By now many of us are familiar with the story of how Jordan ended up reluctantly partnering with Nike and how the Air Jordan brand almost never got off the ground.
In 1984, Converse was the shoe brand of choice for the NBA. Names like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Dr. J all wore and promoted the Converse brand. Jordan wasn’t convinced that he wanted to partner with a company already heavy with NBA stars and the necessary commitments to those players.
MJ’s preference at the time was Adidas, but Adidas wasn’t in a position to put the finances and resources behind a basketball shoe, even if they believed that a young Jordan was about to be the next big thing in the NBA.
That left Nike as the best of the rest and we all know how the story plays out from there.
Nike signed Jordan to a $500,000 / year contract over five years. Internally Nike had a sales goal of reaching $3M in sales by the end of the fourth year of the contract.
Instead, Nike sold over $120M worth of shoes in Year 1 and it is believed Jordan has made over $1.3B (that’s a B for Billion) in his 35 plus years of partnering with Nike.
If Jordan signed with Nike reluctantly, LeBron’s partnership with the famous swoosh company was anything but.
Reports suggest that Adidas was better prepared for LeBron than it was for Jordan and they came to the table with a $60M offer for King James.
It is also reported that Reebok offered 18 year old LBJ, who had yet to play a game in the NBA, a $115 Million contract.
Instead LeBron took less short term money, signing with Nike for $90 Million dollars over seven years. (Some reports suggest LBJ’s first deal was either $87M or $90M and some also mention a $10M signing bonus, making the deal worth closer to $100M)
Since the original contract, Nike and LBJ have signed another long term deal together, so long term in fact, that they announced it as a lifetime partnership.
Although official details of the lifetime partnership are not public, it is suggested that if LeBron can keep selling his shoes into retirement, he will eventually earn more than 1B (again, that’s a B) from his Nike partnership alone.
However, when it comes to shoe sales and taking our G.O.A.T. debate off the court, this one is pretty easy to pick a winner.
In 2019 LeBron reportedly earned $32M from his partnership with Nike, which was the largest endorsement deal of any active NBA player.
Jordan, who has been retired for over 15 years, earned a reported $130M from his partnership with Nike in 2019 alone.
More than four times what LBJ pocketed.
Advantage – MJ.
But what about the actual shoes? Sales dollars aside, which brand and which model resonates with you?
Our deep and talented team of NBA experts have spent a lot of time researching the numerous Air Jordan and Nike LeBron shoe styles. For this exercise we have put together a list of our favourite styles of shoe from each player.
Below, we will compare these iconic shoes Head to Head and declare a basketball shoe G.O.A.T once and for all.
4th Place Match – Air Jordan IV vs LeBron IX
Air Jordan IV
Nike released the AJ 4 in 1989 and it was the first Air Jordan shoe to be released on the global market. MJ also happened to be wearing these when he hit “the shot” over Craig Ehlo at the buzzer.
Nike released the LeBron 9 late in 2011. LeBron had taken his talents to South Beach a couple years earlier and this was the shoe he wore when defeating the Oklahoma Thunder for his first NBA Championship.
Experts Decision – The Shot over Ehlo is very cool, but LBJ getting it done for the first time while wearing the sweet LeBron 9’s is too compelling a storyline to vote against.
Our 4th place winner is the LeBron 9.
3rd Place Match – Air Jordan XI vs LeBron X
Air Jordan XI
This is the shoe MJ wore while the Bulls dominated the league in ‘95 – ’96, finishing the regular season 72-10 and beating the Sonics for the NBA Championship. NBAMATH.com ranks the ‘95 – ’96 Bulls as the greatest team in NBA history. The shoe itself was designed to have the look of a convertible sports car.
These shoes were released in the summer of 2012, just after LBJ had won a championship with Miami and just before he was about to win a Gold Medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Names like LBJ, Durant, Kobe, Harden, Carmelo and a decent supporting cast helped Team USA defend their 2008 Gold Medal.
Experts Decision – Wow, this is tough. You have one of the greatest Olympic teams of all time going up against the greatest team in NBA history. Our experts agonized over picking between these two shoes. Ultimately, the Air Jordan 11’s won out after a long debate. Maybe if Team USA had blown out the Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka led Spaniards for Gold, instead of the tightly contested 107-100 win, the decision would have been reversed.
