The Air Jordan XXXI, unveiled in Las Vegas on July 20, becomes available globally Saturday. Three days before the release, Jordan Brand hosted a group of media members for a test run at New York City's Terminal 23.
I risked embarrassment playing in the latest model of Air Jordans. Ignoring my game, I try to offer some insight into the new kicks.
When I finished my first of three pickup games, I sat down on the bench and wiped my face with a towel. "What do you think?" a Jordan rep asked. I look at him confused.
"Oh yeah, I almost forgot I was wearing them," I said.
That is a really good sign. Three years ago, if you took a pair of leather basketball sneakers out of the box, you would need a good five days of pickup games to break them in. The XXXI is good to go out of the box.
That is the beauty of Flyweave. It isn't leather. Mesh has been around for a while, but it is difficult to master a soft material that can handle the wear-and-tear of a basketball player. Flyweave, at least in its early form, is a start to that remedy. The XXXI serves as a landmark, being the first Air Jordan with Flyweave as the main material of the shoe.
If you have ever played with The Sharper Image's Living Sands Set, you know it feels like the sand is supposed to break apart or stick to your fingers, but it doesn't. With Flyweave, you feel like the material won't be able to stay compact with all the jumping and running of basketball, but it does.
There is a distinction, though, between Flyweave on the Air Jordan and what Nike uses for running shoes and even some lifestyle sneakers like the Air Force I. Those have Flyknit, which is lighter. Flyknit has visible air holes. Flyweave does not. A greater mass of mesh material is needed to keep the basketball shoe stable enough. As technology improves, expect Flyweave and Flyknit to only get lighter.
The heel is synthetic leather, which is a reminder that this part of the foot still needs traditional sturdy support. On the inside, the sneaker also features pods that act as memory foam for added cushion.
The standard, red-and-black version of the shoe has history. As the story goes, Michael Jordan were the red and black Air Jordan I, despite being warned by the NBA that the colorway did not fit the league dress code at the time. Jordan wore the sneaker anyway, and Nike paid the $5,000 fine he got each time he put them on. As a tribute, the XXXI has the word "BANNED" written across the bottom. The red and black feels traditional, going back to standard Bulls colors.
More interesting is the dual Nike and Jordan Brand logos on the sides of the shoe. The Air Jordan started as a Nike shoe. Then in 1997, Jordan Brand became its own company, as a subsidiary that Nike owned. On top of that, the original Air Jordan logo is stenciled at the top of the shoe. The standard Jumpman logo is on the side toward the heel. For those who like to show off brands, the XXXI is full of insignias.
The black base with some red and a touch of white is a safe, clean look. Some other colorways have popped up, including a USA/Olympic red, white and blue combination. So far, the design is not blowing anyone away creatively, but that isn't to say they are boring. Future colorways could be edgy and spice things up.
Along with the Flyweave, the XXXI "features FlightSpeed technology with full-length Zoom Air that enhances court feel, responsiveness and lateral support."
What the heck does that mean? The idea is to make the player feel closer to the floor. The cushion of the shoe has a little more give than firmer basketball shoes. While other testers said the shoe felt like it had more "bounce," I didn't notice the FlightSpeed feel in game. However, when pausing, I felt my foot sink in almost like I was wearing a Tempur-Pedic mattress. With the mix of the Flyweave and the Zoom Air cushion, the shoe shifts form with the user.
The small inner cushions look like they may hinder the user, but they are soft enough they do not affect shoe size, and they simply push in with a foot in the sneaker.
The XXXI is arguably the most comfortable sneaker in the Air Jordan line. It is comical to think the hard, leather early Jordans are part of the same lineage. That said, it is a work in progress.
There is so much memory material and so many moving pieces, parts of the shoe could be overcompensating. I came down for one rebound and the Flyweave caved in on my right big toe. I tried to shake it out, but it took a couple trips down the court before the sneaker reset itself. You cannot expect the first Jordan Flyweave to be perfect, but it is something worth noting.
It may take a couple years and a few editions, but eventually, the shoe will continue to get softer, thinner and lighter as Flyweave or some similar material will wrap around to the heel.
Comfort is the current goal. That is what sets the XXXI apart from other basketball sneakers. Any company can make a modern basketball shoe with protection and bounce (we've come a long way from Converse All-Star high tops), but Jordan is digging into sneakers that also make the foot feel relaxed.
How'd I Play?
Ah, the most important question. Well, I was rusty, so my shot was off and my defense was slow, but that was my own fault. In terms of how the shoe affected my game, I definitely think the comfort level was a plus. I'm not the most physically gifted player, so I have to rely on awareness and quickness to get me some hustle points. Playing with a shoe that fits so snug on the feet allowed me to turn on a dime and transition back and forth.
The height of the shoe feels mid-level. It is not a low top like the Nike Kobe XI, but it is not a high top like Jordan's Melo M12. The sneaker can work for any player, but it feels best for a swingman like Michael Jordan himself.
Personally, I play a Toney Douglas-Eddie House hybrid one/two guard game. After playing with the Jordan XXXI once, I am making it my sneaker of choice when I know I'm playing more of a shooting guard role. If I know I'm playing point guard, it'd be a tough decision between the Jordan XXXI and a lower shoe like the CP3.IX. But if you had to pick just one to play any position and be comfortable, the XXXI is your safest bet.
And they make you look cooler than you are.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.