Not even retirement can separate the man from the shoes

It's been 20, count 'em, 20 long years since Michael Jordan launched Air Jordans. So why do kids today still buy them?

In any size, it made a mighty footprint. Twenty years ago, the Air Jordan basketball shoe squeaked onto polished hardwood and scuffed across urban pavement.

It has stuck around. Earlier this month, Air Jordan XX was unveiled at the NBA All-Star Game, a testament, observers say, to meticulous brand management and perennial product reinvention.

In the sports-marketing arena, where stars inevitably fade, along with their marketability, the Michael Jordan story stands apart. The player that launched the shoe has so far withstood personal trials and celebrity's big enemy - the passage of time.

"Jordan is no longer a person, it's an icon," explains Drew Neisser, president and chief executive officer of Renegade Marketing Group in New York. "Today's teens aren't buying Air Jordans because of Michael, they're buying them because of what the brand represents - unparalleled greatness."

Jordan, His Airness - the elegant athlete who inspired the shoe and a subsequent clothing line - has become as much a symbol of Nike as its famous "swoosh" logo.

In fact, the Beaverton, Ore., sports-apparel giant spun off Jordan as its own division in 1997. That arm has become a $500 million baby. Its logo, the Jumpman, renders Jordan's in-flight silhouette - that familiar, splayed-legged form he assumed during those tongue-wagging, leap-from-the-foul-line dunks.

Nike owes much to the high-flying Jordan. By 1985 Converse had won a cult following for its canvas-sided Chuck Taylor All Stars. But these new Nikes - high-topped and a little clunky in leather, often in Chicago Bulls red and black - swiftly became the wider youth market's first must-have pair of kicks. Urban youths, in particular, clamored for a chance to be like Mike in the $100 shoes, and sometimes clashed over pairs.

Those fights have ended, shifted to other must-haves. But the appeal - amazingly - has not. Michael Jordan has been called the game's greatest player. Still, after a couple of retirements, and side trips into professional baseball and NBA management, the highlight reels have faded.

Jordan (the company) maintains that the player's legacy remains intact. "Everything he has done has turned to gold, whether it was on the court or off," says Gentry Humphrey, the firm's director of footwear and apparel marketing.

But Jordan has not always been a model of marketability. There were highly publicized forays into gambling, for example, and an admitted extramarital affair.

Some point out Jordan has kept a remarkably low profile in recent years. "I'm really not sure what's going to happen now that Jordan is not on the scene," says Velma LaPoint, a professor of human development at Howard University who watches youth marketing. "It's going be interesting to see what kind of money [Air Jordan XX] makes."

Looking ahead, Professor LaPoint sees more emphasis on cross-marketing by youth-culture influencers, including some from beyond basketball. Hip-hop artists, she and others note, have as much sway as sports stars in selling athletic gear.

Also, a new constellation of young stars exists within the NBA. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony exhibit skill and charisma. Both are under contract with Jordan; Mr. Humphrey calls them "hand selected" by Michael Jordan to carry the torch.

Other stars wear other brands, and more players stand in the wings. Tim Duncan is reportedly poised to launch D-Cool for Adidas. Allen Iverson and Yao Ming are said to be slipping into new versions of the old Reebok Pump shoe.

It is unclear, however, whether any will match Michael Jordan's level of involvement - or come up with anything as bold as the Air Jordan series.

Air Jordan XI, for example, featured highlights in patent leather. Air Jordan XVII ($200) came packed in a briefcase that included a CD-ROM with clips of the design process.

The Air Jordan XX - designed by Tinker Hatfield, who also crafted Nos. III through XV - has a laser-etched strap adorned with what a Jordan press release calls a "tattoolike" pattern of icons representing highlights from Jordan's career.

Alex Wang already owns a pair of XXs. In fact, he owns a pair of each Air Jordan generation back to Air Jordan I, whose release he was too young to remember. A sneaker collector in the San Francisco area, he was 12 in 1989, when Air Jordan IV came out, and those remain his favorites.

Wang sounds as enthused about the player as he is about the shoes, brushing aside mentions of Jordan's shortcomings. "Nobody's perfect," he says, "and that's his personal life."

Separating the man from the shoes has been so difficult that Nike even had some fun with the effort in a 1989 television ad.

In it, Michael Jordan faces down a ball-playing character played by Spike Lee who had been trying to finger the root cause of Jordan's prowess. "It's not the shoes," Jordan says in a line that became a catch phrase. Humphreys laughs when he is fed the line in a telephone interview.

"We always like to say it's the shoes," he says. "But, you know, I think it's really Michael."

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