“It’s gotta be the shoes, Mike!” – Mars Blackmon
Basketball has always been Michael Jordan’s domain, but shoes are his empire. His last name is synonymous with his brand, one that has only grown in popularity since his retirement. It extends well past the boundaries of the court. There’s a story from a few years back about Jordan starting his own motorsports team. Rather than have the riders wear inappropriate footwear or another brand, he simply urged his design team to create shoes to meet their needs. Two weeks later, they were wearing them.
As an avid golfer – one who pals around with PGA Tour stars and has even served as a United States assistant team captain in the Presidents Cup – he’s brought his brand to the links, too. That’s right: When Michael Jordan plays golf, he wears – what else? – Jordans, even though there is no Jordan golf shoe on the market.
Hey, it’s good to be the boss.
It’s also good to know the boss. Keegan Bradley is one of those PGA Tour stars who has parlayed professional success into a burgeoning friendship with the six-time NBA champion. During one of their many South Florida rounds last year, Bradley sidled up to his iconic buddy, looked down at his feet and told him he wanted a piece of the action.
“I said to him, ‘I don’t have a shoe deal, so I’d love to wear Jordans,’” Bradley recalls. “And he was like, ‘You know what? I’ve been thinking about making shoes. That would be awesome.’”
It wasn’t that easy, though. Not even close. Jordan’s shoes didn’t quite meet the standards of an elite golfer with three career victories already on his resume.
“They were more of an amateur’s shoes,” Bradley says with a laugh. “He goes, ‘Let’s start this over. We’re going to get my crew on it and do it from top to bottom.’”
Enter Mark Smith.
The creative director of special projects for Nike Innovation, he's been with the company since 1989, combining both art and industrial engineering into creating original footwear.
“My favorite aspect of this job,” Smith says, “is getting those unique, out-there, fringe-related projects that challenge the status quo.”
This one qualified. After receiving a call from Jordan, he and Bradley together began designing golf shoes from scratch that would offer optimal performance for the pro golfer.
As anyone understands who’s witnessed him stutter-step to approach his ball in the fairway or examine it cockeyed on the green, Bradley can be a pretty quirky guy. That extends to his spikes, too.
“I’m super-particular about my shoes,” he says, “and once Mark’s team got me going, I got even more particular. At first I felt bad, but then I realized that’s what they really want. They want every little critique, every little minor detail – even down to the shoelace length.
“It’s like they’re building a car from scratch. It’s nuts.”
Smith meticulously measured the weight of Bradley’s shoes. The height. The kickpoints. And yes, even his feet themselves, which proved to be a significant variable.
His left foot is a size 10 3/4 EE. His right foot is an 11 1/2 EEE. His arches are more forward than those of most people. And he owns some, well, unique characteristics.
“He has the ability to raise his toes, but limited mobility in his ankle,” Smith explains. “He’d been cramming his toes into shoes. As soon as we tried other stuff on him, that freed up his feet. It’s a very unique situation, where we build our shoes around his feet.”
At first, there was just one pair. A white pair of Jordans built specifically for golf and even more specifically just for Bradley. Once he’d worn them for a while, Smith sent another pair and then tore apart the originals, doing a complete forensics test on the impact from his feet.
The experimentation continued from there, a trial and error process that became more finely tuned with each pair that was produced. And there have been plenty, as Bradley estimates he now owns “at least 40” pairs of Jordan golf shoes, with more being delivered seemingly every week he plays.
The performance aspects of these shoes still receive periodic tweaks in an attempt to unearth what Smith calls “the perfect pair,” but he’s also employed his artistic background to add some flair to the newer models. This includes fashioning Bradley in footwear with the Jordan brand’s patented “elephant print” amorphic design, which is comprised of various words to help tell his own personal story.
Newer models have included his parents’ names, references to him winning the PGA Championship and PGA Tour Rookie of the Year award and some of his favorite Jordan phrases.
“He always tells me: ‘Kill or be killed’. I put that one on there. It’s very MJ," Bradley says.
Meanwhile, Bradley is starting to become nearly as synonymous with the shoes as the man for whom they’re named after.
“Everyone has an opinion – they either love ‘em or really hate ‘em,” he says. “There are a lot of big Jordan guys out here on Tour who love ‘em. There are also guys who think they’re ridiculous and I look stupid. But I think that’s great. Any sort of commotion you can cause is really good.
“Of all the stuff I’ve done, the most recognition I get from fans is about my shoes. It’s insane. Every hole, somebody says something.”
All of which leads to one logical question: What does the man whose name is represented in the shoes think about this development?
“Being creative is all about energy,” Jordan says. “This is how I feel when we talk golf. Working with Mark and Keegan inspires my creativity.”
Those words are akin to a blessing from the pope – the pope of athletic footwear, at least.
Jordan has long known the secret to success, one which he’s now passed down to Bradley. Except there’s not much of a secret. As Mars Blackmon shouted long ago: It’s gotta be the shoes.