words // Nick DePaula
as published in the May iPad Issue of Sole Collector Magazine, available now on the Apple Newsstand

We're clearly in the middle of a fairly exciting NBA playoff run right now. Thanks to a few injuries and some lopsided matchups, it wasn't exactly a legendary first round across the board, but after a quick 66 games, the many storylines into the postseason are picking up. Will LeBron win his first title? Will KD steal the spotlight and get his? Are we overlooking the Spurs and Celtics because of the fact that they’re old as hell? Can Kobe tie MJ with a sixth?

From a pure sport perspective, the stories are there. From a sneaker perspective, things are less defined. While adidas yet again launched the lightest shoe ever for the second year in a row and Nike Basketball launched the most expensive shoe ever, what was once the most looked-upon brand for innovation after innovation – not to mention championship after championship and on-court moment after moment – is all but invisible.

Michael was never a no-show in the playoffs, but nowadays, his brand is. With simplistic color twists atop their largely underwhelming in-season models, we aren't seeing the signature lines of the brand's three monster assets veer any one direction. Adidas is clearly defining itself as the brand of lightweight innovation with their adiZero stable. Nike Basketball is ramping things up across all facets of design, from construction to materials and even the most miniscule of design cues for the slightest of performance. Minor upgrades to laces and insole textures? They went there. For Jordan Brand, it's more of the same; more piggy-backing off of Nike Basketball's proven technologies and becoming less and less about the brand's true identity and heritage.

A heritage that included the game shoe.

Despite the never-ending mess of re-appropriated lifestyle silhouettes, bland team shoes and watered-down Retro models that make up the product portfolio nowadays, at one point in time, this brand was about one shoe. Year after year – one amazing shoe. It released in a handful of colorways each season. It was worn by the greatest player, pitchman, competitor and winner that our generation ever saw – and it was worn in the NBA Playoffs.

Regardless of what anyone says about the League's All-Star Weekend (or the fact that February 17th is definitely a meaningful day), it's the playoffs where shoes can really become legendary and where the shoe needs to re-focus its attention. Monday, May 7th marked the 23rd anniversary of Michael's shot to capture Game 5 from the Cleveland Cavaliers as the Bulls began to take the first steps towards becoming a playoff contender. The damn thing is even called “The Shot,” and the IVs on Jordan's feet have lived on for decades, highlight after highlight, poster after poster.

But where is the game shoe now? It has launched in February for the past few years with an overly complex performance story, is worn for a half or two by some guys on the brand's fledgling non-signature team roster, and truthfully isn't seen again on an NBA court. It's definitely not seen in the NBA Playoffs on anyone that matters, and that's a damn shame. Instead, guys like Melo, CP and DWade are in their own shoes, and second-tier brand guys like Ray Allen, Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson and others have been wearing largely forgettable team models. Ray did actually wear the Air Jordan 2012 last night in Philly, a first this postseason.

When Ray Allen won a title in 2008, he was wearing the Jumpman T.G.I.M. Is anyone on the hunt for the T.G.I.M. these days? Do you have any lasting memories of that shoe? You probably have no clue off hand what it even looks like, or what the letters even stand for. This year, they’re all wearing the P.I.T. Any guesses on that one? Aside from the title, Ray’s biggest moment on court since then came last spring when he broke Reggie Miller’s career 3-point record. He wore a special colorway of the Retro 13 for the occasion, though the Air Jordan 2011 definitely could’ve used the help.

It'd be one thing if the game shoe was still successful at retail, sought after by collectors and anticipated each year like we all remember it to be. Maybe then it’d make sense to have team guys wearing team shoes to help out the rest of the brand. Unfortunately, the annual Air Jordan has lost nearly all of the cache, mystique and industry-furthering purpose that it once held. And the numbers aren't lying. The Air Jordan 2012 is the worst-selling game shoe of the entire series. Yes, even worse than the 2009.

You can blame the abysmal sales on a variety of factors, whether it was the fact that it was hugely overshadowed in February thanks to Nike Basketball’s thoughtful “Galaxy” theme, or that the shoe had a six-part modularity story, a premium $185 price point and an overly synthetic appearance. Most of all though, the shoe isn’t on court any more, and as fans, we lose the appreciation and attachment that comes so naturally and in theory, easily, in the footwear business.

People love signature products. My favorite shoes growing up – the Zoom Flight 95, Penny II, Kamikaze II, Shaqnosis and later on, the Hyperflight – were great sneakers and worn by awesome players like Jason Kidd, Penny Hardaway, Shawn Kemp, Shaq and Jason Williams. Having that connecting point between the fan, the player and the brand is something that Jordan has struggled to balance ever since Michael retired.  

A lot of that legacy has veered off path since the shoe no longer went by a Roman numeral name, and in the past four years, we’re seeing the Air Jordan worn less and less on court, and definitely worn less and less during the playoffs. Aside from Ray's 2012 cameo last night, two other players have worn the 2012 this postseason for a grand total of less than a handful of times. Those players are Mike Bibby and Jared Jeffries, and they’re not inspiring anyone to buy anything.

Should the brand look at having signature athletes like Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul wear their own model to start the year, and then close out the season in the game shoe? It’s definitely worth an internal discussion or two, because as it stands, the shoe is launching in February and already forgotten by the end of March. That’s no way to further the aspirational legacy that the Air Jordan embodied as it pushed design, technology, culture and memorable sport moments all in a single model. If the brand wants to see the annual Air Jordan return to the level it was at when we all fell in love with it, the road to getting the game shoe back on track begins by having it worn on court by players that matter, when it matters most.