words  // Zac Dubasik
images // Nick DePaula

If there is a single, defining trait that the Air Jordan 2011 will be remembered for, it will undoubtedly be its modularity: one shoe, two separate and fully integrated cushioning systems. Or, as Jordan Brand has put it, the opportunity to “Choose Your Flight,” with the options of Quick (heel and forefoot Zoom Air bags) and Explosive (full-length Air).

The AJ2011 officially launched this February, but the design began on, according to co-designer Tom Luedecke, “11.5.09. There’s your starting date.” And while that’s where the shoe itself started, the concept for modularity actually dated far earlier. “[Tinker and I were] talking around 2005,” he explains. “We had been working on something modular for a while. None of it had hit the market. All of it had its shortcomings or pitfalls somewhere along the line.” It was the shoe’s other co-designer, Tinker Hatfield, that pushed the concept to finally debut here. “Tinker being the guy who knows it best, he likes to set a goal and a hard target and get people behind it,” explains Luedecke. So there you have it – roughly six years of development, over a year of which was dedicated specifically to the AJ 2011, and when I played in them, they felt just like any other shoe. In other words, for the design and development team behind the project, it was mission accomplished.

Getting the Air Jordan 2011 to the point where its midsole felt like any normal shoe was not an easy project, as evidenced by the length of the design and development period, but it was essential to the success and usability of the concept. By offering players two performance-specific cushioning platforms, the hope was that it would not only open its appeal to those with a strong cushioning preference, but it would even allow the chance for game-to-game swaps. Chances are, that a lot of players at least, have probably made up their mind on which cushioning option they’ll go with before even buying a pair, based on past experiences. Even still, I found some unexpected results from playing in each different version. Before we get into the differences between Quick and Explosive though, let’s take a look at the elements of the shoe that are consistent between platforms.

While the modularity element of the AJ2011 is its most defining feature, the dress-shoe like leather used on the upper is its most visual trademark. But how would this luxurious material translate to serious on-court performance? “We didn’t want to overbuild it too much, with a leather that was too thick,” admits Luedecke. “Tinker really wanted to have leather, because he had a vision for what this could be. We wanted to find a way to get to a thinner leather though than what this material normally is, and we found a way to use reinforcers, out of Germany actually, that allowed us to maintain the strength of the leather, without going so thick.” The result is a leather that is thin, soft, and immediately feels familiar to the shape of your foot. And thanks to those reinforcers, that flexibility didn’t translate to instability.

As for exactly how they achieved the additional reinforcement, Jordan Brand Footwear Developer Craig Nomi explains that, “Before, we might’ve used a canvas or a nylon to reinforce the leather. But now, there’s a thin, strong resin that you’ll see underneath. Once you heat it up, it becomes really rigid, but without sacrificing the texture of the leather above it.” You couldn’t ask for much more when it comes to break-in period, while still exhibiting the stability to cut hard to the basket. An interesting side-note on the upper is how well it ages. Thanks to the hand burnishing process each shoe goes through, and the fact that each individual shoe has a unique finish, scuffs are hard to notice even after many wearings.

Part of what adds to the shoe’s fit and stability is its lacing system. It may look familiar, but what you can’t see is that the seatbelt webbing eyelets actually continue under the upper (over the inner bootie), and attach to the base of the shoe. When pulled tight, you can feel the full length of the eyelet snug to your foot, rather than just pulling the eyestays closer together, as in a traditional lacing system. It makes for a very glove-like fit in the upper, and with the help of the full-length bootie, distributes the pressure evenly across the midfoot. I found the shoe to fit true to size, with just the right amount of toe volume. When first lacing up, I experienced a pinch at the lowest eyelet, near my little toe, but it became a non-issue once I started running in the shoe. What was an issue though was the full-length bootie itself.

Bootie construction has its positives and negatives. It’s plush, sock-like feel offers an accommodating fit, and immediate step-in comfort. But it also can produce bunching when fully laced, as well as heel fit that’s less secure than the best alternatives. While I had no problems with bunching, it’s the heel fit that I found to be the biggest negative of the whole shoe. As a huge fan of the molded notch found on so many current Jordan Brand shoes, like last year’s Air Jordan 2010, I asked Nomi about the departure from the molded notch. “Because of the full bootie and the free-floating shell, we tried to add that in and it just didn’t make sense,“ he explained. “We couldn’t get them in the right position without adjusting the bootie package for the sockliner to work. We wanted to keep in mind the ease of entry and make it fit like a glove, and adding those notches would’ve made it a bit more complicated. It’s something that’s been consistent through our performance shoes and you’ll see that in a lot of our other shoes.”

That is great news for the future, and it’s already back on the Fly Wade, but I found it to be an unfortunate omission on this shoe. That said, stability didn’t suffer to the point where the heel was actually unstable, but it moved just enough that the backs of my heels became sore after extended periods of wear. Compared to the extreme levels of stability in the 2010 (and 2010 Team), I found this to be disappointing.

Also present regardless of your Quick or Explosive choice is the shoe’s outsole, which features what the team at Jordan Brand is calling a “performance graphic.” As Luedecke explains, “It’s not just applying elephant print and there’s your traction pattern. It’s elephant print and, oh, by the way, when you swirl it in the forefoot near the pivot point, the pattern actually gets tighter and there’s more rubber contact where you need it. It’s engineered, there’s a graphic element to it and it has motion in it.”

