The Man Behind Air Jordan's Journey Back to Supremacy

October 15, 2013

Must See Entertainment and Style Videos

Retros, retros, retros. In a world that has become obsessed with what's new (social media, technology, the next Frosty flavor from Wendy's), the sneaker industry is trending toward what’s old.

Reebok made its triumphant return to basketball in 2013 with a strategy predicated on bringing back its shoes that dominated the 90s—the Kamikaze, Shaqnosis and Shaq Attaq to name a few—and they flew off the shelves. Nike just reintroduced Gary Payton’s signature shoe from the '90s.

Then we have Air Jordan, which has been running the retro game for over a decade. In October alone, Jordan Brand will re-release a retro Air Jordan 1, 5 and 10, all in limited quantities and all likely sell out within hours (or minutes if you're trying to buy them online).

It's not that Rob Bruce, Jordan Brand's global innovation design director of footwear, doesn't appreciate the retros his company churns out. He does. Without the history of the brand, "we really wouldn't have a leg to stand on, so I respect [retros] immensely," he said. It's just that, well, he's a little tired of them.

A native of California and a graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Bruce first worked for Nike after a lengthy stint with Astrostudious, a consumer electronics design studio he co-founded in San Francisco. He quickly transitioned to designing shoes in the men’s training space before eventually coming over to the Jordan Brand, where his passion for creating something new led to dismay over reproducing the old.

"You can only sell so many retros for so long. We’ve seen every color, every material and every story," said Bruce. "We need to build the future."

Building for the future won’t be easy. Air Jordan built its reputation on its original shoes, with models 1-15 all having their own moments on the feet of Michael Jordan, who made them iconic and a must-have, even for a generation of sneakerheads who never got to witness MJ play. Since 1994, the Air Jordan 1 has been retroed 12 times, the Air Jordan IV nine times, and the Air Jordan V seven times. You get the picture.

Jordan Brand's attempts to recreate the success they had with early models were also hindered by MJ’s retirement in 2003. The Jordan XVIII was the last pair he wore in the NBA. Trying to make a shoe cool without MJ wearing them on the court has been a daunting task. On the other hand, the later Jordans—either because of design or technology—have not been well received. Air Jordans 16-22 have all been retroed just once since their original release, an indication of their (lack of) popularity.

So while sneakerheads continue to clamor for new colorways of old classics, Bruce is hard at work in the lab in Portland, Ore., Nike’s headquarters (the Jordan Brand is a subset of Nike), trying to create what he calls "future retros," new shoes that, years from now, will still be in high demand.

"I'm focused totally on the future and working with the athletes and trainers and the lab to try and get Air Jordan back to that on-court supremacy we enjoyed so well when Michael was playing in his heyday," Bruce said.

The journey started with the Air Jordan XX8.

With a background in architecture and product design (including developing Nike+ technology) and fresh off a two-year stint as creative director for the Nike Tokyo Design Studio in Japan, Bruce came to Jordan looking to challenge himself in the realm of footwear.

His brain fixated on the word "flight," which exemplifies the Air Jordan brand (with its logo depicting Michael Jordan flying through the air), Bruce wanted to bring the concept to life through technology.

He turned his attention toward the cushioning within Jordan's basketball shoes and pondered the notion of propulsion. How could he create a shoe that would make the wearer faster and "propel" him or her through a game? He found his answer in the Nike Sports Research Lab.

"I started talking with the guys in there, and they had cobbled up something that was a very crude prototype around (Nike) Zoom that had a plate on top of it, and they weren’t really sure what to do with it," said Bruce. "I took that little insight that there’s the potential for Zoom to become more reactive and more responsive than the way we are currently building it. That’s a really cool starting place. So I cobbled up some samples with my team and we tested them, and sure enough we said 'there's something really interesting here.'"

Bruce molded the idea hatched that day into Flight Plate, a cushioning technology that "unlocks" Nike Zoom by using a plate to disperse the load of the shoe over the Zoom, which then compresses and "pops," creating a deflection of energy.

"It’s kind of like all these little micro explosions under your feet when you’re running or just walking around," Bruce said.

The result? A feeling like your foot is resting atop a cushioned spring.

