By Aaron Dodson, The Undefeated
Michael Jordan had a nickname for Anfernee Hardaway — and it wasn’t Penny.
“He called me ‘Kid,’ ” said Hardaway, at 47 the head coach of the University of Memphis men’s basketball team. It’s been 25 years since Hardaway decided to forgo his senior year at the school — where he’d emerged as a consensus first-team All-American, averaging 22.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.4 steals a game as a junior — to declare for the 1993 NBA draft. The 6-foot-7, silky smooth point guard had game like Magic Johnson’s, but with far more athleticism. He was taken at No. 3 overall by the Golden State Warriors, a pick that was traded to the Orlando Magic on draft night in a blockbuster deal for the top overall selection, Chris Webber.
Alongside a young and dominant big man in Shaquille O’Neal, Hardaway became the floor general of the future in Orlando. But during the 1993-94 season, his first year in the NBA, he never got a chance to lace ’em up against the greatest hooper on the planet. That’s because on Oct. 6, 1993, a month before Hardaway’s rookie debut, Jordan announced his (first) retirement from the game of basketball to mourn the tragic murder of his father, James Jordan, and pursue a major league baseball career. As Jordan grinded in the minors with a bat and cleats, the 22-year-old Hardaway caught his attention on the hardwood.
“Michael expressed to a lot of people that he had the utmost respect for my game,” Hardaway remembered, “ … and kind of deemed me the next kid coming up in the league.” Eventually, the greatest of all time and the prodigy would meet on the huge stage of the 1995 NBA playoffs. That’s when, for the first and only time in an NBA game during his career, Jordan wore another player’s sneakers. They were Hardaway’s — and this is that story.
It all began during Hardaway’s rookie season, when all you had to do was look at his feet to know that he had the ultimate co-sign from His Airness. Hardaway, who was signed to Nike, asked if the brand would make him custom pairs of Air Jordan 9s. Jordan obliged, which made the Magic point guard one of the first players in the NBA (outside of Jordan himself) to wear player-exclusive (PE) Air Jordans. Remember — it wasn’t until 1997 that Nike officially launched the Jordan Brand, and Jordan hand-picked the first five players to endorse his products. Hardaway received pairs of Jordan 9 PEs, in black and white, accented with Magic blue and his No. 1 stitched on the heel of each shoe.
“I really liked the shoe,” Hardaway said from his team’s practice facility in Memphis, Tennessee, where he still has one of the original pairs of PEs in the attic of his house. “I liked the look. So I’d asked if I could start getting those with my number. It was pretty cool, actually.” Come Hardaway’s second year in the league, he was the face of the Nike Air Flight One, as the brand crafted his first signature shoe, the Air Max Penny 1, which wouldn’t debut until late 1995.
In March of that year, Jordan returned to the NBA after a 17-month retirement to once again play for the Chicago Bulls. Yet by then, there had been two big changes in the culture of the league. First, Jordan had switched from No. 23 to No. 45, which he wore while playing in the minors. And the Bulls were no longer the beast in the East. The Magic, led by the player Jordan knew was next up, emerged as the conference’s top seed heading into the 1995 playoffs.
“I remember asking for a pair right before that series started,” Hardaway said of the Concords, which the Jordan Brand rereleased Saturday — with the No. 45 on the heels for the first time. “I got some and wore them to games throughout the whole series. … I was in awe of how great the shoe looked. The patent leather on there was unreal. It was futuristic, you know? That shoe was phenomenal.”
Hardaway recalls wearing his Concords (which had No. 23 on the heels, not No. 45 like Jordan’s pair) in practice during the series, but he said he never considered rocking them in a game. “It wouldn’t have felt right,” he said. Perhaps that’s because there was some drama surrounding the shoe. After debuting them in Chicago’s 94-91 loss to Orlando in Game 1, Jordan wore the Concords again in Game 2. But this time with his No. 23 jersey, to which he’d returned, likely in response to the shade heard ’round the basketball world — “No. 45 is not No. 23.” — delivered by Orlando’s Nick Anderson in the locker room after the series opener.
“You kind of thought that was gonna happen. We whispered things like, ‘At some point during the playoffs, he’s gonna come out in 23’ — and he did,” Hardaway said. “Nick and I have never talked about his comments. But M.J. doesn’t miss anything. He’ll use anything as motivation. … It was about … ‘This is who I am. I’m not No. 45. That was baseball. Now I’m back to being who I am: No. 23.’ And he had a monster game in Game 2.” Jordan dropped 38 points, with 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals and 4 blocks, propelling Chicago to even the series at 1-1.
After two games in the Concords, Jordan was slapped with a $5,000 fine by the NBA for wearing the primarily white shoes, which violated the league’s uniform guidelines by not conforming to his team’s jerseys or footwear. So before Game 3, Jordan had a decision to make. With a primarily black version of the Air Jordan 11 not yet available to him, which sneakers would he wear? Jordan could’ve returned to the Air Jordan 10 or any of his other iconic silhouettes. But instead, Jordan paid homage to the kid — taking the court for Game 3 at Chicago’s United Center in a pair of Hardaway’s Nike Air Flight Ones.
“It was very weird,” Hardaway said.
The story of Jordan and the Air Flight Ones has often been chronicled — but the tales contrast. Some say he borrowed a pair of Hardaway’s personal shoes. Others detail an agreement between Jordan and Hardaway for the greatest of all time to wear the youngster’s kicks. The question is, how did Jordan actually get a pair of the Air Flight Ones — especially on such short notice?
“He’s Michael Jordan. He was the man. He didn’t ask me for them. He just told Nike to give them to him,” Hardaway said. “He said, ‘Hey, man, give me some of the kid’s shoes.’ I thought, Of course … how many pairs do you need? Do you need mine? It was like, ‘That’s Michael Jordan … wearing MY shoes.’ ”
Jordan apparently wore them on one condition — without Hardaway’s “1 Cent” on the heel tab of each shoe, which he allegedly cut off before playing. Yet to this day, Hardaway can’t confirm that part of the story. “I didn’t notice he cut the 1 Cent tab off,” he said. “I haven’t noticed it’s gone in the older pictures. I just notice the shoe … but maybe he did.”
With Hardaway’s shoes on his feet, Jordan dazzled in Game 3 with a series-high 40 points. And on that night, he made sneaker history in another player’s shoes — which would never happen again in Jordan’s career. It’s a moment Hardaway says he’ll always cherish. “We all know that Michael Jordan is one of the fiercest competitors ever. He’s not gonna wear just anybody’s shoe … he wouldn’t do that for a lot of people,” Hardaway said. “For him to do that for me, it was the ultimate level of respect.”