How a ball boy ended up with rare shoes from Michael Jordan's rookie season

The Air Ships — the shoes MJ wore before the Air Jordan 1s — will be sold at auction this week

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The Air Ships are among the most valuable sneakers on the planet (Credit: REA)

In 1984, a Detroit Pistons ball boy was assigned to work the visiting team’s locker room at the Silverdome during an early-season matchup against the Chicago Bulls.

While going about his postgame duties, the NBA-obsessed teenager asked a rookie named Michael Jordan for his game-worn sneakers.

After dishing out some lighthearted ribbing — “What are you going to use them for, to put plants in them?” — Jordan agreed, taking the ball boy’s Bic pen and applying his signature to the game-worn shoes.

This wasn’t the only time the ball boy — a future Olympic Skier named Jason Edelmann — would use his inside-access to obtain game-worn sneakers from his idols after games. He was able to do the same with more than a dozen players, including Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Robert Parish and Sidney Moncrief.

But, as anyone with even a passing interest in the topic would immediately surmise, it’s the game-worn Jordan sneakers which loom largest in Edelmann's vast collection, 21 pairs of which are being sold by Robert Edward Auctions this week.

While the assumption that MJ’s sneakers are the most valuable of the lot would be correct, the backstory behind those shoes from Jordan’s rookie campaign is a more complicated one.

Before there were Air Jordan 1s ...

After Nike beat adidas and Converse to land Jordan as an endorser, they built his rookie campaign around a rebel image.

The first Air Jordan commercial dramatically pans down from Jordan’s face to his sneakers. While the sound of a bouncing basketball echoes in the background, a voiceover is played:

“On September 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. October 18, the NBA threw them out of the league.”

In effect, Nike was building a brand around their superstar that separated him from the NBA as an individual, and subtly asking fans to pick a side. The issue with Nike’s “rebellion” advertising is that it was revisionist history.

Early Air Jordan 1 commercials painted a picture of the NBA cracking down on MJ for wearing black and red Air Jordan 1s. A fine was said to be issued, with Nike picking up the tab on Jordan’s behalf — portraying the sneakers as an act of defiance against the establishment.

But there was a problem with that story about the Oct. 18 game. While the game did take place — it was a preseason matchup against the Knicks — and Jordan did play … he was definitely not wearing the Air Jordan 1s.

MJ was wearing something called the Nike Air Ships.

It wouldn’t be crazy to mistake the Air Ships with an earlier Nike release, the Air Force 1s

Both were designed by Bruce Kilgore and are dotted with commonalities ranging from a high-top design all the way down to the raised lettering on its sole.

Kilgore’s AF-1s were released in 1982, blazing a technological path that would shape sneaker design to this very day. It was Kilgore’s first attempt at a basketball sneaker, and it took the full might of Nike’s DCEC committee — which consisted of a wide array of scientists including an aerospace engineer named Frank Rudy.

Rudy had previously been responsible for pitching Nike on the idea of a pocket of air to cushion their sneaker designs.

First introduced with the Nike Air Tailwind in 1979, that same system would be implemented in Kilgore’s AF-1s, making them the first basketball shoe with Nike’s “Air Technology.”

The same innovations were carried over into Kilgore’s next design, the Nike Air Ships. What was in retrospect a stop-gap between the AF-1 and Air Jordan 1, the Air Ships could have been reduced to a mere piece of trivia for sneaker heads. But as it so happened, the Air Ships would go down in history as the sneakers worn by Michael Jordan in his first-ever NBA games.

Though for years, Nike kept them a secret.

Edelmann had no idea about the Air Ships when he asked MJ for his sneakers way back in 1984. In fact, he wasn’t even a collector. “I primarily asked for the shoes because I thought they were cool, and I looked up to all of these players. In hindsight, I wished I had asked more players for their shoes,” Edelmann said.

Because details like that ruin great storytelling, Nike tried to erase the Air Ships from memory. Despite Jordan only wearing the Air Jordan 1s in an NBA game for the first time in late November of his rookie year, they became known as his first NBA shoe.

The myth carried Nike to the March 1985 retail launch of the Air Jordan 1s, marking the first in a line of sneakers that rivaled Jordan’s on-court greatness in popularity and has dominated in terms of longevity.

Nike stuck to its story for decades — never releasing a retro or mentioning the Air Ships at all.

The company essentially rewrote history.

Finally, the Jordan Brand Twitter account posted a photo of MJ wearing Air Ships on the 30th anniversary of his NBA debut.

Not long after, the earliest known regular-season pair of Jordan’s game-worn sneakers came up for auction at Sotheby’s. The red and white Air Ships were signed by Jordan and matched to his fifth NBA game in 1984. After decades in the dark, the Air Ships became the first pair of sneakers to ever sell at auction for more than $1 million. They shattered the record, with bidding ending at nearly $1.5 million.

This caught Edelmann’s eye. He knew his pair of game-worn Jordans were valuable, but now he knew for sure.

Though unable to photo-match the sneakers, they were believed to be worn by MJ during one of two visits the Bulls made to Detroit during the early part of his rookie campaign: Nov. 7, 1984, (MJ’s sixth game) or Dec. 12. If the sneakers were worn during the November matchup, that would make them the second-earliest pair of game-worn sneakers from Jordan’s NBA career to ever sell.

Though subsequent sales of the Nike Air Ships have shown a decline from that eye-popping result, it’s still incredibly rare to see a pair at auction, let alone one never-before-seen by the public.

“I hung them on the walls in my room when I was a kid,” Edelmann said. “I knew his were the best ones that I had received so I put them in the center of the collection on my walls.”

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.