The Jordan sneaker inspired by a classic sports car.

Jordan 6
© Jordan

One last challenge

When Michael Jordan began the 1990-91 NBA season, he was still wearing the legendary Air Jordan 5; a shoe whose success had been built on a combination of its pop culture appearances and the player’s on-court achievements. However, despite all of his ability and accolades, as well as the outstanding performance attributes of his signature sneakers, Jordan was yet to earn the greatest reward – the NBA championship title – leaving him with a gap that needed filling. Following the huge success of Tinker Hatfield’s previous Jordan models, the era-defining shoe designer was drafted in once more to have another go at providing MJ with a basketball trainer that could take him to the top of the NBA. Unfazed by the enormous challenge before him, Tinker set about crafting the Air Jordan 6 – a silhouette that became central to one of Michael Jordan’s most career-defining seasons and, in doing so, changed the landscape of sneaker history forever.

© Jordan

An improving team

During the late 1980s, the Chicago Bulls edged ever closer to making the NBA Finals, falling at the last hurdle in 1989 and 1990. Both times, they lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, having already been defeated by them at the Eastern Conference Semifinal stage in 1988. Each series was lost by progressively smaller margins of 4-1, 4-2 and 4-3, and the Bulls could just feel themselves improving year-on-year. Despite this, the team made a slow start to the ‘90-’91 season, losing their first three games to drop to the bottom of the Central Division. They began to turn things around throughout November, and by early December, the team had increased its position from last to 3rd, reaching 5th place in the Eastern Conference overall, but it was still far from where Michael and his teammates wanted to be.

The return of Mars Blackmon

It was around this time that Tinker’s Jordan 6 was ready to be revealed to the public, and adverts featuring the new sneaker started to emerge. As with the three previous Jordan designs, Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon character was a big part of its release, appearing alongside Michael in both TV and print ads. The two had established a playful and entertaining chemistry over the years, and their on-screen antics had become an event in themselves by the time of Tinker’s fourth Jordan. This time, the pair were joined by charismatic rock ‘n roll musician Little Richard, who played Mr. Genie in a series of black-and-white commercials. In each one, the genie offers Mars a single wish, suggesting that he ask either for cash or an expensive car. After Mars rejects those two ideas, he suddenly says “I got it”, and the genie transforms the diminutive sneaker fan into Michael Jordan, who stands there in the character’s trademark Jordan basketball top and Brooklyn cap. He says “Look Mum, I can fly”, before performing several spectacular slam dunks. In other versions of the advert, the AJ6 itself takes more of the focus as Blackmon’s wish sees him surrounded by a huge collection of Jordans and holding a pile of shoe boxes with the new silhouette sat on top.

© Jordan

Another winning All-Star contribution

As these commercials started to build anticipation for the upcoming release, the Chicago Bulls continued their steady run of form, reaching the All-Star Weekend of 9th-10th February, 1991, at the top of the Central Division and 2nd in the Eastern Conference, with a record of 32 wins and 14 losses. As the only player to receive more than 1 million fan votes, Michael’s name was the first on the team sheet for the All-Star Game. He rewarded his loyal supporters by unveiling the Air Jordan 6 for the very first time, donning the Black Infrared colourway as the East beat the West by a mere two points. Although the MVP award went to Philadelphia’s Charles Barkley for his excellent rebound contributions, MJ top-scored with 26 points in another powerful display as he showed off the performance qualities of the new sneaker.

A host of performance features

Like his previous Jordan designs, Tinker had imbued the 6 with a host of technical features so that it remained first and foremost a functional basketball trainer. One detailed paper advertisement from the time listed many of these, including familiar elements like a visible Air unit in the heel, a lightweight polyurethane midsole, bulging ankle protectors and v-flex grooves in the forefoot for extra manoeuvrability. On top of this, it pointed out new additions like the durable exoskeleton frame that supported the upper, and the “Dynamic-Fit™ sleeve” that provided a comfortable fit around the midfoot. A second pocket of encapsulated Air had been placed beneath the forefoot for even more bounce, the popular use of translucent accents on the outsole had been brought over from the AJ5 and the laces were secured by a Jumpman-adorned toggle and the newly added “stretch lace pocket”, which was similarly branded and could be clipped shut to keep the laces tucked out of the way during games. Perforations were apparent all across the shoe, from the collar to the sidewalls and the tongue, thus delivering cooling ventilation around the foot. With such a wide range of technical components, the Jordan 6 was a great basketball trainer, and the same advert suggested that “Every top-level player can benefit from the shoe designed for Michael Jordan”, ending with the line “Dazzle defenses and increase hang time in the Air Jordan shoe—ready for takeoff.” It’s no surprise, then, that the AJ6 was used by many of Jordan’s contemporaries.

