Jordan 101: Is the Air Jordan XI the Greatest Sneaker Ever?

If there is one Air Jordan model that the average non-sneaker-loving joe on the street can identify, it’s probably the Air Jordan XI. There’s no doubt that the patent leather clad model from Michael Jordan and Tinker Hatfield is one of the most iconic and revered shoes ever, sure to cause a frenzy whenever it releases. Popular since the moment it debuted in 1995, the XI has only gained momentum in the last twenty years, as it’s now considered by many as the greatest basketball shoe of all time. In case you don’t already know everything about the Air Jordan XI, we’re here with another edition of Jordan 101 to get you educated. Continue reading for all the pertinent facts of the most legendary sneaker of them all.

The Debut

The Air Jordan XI made its world debut on May 7, 1995 when Michael Jordan wore the “Concord” colorway for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Orlando Magic. The shoe caught attention right from the beginning, thanks to the glossy patent leather upper that was unlike anything seen on court up to that point. The shoe also received media coverage after the NBA had issues with it not meeting the uniform guidelines since its predominantly white upper didn’t match the black sneakers the rest of the Bulls were wearing for the playoffs. This only increased the buzz around the shoe, beginning its long and storied history. After the NBA took exception to the Concord colorway, for the rest of the series Michael switched to the black colorway we now know as “Space Jam”—thanks to its appearance in the beloved movie. (For a complete history of Michael’s debut of the XI, visit this Flashback to ‘95 article.)

The Basics

After Michael premiered the Air Jordan XI in May of 1995, the world got their chance at the shoe beginning in the 1995 holiday shopping season. The debut retail release was the white and black “Concords”, followed by the “Bred” and “Columbia” colorways in 1996. Although Michael wore the black “Space Jam” version in the ‘95 playoffs, the colorway never released at retail until it retroed in 2000 to the delight of Jordan collectors. 2000 and 2001 would prove to be big years for the XI, as the new “Cool Grey” colorway dropped along with the first retros of all three OG colorways and the first low-top iterations of the shoe for both men and women.

Tinker’s Favorite

When the man who’s crafted pretty much every one of Nike’s most popular shoes names the Air Jordan XI as his favorite design ever, that’s really saying something. Indeed another one of Tinker Hatfield’s greatest hits, the Air Jordan XI was designed by Nike’s sneaker genius, ranking right up there in importance and world-wide appeal as models like the Air Max 1, Air Jordan III, and Air Tech Challenge II. Is the Air Jordan XI really the best sneaker ever designed by Tinker? That’s up to your own opinion, but its high praise from the man himself makes it almost undebatable.

Patent Leather

The clean lines and overall design of the Air Jordan XI are great no matter what, but would it be the same legendary sneaker without the patent leather? Without a doubt its most important design characteristic, the glossy patent leather debuted on the XI and would go on to become one of the signature motifs of Jordan Brand throughout the years, just like elephant print and clear outsoles. Arguably even overused at some times by Jordan Brand, patent leather is a crucial piece of the brand’s design language, and it all began with the XI.


Another one of Tinker’s perfect balances of performance and style, the Air Jordan XI was the first Jordan model to feature a carbon fiber midfoot support shank, a technology that would be utilized in almost every game shoe to follow (Reebok actually beat Nike to the support shank concept with their Graphlite plate in shoes like the Instapump Fury and Shaq Attaq). Up top, the shoe also introduced durable and breathable ballistic nylon mesh to basketball shoes. The XI featured a full-length encapsulated Air unit for cushioning, marking the last Jordan shoe to use standard Air after the XII would debut Zoom Air to the Jordan line a year later. Recalling an important detail of Air Jordans V and VI, clear rubber was back on the outsole in a larger dose than ever to complete the XI’s remarkable design.


Along with the standard Air Jordan, the shoe also originally released in a low-top edition dubbed the Air Jordan XI Low IE with a varied patent leather-less construction. The red-headed stepchild of the Air Jordan XI, the low-top featuring elephant print (for the OG’s, only the white colorway had elephant print, but retro versions of the black/red pair also have it) and die-cut mesh paneling has always been kind of a mysterious member of the Air Jordan family. In fact, nobody can even officially confirm what IE stands for. Despite its peculiarities, the IE was actually worn on court by Michael Jordan in 1996 and has had success as a retro release throughout the years.

MJ’s Best Season in His Best Shoe

Extending the Air Jordan XI’s legendary status, it just so happened to be the shoe Michael Jordan wore during his and the Bull’s historic record-breaking 72-win season in 1995-96. Worn by Michael all the way to a championship victory in the ‘96 Finals, the XI was there every step of the way for MJ’s incredible season where he earned the trifecta of regular season, All-Star, and Finals MVP honors to go along with his fourth championship ring. Oh yeah, he was also on the All-NBA and Defensive 1st teams for the 1995-96 season and led the league in scoring. Not bad.

Classic Commercial

It’s only fitting that the Air Jordan XI would get one of the most classic Air Jordan commercials ever. How did he ever get down, anyway?

A Christmas Tradition

Initially releasing during the holiday shopping season in 1995, the Air Jordan was on every boy’s Christmas wish list. Not much has changed since, as an Air Jordan 11 Retro release for the holidays has become an annual tradition. Whether it be an OG colorway or a new one like the “Gamma Blue” or this year’s “72-10” version, the Air Jordan XI and holiday sneaker shopping go hand in hand.

The Greatest Sneaker Ever?

With an amazing design loved by almost any sneaker collector in the world, legendary on-court moments during Michael’s 1995-96 season, and the frenzy they cause at retail every holiday season, it’s hard to argue that the Air Jordan XI is the greatest basketball shoe of all time. Ask 1,000 Jordan collectors their top five favorite models, and the XI will be in approximately 999 of the lists. Of course, sneaker enthusiasts come from all ages and walks of life with different opinions, so it’s impossible to name one model that’s the greatest sneaker ever. However, if we had to put our money on the matter, we’re going with the Air Jordan XI.

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