CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — There was an inkling that he’d come, but no one knew for sure. We’re talking, after all, about the greatest basketball player of all time. But Michael Jordan arrived bright and early, with coffee in hand, to sneaker boutique Social Status. There in the Plaza Midwood area of his city, Jordan was greeted by store owner James Whitner, who might be just as important to the local community as MJ.
Why? Well, Whitner opened his first sneaker store, Flava Factory, in Charlotte in 2005, a year after a gunshot wound he suffered during a street fight nearly ended his life. By 2007, Whitner had launched Social Status, which has emerged as one of the best shoe and streetwear retailers in the country, having expanded to six more cities: Atlanta; Houston; Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina; Pittsburgh; and Tampa, Florida. And now, Social Status has its own Air Jordan, which the man whose name is on it came to see for himself.
“It wasn’t like a secret, come-through-the-back-and-show-love type of thing,” Whitner said. “He came through the front door, froze and shocked the crowd. You can’t write a release better than that. When you drop a Jordan, to get MJ to walk through the door … is crazy. It goes down in the record books.”
It was three days before the All-Star Game, and folks lined up to cop the limited-edition Social Status x Air Jordan 6, one of several pairs of sneakers released by Jordan Brand for basketball’s biggest weekend. The collection tells the story of Jordan’s journey through his home state, from an Air Jordan 5 in his high school colors to a University of North Carolina-themed women’s Air Jordan 1 and a retro of the “Infrared” Air Jordan 6 that His Airness wore in the 1991 All-Star Game in Charlotte.
The most distinctive of the bunch is without question Social Status’ rendition of the Air Jordan 6, designed with pony hair and reptile print as an homage to Jordan’s “Black Cat” alter ego. It’s a collaboration that’s been years in the making.
“The goal of the shoe was to just celebrate MJ and his legacy,” Whitner said. “Him as the greatest player to play the game means a lot for us. … I felt like we needed to wave a flag for the city through MJ.” With the superspecial Air Jordan 6, Social Status delivered quite the tribute to Jordan, whom Whitner first met in 2015 while helping Jordan’s son Marcus open Trophy Room, a boutique in Florida inspired by the space at the family’s residence where the Hall of Famer stores his awards.
Conversations began between Social Status and the Jordan Brand about cooking something up for 2017 All-Star Weekend, which was originally scheduled to take place in Charlotte but was moved to New Orleans because of the NBA’s objection to North Carolina’s House Bill 2 that limited anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. By May 2017, the NBA announced that the game would return to Charlotte in 2019.
“The delay gave us time to create a better experience,” Whitner said. “We’re in constant conversation with the brand about how to engage the kids, the community, and stay ahead of things.”
The experience Whitner envisioned started with the release of the Social Status x Air Jordan 6, which sold out online in 14 minutes on Feb. 13. The next day, when Jordan made an appearance at the store, reservation slots to purchase the shoes opened on Nike’s SNKRS App and filled swiftly. But Whitner wanted more accessibility for the people of the Queen City.
“We wanted … to make sure everybody was treated fairly,” he said. Since the original release, Social Status has restocked the shoe online multiple times. “We held pairs over the weekend … so people could still touch, see and feel the product. … The new world of retail is connected to the consumer and connected in the community.”
Whitner also opened his store to host a design workshop for students from Charlotte within the Jordan Brand’s Wings Program. Since 2015, the initiative has provided more than 225 kids who experience financial barriers to pursuing higher education with full rides to their colleges of choice. For the workshop at Social Status, the Jordan Brand commissioned one of the most talented designers in the world, Dominic Ciambrone, who is known as The Shoe Surgeon.
The kids were also surprised by appearances from a pair of Jordan Brand athletes, LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs and Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons. The two All-Stars joined members of the Wings Program at tables and participated in the Shoe Surgeon-led session, which involved sneaker deconstruction and sewing machine practice.
“We’ve focused a lot on the process of design. Without the process you’ll never get to where you’re going, just like in life,” Ciambrone told students during the workshop. Afterward, they were each presented with a custom pair of the newly released “Infrared” 6s. Ciambrone also encouraged the students to pick the brains of the two NBA superstars.
“Events where you get to interact with kids … they just want to have real conversations. They ask you real questions,” Griffin said. “It’s cool to speak to kids at this level and hopefully say one thing that might inspire them or make them want to keep going on the right path.”
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After first signing with the Jordan Brand as a rookie in 2012, Griffin extended for another two years last fall. Aldridge has been a part of the team since 2014. “When you join the brand, you put yourself on a higher level. You hold yourself to a higher standard because MJ is the best,” Aldridge said. “We have kids that follow us and look up to us. … If you have a chance to impact their lives, help them be more positive or have a good day, that’s our job. And the Jordan Brand supports us in any way possible.”
Jordan and his brand also support people like Whitner. During 2019 All-Star Weekend, 15 years after a near-death experience that was due to gun violence, he became the first recipient of the Wings Changemaker Award.
“I thank God, sometimes three times a day,” Whitner said. “Today was probably six or seven. It’s surreal to have the opportunities that I have now. I always wanna connect to the younger kids because I wanna find the kid that was me at that age in times when I was probably in my most desperate phases in life and didn’t understand my options. I want to be able to let kids know that there are options, regardless of what walk of life you come from. For me, it’s amazing. I’m incredibly blessed.”
Whitner received a certificate similar to the one given to Wings students when they’re awarded their scholarships, as well as the first pair of the exclusive “Wings” Air Jordan 4s. They will not be for sale but instead are used to honor people who give back to their respective communities.
“The shoe is amazing … but I can’t wear it! I need two pairs — one to display and one to rock,” Whitner said. “But bigger than the shoe is the commitment I’ve received from the brand … everyone down from MJ … and the leadership to continue to help build experiences and serve the consumer. That means more to me than any tangible object they can give me. … This is the first of many things we have to come.”