© Jordan

Michael’s contributions

Other elements of the Jordan 6’s build were influenced directly by Michael. Tinker was a big believer in including athletes in the design of their own signature shoes, and he had used some of MJ’s ideas to great effect on the previous three Jordans. He did so again with the AJ6, resulting in a looping pull tab being attached to the heel and the addition of an extended rubberised tongue with two large windows cut into it. These both acted as useful points to hold on to when pulling the shoe on, something that Jordan had highlighted as an issue with previous iterations. The heel tab was also inspired by Michael’s love of German sports cars and was made to look like the rear spoiler from classic models like the Porsche 911. Tinker even referred to it as such, while also giving the shoe’s flanks distinctive angular overlays that emulated the aerodynamic look of these lightning-fast vehicles. Michael’s influence could also be seen in the aesthetic of the Air Jordan 6 as his interest in high fashion led Tinker to give it a clean toe without any overlay so that it looked like a dress shoe. This is also why the five colourways to be released in 1991 each had an air of elegance. The White Infrared, Sport Blue and Maroon all featured a white leather upper with colourful highlights on areas like the Jumpman logos and the midsole, while the Black Infrared went for a plush black Durabuck upper with vivid red accents, and the Carmine incorporated a bold mix of white leather and red nubuck.

© Jordan

A strong finish

After returning from the All-Star Game in 1991, Michael went on a remarkable run with the Bulls as he showed off what he could do in the Jordan 6 White Infrared. The team went through the rest of the month undefeated and ended it at the top of the Eastern Conference. Although this string of nine consecutive wins came to an end at the beginning of March, they remained in 1st place from March 3rd until the end of the regular season, securing home court advantage for the playoffs by finishing with 61 wins. A franchise record at the time, it put them second only to the Portland Trail Blazers, who went on to lose to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Jordan really upped his game throughout this period, saving his best for the business end of the season and winning the Player of the Month award in both March and April.

An inventive advert

It was around this time that another classic Mars Blackmon advert came out. In it, the likeable sneaker enthusiast tries to sell the fictional Michael Jordan Flight School, claiming that attendees can learn how to increase their hangtime and dazzle defences, as well as some more tongue-in-cheek skills such as “How to stick your tongue out during a game” and “How to play golf during the off-season” – two things Jordan was well-known for. He also explains that people can learn “How to wear really great sneakers” as he holds up the Jordan 6. At the end, a group of NBA players, including Chris Mullin and John Salley, are shown watching the advert and stating that they also want to learn how to star in a lot of commercials and increase their hangtime. Blackmon’s endearing nature, the inventive addition of the Jordan Flight School and the presence of other popular basketball stars made the advert and, as a result, the Air Jordan 6 highly memorable.

© Jordan

A confident start

Back on the court, the Chicago Bulls went into the 1991 playoffs full of confidence. Michael switched to the Jordan 6 Black Infrared at the beginning of the series, the change to a darker colourway signifying the extra focus he brought to the season’s most challenging period. Wearing this sleek version of the AJ6, he demonstrated his match-winning credentials once more, top-scoring with 87 points as the Bulls made easy work of Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks in a 3-0 first round clean sweep. In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Bulls faced a sterner test in the Philadelphia 76ers. Michael Jordan had been slightly aggrieved not to win the MVP award for the All-Star Game earlier in the season, which gave him another point to prove as he went up against the man who did – the aggressive and versatile Charles Barkley. This made Jordan particularly dangerous, and he outscored his opponent by 167 points to 128. Chicago went on to win the series 4-1, meaning that they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the third year in a row.

