Students of the Game: Michael Jordan and Tinker Hatfield Share Their Ongoing Partnership on and off Court

It’s been 30 years since the iconic Air Jordan 1 sneaker first launched, and Nike has been pulling out all the stops in celebration of this huge milestone in the iconic Jordan franchise. Its been hosting events all over the world, the most recent of which took place in Shanghai and also coincided with the NBA Global Games. The festivities included a Jordan House of Flight space, which showcased special installations from artist Michael Lau and an interactive fan experience called "Last Shot" which invited participants to recreate one of MJ’s countless game-winning shots.
Celebrity appearances from the likes of Roger Federer, Hiroshi Fujiwara, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin surely delighted fans, but the main event was a conversation with Michael Jordan himself and famed designer Tinker Hatfield. Hosted by noted sports broadcaster and longtime friend of His Airness Ahmad Rashād, the conversation touched on various subjects including Hatfield and Jordan’s special working relationship; what the Jordan brand means to each of them; MJ’s unwavering love for the game; and his advice for youth about what it takes to succeed, in basketball and beyond.
Are you surprised by the fact that these products remain relevant or is this something you could see coming based on MJ’s performances?
TH: I don’t think anybody saw it coming. I think this is unprecedented and I’m pretty amazed by it every day.
As many of you know the Jordan brand has always been the leader in performance innovation and style. Most recently with the Air Jordan 29 one of the first key innovations was visible air which appeared on the Air Jordan 3, setting the tone for the brand’s legacy. Tinker, the 3 was your first project with Michael. Tell us what your first impressions were working with him.
TH: When I first got the project it was really important to try and get to know the man, Michael. We all had seen him play basketball so that was a little bit easier to decipher, but really I wanted to get to know him. I found out he was a very fashionable guy, very stylish, had a good sense of design. So that really helped the whole thing take off?
So that would lead you to the fashionable element of the brand?
TH: We actually talked about performance first, and try and design the shoes so they work really well for the best players in the world — Michael being one of those best players. I think we have the most fun trying to pick out materials and trying to find fashionable ideas that have never been on basketball shoes before.
So I would imagine that the big challenge was, one of the most iconic transitions in the history of sports, Michael Jordan — the game’s biggest star — retired to pursue another first love, baseball. What do you remember about that time and how did it shape the Jordan franchise?
TH: When Michael retired the first time and he went to play baseball, I always had this notion that he was just taking a break. I felt that way; I don’t know if anyone else here did. So I just kept working on designing Air Jordans even though he was playing baseball.
What made you keep on going and staying with it?
TH: I think that even if he had never played basketball again he had already cemented his place in history as one of the greatest players ever, and the designs at that point had already become popular outside of sport.
The one thing that most sports fans remember is when (Michael) said the words, “I’m back.” Were you as excited as every sports fan because you were back in your element?
TH: I guess I felt like I was vindicated because I kept designing the shoes while he was gone. The shoe we’re looking at here was designed while he was retired. When he said “I’m back,” essentially we knew he was of course going to be wearing a crazy new shoe. That was a lot of fun to think that it was all going to take off again.
Were you as surprised when he said, “I’m back” as everyone else?
TH: No. I just had a feeling that he was, I really did. That’s why I kept designing the shoes. I think I tried even harder to be crazier with this one because I wanted to make a mark for him and help him come back with a splash.
How does it feel to be back in China?
MJ: It’s good. It’s been 11 years since I was here last. It’s always good to come back. The passion you get from the fans; it’s always welcoming.
Coming back this time and celebrating your 30th anniversary…
MJ: Time files! 30 years we’ve been doing this. Things have been good — the collaborations, the designs and the teams. Everyone has been working hard to keep this thing moving along. We’re very fortunate.
What do you hope is your defining contributions to this game?
MJ: I feel like the way I play the game with so much passion and love, hopefully that’s going to be one of the things that’s passed on through generations to people that don’t even play the game of basketball. The way that I loved the game and worked hard at the game — if you love something you’ll go to every extreme to be good at it or to get better at it. And that doesn’t have to be basketball; it can be anything that you like. If people can look at how my love for the game of basketball helped me excel at it, hopefully that’s going to help them with whatever they are doing in their own lives.