Our 3rd place winner is the Air Jordan 11’s.
2nd Place Match – Air Jordan I vs LeBron VIII
Air Jordan I
“The shoe the NBA banned.” You want to talk about history, legacy, remembering where it all started, this shoe is freaking it. Every time MJ stepped on the court wearing these shoes, he was fined $5000 for breaking uniform rules. Of course Nike gladly picked up the tab on all those fines. The publicity and marketing benefits they received from being the Bad Boys of the sneaker world far outweighed the cost of the fines. MJ did his part on the court as well and the Air Jordan brand had officially taken flight after Jordan’s rookie season.
Along with being majestic eye-candy for shoe lovers, the LeBron 8’s have a great backstory to tell. The 8’s were released after our hero LBJ had turned his back on his hometown state of Ohio and decided to take his talents to South Beach. Nike now had to deal with concerns about how the general public would react to LeBron’s very public dumping of the Cavaliers. Just incase Cavs fans didn’t get to watch LBJ’s “The Decision” on National TV, Nike released a limited edition of the LeBron 8’s and called them the “South Beach.” (more on the South Beach shoes below) The South Beach LeBron 8’s were made to remind the world that LBJ was not in Ohio anymore.
Experts Decision – Our experts loved this matchup! You have Nike and MJ giving the metaphorical finger to David Stern and the NBA. Despite the leagues attempt to quiet the very loud Air Jordan 1’s, Jordan continued to wear them and the general public bought them at a pace and volume unheard of at the time.
Not to be outdone, LBJ had turned heel, turning his back on his hometown state of Ohio and flipping his own metaphorical finger to his former fans in Cleveland. We love a good wrestling heel-turn and LBJ shocked the world in a way we hadn’t seen since Andre the Giant walked into Piper’s Pit and ripped the chain off Hulk Hogans neck.
Unfortunately for the LeBron 8’s, sometimes you come across a Giant that is just too big to take on. In this case, that Giant is the AJ 1’s.
Our second place winner is the Air Jordan 1, but this vote was closer than most people assume.
LeBron VIII South Beach
Here is the limited first edition of the LeBron 8’s. Their warm colors were meant to represent the warm colors associated with Miami. They were also named the “South Beach.” We get it LBJ, you aren’t in Cleveland anymore. Can’t imagine a lot of people in Ohio were spotted wearing these beauties.
1st Place Match – Air Jordan III vs LeBron VII
Air Jordan III
We toyed with the idea of giving this post an R rating because of the Air Jordan 3 shoe. This might be the closest thing to shoe pornography we can find, without actually google searching “shoe porn” and seeing what pops up. (We are not recommending you do that!) Not only did the AJ 3’s introduce us to the Jumpman logo (bye bye Swoosh) but they also introduced the world to Mars Blackmon and one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time. “Is it the shoes? It’s gotta be the shoes!”
Released in 2009, the LeBron 7’s are thought of by many as the LeBron shoe that put LeBron shoes on the cultural map. LeBron unveiled these shoes while walking the red carpet at the premiere of his documentary “More Than Just A Game.” The 7’s were the first LBJ shoe using the famous Nike “Air Max cushioning.”. The flywire technology used was an attempt at making the shoe lighter and increasing its overall performance. There were exactly 23 wires used in the design, representing the number LBJ was wearing at the time in Cleveland. Another cool feature of the LeBron 7’s was the hologram icon located at the bottom of the shoe, where the words passion, fearless, tradition, community, family, loyalty can be read.
With respect to LBJ and his many great lines of footwear, our panel of experts were unanimous in their decision to vote the Air Jordan 3’s as the winner of this contest and declaring the AJ 3’s as the greatest basketball shoe of all time. Yes, the LBJ 7’s caught the attention of shoe fans world wide when LeBron was spotted wearing them on the red carpet. However, here we are 30 years after the AJ 3’s were released and old timers like myself can still be heard repeating the famous Mars Blackmon line “It’s gotta be the shoes.”
Not to mention these shoes hung on bedroom walls for years as part of the famous Free Throw Line dunk poster.