Gerard Starkey is a Sports Memorabilia Expert and the Co-Founder of SAAS (Sports Authority Authentication Services). Gerard has always been a fan of Michael Jordan and the shoes he donned on the basketball court. Over the last 20+ years, Gerard has built one of the most valuable and complete MJ Player Exclusive/game worn collections in the world, and has been featured in Highsnobiety and elsewhere as one of the preeminent MJ collectors. He lives in London with his family.
In October 2021, a pair of Michael Jordan game-worn Nike Air Ships sold for a record $1.47 million at Sotheby’s, making them the most valuable pair of sneakers to ever sell at auction, and the first pair of game-worn sneakers to break $1 million at auction.
While the Air Ships are certainly an amazing piece of MJ memorabilia, I’d like to make the case that the ”Shattered Backboard AJ1’s” are actually an even more exciting piece of MJ memorabilia. Let’s try to unpack and break down why I feel this way, and, in so doing, hopefully lend more insight into how collectors like to evaluate sports memorabilia.
As outlined in our beginner’s guide to sports memorabilia, some of the most common drivers of demand for memorabilia are:
- associated athlete’s or era’s historical and cultural significance
- story and emotional resonance that the piece represents
- autographs or signatures and other special features
Here’s a handy quick table comparison:
|Air Ships||Shattered Backboards|
|Price||$1.47m – October 2021||$615k – August 2020|
|Cultural significance (of design)||Nike brand history — the Black & Red model was the predecessor to the famous Air Jordan 1 and the “true” Banned Shoe||More widely known as MJ’s signature shoe — classic Chicago Bulls colorway, “official” Air Jordan 1’s|
|Story & emotional resonance||MJ’s earliest known regular season game-worn Nikes — like a “rookie” card pair of shoes||Game-worn during an iconic sports history moment, when MJ shattered the backboard during gameplay|
|Autographs & unique features||– Good, legible signatures; personalized to a ball boy
– Heel branded with “Air”, vs. other Air Ships typically branded “Air Jordan” or “Nike Air”
|– Good, legible signatures
– Left shoe has a piece of glass in the sole from the shattered backboard
|Rarity||While the Sotheby’s game-worn pair is 1 of 1, it is estimated that 6-8 pairs of MJ game-issued Nike Air Ships exist in the White Red Colourway (some branded “Air” and some “Nike Air”)||While the game-worn Shattered Backboards are 1 of 1, it is estimated that 2-3 Chicago Air Jordan 1 Highs were worn by MJ over his career (vs. the significantly more common AJ1 Chicago TYPS)|
|Authenticity||Reasonable photo-matching: 1-3 match points||Extensively photo-matched: 30-40 match points; uniquely, the full provenance (handover) is also photo-matched|
Let’s dive further into these points.
Associated athlete’s or era’s historical and cultural significance:
Michael Jordan and the Nike Air Jordan Brand
For both the Air Ships and the Backboards, the associated athlete’s historical and cultural significance is rather obvious. Michael Jordan is a legendary public figure, a household name both on and off the court. He is the central figure behind both of these shoes.
When comparing the two shoes on this dimension, one could argue that the Backboards better symbolize Micahel Jordan, as they feature the classic Chicago Bulls colorway and are “official” Air Jordan 1’s.
However, there is yet another dimension of cultural significance that can be considered: the significance of the shoes to Nike’s famous brand.
The Nike Airship was the predecessor to the Air Jordan that made Nike a household name. As covered in our guide to collecting Jordans: while a few other athletes had been the face of a sneaker, Air Jordans were the first to start a cultural frenzy, with a loyal fandom that remains unsurpassed.
Nike sold +40x their goal of the debut Air Jordans, reaching $126 million in year one. The sales were driven by some great marketing ploys—like the famous “banned shoe” ad campaign, centered on the NBA fining Jordan for wearing his Black and Red shoes on court and breaking the uniformity of uniform rule.
Sotheby’s highlights that the Nike Air Ship is a key part of the design legacy of the original Air Jordan. Additionally, they point out that the actual “banned shoe” that the NBA was concerned about was not the Air Jordan 1 at all. It was the colorful (Black and Red) Nike Air Ship—at the time of the ban, the official Air Jordan 1 model wasn’t ready for production yet.
The specific Air Ships that Nike issued to Jordan used the classic Nike Air Ship model and adjusted it with design elements that would make their way into what is now known as the TYPS Air Jordan 1—the Air Jordan 1 design that Michael Jordan predominantly wore in gameplay.
Thus, the MJ PE Air Ships could be seen as the original Michael Jordan Nike shoe and the predecessor to the iconic Air Jordan 1.
Story and emotional resonance that the piece represents:
Early Rookie games vs. the Shattered Backboard moment
The Nike Air Ships are attributed to Michael Jordan’s 5th NBA game (and potentially his 3rd), making them one of the earliest known regular season game-worn shoes on the market. The shoes thus represent Michael Jordan’s early rookie years and draw emotional resonance from this association, much like highly desirable rookie sports cards.
