Virgil Abloh on living through Michael Jordan and the Bulls’ ‘Last Dance’ season
A native of Rockford, Illinois, Abloh was 17 years old during the ’97-98 run, which has had a lasting impact on his life and career as a fashion designer
As a teenager, Virgil Abloh wanted nothing more in the world than Michael Jordan’s autograph. So, he figured out a way to meet his childhood hero.
“I applied and got accepted to Jordan’s basketball camp. It was called Flight School,” Abloh recalled. “I still remember the form that I filled out. … I was like, ‘This is going to be the year I’m going to basketball camp with Michael Jordan himself.‘ ”
Back then, Abloh was 14 years old, growing up outside of Chicago in Rockford, Illinois. This was long before he emerged as one of the most accomplished fashion designers in the world — the founder and CEO of Off-White, the artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton and a force in the current landscape of sneaker culture through his collaborations with Nike and the Jordan Brand. To this day, Abloh, who has designed his own versions of four pairs of Air Jordans, credits Jordan as one of his greatest inspirations, despite never making it to the camp as a kid because of Jordan’s first retirement in October 1993.
“The basketball camp got canceled,” Abloh remembered. “I’m still devastated to this day. … You can imagine how confusing that was … Jordan is leaving basketball, going to play baseball and your summer dream is canceled.”
But 23 years later, Abloh would finally fulfill his lifelong goal of getting His Airness’ autograph while conceptualizing The Ten collection for Nike in 2016. Jordan signed a sample version of the first Air Jordan 1 that Abloh designed, which he now has locked away as the ultimate keepsake.
Abloh posted a photo of the signed sneakers on Instagram the night ESPN debuted The Last Dance. The 10-part series chronicling the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 season brought back countless childhood memories. Following episodes one and two, the local Bulls fan-turned-international fashion designer recounted what he remembers most from that season, which took place when Abloh was 17 years old during his senior year at Boylan Catholic High School in Rockford.
‘A Superman figure by the name of Michael Jordan’
Growing up in the Chicago area and having Michael Jordan obviously be the global superstar and superman that he was to the outside world, he was our local basketball player. My dad, through work, would get Bulls tickets and I’ll never forget those moments of showing up crazy early just to see Jordan shoot around.
Seeing the guy in person while this story was being written is something I’ll never forget. To witness greatness, not just on the TV, but the local impact — the true meaning of being a fan and having team spirit — these games would sort of rule the evening and ruin a school year.
Imagine at, like, 7 p.m. when you have to do homework and the Bulls are down by 10 … these are my high school years. Probably the years that have the most amount of impact on who I am … when I was forming my identity that’s apparent in the work I do today. When I was 17 … one anchor of my identity was sports, and the other anchor was lifestyle and culture — you know, rap music and skateboarding and everything that was popular in the ’90s. As a teenager, you’re thinking about a million things, but I remember my dad being a Bulls fan and always having the game on. That’s how I got ushered into the sport.
For me, a distinct memory is just the air in the city. When your team is on a championship run and you have a superman figure by the name of Michael Jordan, the air is different. You know, the morale of the city. There was this transcendence that the everyday life of our city was changed because the Bulls were on this feat of humanity.
That last season … we’d been through five championship runs and were going for the sixth. It was almost like, ‘Is this even possible?’ Like, ‘Could you imagine another three-peat?’ Yeah, it could happen. A testament to the determination and all the characters who made up that team. And obviously when you’re watching Jordan, you sort of believe anything’s possible.
‘The shoes are the root of it all’
We watched all the games in our basement. I definitely had Jordan shoes on in the house — that goes without saying. That’s the important thing about Jordan’s shoes. When you put them on, I don’t care what you are, who you are … you felt like you could tap into Jordan himself.
It was to the point where I would only wear Nike and Jordan shoes as a kid … I wouldn’t be caught in anything else. It was the style. It was the sort of cultural equity of the time. His style transcended lifestyle. This was before I was into fashion, so I could say the way that Jordan put his style together, he was formerly a first sort of fashion icon for me on and off the court.
The warm-up jersey, the red Bulls jersey and just the iconography of his logo … it literally, to me, was a one-to-one sort of Superman, cape and outfit. There was no distinction between Jordan and Superman, except that Jordan was real.
I’d wear anything I could get my hands on. I remember some of my favorite pieces [that I still have today] were a satin flight jacket and the Jordan baseball jersey. But, honestly, the shoes are the root of it all. The shoes are a sort of linchpin and gateway. It was the birth of sneaker culture in itself.
The big thing about Jordans and the cultural equity of them back then was how expensive they were. It was an uphill battle convincing my parents to spend that amount of money on a pair of shoes. My first pair of Jordans were the Jordan 1s in the black and blue colorway. I got them on super discount at Marshalls. That was the very first pair I had. And then, the Jordan 5s, I remember having to go on a huge campaign to sort of like scrounge up as much money as I could to get my parents to buy them. And I would sleep with them at the foot of my bed so when I woke up, I could see them.
The shoes that we were seeing by the 1997-98 season were the Air Jordan 13 and 14. When it comes to a stylistic perspective, we were far away from the Jordan 1, 2 and 3. To me, the design language of the 13 and 14 was beyond advanced. The way that he was able to craft his visual language, style and grace on the court to these shoes that seemed like UFOs or aliens to design at the time is obviously part of the mystique that Jordan possesses to this day.