Unfortunately, it’s not as good as simple herringbone, which we saw on last year‘s game shoe. Herringbone isn’t the only effective traction pattern out there, but I can’t help but feel disappointed when a shoe uses a less sticky or biting alternative for the sake of aesthetics. The Kobe line has suffered from this same issue starting with the ZKV, and it’s been a real letdown for me. None of these shoes actually have bad traction, but it’s not as good as it could, and should, be. After three or four wearings, the AJ 2011’s traction improved, but I still had to swipe my soles, even on clean courts, more than I’d like.

Now that the constants of the shoe have been laid out, it’s time to look at the variable elements: Quick and Explosive. Representing Quick is a compression Phylon midsole with heel and forefoot Zoom Air units. A Cushlon midsole houses a full-length Air unit in the Explosive option. The shoes come with one Quick, and one Explosive, midsole pre-loaded in the pair for an easy head-to-head comparison. [Hopefully there aren’t too many people out there who didn’t get the memo and are playing in a half and half pair.] While I’m normally a major fan of Zoom Air, I found the Explosive option to be the more intriguing of the choices, and decided to start my testing there. It’s just not too often you get to experience full Air so directly underfoot. Switching out midsoles isn’t exactly hard to do, but it’s hard enough that I felt confident that there wouldn’t be any movement within the shoe, which proved to be true.

When I said that I found the Explosive option to be “intriguing,” I meant that it felt unlike what I normally expect from a full-length dot-welled Air unit. Rather than providing an experience that was somewhat on the firm side, I felt much more response that I’m used to. The reason for this is simple; there is nothing but an insole between your foot and the bag, which means that the bag itself is much closer to your foot than in a normal shoe utilizing the same Air bag. And with that closer proximity brought a greater level of responsiveness; I could feel the bag compress and regain its shape. Add to that the Cushlon midsole, a highly effective platform for impact protection, and you have an excellent cushioning choice in the Explosive midsole. I found this midsole to offer a top-notch combination of stability, protection and comfort.

Fans of Zoom Air will find a much more familiar experience in the Quick setup. The top-loaded Zoom Air units are just as close to the foot as the Explosive’s bag, but the feeling isn’t as new. Zoom Air has a long history of different placements, such as being embedded within the insole, like in the LeBron IV and Flightposite series, and directly under it, as found in many SB applications. I found the Zoom Bags to offer the same responsive, low-to-the-ground ride that I’ve come to expect, and that’s a good thing. The harder I cut, the more I felt the forefoot bag engage. For pure speed players, who love to slash to the hoop, this option will be hard to beat.

While I thoroughly enjoyed playing in both the Quick and Explosive midsole options, if I had to chose a favorite, it would probably be the Explosive. Strangely enough, thanks to the aforementioned reason, it was much more Zoom-like than I’ve ever experienced from a dot-welled bag. Not being a big slasher myself, I found the Explosive midsole to be a better all-around option, while still having enough responsiveness to satisfy my Zoom urges. [For what it’s worth, Nick DePaula, who fancies himself as some kind of slasher, prefers the Zoom configuration.] Both midsoles however offered excellent court feel, and, in correlation with the aforementioned flexible, yet strong uppers, had smooth transition during play.

The Air Jordan 2011’s goals of modularity were lofty, but resulted in a fully realized, interchangeable midsole system that works as advertised. Does modularity make for a better shoe though? It definitely makes for a more versatile one. The cushioning options, combined with the overall comfort and cut, make for a shoe with wide appeal. It’s tough to say that something costing $170 would make a great team shoe, but from a versatility standpoint, the AJ 2011 is a great team choice, and will appeal to all but the biggest players. That versatility does come with an indirect price however, as sacrifices to fit were made in order to make swapping midsoles a realistic proposition. It’s not a deal breaker, and fans of bootie construction probably won’t have many complaints, but lockdown wasn’t as good as I know is possible, as evidenced in last year’s AJ 2010.

Of course, as with any Air Jordan shoes (at least non-Retros), there’s that level of lavishness and quality that is also present. The level of finishing found here may have set a new standard in what’s possible from a performance company. Sure, you’ll see as good, and better, materials and construction in the high-end fashion world, but this is as good as it gets when it comes to a hand-crafted feeling in a true hoops shoe. The AJ 2011 is an easy recommendation for players who want a shoe that offers both luxury and the latest innovation. There are cheaper options that perform better, and there are more expensive options that are more luxurious, but you won’t find a better combination of the two.

DETAILS & BUYING ADVICE:

designer: Tom Luedecke, Mark Smith & Tinker Hatfield

best for: All but the largest players

colorway tested: Team Red/Team Red/White

key tech: Modular midsole system offering cushioning options of heel and forefoot Zoom Air, and full-length Air; glass fiber midfoot shank built into each removable midsole, inner fit sleeve

pros: materials; quality of finishing; cushioning options

cons: heel stability

improvements: Use more effective traction pattern rather than performance graphics; return to molded collar of AJ2010 for better heel stability

buying advice: This year’s Air Jordan went big in the innovation department, and the result worked so well, it plays just like a normal shoe. And that’s a good thing. The two midsoles offer distinct cushioning options, both of which are very good. Unfortunately, the bootie-based construction, which allows for easier switching of midsoles, doesn’t offer the heel lockdown that the best alternatives do. Still, the AJ 2011 is an easy recommendation for players looking for a versatile performer, and is in a class of its own when it comes to materials and finishing.

Available now: Air Jordan 2011