The Shattered Backboards are attributed to one of the most iconic Michael Jordan moments in history. Following his NBA rookie season, Michael Jordan participated in a Nike-sponsored exhibition game in Trieste, Italy, on August 25, 1985. Towards the end of the game, Jordan attacked the basket in transition and took off for a dunk. The force of his slam shattered the backboard, sending glass everywhere and the game was paused to clean it up. The Shattered Backboard shoes are the exact pair he wore during that legendary moment, which has resonated through time and also inspired a number of retro models.
Of course, one might argue that the “Shattered Backboard” moment only became important because of yet another Nike marketing ploy. In fairness, the exhibition game in which the backboard was shattered was relatively unknown until Nike publicized it years later. Meanwhile, the Air Ships are associated with Michael Jordan’s official NBA play.
My counter to this, however, would be that it doesn’t really matter how the “Shattered Backboard” moment became iconic, only that it is. Ask any sneakerhead, many who might not have even been alive in 1985, about iconic MJ moments. Many probably can’t name one from MJ’s rookie campaign. They all know the shattered backboard.
Autographs or signatures and other special features:
Signatures; Heel detail vs. embedded glass
Michael Jordan’s signature evolved drastically throughout his career. During his first few years in the NBA, Jordan’s signature was clearer, spelling out his full name. By the early 1990s, Jordan’s fame had exploded on a global scale, vastly increasing the demand for his autographed memorabilia. To compensate for volume, Jordan shortened his autograph and became more efficient, often coming at the cost of quality and legibility.
Overall, Michael Jordan’s signature/autograph changed the way autographed memorabilia was marketed to the hobby. In 1992, Jordan inked a deal with Upper Deck, giving them exclusive rights to the production of signed photos, jerseys, basketballs, sneakers and cards. By providing a guarantee of authenticity across the production of his new memorabilia, Jordan changed the way people collected autographs.
His earlier signatures can be significantly more valuable than his later signatures, which were mass produced.
The Nike Air Ships and the Shattered Backboards both bear Michael Jordan’s early signature, and both are considered “good” signatures to collectors. The letters are clearly visible, and a viewer can read and recognize Michael Jordan’s full name.
The Nike Air Ships signatures, however, are personalized for their original giftee: Denver Nuggets Ball Boy ‘TJ’ Lewis. To some collectors, a personalized signature can be less appealing if the person of address is not an important figure.
When examining other features, Sotheby’s notes that this particular pair of Nike Air Ships is unique from other pairs that have surfaced the market in that the heel only says “Air”, instead of “Nike Air”.
A special feature of the Shattered Backboards is that the left shoe still has a piece of glass embedded in its sole — a direct link to the emotional resonance of its associated story.
Both are game-worn and bear evident marks of game use.
Low numbers of game-issued and game-worn pairs for both shoes
While the Air Jordan 1 was still being designed, Nike supplied Jordan with a limited number of Nike Air Ships. Based on the number of documented games in which Michael Jordan wore Air Ships, It is estimated that there were 6-8 pairs of MJ PE Air Ships produced (“game issued”).
There are very few known examples of MJ wearing the Air Jordan 1 High — only 2-3 games documented.
Thus, a game worn pair of the Shattered Backboard model (Air Jordan 1 High Chicago) is more rare than a game worn pair of the Nike Air Ships. A game issued pair of the Air Jordan 1 High Chicago’s is also more rare, since after the Air Ships, Michael Jordan typically wore his customized TYPS model for gameplay.
Reasonable vs. extensive photo matching
As discussed in our guide, In the world of collecting, photo-matching is a key criteria in establishing the value of an sports memorabilia artifact because it verifies a particular piece’s game-worn authenticity.
The Nike Air Ships are reasonably photo-matched to Michael Jordan’s 5th NBA game, with 1-3 match points and a possible photo match to his 3rd NBA game as well.
The Shattered Backboards, meanwhile, are arguably the most extensively photo matched piece of sports memorabilia ever. That is, the shoes have an almost unparalleled number of unique match points on both shoes (over 30-40). In addition, not only is the game play photo matched, but also the handover of the shoes to fellow basketball player Gianni Bertolotti as well—a degree of authenticity and veracity of provenance not seen for any other shoe on the market. Not to mention the piece of glass from the shattered backboard embedded on the undersole.
In the end, as with fine art, there is a very personal and subjective aspect to valuations, and these two pairs are both clearly extremely impressive pieces of MJ memorabilia. The Nike Air Ships boast many desirable memorabilia attributes that explain their high figure sale, and serve as a great point of comparison to other sports memorabilia assets with similar attributes. To me though, Michael Jordan’s Shattered Backboard Air Jordan 1s are simply in a class of their own, and check all the boxes that a passionate collector like myself looks for.