How a historic program and a connected coach came incredibly close to stamping Jayhawks basketball with a Jumpman logo
Down by 15 points at half to the red-hot North Carolina Tar Heels, Bill Self’s squad went on a run for the ages. When the clock showed all zeroes, Kansas claimed their first title since 2008 and fourth in school history.
Across the court, as the confetti fell, UNC’s roster was blue — literally and figuratively.
Tears fell down the faces of Caleb Love and Armando Bacot, two Tar Heel hoopers who became two of the foremost breakout stars of the spring. Both ballers brought out elusive Air Jordan heat for the Big Dance, making the most of the school’s long-standing Jordan Brand sponsorship.
And while the two schools sit on opposite sides of the tracks as far as endorsement deals are concerned, it wasn’t always that way.
In the early 2000s, the newly-founded Jordan Brand was still finding its footing in the landscape of college basketball. Though the Tar Heels and Cincinnati Bearcats were already on their roster, another powerhouse program caught the eye of MJ and Co.
The same one that took down Mike’s alma mater Monday night.
A Legacy in Lawrence
In 1898, the University of Kansas brought on their first big basketball star.
That talent? Dr. James Naismith, the man who invented the entire game.
After signing on as a faculty member, the good doctor built the school’s basketball program and became the first face of Jayhawk Nation. In 1907, he handed over the reins to a former player, Dr. Phog Allen, who went on to establish a coaching tree that bore serious fruit.
With Allen at the helm, Kansas won its first national championship in 1952. Balling in an era during which basketball shorts sported belt loops, the top team in the country benefitted from locker room leadership by way of a sophomore guard named Dean Smith.
Smith, a mathematics major who came to Lawrence on an academic scholarship, played three varsity sports at Kansas but quickly developed a knack for hoops. Upon graduation, Smith took on an assistant coaching role with Allen, eventually taking over the helm in Chapel Hill in 1961.
By 1982, Smith won his first national title as a head coach, thanks to a clutch shot by a freshman guard who went by Mike Jordan at the time.
Decades later, in 1997, the man now known as Michael would come back to play at the very arena in which Coach Smith truly learned the game. Leading his Chicago Bulls to Kansas’ campus to play an exhibition game against the Seattle Supersonics, MJ had hit heights neither Naismith nor Smith could’ve ever dreamed of. At that time, he’d won five NBA championships and was weeks away from announcing his biggest business move yet: Jordan Brand, a namesake subsidiary under the Nike umbrella.
While Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz had Kansas sitting pretty as the No. 2 team in the nation coming into the 1997-98 season, the team still had surprises up their sleeves despite being well-scouted. After reaching the ’97 Sweet 16 in Champion uniforms, Coach Roy Williams’ roster would start the season in new threads from the Swoosh.
Like Dean Smith before him, Coach Williams possessed strong ties to North Carolina and Michael Jordan. As a graduate assistant, Roy watched Mike develop at local Laney High School before personally placing the overlooked leaper into Five Star Camp.
Even in those days, Williams saw two things in Mike that reminded him of himself: charisma and work ethic. That was enough to arrange for an extra spot for Jordan at the prestigious prep hoops camp. As part of the favor, he committed Mike to work as a member of the camp’s wait staff when he wasn’t playing so he could attend at a reduced cost.
Notably, Roy. was walking his own talk. He had spent his early seasons as an assistant coach at North Carolina moonlighting the very same way; due to his low salary, he worked as a traveling salesman during his off hours, driving across the state to sell copies of Tar Heel team calendars.
Forever friends, Mike and Roy reunited in Lawrence in October of 1997 for that preseason NBA outing. After the exhibition, MJ took pictures with Roy’s team and even gave junior Carolina big man TJ Pugh his game-worn shoes.
The random act of generosity foreshadowed a future where kids at Kansas could get more than just one pair of sneakers from Mike.
Rather, there’d be enough heat for the whole team.
Deal or No Deal?
Around the turn of the century, Nike was paying Kansas roughly $650,000 a year to wear their gear on both the basketball court and the football field. The early aughts were a rich time for Jayhawk hoops; they appeared in back-to-back Final Fours in 2002 and 2003.
Around that time, the still relatively new Jordan Brand was spreading its wings across the college sports landscape.
In 1997, the Jumpman opened their inaugural season by outfitting Cincinnati, St. John’s, Cal, and North Carolina A&T. By the 1999-00 season, Mike saw it fit to pull his alma mater into the fold. But not far from his peripheral was Roy Williams’ program over in Lawrence.
Each summer, numerous Jayhawk standouts helped coach at Mike’s offseason camp, making relationships with the GOAT and receiving shoes for their services. This included the likes of point guard Aaron Miles and swingman Keith Langford.
“I worked the Michael Jordan Camp in Santa Barbara,” Langford told me in 2017. “You’d get gear during the summer and make the contacts. They’d send shoes and ask for feedback and it worked out well.”
Over the course of their earliest Jayhawks seasons, Miles and Langford rocked retro releases from Jordan Brand, as well as new signatures from Mike’s flagship line. While passing out the most assists in school and Big-12 history, Miles often wore a Jumpman-branded headband, a fashion statement typically reserved for official JB schools like Cincy or Cal.
However, some literature suggests Kansas actually was an official Jordan Brand school, despite Swoosh logos appearing on their shorts.
In the Winter 2003 issue of the short-lived Brand Jordan Magazine — a print publication put out by the company itself — the KU logo appears under the header “Jordan University” in a short piece focused on the privileges of being outfitted by the GOAT.
“Because Roy Williams had the relationship with Michael Jordan as an assistant coach at North Carolina to Dean Smith, we were able to get exclusive gear,” Langford recalled.
Exclusive gear meant Rock Chalk colorways of the Jumpman Team Bizness, Jumpman Team FBI, and Jumpman Team 10/16 shoes. It also meant a rare retro that’s still sought after today: the Air Jordan 13 Kansas PE.
“I still have those on ice,” Langford said. “They might resurface one day for an alumni game at Kansas.”
While Kansas was on the cusp of being a fully-branded Jumpman school in the early 2000s, it never quite happened. Despite free gear from working camps and PE pairs meant to sweeten the pot, even standouts like Langford still had to hit the mall to cop the occasional new drop from Jordan Brand.
By most measures, the nail in the coffin came when Roy Williams accepted the head coaching position at his alma mater down in Chapel Hill.
Though he switched schools in the spring of 2003, the Jayhawks still received Jordan exclusives with production dates appearing as late as October 2004. While said shoes were worn by Miles and Langford in March of 2005, the team changed over to Adidas as announced in April 2005 — just one month removed from their peak heat.
With the Three Stripes, Kansas would make $3.3 million a year – a number not matched by Jordan. With new coach Bill Self on the sideline, the school’s rebrand of apparel didn’t damper their winning ways, as the team cut down the championship nets just a few years later in 2008.
Today, Kansas remains locked in with the Stripes at the front end of a contract extension that goes all the way to 2031. Team exclusives for the Rock Chalk roster bare no Jumpman branding, but do make the most of signature styles tied to Dame Lillard and other members of the Adi family.
Today, they’re cutting down nets and still taking home checks. But as the Jayhawks bask in the championship glow once again, one has to wonder just what would have been, had Roy stayed in Lawrence and signed with his old buddy MJ at long last.