Journal / Air Jordan 4 Cultural Significance

The Cultural Significance of the Air Jordan 4

When a company scores a hit product, the next question is simple: Can they do it again?

That was Nike’s predicament in 1989, the year after Michael Jordan’s breakout sneaker, the Air Jordan 3, saw overwhelming success. The hoopla around the AJ 3 was a perfect storm, anchored by Tinker Hatfield’s groundbreaking design. Part of the legend also stems from Jordan’s heroics on the court, and his gravity-defying performance in the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Not to mention Nike’s stellar marketing campaign, which saw rising film director Spike Lee create a narrative around the shoe that starred Jordan and himself as “Mars Blackmon” (a character from his 1986 film ‘She’s Gotta Have It’).

Some of these factors were contrived, while others were pure luck of the draw. And yet, Nike was under pressure to replicate or build on the AJ 3’s success with the next release, the Air Jordan 4.

At the time, Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were rising the ranks of the NBA’s Eastern Conference as his new wingman Scottie Pippen (drafted in 1987) got his footing in the league. It was all but clear that the kid from Wilmington, North Carolina, was the future of professional basketball.

The essential cast of characters returned. That includes Hatfield as the designer and Lee to helm the creative with help from advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy.

From a design perspective, the Air Jordan 4 isn’t too far a departure from its predecessor. Hatfield outfitted the initial run in premium leather, with mesh netting on the side panels and tongue accounting for the eye-catching detail. A quartet of colorways released in 1989 – white and black cement options, a Fire Red version, and a Military Blue shoe that is the only OG to not feature a Bulls motif.

With the product in place, the moments that followed would carry the Air Jordan 4 to legendary status.

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Photo: Getty Images

1988-1989 NBA Season

Every iconic Air Jordan’s story begins on the court. But the Air Jordan 4, in particular, released during an interesting time in Michael Jordan’s career. He was a dominant force on the court – averaging 32.5 ppg, 8 rpg, and 8 apg – but had not yet learned how to win, which is a talent every NBA great possesses.

Joined by second year forward Scottie Pippen, whose averages rose from 7.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.2 spg to 14.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.9 spg (despite not starting), Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had a promising future. Such was proven when the team reached the conference semifinals for the first time in over a decade. Unfortunately, the road would end their as inexperience reared its ugly head. Jordan and Pippen’s on-court heroics alone couldn’t defeat the Isiah Thomas-led Detroit Pistons – a formidable foe who defeated the Bulls on the road to eventual back-to-back championships (1989, 1990).

Tinker Hatfield

It’s impossible to mention the Air Jordan line without crediting the man behind the madness, Tinker Hatfield. The lead designer of Air Jordans III through 15, and later the 20 and 23, was in a pressured position to follow up the success of the Air Jordan 3 with the Air Jordan 4.

Hatfield also had to create a model with global appeal, as Nike had major plans to expand – the AJ 4 was the first international release. Needless to say that the shoe made a major splash.

"The Shot"

On May 7, 1989, Michael Jordan arrived on his grandest stage to date.

His Chicago Bulls were tied 2-2 with Cleveland Cavaliers in a best of five series (first round series didn’t go to seven games at the time) in the NBA Playoffs. Despite great performances from Cavs point guard Mark Price, shooting guard Ron Harper, and backup forward Craig Ehlo – each scoring 23 points, 22 points, and 24 points respectively – Jordan led all scorers with 44 points. But in the closing seconds of the game, MJ saw his team down 100-99. Of course, we now know that he shined best in moments of disparity.

Jordan caught the inbound pass from Brad Sellers at the top right wing. He swung left, dribbled twice, and drained a mid-range jumper on Ehlo that deafened the Cavaliers home crowd at Richfield Coliseum. Now that’s how you end a playoff series.

Spike Lee

Having barely scratched the surface of what became an era-defining film career, director Spike Lee, like Michael Jordan, had a career year in 1989. Credit that in part to his content living on television and the silver screen.

The young hotshot director had his hand on the pulse of culture, giving him the perspective to effectively speak to the market Nike desired for the Air Jordan to reach. Lee had already built a rapport with the guys in Beaverton, Oregon, and advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy (the force behind a majority of Nike’s campaigns) during the Air Jordan 3 campaign.

He was commissioned once again to create the narrative for the Air Jordan 4. Along with directing, Lee displayed his acting chops while reprising the role of fictional Air Jordan enthusiast Mars Blackmon. The character felt authentic, from his look to language rooted in Hip-Hop. Words like “chilling,” “frontin’,” and “thumping” made Blackmon’s incessant shameless plugging feel natural. Not to mention that the sneaker already looked damn good.

Do The Right Thing

Do The Right Thing. The name sounds like the thesis of some existential conversation between parent and child. It’s also the title of Spike Lee’s riveting depiction of how a scorching hot day became the catalyst for racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood to reach its tipping point.

Lee premiered Do The Right Thing in 1989, first at Cannes Film Festival on May 19 and nationwide on July 21. The film released to critical acclaim, but for all intents and purposes, the focus here is the iconic scene where Buggin’ Out (played by Giancarlo Esposito) gives a white male neighbor an earful for scuffing his fresh pair of “White Cement” Air Jordan 4s. Not without a proper audience, he blasts the man for having the unmitigated gall to own a brownstone in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

In 2017, Jordan Brand commemorated the moment with the Air Jordan 4 And Fly ’89 “Buggin’ Out” Pack.

Retro For the 9-9 & the 2000

The first-ever Air Jordan 4 retro arrived in 1999 in the beloved “Bred” and “White/Cement” colorways. At the time, retro releases weren't commonplace, so this drop marked a special occasion. Both sneakers returned in classic form, including OG Nike branding on the heel so you know it's real.

UNDFTD

During an era when sneaker collaborations are king, it's difficult to think of a time when this wasn't the case. For Jordan Brand, that time was just over a decade ago. 2005's rare UNDEFEATED x Air Jordan 4 Retro, a conjunctive release with the California-based streetwear brand, remains one of the rarest, most coveted colorways.

With only 72 pairs in existence, the UNDFTD x Air Jordan 4 was exclusive to friends and family; it never sold for retail. The MA-1 Flight Jacket inspires its look, with an olive green upper in premium suede, black overlays, and orange accents. The velcro patch on the tongue is removable, revealing the words "Jordan Rare Air."

Ball Is Lifestyle

In recent years, we've seen Jordan Brand place a particular emphasis on expanding their lifestyle collection. In some cases, they've created new models, while other releases reintroduce tentpole Air Jordan sneakers with a fashionable makeover. Perhaps no model has been the beneficiary of this trend like the Air Jordan 4.

From collaborations with artist KAWS to a "Ginger" version inspired by Hender Schemes' luxe homage (ironic, right?), we've seen the AJ 4 constructed with premium materials, in tonal colorways, and more.

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