With this bold technological innovation in hand, Bruce met with Tinker Hatfield, who designed the most popular early Air Jordans, including the III, to create an equally bold shoe for Flight Plate to live in. Thus came the Jordan XX8, a basketball shoe buried under a shroud that can be unzipped to display the tongue. With such a novel design, Hatfield and Bruce's creation was met with both extravagant praise for taking a risk and strong criticism for its unorthodox look, the latter spurred on by the shoe's $250 price point. What many people, sneaker bloggers and players alike, agreed on, though, was that Flight Plate technology made good on its technological claims.

Sneaker Report named the XX8 Jordan Brand's best basketball performance shoe of all time. Sole Collector gave it a 96 out of 100 on its performance review. There were still those who strayed away from the shoe because of its unconventional exterior, but those who played basketball in it, like Russell Westbrook, loved it. Westbrook became the de facto poster child for the XX8. As it turns out, that was all part of the plan.

"We made (the XX8s) in very limited quantities so that they would blow out and there would be an amazing demand," said Bruce.

Now, as the brand readies the release of the XX8 SE, which is basically the XX8 without the shroud and a slew of new colorways, the word about Flight Plate is out. With a more aesthetically pleasing design, a more affordable price ($150) and higher production numbers, the SE, Bruce hopes, is ready to take off (no pun intended).

"We set it up with the XX8, created the hype, created the demand and now we’re going to deliver with the XX8 SE," he said.

It remains to be seen whether the new Jordans will become the future retros Bruce is fiercely working to create. At this moment, it's hard to imagine the XX8 being as revered as, say, the V. But maybe that's not the point. Maybe Flight Plate and the XX8 are a new beginning, a foundation for the XX9 and XXX, which Bruce says "are going to blow minds."

"Flight Plate is a start. We see it as a starting point. Gone are the days when we roll out an innovation and then the next year it’s gone," said Brian Facchini, global communications director for the Jordan Brand. "The consumers and athletes have spoken and said, 'We love it.' So now our job is to redefine and continue to find ways to give it to them and make it better. We’re as competitive as anybody else."

Topics: JORDAN BRAND | NEWS
Jordan Zirm
- Jordan Zirm is an Associate Content Director for STACK. After earning his BS in Journalism from the University of Missouri, he spent time writing for...
Jordan Zirm
- Jordan Zirm is an Associate Content Director for STACK. After earning his BS in Journalism from the University of Missouri, he spent time writing for...
Must See
Dashon Goldson: Dashon Goldson: "You Just Gotta Have Heart"
Views: 6,389,158
Patrick Willis' Homegrown Off-Season Workout Patrick Willis' Homegrown Off-Season Workout
Views: 1,230,103
Colin Kaepernick Explains His Ridiculous Socks Colin Kaepernick Explains His Ridiculous Socks
Views: 32,902,070

Featured Videos

Kevin Love's In-Season Basketball Workout Kevin Love's In-Season Basketball Workout Views: 1,018,026
A Day in the Life With Kansas City Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce A Day in the Life With Kansas City Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce Views: 15,983
Path to the Pros 2015: Shaq Thompson Path to the Pros 2015: Shaq Thompson Views: 70,834
Load More

Resources

STACK Fitness

Everything you need to be fitter than ever

STACK Conditioning

Sport-specific conditioning programs

Coaches and Trainers

Tips and advice for coaches and trainers

Magazine

Latest issues of STACK Magazine

STACK 4W

Women's sports workout, nutrition and lifestyle advice

Gamer

Gaming, entertainment and tech news

Basic Training

Military-style training for athletes

News

Find the latest news relevant to athletes

Most Popular Videos

Two-Ball Dribbling Drill With John Wall Two-Ball Dribbling Drill With John Wall
Views: 3,362,770
Paul Rabil's Box Jumps Paul Rabil's Box Jumps
Views: 851,480
Roy Hibbert 540 lbs Deadlift Roy Hibbert 540 lbs Deadlift
Views: 1,577,381
Dribbling Drills for Tighter Handles Dribbling Drills for Tighter Handles
Views: 4,333,163
Ohio State Football Open Field Plyo Drill Ohio State Football Open Field Plyo Drill
Views: 9,499,164

Load More
More Cool Stuff You'll Like
Nike Officially Unveils the LeBron XII

Nike Officially Unveils the LeBron XII

Nike Basketball Releases 2014 Christmas Collection

Nike Basketball Releases 2014 Christmas Collection

Jordan Brand Officially Unveils World Cup-Inspired 'Brazil Pack'

Jordan Brand Officially Unveils World Cup-Inspired 'Brazil Pack'

The Great Debate: Which Nike LeBron Sneaker Is the Best?