© Jordan

An old foe

The next round was set to be their toughest one yet as, for the fourth year in succession, they came up against the much-feared Detroit Pistons, whose brutal playing style had seen them bully teams into submission under the tenacious Isiah Thomas. Known as the Bad Boys, they were the reigning NBA champions, having won it in both of the prior seasons, and with intimidating players like Dennis Rodman and John Salley, they would be a difficult team to overcome. However, this time things were different. With the Chicago Bulls’ form at its peak and Thomas hampered by a wrist injury, they made a clean sweep, winning 4-0 and making the NBA Finals for the first time in the history of the franchise.

Victory at last

The Bulls had just one week to celebrate this magnificent victory before going on to face Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. Magic was a superstar who had led the “Showtime Lakers” to five NBA titles in the 1980s during a prolific period for the team, and things looked ominous as they beat the Bulls at their home stadium in the first game of the series, despite Jordan’s 36 points. However, after Chicago turned things around in Game 2, they never looked back, eventually winning 4-1 to become NBA champions at last. Far from being fazed by the magnitude of the occasion or the opponent, MJ played like he was born to be there, scoring the most points in the series, with 156, and earning the Finals MVP award. In fact, his tally of 529 for the playoffs as a whole was over 100 more than his nearest rival, Magic Johnson, who finished with 414 points.

© Jordan

Impressive accolades

Tinker Hatfield’s Air Jordan 6 played a huge role in Michael Jordan’s debut NBA championship win, bringing the shoe incredible hype and beginning a run of back-to-back titles that defined the player’s career. More than any other season up to that point, Jordan’s achievements in his signature sneaker boosted its success as, beyond winning the title and becoming Finals MVP, he was named NBA MVP for the second time, made the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team, and was the league’s Scoring Champion for the fifth year in a row with 31.5 points per game. He was also recognised by the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated, who named him Athlete of the Year and Sportsperson of the Year respectively.

Be Like Mike

The timing could not have been better for the AJ6 as everyone wanted to get in on Jordan’s success, meaning that both player and sneaker were seen all over the media. During the off-season, Michael sported the Air Jordan 6 Carmine as he starred in the iconic Be Like Mike Gatorade commercial. The advert kicks off with a moment from Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers in which MJ scored a particularly impressive field goal. In it, he flies towards the hoop ready to dunk the ball and, with defenders all around, realises that he has to make the shot from the left to avoid a blocking hand coming in from the right. While hanging in the air, he passes the ball from his right hand to his left before scooping the ball up into the backboard glass. It bounces down into the hoop, thus completing the stunning move, which has since become a mainstay of NBA highlight reels. Through the rest of the advert, he can be seen playing basketball with kids and adults, while his most famous score of all time – The Shot – is featured towards the end. This mix of career highlights and playful basketball moments brought even more followers to both Michael and the game, and the Air Jordan 6 continued to reap the benefits of his stardom.

© Jordan

The Dream Team

1991 was also the year before the Barcelona Olympics, and Michael was already preparing for the event along with some of the other stars of the league. Although he had already won an Olympic gold medal as an amateur in 1984, many of his teammates had not previously played in the global sports competition because members of the NBA were not normally permitted. This all changed in 1992, allowing Team USA to assemble what the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame would later call “the greatest collection of basketball talent on the planet”. Sports Illustrated had already dubbed them the Dream Team in an article written in early 1991, and excitement was high for the pre-tournament exhibition games. All eyes were on Jordan as he turned up to each match in the Air Jordan 6, while the Carmine colourway continued to appear on his feet in promotional posters.

© Jordan

An icon of popular culture 

The Jordan 6 Carmine seemed to be a particular favourite around that time as Michael wore it during the NBA Championship Ring Ceremony in November 1991 and often played in it during the first few weeks of the new season. Meanwhile, off the court, the silhouette was following in the footsteps of Tinker’s first three Jordans by establishing itself as a pop culture icon. It was worn by sneaker fan Jerry Seinfeld, whose self-named TV show was immensely popular during the 90s. The sitcom’s co-creator, Larry David, famously turned up to set in the Maroon colourway as the two comedians helped to bring the AJ6 to a whole new audience away from the world of basketball.

