was borderline scary.”

In the days leading up to the drop, tea leaves started to surface that this Air Jordan release would not be anything like store employees or shoppers had ever seen before.

“The Defining Moments Package was the first of its kind,” said Teagle. “Social media didn’t exist, so it was literally driving to or calling every mall in town to see if they had them.”

“People you’d never seen before were begging and asking for them,” Curry added. “It was the first time our 24 pairs at Finish Line weren’t enough. My friends at Foot Locker were having the same battles. Like, ‘This is gonna be a huge deal, these shoes are outta hand.'”

Humphrey added: “At a premium price point, you couldn’t over-extend yourself because it’s way too much to have if it didn’t work. So I knew people would stay tight to the allocations because everybody was nervous at that time. We had a limited run on them mainly because we were commanding such a high price point.”

Due to the limited nature of the big box sets, demand inordinately exceeded supply. In San Diego — a city surpassing a million residents — only 60 Defining Moments Packages were shipped. This gross gap rewrote the rules of what MSRP meant in real time.

“There’s the laws of supply and demand, and the science there is not always exact because you’re playing in uncharted water when shoes are $125, and now you’re taking them up to $295,” Humphrey said. “The numbers were held tight because I didn’t want the 11 to be part of any markdown strategy. If it would’ve flopped I would’ve never heard the end of it. Everything blew out.”

In the early 2000s, an Air Jordan 11 Retro could be released at a shoe store for $125 and sell in the mall parking lot for $200 that same Saturday. The DMP drop was a whole new aftermarket.

eBay prices were at like $1,000, which was unheard of,” said Curry. “It was the craziest come-up I had in shoes by far.”

While the allure of the golden box set caused chaos from coast to coast on the DMP’s launch date, the demand quickly shifted from the whole package to that of the pack’s Air Jordan 11.

“Everybody wanted the 11s,” Teagle said. “I had a buddy who sold me the 6s for like $150. They were unicorns. It was a status symbol, but you didn’t see them out in the wild.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody wearing the 11,” Humphrey said. “I’ve seen guys wearing the 6s, but I’ve never seen anybody wearing White/Black-Gold 11s! That just goes to show you that most people have them sitting in their archives, but hey, that’s kind of what you do with the holy grail.”

A status symbol that held its weight in gold for years and nearly decades. In 2023, original Air Jordan Defining Moments Packages can still fetch over $1,000 despite being unwearable due to aging.

In 2020, the Air Jordan 6 Retro returned in its “DMP” to stellar sales and proper fanfare. Still, fans salivated over the patent pair from 2006.

This holiday season, the wait is finally over.

Back for the First Time

In 2023, Nike reported revenue of over $51.2 billion, with Jordan Brand accounting for $6.6 billion of that.

It’s a far leap from the earnings reported the first time Michael Jordan retired from pro basketball and roughly 5x of what the Swoosh saw coming in when he hung up his No. 23 jersey for good.

From Beaverton to Berlin, Chicago to Shanghai, the Air Jordan 11 Retro is a cash cow each Christmas and the ultimate breadwinner for Brand Jordan each financial fourth quarter.

“It’s a tradition at this point,” Teagle said.

After the Air Jordan Defining Moments Package unrest in 2006, the brand became more measured in its approach to rolling out Retro 11 releases. By the early ’10s, the hype around said shoes had gone from a cultural phenomenon to a mass market needle mover.

Air Jordan 11
Image courtesy of Nike

It took half a decade to find the perfect point where supply and demand met with the right fervor, satisfying shoppers in recent years.

In 2016, the “Space Jam” Air Jordan 11 returned to rave reviews and easier access. The launch was said to be “the largest and most successful shoe launch in the history of Nike,” selling for $220 in adult sizing while scaled down to infant dimensions.

“It allows the consumer to get it, which I appreciate,” said Teagle. “It’s not as wild as it was circa 2010 or 2011.”

“It’s published everywhere that they’re making a million pairs,” said Curry. “And I’ve never seen it slow down — at all. We still on release date don’t have enough pairs and have customers asking a week after if we have pairs. In Louisiana and Texas? It’s still one of our biggest releases every year.”

On Dec. 9, 2023, the aptly re-named Air Jordan 11 “Gratitude” will be released at stores in full-family sizing for an MSRP of $230. Upgraded from Cordura mesh to luxe leather on the upper, the revamped retros will again differ from the originals in an attempt to tell a new story. Jordan Brand calls it a “Thank You” to their day ones.

Already, Jordan Brand has produced far more pairs than that of 2006 and released pairs ahead of the launch date on SNKRS Early Access. Additionally, retailers have leaned into the “Gratitude” theme through release plans tied to the holiday spirit.

“With the ‘Gratitude’ 11s, we’re doing a toy drive to provide toys for kids who are less fortunate,” Teagle said. “We were able to reach out to Facebook groups of single mothers and tell them, ‘Pull up, we got you.’ We wanted to keep that tradition going.”

Air Jordan 11
Image courtesy of Nike

Full circle, the shoe that once had stores scared to open, is the impetus for store owners such as Curry to scale and sustain their business.

“It helped me open stores,” said Curry, who now owns six Sneaker Politics locations across the country off the origin story of reselling the original Defining Moments Package. “The hype is still there. I have customers call and ask for the ‘Christmas J’ — not even the 11, but the ‘Christmas J.'”

“The shoe is so good that there are people who will rock with it no matter what,” Humphrey said.

“Getting the 11s? That was leveling up on a social clout level,” said Teagle. “The feeling of getting that W on a Christmas Retro 11? There’s no better feeling.”

Across cultures, the Air Jordan 11 is a status symbol that’s endured energy in four different decades. It’s the singular sneaker that speaks to a mass audience with unmatched credibility, even if its tipping point moment was a double-box drop that once turned American malls upside down.

“I look forward to the 11 every year,” said Curry.

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About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.