The Jordan 13 wasn’t coming from the language of sneakers that were contemporary at the time, but from an aerodynamic sort of automotive or spaceship design. You could imagine that he looked faster. Those shoes are intimidating, and when he’s lacing them up, it’s almost like they’re a weapon in a way. They have that attitude that always caught me by surprise. Still, when I look at them today, they have not aged at all. I think that’s a testament to his vision and the team that was working with him at the time to sort of possess attitude within the language of sneaker design. And the same goes for the 14 … I think it’s the 13 amped up to the max like a turbo version, recalling an automotive language of speed.
I owned the 13s, not the 14s. The 13s always resonated with me. They had that hologram on the back. It was a shoe that I fell in love with.
It still leaves an impact on me today — the idea of Jordan stepping on the court and the anticipation of, ‘What shoes is he gonna be wearing?’ Today, we see these sneakers as their resale market. We see them almost as art objects. They reappear as different versions of the original. You see them on your phone, you see them on your computer. But nothing can take away the epicenter of a shoe you’ve never seen until watching NBC or whatever channel Jordan would appear in warm-ups, and you’d look at his new shoes on TV. It was insane. We would have to scour magazines to find out: ‘What are those shoes? When are they coming out? What do they look like up close?’ That was a trip to Foot Locker or Tony’s Sports in Chicago. Like, ‘I need those Jordans.’
Any time Jordan debuted a new model or a new colorway, it was a quest.
‘Every chapter meets the end, right?’
(Editor’s note: In June 1998, during the NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, Jordan debuted the Air Jordan 14 — his latest signature sneaker that wasn’t supposed to be released for another six months. Jordan broke out the kicks just three times — in Games 3 and 4 in Chicago, and on the road in Salt Lake City for Game 6 on June 14, 1998. With 5.2 seconds left in the game, Jordan hit a 20-foot jump shot over Utah’s Bryon Russell to lift the Bulls to an 87-86 lead, and ultimately end The Last Dance with a sixth championship.)
Oh, man. As fans, we all felt like we had an impact on the game. Like, ‘This is the moment that we’ve all been waiting for.’ The aggravation of losing and having it be that close was stressful, frankly. The moments when they call the play, inbound the ball … it’s like, ‘You have Jordan on your team.’ Still — after all the championships, and it’s Michael Jordan — that shred of doubt would creep in. That’s where the tenseness is.
I remember watching the TV on the ground … you know, like getting out of the chair, just staring at the screen. The moment the shot goes up and in, you sort of realize, like, ‘How could you ever doubt this man?’ You know? And to me, that was like … one of the greatest moments in sports, because here we saw this mythical figure, for seasons upon seasons, deliver. And of course, you doubt and you worry. But at the end of the day, he converted at the most tense moments when it mattered most.
Then, for a second, you sort of realize that when you see greatness at that level, you can’t question it. And I think there’s some great metaphors about life within his story. Oftentimes I sit and I think, here you have a game of odds and a game of chance. And through his will and determination, he proved that a game seemingly as simple, or as difficult, as putting a ball through a hoop, he had a tremendous amount of control in, and allowed the nation, allowed the world, to believe in the impossible.
I’d grown up seven years since the first championship, which is a lifetime at that age. We’re all sort of maturing. My tastes were broadening. I was interested in other things … college … but this was constant. It was one seven-year-long TV show. You could sort of feel it — and I can imagine this is where the documentary is going — that every chapter meets the end, right? And I think all that you could have asked is exactly what we got, which was winning at the end. It’s like you want your favorite movie to have an ending that inspires you, not leave you depressed or leave you hating the director. And I think for Michael Jordan as the director of the film — which is his career — hitting that shot added the perfect exclamation point and punctuation to the legacy. He wrote the full story down to the very last punctuation mark, which leaves the whole body of work flawless.
To me, it was OK that it was the end, because it was scripted so flawlessly. I think that’s what made The Last Dance and the finality of it special. It was predicted as the last before it even started. That makes it all unique. It doesn’t leave anything left on the table.
‘Still living as my 17-year-old self’
To me, an important part of the story … is a brand can be birthed from these moments. The Jordan Brand wouldn’t have existed if it hadn’t been for his achievements and his drive. As a young kid back then, the Jumpman logo looked like a Batman symbol. They were one and the same. The shoes, the apparel and the iconography was just as potent as everything prior to it existing. It allowed my generation to have a reverence for Nike, but it also gave fuel for brand Jordan to be its own distinct entity.
I am made up by my inspirations. And as a kid, I was looking into the TV screen to sort of draw inspiration from Michael Jordan. I wanted to take that inspiration and do something with it. So what I distinctly remember doing as a teenager was think, ‘If this guy is proving that you can win with style and grace, by being determined and working hard, I’m literally gonna apply that to my life as a designer.’ With that, I started my career in design and in fashion and thankfully it led me to an opportunity to sort of do exactly what this documentary is talking about — bring the magic that was a part of Michael Jordan’s DNA to a younger generation.
I cherish the work that I do with Jordan specifically amongst all the work that I do with Nike, because Jordan had magic in those shoes. So when I work on Jordans today, whether it be the Jordan 1 that I released three years ago or the Jordan 5 that I released three months ago, I’m designing not just with lines and fabric and material. I’m recalling an emotion of these ’90s Bulls and Jordan himself.
Every day that I walk into the studio and get to work on Jordan, I’m still living as my 17-year-old self. Those early Jordans, the early years … I loved the phase when it was a dream, and it wasn’t a reality.