Batman and the Air Jordan 6

Perhaps one of the Air Jordan 6’s most unexpected appearances was on the big screen in the 1992 movie Batman Returns. Hatfield had already adapted the Air Trainer 3 for the 1989 Batman film, during which he met with Michael Keaton to discuss the design of the shoe. Rather than being some product placement gimmick, Keaton wanted it to be a powerful piece of footwear that matched Batman’s muscular build. This made the AJ6 the perfect template for the sequel as it was a performance shoe created to help athletes fly through the air. For the movie, Hatfield modified the sneaker into a tall, chunky boot with an all-black colour scheme that caused it to blend in with the rest of Keaton’s outfit. Although this meant that it wasn’t really recognisable during the on-screen action, when images of it surfaced, the model’s unmistakable upper distinguished it as the Air Jordan 6. As well as being an interesting piece of movie trivia, this partnership helped establish a strong connection between Tinker and the film industry, and he was involved in creating footwear for other film characters in subsequent years.

New designs for a new decade

Moments like this gave the AJ6 a strong start after its 1991 release, but the silhouette has also managed to maintain its popularity and success in the time since. Like many of Tinker’s early Jordans, it was first launched as a retro in 2000, along with new colourways that swapped out the Nike Air text on the heel for a Jumpman Air logo. This would become the shoe’s branding of choice for the foreseeable future as Jordan Brand aimed to establish an independent identity separate from Nike. One of the new designs, known appropriately as the Olympic, was worn by Vin Baker and Ray Allen during their gold-medal-winning run at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, demonstrating that the Jordan 6 was still a great basketball shoe and carrying its popularity into a new decade. This was followed by a low-top version and women’s editions in 2002, which broadened the appeal of the silhouette even further.

© Jordan

Celebrity appearances

The Air Jordan 6 remained relevant throughout the 2000s with the release of classy new colourways like the 2006 Defining Moments Pack, which was put together to celebrate the incredible legacy of the shoes Michael was wearing as he began each of his remarkable three-peats. Moving into the 2010s, a cleated version was created, and NFL players like Earl Thomas and Dez Bryant showed off their Player Exclusive models on the football field. Around the same time, Kanye West donned the Jordan 6 Black Infrared in the music video for his 2011 single Otis. Written together with fellow hip hop legend Jay-Z, who, incidentally, was wearing the iconic Air Jordan 1 Bred as he performed alongside West, the track won the pair several awards, including Best Rap Performance at the 2012 Grammys.

Popular collaborations

Star turns like this grew the profile of the AJ6 once more, and, as the 2020s approached, it continued to be a highly sought-after shoe thanks to a series of stylish collaborations. Notable ones include the two Gatorade editions, a design made with Paris Saint-Germain, an elegant version from international fashion blogger Aleali May and several suede-covered models created by superstar rapper Travis Scott, who wore his Olive colourway during a performance at the 2019 Super Bowl. The halftime show was watched by almost 100 million viewers, and with NFL great Randy Moss appearing in a commercial for the shoe around the same time, it became one of the most popular of all Jordan 6 collaborations.

© Jordan

A historically significant sneaker

By the time the Air Jordan 6 was released in 1991, Jordan’s signature line was already an institution, but the sneaker’s eye-catching design and terrific performance features, along with MJ’s remarkable title-winning season, took it to even higher levels of popularity. Even now, it is one of the most important models in the history of the brand, not only because of its continued success, but also because it marked the end of an era for Air Jordans. It was the last to incorporate Nike branding into its exterior, the last to feature an Air window in the heel and the last to be advertised by Mars Blackmon. On top of this, it helped give Jordan and Tinker the power to build a more independent identity away from Nike’s basketball division as the pair took the line in a new direction. Despite going on to produce dozens more signature shoes, Jordan Brand has renewed the silhouette again and again, and it remains at the heart of the brand’s phenomenal long-term success. Throughout the years, the Jordan 6 has never lost its timeless quality, which is why today, just like the man himself, it is still regarded as one of the greatest of all time.

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