As a basketball fan, what’s the one thing you want to get your hands as the highlight of your fandom? What’s the must-have on your bucket list? What is your grail?
Basketball grails are special. They don’t have to be the most rare, most expensive thing in the world as long. But their value to you is something immeasurable, inexplicable. It’s something that holds sentimental value, something that reminds you of a special moment or something you worked extremely hard to be able to get. Grails complete your fandom.
This week, SLAM PH is celebrating Grail Week. The team gets together to talk about their basketball grails and what those items mean to them.
What is your grail?
The first time I saw the Air Jordan XI up close—like really up close, like the tip of my nose almost touching it up close—was through the pages of SLAM.
SLAM No. 8, to be exact, the November 1995 issue. Penny Hardaway was on the cover, and rightfully so. Penny stocks were a hot commodity in ’95, thanks to a spectacular run to the NBA Finals, where his Orlando Magic lost to the Houston Rockets.
In that Finals series that Nick Anderson had deleted many times over from his personal hard drive and iCloud, Penny fast-tracked his rise to legendary status. His per game numbers were kind of, sort of LeBron-esque: 26 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 steal. But the stats weren’t enough to spoil The Dream. Orlando was swept and Houston pickpocketed back-to-back titles. Penny though, was safe.
So on the cover of SLAM, five months after the Finals loss, there he was embodying 90s cool in his black and blue Air Ups and “Penny” armband, throwing a no-look pass in the air while being guarded by the still buffering version of Michael Jordan. The blurb under Penny’s name said, “Don’t sweat the technique.”
That cover image was in no way randomly picked. The way Penny looked so fresh while a not-in-GOAT-shape, No. 45 MJ grimaced in pain, desperately trying to catch up, it was almost symbolical: Penny’s got next; Jordan was done.
But I remember reading through the magazine and felt, Nah. Jordan wasn’t done.
I remember thinking a lot about Jordan’s heroic comeback, how hungry he looked in the games he wore that other number. I remember thinking about how he gatecrashed the ’95 Eastern Conference Semifinals versus the Magic. What a time to be a Jordan fan.
I also remember, vaguely, something about the shoes Jordan wore in that Orlando series. There was something about shiny leather, something about it not being allowed by the NBA.
The internet was not yet a thing back then, so I never knew the details. No screenshots to zoom in on, no highlights to obsess over. Nothing. Also, I was 12 years old. I didn’t know anything.
Then it happened, about seven pages in on the magazine in my hands: a full-page ad about the shoes. My world changed.
Not in the sense that I dropped everything, said a farewell prayer to my savings, went online, and pre-ordered a pair. Again, no internet (and also no savings to speak of). There was only Cash & Carry back then (and a supportive father willing to buy me legit basketball shoes with his hard-earned cash).
My world changed, without a drop of hyperbole, because seeing the shoe again with absolutely no introduction and no details whatsoever, it added to the Jordan legend; the Jordan mystique. Jordan was, indeed, back. The ad was the bat signal.
There was no witty tagline, just an image of an untied shoe with shiny leather on a white background, a red swoosh, and an obscure 1-800 number my 12-year-old self wouldn’t dare try to call.
The ad didn’t even say “Jordan XI.” The shoe was just there, staring me in the face, hijacking the magazine I was holding. Much like how Baseball MJ gatecrashed the NBA Playoffs, the Jordan XIs gatecrashed the Penny Hardaway issue.
The unnamed sneaker, which I found out much later as an adult was called “Concords,” again appeared on the mag in the last few pages. It was the sneaker of the month of the issue’s SneakadaMonth. It had the blurb “Air Apparent,” the name I would decide to baptize the Jordan XIs for the next decade.
The XI is easily the best of the Air Jordan series Nike has ever made.
The Air Jordan XI is the shoe to buy if you want an edge in one of the greatest games in the world.
Those were Jordan’s words in SneakadaMonth fine print, and if you were a kid growing up in the 90s, Jordan’s words were gospel. And anything emblazoned with the Jumpman logo was holy. Posters, shirts, socks, these were miraculous objects in my closet and bedroom.
I only had one pair of Air Jordans my whole life though, the Jordan VIII.
I (and about 10 other classmates) had them in fourth grade. Every day after school, I’d put them on and…just, you know, walk. In my bedroom. Around the house. Then, when I built up enough courage, I wore them during weekends, to church, to family reunions, to Christmas dinner. In every party I went to and every shot I air-balled, I was in my Jordan VIII. I had them even when the Jordan IX and the Jordan X came out. I was in them until the soles would no longer allow.
The pain of parting with my faded Jordans was pain I wasn’t quite ready for as someone who idolized Jordan. It felt final and hopeless. Those feelings spilled over to the Jordan XI, the Holy Grail of sneakers, which I never got around to buying because of the same crazy, stupid feelings. And I was okay with that.
Twenty-three years later, with another Concords re-release on the way, I’m still okay with that. Some things you just can’t have, or you choose not to have, simply because the feeling of hope is better.
Or maybe I just couldn’t afford them then.
Either way, point is, Jordan was not himself yet in ’95 and his future was uncertain. Then I saw an ad for the Concords and it was a burst of hope. Even as a 12-year-old who knew nothing, I knew then that the Jordan XI was going to be special.
Chin up, 12-year-old me. You were right.
Photos from Getty Images and Nike
The Air Jordan XI ‘Concord’ will be available for Titan Players Club members to pre-order on December 3, 2018. Limited slots only. Click here for full details.
TITAN Early Access goes live at 2PM. Follow the instructions here.
SLAM PH Grail Week