words // Zac Dubasik
When the Air Jordan XX8 was unveiled to the public for the first time last December, it was introduced along with the concept of “stealth.” During the design process, when the theme was taken to MJ, he pulled no punches when explaining what the concept meant to him. “Stealth is like Black Cat. It’s an ultimate aircraft. You never hear it coming, but it’s deadly as hell. You don’t ‘F’ with stealth. My game is like that. When you see it, it’s too ‘F-ing’ late.” The concept of stealth could even be tied in to the fact that the shoe was the first Air Jordan of the blog-era to not leak beforehand.
But while “stealth” may have defined the shoe’s design aesthetic, and even the unveiling, beneath it all, this is basically a shoe you’ve seen before. A much better version than you’ve seen before, but still a shoe who’s lasting impression comes more from its refinements rather than breaking entirely new ground.
Since it’s impossible to look at the Air Jordan XX8 without taking note of it’s sky-high height, let’s start there. The Air Jordan line has been a pioneer in collar heights, dating back to the mid-cut of the III. “This time, instead of being the first one to be a mid-cut, this is going to be the first one to ever be an eight-inch tall basketball shoe,” explained Tinker Hatfield. “We’re using these super lightweight materials so we can make it still a very lightweight, high-performance shoe, but it’s eight inches tall. And it has the silhouette of a military boot – something that you’d see in battle.”
As tall as it may look though, the XX8 more or less plays like a low-top. You may feel a bit of proprioceptive reassurance when the collar is fully zipped, but it offers basically nothing in terms of support. And that’s just fine, because as we’ve learned over the past few years of low-tops becoming more widely accepted on the court, the real support comes from controlling the heel and cradling the midfoot, rather than collar height.
That means the majority of the support and control comes from what’s hidden under the shoe’s shroud, which is basically a low-top inner shoe. The dynamic fit inner system is composed of a heavy mesh sleeve, with five finger-like straps, which wrap up from the midsole, and provide a fit that’s both fully supportive, and extremely comfortable. With only five eyelets, it almost seems like there aren’t enough to provide the necessary lockdown, but it somehow works. It works so well, in fact, that the midfoot lockdown offers enough stability that it allows the toe area to have minimal support. That allows the toes to spread more naturally, which increases comfort and court feel, without sacrificing performance. When combined with the carbon fiber external heel and forefoot counters, I felt locked in at all the right places, yet unrestricted.
One important note here is that the shoe runs large. I’d recommend starting a half-size smaller than what you normally wear. Jordan Brand has stuck with the traditional, generally accommodating QF-8 last, which they’ve used on all recent Game shoes. This means the shoe will fit more people than the sleeker lasts used by Nike Basketball, but it won’t fit as close as say, a Kobe model. There's a little more volume in the toe box and a slightly wider overall fit. And with the particular construction and method of support utilized by this shoe, the right fit is extremely important. A half size big will have your foot moving around too much for proper lockdown. So, if you have the luxury of trying a pair on first, take advantage of it.
One last note on the shoe's upper, is the outer sleeve’s lack of breathability. The material itself may breath, but it’s adding a layer, which means the whole shoe gets that much hotter. I accepted a long time ago that regardless of a shoe’s breathability, my feet will be soaked by the time I get done playing. And that’s fine. I always look at breathability as a bonus for me. If it’s there, great. If not, it doesn’t affect how much I like a shoe.
But the Air Jordan XX8, with its extra layers, never seemed to dry out. Almost every time I put them on, they would still be wet from the day before. And that’s not a particularly pleasant experience – especially when the shoe is so comfortable otherwise. Faster drying materials would have been a major improvement, assuming they didn’t impact the shoe’s playability otherwise.
The shoe’s upper might be what draws all the attention, but it’s the midsole that puts it over the top. Zoom Air has been around since the mid-‘90s, and is basically our benchmark for what’s possible in basketball cushioning. We are pushing 20 years, and nothing new that has come out since has topped it. But with the method it was integrated here, thanks to the new Flight Plate system, Zoom has become even better.
