The ‘He Got Game’ Air Jordan 13s starred in Spike Lee’s film — and became one of the most famous ever
In a freakishly authentic bit of product placement, Ray Allen and Denzel Washington gave the Jordan Brand’s first shoe a backstory
This is the first of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the basketball cult classic He Got Game. The film, directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, hit theaters on May 1, 1998.
His IMDb page features nearly two dozen television and film credits. His résumé boasts a Master of Fine Arts and expertise in classical acting, with 25 stage appearances, including Broadway. But in airports, on trains, pretty much whenever he travels, Avery Glymph is still recognized for a 30-second scene from his decades-old film debut.
In 1997, Glymph received a call from his agent about an audition. It was something called He Got Game, written and to be directed by Spike Lee. The project would star Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth, the father of the No. 1 high school basketball recruit in the nation, Jesus Shuttlesworth, who would be portrayed by then-NBA youngster Ray Allen. Glymph originally read for the part of Sip, one of Jesus’ teammates at Abraham Lincoln High School in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York.
“I remember going in and doing the scene,” said Glymph, now 44. “It was going well, and then at the end … Spike was kind of mulling it over, and his last question was, ‘You play ball, man?’ Kind of like, ‘Listen, do you really play ball?’ ”
Lee decided to go in a different direction, casting Travis Best, then a member of the Indiana Pacers, as Sip. But he still wanted Glymph in the film. So he gave him the role of an unnamed sneaker clerk who shares a brief yet very much so important on-screen moment with Washington.
Jake Shuttlesworth has been released from prison and is desperate for some fresh footwear. Glymph’s character sells him a pair of new Air Jordan 13s. When the scene was shot, during the summer of the 1997 NBA Finals, when the Chicago Bulls won their fifth title in seven years, not even Michael Jordan had worn the unreleased sneakers in a game.
“I’d never seen a pair of shoes that hadn’t come out yet,” Glymph said. “I was all about Jordans, and to have those shoes in my hands, knowing I was like the first person to hold them, was kind of cool.” Back then, they were just the latest installment of Jordan’s signature line of sneakers. Twenty years later, they’re widely regarded as the He Got Game Air Jordan 13s. This is how the film, with the help of Lee, Washington, Allen — and don’t forget Glymph — solidified the shoe as one of the most recognizable in the pantheon of sneaker culture.
On Halloween Night 1997, the Chicago Bulls’ season opener, Jordan broke out the Air Jordan 13s at the Fleet Center court in Boston. It’s a primarily white shoe, featuring a black midsole, toe box and tongue, with red accent. The Bulls fell to the Celtics, 92-85, but Jordan dazzled in his new kicks, with a team-high 30 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists.
It was the debut shoe of the Jordan Brand, officially launched in September 1997, as an unprecedented partnership between Nike and one of the company’s star athletes. After signing an endorsement deal with Nike in 1984 — and becoming the greatest player of all time, with the most revered line of signature footwear on the planet — Jordan’s own brand was projected to yield more than $225 million in sales in the first year alone.
Hyped as “the lightest Air Jordan ever made,” the 13 became the first sneaker in Nike’s history to be designed on a computer, using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator on an Apple Macintosh. “This shoe … wasn’t like anything before it. It was really quite a departure,” legendary Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield told The Undefeated in January 2017. “Sometimes, shoes are more evolutionary. They’re a little bit like the previous one. This one wasn’t like anything before it. Of course, that makes the sales … and marketing people nervous, but Michael wasn’t nervous at all. He felt like this design, though it was really different, was going to be successful for him as a player, but also in the marketplace.”
The Air Jordan 13 wasn’t available to the public until the 1997 holiday season. But, of course, Lee got his hands on a pair of the shoes long before then. They’d already made their way into He Got Game, which had wrapped principal photography days before Jordan and the Bulls faced the Celtics. Spike finessed early samples of the shoes for Allen and Washington to wear on camera based on a relationship with Nike and Jordan that dated to 1988, when he first appeared alongside Jordan in an iconic series of TV and print ads as Mars Blackmon, the Air Jordan-loving character he played in his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It.
Even Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks and one of the first NBA players to be endorsed by Jordan Brand, was surprised by Lee’s sneaker pull. One of the perks of being a part of the original Team Jordan (along with Michael Finley, Derek Anderson, Eddie Jones and Vin Baker) was exclusive pairs of Jordans before they hit the market. But when Allen arrived in Brooklyn for production of He Got Game, there was no size 13 box of the newest shoe awaiting him.
“Nobody had the 13,” Allen told The Undefeated at Nike’s New York headquarters in early April. “But Spike had it. And Denzel had it. So I’m like, ‘How in the hell did you get the shoe and I don’t have it?’ ”
Glymph remembers the day he shot his only scene, and there they were. “When he brought out the shoes, Spike gave them to me and gave me a little reading of how he wanted me to present them,” he said. “He pulled out these shiny new shoes and said, ‘These are the new Jordans.‘ ”
They rehearsed the sequence a few times before the camera started rolling. “I was doing the scene really well … I thought,” Glymph said. “Then Spike gave me direction … ‘Avery, you’re too happy.’ I toned it down a bit, and you can kind of see me playing it more cool.” But his nerves continued to get the best of him, making him forget to give the shoes as much camera time as the director requested. So Washington improvised. “The last time we did it,” Glymph continued, “Denzel actually holds up the shoe, to give it a nice little close-up. That was his professionalism … knowing what needed to be in the shot.”
The scene made the final cut of the film, which premiered on May 1, 1998. By then, the Bulls had reached the NBA postseason and Jordan was sporting two different versions of the Air Jordan 13: the “Playoffs” and “Bred” colorways. In June, he’d hit the winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals to claim his sixth and final NBA championship of his career. But his heroics came in a pair of Air Jordan 14s. Save a game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 13, 1998, Jordan doesn’t have a signature moment in the “Black Toe” Air Jordan 13s.
But He Got Game made the kicks eternal. In spring 1998, the New York Daily News reported that Jordan took it upon himself to push back the Wednesday release date of one of the shoe’s models when he received word that kids were skipping school to cop pairs, which were sold at retail for $149.99. That’s how popular the 13s were then — and they remain so now. Jordan Brand brought back a retro version of the sneaker worn in He Got Game in a countdown pack (along with the Air Jordan 10) in 2008, and in 2013 for $170. The shoes will return for the third time in August for $190, in honor of the film’s anniversary.
“Every time I see these,” said Nick Young, one of the NBA’s biggest sneakerheads, while holding 2013 retros during an interview, “I think about Jesus and Denzel.”
Allen finally got his pair. He wears them in the last scene, as Jesus sits in his college dorm room and reads a letter Jake sends from prison. “Your great-grandfather used to always tell me, ‘You keep trying on shoes, and sooner or later you gonna find a pair that fits you,’ ” Washington recites, staring into the camera. The line is appropriate — because the Air Jordan 13s fit perfectly in He Got Game.
“It was great product placement,” Allen said. “Because when the movie came out, everybody’s like, ‘Yo, Jesus got the new J’s on his feet.’ ”