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The Making of a Moment: How Michael Jordan's Shattered Backboard Became Iconic

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

The Making of a Moment: How Michael Jordan's Shattered Backboard Became Iconic
Dan McQuade

In honor of Otis’s upcoming Shattered Backboard Jordan 1 drop, we asked Dan McQuade to go deep on how a once-unknown moment became legendary.

Michael Jordan had a busy summer after his rookie year.

He took several college classes. He got an honorary title from a McDonald’s charity. He played golf, and some basketball, and was recognized everywhere he went. He scored 71 points in an exhibition game for a team called the Cheap Shots. And he also went to Italy and shattered a backboard in an exhibition game.

The game was Jordan’s only appearance for Italian club Stefanel Trieste. Playing against Juve Caserta, Jordan scored 30 points for his one-night club. And he left the gym a bit of a mess: Late in the game, driving to the basket, Jordan broke the backboard with an impressive one-handed dunk. The glass shattered, showering players with glass. It was quite a scene.



“Glass was everywhere,” Howard White, now VP of Jordan Brand, remembered later.

“The backboard exploded. I’m looking at his eyes, his ears… looking for little bits of glass. In the moment, it was wild. It was a little scary, because we didn’t know where the glass was going. They were playing and then there was that moment. I don’t know of any moment where one can detect something otherworldly has happened, but that one has become something grand. For MJ, though, it was just a moment in the game.”

Let’s backtrack a bit: Michael Jordan had become a sensation on and off the court in just one year—a bona fide celebrity at 22.

In December, just a few months into his pro career, he inspired a Sports Illustrated cover with the headline “A Star Is Born.” He was in demand after the Milwaukee Bucks bounced Jordan’s Bulls in the first round of the playoffs that April.

In May, Jordan was named NBA Rookie of the Year.

“Michael Jordan has had an incredible impact on his team and this league,” Pat Riley, then coach of the Lakers, said at the time. “I’ve never seen a player come in and do so many things spectacularly." Jordan was also named honorary chairman of the North Carolina Ronald McDonald House. At the press conference announcing the appointment, Jordan also noted he’d be taking classes in both summer sessions at UNC.

He did take those classes, skipping out early from an NBA awards banquet in June because he had to get back to Chapel Hill to take a final. He spent that summer in North Carolina in school, playing “a little” basketball and “a lot” of golf—while also making a bunch of promotional appearances. He was mobbed by autograph-seeking children at a golf tournament in Iowa; one report specified he was hounded from exactly 9:18 a.m. to 3 p.m. (when he was whisked away to another appearance). Three days later he kicked off a basketball camp alongside Dr. J.



The appearances continued when school let out. Jordan made that trip to Italy in late August to make appearances for Nike. The next month he spent playing in exhibition games, including one in Illinois on September 14 where Basketball-Reference says he scored 71 points in the WNBQ Cheap Shots’ 93-90 win over the Twin City All-Stars. 

Per a 1985 Arizona Republic article, Jordan also “made a few extra bucks this summer” conducting basketball clinics on a Bahamian cruise ship. That article also noted what a success he’d been for Nike, helping to turn around the company. They might sell three million Air Jordans in 1986, an analyst said.

And Jordan did continue to sell sneakers.

Nike is now the biggest sporting goods company in the world. Jordan has his own brand. And what was true then is true now. "What has Michael meant?" Bulls teammate David Greenwood said when Jordan won Rookie of the Year. "Money. M-O-N-E-Y." When he won the award, Jordan was credited not just for his 28 points a game—but also for improving Bulls attendance by 87 percent.

But even for a sensation like Jordan, a small Nike trip to Italy, from a rookie basketball player, wasn’t a major story.

People weren’t there to cover it. But as White of Jordan Brand said, the moment has “become something grand.” 

Jordan shattering a backboard in Italy was a known story about Jordan, of course, but it was more of a fun fact, a whisper you might hear about a guy who seemed so otherworldly on the court. “Oh, yeah, he once broke a backboard in an exhibition game in Italy.” It almost sounds unreal. But it’s true! He really did shatter the backboard. It was Nike who helped make it a thing.

The event was once shrouded in mystery.

Nike first released a sneaker commemorating the event in 2015. The shoes, a re-release of the original Air Jordan sneakers MJ wore in the game, were black and orange—a nod to the jersey colors of Stefanel Trieste. At the time, Nike was commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Air Jordan. Sneaker News surmised the brand was simply “delving into seemingly random and insignificant events to give us something new.”

But the reaction to the sneaker showed the shattered backboard was anything but a random, insignificant event.

With the play now available online for anyone to view, it was as if we really were all there live, watching this rookie phenom break the backboard on TV. It’s no wonder the sneakers from the game were so in-demand: Not only does this play now have easily-accessible video footage, it has a story behind it.

In just a year, Complex was asking, “Remember the time Michael Jordan shattered a backboard?” By 2019, when Jordan Brand was releasing the third version of the Shattered Backboard sneakers, High Snobiety labeled the play “famous.” It took just four years for a play from 1985 to go from relative obscurity to legend. Jordan’s other famous plays—the last shot, the missed free throw dunk, the hand switch layup, the shrug—happened live on TV. They were instant legends. The availability of video replay managed to create a new one out of this incredible play.

The shattered backboard was a mystery from Jordan’s past. Now it’s firmly entrenched in the pantheon of major Jordan moments. It’s at least in part because the sneakers Nike released to commemorate it were so good, and interesting. The release of the Shattered Backboard Air Jordans was as much of a landmark event as the actual shattered backboard. It was the first to release with Nike’s new online raffle system. The quality of the sneaker was top-notch. It was also the first major hyped Air Jordan 1 release that was an entirely new colorway—not a retro of one that was initially released in 1985.


As Nice Kicks wrote last year, the sneaker came out just around the time the AJ1 was being reconceived as a high-fashion sneaker. “Just the same, it warmed consumers up for not only more Air Jordan 1s but Air Jordan 1s that didn’t originate in ’85,” Matt Halfhill wrote. “Thanks to the ‘Backboards,’ any AJ1 with good leather and ‘Black Toe’ blocking can move faster than Mike in any hue far removed from Chicago colors.”

Since that shattered backboard release, Nike has gone all-in on Jordan retros in new colorways. Nike has also released Jordan 1 sneakers that reference that “A Star Is Born“ SI cover, though they were not nearly as in demand as any of the Shattered Backboards.

The shoes Jordan wore when he did it are now the most expensive pair of sneakers in the world. It's a fascinating trajectory for a moment that went from old to new and from obscurity to highlight reel, thanks to a combination of time, Nike, the Internet, a well-made pair of sneakers with an interesting story, and a player with a knack of turning moments into legends.

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