It’s still Zoom Air, still the same reactive fibers embedded in an air unit, but thanks to a more holistic system, you are able to get more out of it than ever before. “The basic system is all around compression, deflection, and ultimately moderation,” explained the shoe’s developer, Josh Heard. “Zoom Air bags by themselves are extremely energy efficient. The problem was the way we had used Zoom Air bags in the past. We would encapsulate them in foam and what not, and it would lock up all the energy. So what we did was we unlocked the Zoom. We unleashed the Zoom. We’ve cored out foam all around the Zoom Air bags, so literally you are stepping directly on Zoom when you are getting that first, initial feel. The outsole also helps, as I said, piston that effect. And then we have a moderator plate on top, that eliminates any bumps or hot spots under the foot. So, it’s moderated all the way through, and you get that nice, comfortable smooth feel.”
The change may seem small, but the results were immediately noticeable. You can feel “more” Zoom, without the use of “bigger” Zoom, such as the full-length Max Zoom bag found in the LeBron X. That means more responsiveness, with better court feel. Cushioning and court feel typically have an inverse relationship. As one increases, the other deceases. But thanks to this new system, protection and flexibility increased simultaneously. When combined with an outstanding midfoot shank, the Air Jordan XX8 was simply one of the best playing experiences I’ve ever had. They flex where needed, support where needed, provide responsive cushioning where needed, and have zero break-in time. I can’t think of a performance shoe that’s ever felt as good right out of the box. With the only exception possibly coming from the traction improving over the first few wearings, the shoe was basically as good on my first run as the twentieth.
Other than the aforementioned breathability issues, price, and sizing, the only other negative I found with the Air Jordan XX8 was a potential durability issue. The first two pairs I played in were early sample runs, and I had separation issues with the shroud on both. I noticed some tearing right where the fuse layer met the shroud at the toe, which you can see in detail below.
My third pair was from the actual production run, and even after an extended testing period, I experienced no problems on that pair. It’s very possible that these issues were addressed, and that you will have no problems with retail pairs. I’d also like to see Jordan Brand move at some point to a sleeker last for their Game shoes. But thanks to the widespread appeal of the Jordan Brand name, I have doubts that they’ll ever switch to a more refined last shape, when that could mean it will fit less players.
The good news is that through innovative fit systems like the one found here, you can still achieve a great fit – it just might take some experimenting with sizing. I eventually found a great fit when I put my orthotics directly over the standard insoles, rather than in place of the standard insoles, which I usually do. That gave me an effect similar to sizing down, and eliminated the slipping I initially felt.
The $250 price of the Air Jordan XX8 will probably be a deterrent to a lot of potential buyers. At one point in time, the $200 Air Jordan XVII seemed impossibly high, and at least it came in a metal briefcase. Calling the XX8 a “deal” would be inaccurate. There are exceptionally good performing shoes available for less than half the price. If you want the best shoe of the season, this is it. If price is no object, or only the best will do, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the XX8 for a second. If you are more sensitive to price, but still care about performance, I’d probably recommend skipping a retro or two, and still looking at these. I liked playing in them that much. I can’t think of another shoe I’ve played in that addressed both performance and comfort this equally. The Air Jordan XX8 isn’t perfect, but if you can find a size that fits, its imperfections are minimal.
designer: Tinker Hatfield
colorway tested: Electric Green / White
best for: most players other than larger forwards and centers
key tech: Flight Plate system with heel and forefoot Zoom Air, Carbon Fiber midfoot shank and heel counter, Dynamic Fit inner sleeve
pros: comfort; cushioning; transition; fit; zero break-in time
cons: breathability; durability; sizing
improvements: more breathable outer sleeve, more true sizing
buying advice: As shocking as the looks of the Air Jordan XX8 are, what makes it such a great shoe are refinements on tried and true principles. Zoom Air and a carbon fiber shank have never felt so effective. Excluding the Sport Pack editions of the LeBron X, which no one actually wanted for the Sport Pack integration, the Air Jordan XX8 is the most expensive shoe out this season. And while there are much better choices from a value standpoint, if you want the absolute best, regardless of cost, the XX8 is an easy recommendation. Also, if you are unable to try a pair on before buying, plan on going down at least a half size as a starting point.
Tinker Hatfield (left) and Josh Heard (right):