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That time when Michael Jordan played in Italy

Italy had the fortune and honor of witnessing the basketball ace, the greatest North American athlete of the 20th century, play on its soil. On the occasion of his birth anniversary (February 17, 1963), we cannot overlook a brief stint in his career that not everyone knows about. A young MJ, in his rookie year, played an exhibition match in the summer of ’85 to launch the Air Jordan I. The rest is history… and we loved it.

Nike chose MJ as the new face

It might seem paradoxical, but it is certainly a distant memory. However, the multinational Nike didn’t always dominate the sports apparel and accessories scene. Founded in 1971 in Beaverton, an insight from the visionary sports agent Sonny Vaccaro made Nike and Michael Jordan’s fortunes in the ’80s.

After experiencing its first-ever quarterly loss, the company needed a new strategy to increase profits and, more importantly, a breath of fresh air to surprise the competition. Seeking new avenues of expansion, Sonny Vaccaro saw enormous potential in MJ and sought to bring him on board with a king’s ransom contract.

At that time, the young superstar hadn’t even achieved a tenth of the fame he would later reach in his career, despite just coming off a gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Morale was nevertheless high; his name echoed loudly, and following the Olympics, he signed a $7 million contract for 6 years with the Chicago Bulls, the third-highest in NBA history at the time.

Michael Jordan played in Italy - Trieste
Michael Jordan in Trieste (1985)

In this extremely prolific context, Nike wagered hefty sums of money on the young star. From an idea by Peter Moore came the Air Jordan line: the young basketball player signed a $2 million contract over 5 years plus a percentage of every shoe sold—a pharaonic and unprecedented contract for a non-professional athlete. Indeed, at the time of signing, MJ had not yet debuted in the NBA, but it would still be a few months until October 26, 1984, when he took to the court against the Washington Bullets.

The exhibition match in Trieste

Italy had the opportunity to host MJ for a handful of days in the Trieste region on the occasion of Nike’s advertising campaign for the launch of the Air Jordan I shoe line. On August 26, 1985, just elected NBA Rookie of the Year for the 1984-1985 season, Michael took to the court with the Trieste team against Juve Caserta, a team in the Italian Serie A (the highest Italian league).

Michael Jordan played in Italy – 1985

The match ended 113-112 for Trieste; Jordan scored 41 points, but that day is mainly remembered for the famous Tomahawk. The renowned dunk shattered the backboard, the only time in his career that MJ broke a backboard during a game.

To this day, the episode is still celebrated and remembered through the release of the Shattered Backboard shoes, featuring orange, black, and white colors. The trademark patent leather upper was creased to recall the shattered backboard incident during the Trieste game.

Shattered Backboard shoes - Michael Jordan
The Shattered Backboard shoes sold out among collectors, reaching prices of several hundred dollars

Italy can do nothing but pay homage to the greatest basketball player of all time by acclamation (as reported on the NBA website), especially after the young MJ, during his experience in Trieste, made the prophecy: “I want to become the best in my sport. The only thing I can’t stand is jealousy: unfortunately, this is the feeling that many teammates in Chicago harbor towards me.”

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