Incredible athleticism was certainly hallmark of your game. What demands did your game place on the footwear that you used, and Tinker how did you design for this man at the peak of his power?
TH: We had to reinforce the shoes. He kept telling me his shoes would blow out and stretch out by halftime; he would even get a new pair sometimes. So it really changed the way everybody designed shoes because he was putting so much power and movement, and we learned about what a special athlete he was and how to deal with other athletes.
MJ: One of the things that makes us a great tandem is that I can give him insights to how the shoe actually operates when playing. I was forceful on my shoes — the cutting, all the movements ± and when I did wear and test the shoes I could always go back to Tinker and say, “You know what, I think you need to do something here.” That made us work well together. It started from day one; I never wore a Nike shoe until I signed with them and one of the things that I did with them was make sure they understood what my desires were. None of those have changed: I wanted to be closer to the floor; I wanted to look sleek; I wanted to be lightweight; I wanted to look and appear quick; and be able to change direction. And you look at shoes 30 years later and they are very similar to that; they have those same traits.
You are responsible for some of the greatest individual performances of all time, from your 63 points against Larry Bird’s Celtics to your 38 points against the Jazz in the NBA Finals. With a less physical style of play, what are some of the holes that you see that you can exploit?
MJ: That’s tough. As a basketball player, you’re never not a student of the game. I spent a lot of time trying to dissect who I was playing against — some of their strengths, some of their weaknesses — and I would make sure my game did not have weaknesses. I would work on trying to improve every aspect of my game to where I could apply that in game situations. I think that was one of my strong points in my basketball talents. I would try to improve each and every day. I never felt like I was complete. To me, that’s important. If you can’t do something, make sure you can.
A lot of the kids here in China who are obsessed with basketball never had a chance to see you win six championships live. What can you tell them about how you won those titles and what they need to focus on to reach that level?
MJ: It starts with hard work; setting goals and striving to reach those goals and surpassing some of them. Everything that I’ve done starts with one thing and that’s the true love for what I did and how much I care about the game of basketball. There was days I felt like I didn’t want to play or practice; I pushed myself to make sure I stayed ahead of my competitors. There were things that I tried to improve on. When I first got into the league they said I couldn’t shoot; defense started to slack off on me so I started to shoot. And if they came up to stop me from shooting I’d drive past them. My game elevated depending on who I was playing and how the defenses changed.
As you see basketball and how it’s growing here in China, what do you think of the state of the game here?
MJ: I think its getting bigger and bigger. Yao Ming had a lot to do with it. Jeremy Lin is doing a lot because of his passion and the way he plays the game. You’re going to see more basketball being played here in china and more people from here going to play in the NBA. And that’s progression of the game; it’s how the games become global. I think it’s good for the game and its good for China.
What does it mean to you to have your team here in China and also some of your most iconic endorsers here in China?
MJ: My team is an expression of who I am. I want to make sure it improves to where we are winning championships. I felt like it was important for the team to come and establish themselves on a global standpoint. In terms of the brand, it’s become global. We need to continue to connect with consumers here in China and understand what it takes to improve as a brand. Having both of them here is a good start for us to expand and continue to grow.
Tinker what inspiration do you take from a city like Shanghai and these great fans?
TH: I love the people here; everyone is really friendly but also you can see there’s a lot of drive here to be better just like Michael talked about with his game. I think people here in Shanghai are really driven to be better — in business and in architecture. The architecture is ridiculously cool; I’ve had a great time the last couple days looking around.
What does the Air Jordan franchise mean to each of you?
MJ: It’s an expression of an athlete that tried to impact the game in a lot of different ways, and utilize a product that enhanced his basketball talents. For 30 years it has drastically improved from day one. What we constantly tried to do was move that innovation forward. Where will our shoe be 30 years from now from an innovation standpoint? I don’t know but it will be better than what we established today. That’s the progression we try to instill in building our product: Today’s shoe is better than yesterday’s shoe, but not nearly as good as tomorrow’s shoe.
TH: One of Michael’s quotes is: “Talent wins games; but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” When I think about these 30 years — he’s built a basketball team and made every body better and they won six championships, but what he’s really done is built a much larger team that is winning championships in the world of business and design. It just carried over from his playing days and we are all part of that team. It’s bigger and more complicated but its working the same way. We are all trying together.

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via Hypebeast