The most-hyped shoe of last year was a 20-year-old shoe themed for a children's movie.
Lines of people camped out overnight, Complex reported, for the chance to buy them. They're going for 50 percent above their sticker price online, and two days before Christmas in Massachusetts, a man had his pair taken at gunpoint in what police called a "sneaker deal gone bad." In a year where Adidas blew by Nike in hype—and watched its stock leap with a Boost as Nike floundered—it was a ray of light for the Swoosh.
The shoe was the Air Jordan XI Space Jam, designed by local legend Tinker Hatfield, and according to shoe magazine Sole Collector, this year's reissue was "easily the biggest release of the holiday season, if not the entire year."
Yes, Yeezy not excepted.
The iconic red-and-black shoes were tied to the 1996 half-animated flick starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. While rumors swirl of a Space Jam 2 movie starring LeBron James, Nike executive Trevor Edwards pegged the Space Jam reissue as the cornerstone of their yuletide strategy.
And it all happened because Jim Riswold wanted to meet Bugs Bunny.
In 1992, Riswold spearheaded a (then-outrageous) million-dollar spot starring Bugs and Michael Jordan for Wieden+Kennedy. It became the signal ad of the 1992 Super Bowl, helping launch the hoops icon toward another stratosphere of celebrity altogether.
While health concerns forced Riswold's retirement from the agency, he's busied himself with an art career centering upon the whimsical arrangement of fascist figureheads.
As he readies his memoirs for spring publication, the maverick advertising legend spoke to WW about the ads that helped launch the shoes that many sneakerheads consider the greatest of all time.
WW: How did Space Jam come about?
Jim Riswold: I'll put it as simply as I can—I wanted to meet Bugs Bunny. And I put him in a commercial so I could meet him. How's that?
What's he like?
He was everything I hoped he would be. It's funny, I actually grew up a Bugs Bunny nut—a much bigger fan of Bugs than Mickey. Mickey Mouse puts you to bed all comfy and cozy, but Bugs Bunny made you laugh.
Were negotiations with Warner Brothers difficult?
Yeah, it was tough at the beginning—you can't do this, you can't be too violent. It was just like … [whimpering sounds] … the neutering of an American icon. We essentially got to do everything we wanted, but there was quite a bit of arguing.
We did have quite a few censorship issues-—violence, Porky Pig's stuttering. So, we said, fine. If we can't do a spot with the real Bugs Bunny, we'll do one with Roger Rabbit.
After the success of [Air Jordan 7 colorway] Hare Jordan, we basically got whatever we wanted on Aerospace Jordan. It's full of dynamited popcorn, violent bowling and network censorship jokes—violent use of a giant eraser. Unfortunately, it wasn't as good.
There were only two Jordan/Bugs ads?
Each one took about six months to make because they weren't computer generated—all old-school, single-cell frames done by hand.
Did you pitch Jordan directly?
We had a working relationship. I remember, after the first Bugs commercial, I got a nice thank-you from him that said it was his kids' favorite of all the ads he's ever done.
Did you expect the XI to be the most popular Air Jordan?
No. Fuck, no. Not at all. Everything is happenstance. Who would expect something so simple, almost trivial, as a television commercial to become such a cultural phenomenon?
Did you think there was anything special about the shoe?
I think there was something special about all of the shoes back in the early days. That shoe in particular as opposed to any other one? Not really. I mean, there's a built-in group of Jordan followers who take 'em all. The right commercial behind the right shoe may have added something.
Was it the shoes? Was it Jordan? Was it the commercials?
I'd like to think the last played some small part in the equation, but I'd first put Michael as a player and then the really cool shoes that Tinker Hatfield designed. If my little commercials helped create that engine, then I'll smile.
Ever wear sneakers yourself?
No, I'm 59 years old. I tried once, and my kids just shook their heads: "Dad, please!"
Were you involved in the movie? Reportedly 200 brands were licensed, but Nike wasn't one of them.
At the very end, I did get called in to write a couple of scenes, and to be honest, I'm glad that people like that movie, but I don't get it. Sylvester and Tweety Bird don't play basketball! Hell, they don't even like each other. One's always trying to eat the other one.
Did any of your scenes make it into the movie?
Oh, God, I wrote something where Michael says he's a baseball player and Bugs says he's a Shakespearian actor. I think I had them kiss?
If they ever do make Space Jam 2 with LeBron, would you go?
Probably not. I like remembering the commercials.
Before Jordan, there were athletic pitchmen but nothing like this—myth-making as well as playful.
Yeah, I think that's why it worked so well with [Spike Lee character] Mars Blackmon. It's, like, here's a character who both adored Michael Jordan the person and Michael Jordan the shoe.
In 1987 when those ads came out, how well known was Spike Lee?
He wasn't. He'd just released his first movie, and that's actually where the idea came from. [Wieden+Kennedy producer] Bill Davenport and I went to She's Gotta Have It, which is Spike's first movie. There's a scene where the character Mars Blackmon gets to sleep with the woman of his dreams, but he won't take off his Air Jordans. And, we both looked at each other, like—are you thinking what I'm thinking? You better be thinking what I'm thinking!
What those commercials did, when they started way back in 1987, was open up Nike as part of pop culture. To some extent, the Bugs Bunny stuff was just an extenuation of that—creating pairings of Nike and popular culture that formed new pieces of popular culture.
So Mars and Jordan, Bugs and Jordan—both fast-talking, singularly American.
There you go. That's a good insight. No, I think the Bugs spots were more a tribute to Bugs Bunny. Anytime anybody screws with Bugs, he's gonna lower the boom and offer the ultimatum, "Of course, you realize this means war." Now, if he's getting bullied by basketball players, it's not exactly rocket science bringing the world's greatest basketball side to pummel those, as he would say, maroons.
Did you do the first Jordan commercial?
The second, I think. At that time, most Nike commercials were just about showing the athlete in full sweat—some glorious footage and call it a day. Then, seeing that movie [She's Gotta Have It] allowed us to inject humor, whether you think it's funny or not, and show a lighter side of the athlete.
Basketball shoes were a niche market. Did you have any idea they would become this billion-dollar…
No. Who could see that? I think they probably started changing once the success of the Spike and Mike ads showed there was a bigger market out there than just basketball players. They're, y'know, built for basketball players, but the whole sneaker culture, you wouldn't have seen that coming.
Did you do shoe ads for other athletes?
I worked on David Robinson's shoe. I worked on Charles Barkley's shoe. I did all the Bo Jackson stuff. You can make the argument that more people see those commercials today than they ever did on TV, thanks to the internet.
What made Jordan unique?
Nobody ever saw a game like that before! And, then, that smile. He once said that I turned him into a dream.