The Great Debate: Which Nike LeBron Sneaker Is the Best?

Jordan Brand Debuts the CP3.VIII

Jordan Brand Debuts the CP3.VIII

First Look at Nike's 2015 'Black History Month' Collection

First Look at Nike's 2015 'Black History Month' Collection

Nike Basketball Officially Unveils the Nike Kyrie 1

Nike Basketball Officially Unveils the Nike Kyrie 1

Get Your First Look at the Nike KD VII

Get Your First Look at the Nike KD VII

Nike iD Releases 'MVP' Print for the KD VI

Nike iD Releases 'MVP' Print for the KD VI

Under Armour Introduces the Curry One

Under Armour Introduces the Curry One

Jordan Brand Unveils All-Star 'Pearl Pack' Collection

Jordan Brand Unveils All-Star 'Pearl Pack' Collection

Nike Unveils the Kobe X, Kobe Bryant's 10th Signature Shoe

Nike Unveils the Kobe X, Kobe Bryant's 10th Signature Shoe

Kevin Durant Re-signs With Nike. What Does It Mean?

Kevin Durant Re-signs With Nike. What Does It Mean?

Nike Basketball Drops 2015 NYC All-Star Collection

Nike Basketball Drops 2015 NYC All-Star Collection

adidas Set to Drop the D Lillard 1

adidas Set to Drop the D Lillard 1

Air Jordan Debuts NBA Opening Night Kicks

Air Jordan Debuts NBA Opening Night Kicks

adidas Unveils 'Bad Dreams Collection' Kicks for Christmas Day

adidas Unveils 'Bad Dreams Collection' Kicks for Christmas Day

Check Out Roger Federer's Air Jordan-Inspired U.S. Open Kicks

Check Out Roger Federer's Air Jordan-Inspired U.S. Open Kicks

Get a Closer Look at the 'Jordan Brand Classic' Jordan Future

Get a Closer Look at the 'Jordan Brand Classic' Jordan Future

Nike Basketball Officially Unveils the KD7

Nike Basketball Officially Unveils the KD7

Check Out the Nike KD7 'On the Road'

Check Out the Nike KD7 'On the Road'

What Will Be the Most Popular Shoe of the 2014-2015 NBA Season?

What Will Be the Most Popular Shoe of the 2014-2015 NBA Season?

The 2014 NBA Sneaker Free Agency Forecast

The 2014 NBA Sneaker Free Agency Forecast

SNEAKER ALERT: adidas Releases Originals Mutombo 2

SNEAKER ALERT: adidas Releases Originals Mutombo 2

Is Kyrie Irving Finally Getting a Signature Shoe?

Is Kyrie Irving Finally Getting a Signature Shoe?

Under Armour Releases Veterans Day Kicks

Under Armour Releases Veterans Day Kicks

SNEAKER ALERT: Reebok Announces Stash x Question Mid

SNEAKER ALERT: Reebok Announces Stash x Question Mid

adidas Releases RG3 Energy Boost Training Shoe

adidas Releases RG3 Energy Boost Training Shoe

Kyrie Irving's Nike HyperRev PE Collection Set to Release

Kyrie Irving's Nike HyperRev PE Collection Set to Release

Check Out the Upcoming Nike 'Shooting Stars' Pack

Check Out the Upcoming Nike 'Shooting Stars' Pack

Signature Sneaker Showdown: adidas J Wall 1 vs. Nike KYRIE 1

Signature Sneaker Showdown: adidas J Wall 1 vs. Nike KYRIE 1

SNEAKER ALERT: Nike Annouces LeBron 11 Everglades

SNEAKER ALERT: Nike Annouces LeBron 11 Everglades

adidas Debuts First Commercial for the D Rose 5 BOOST

adidas Debuts First Commercial for the D Rose 5 BOOST

Is This the LeBron XII?

Is This the LeBron XII?

4 New Jordan Future Colorways Coming This Summer

4 New Jordan Future Colorways Coming This Summer

SNEAKER ALERT: adidas Pure Boost

SNEAKER ALERT: adidas Pure Boost

4 Reasons Why the Nike LeBron 12 Is Superior to the LeBron 11

4 Reasons Why the Nike LeBron 12 Is Superior to the LeBron 11

How Nike Used the LeBron XI to Build the Innovative LeBron XII

How Nike Used the LeBron XI to Build the Innovative LeBron XII

Nike Delays Release of the LeBron XII

Nike Delays Release of the LeBron XII

YardBarker