Hobbled by a sprained big right toe before Game 4 of the 1991 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan improvised. He cut a slit in the front of his right Air Jordan VI, thereby reducing the sneaker’s pressure on his foot.
The pair of high-top sneakers became yet another memorable entry in Jordan’s legendary career. Bearing Jordan’s trademark signature, they can now be purchased. Goldin Auctions and Sotheby’s announced on Tuesday that bids for the sneakers are open and will close on Dec. 7.
Goldin Auctions founder and CEO Ken Goldin anticipates the sneakers, which are part of a larger “Century of Champions Sports Memorabilia” offering, will fetch bids in the range of $500,000 to $750,000. The shoes are the latest game-worn gear from Jordan’s career to go to auction. Earlier this month, Goldin Auctions announced that Jordan’s assistant and longtime friend, George Koehler, is putting up 28 items.
The history behind the slit sneakers—and how they have emerged as an auctioned item—adds to their lore.
The sneakers were a makeshift engineering effort on Jordan’s part that didn’t pan out. After the first few minutes of the first quarter, Jordan switched back to a regular pair of Air Jordan VI. He later confessed that he didn’t feel comfortable cutting to the basket in a less-than-stable shoe, even if the slit had relieved some of the pain.
Jordan would go on to lead the Chicago Bulls to victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4. Three days later, the 28-year-old emerging superstar would do the same in the series’ final game, sealing the first of the Bulls’ six championships in the 1990s. Jordan—who averaged 31 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and three steals in the series—took home the MVP award.
Jordan and teammates celebrated their championship at the Los Angeles Ritz Carlton, but before they returned to Chicago, Jordan left behind a gift at the hotel’s front desk: the pair of slit Air Jordan sneakers, signed by the legend himself.
“I got a call from [Nike executive] Howard White,” Sonny Vaccaro told Sportico in a phone interview. “Howard told me that Michael wanted me to have something special.”
It was a fitting tribute to the man who, 25 years later, ESPN would dub the “Sole Man” in the 30 for 30 on the Vaccaro-Jordan relationship. Vaccaro played an instrumental role in Nike signing Jordan in 1984. For nearly a decade, the two would remain close friends.
Vaccaro, now 81, kept the sneakers in a sealed box safely tucked away in the clothing closet of his wife, Pam. The sneakers, he revealed, are the only memorabilia he has from his days working with some of the NBA’s most prominent stars in their sneaker and apparel contracts.
“People would often ask me about the sneakers and what I was going to do with them,” Vaccaro said. “I had all the intentions of giving them to my grandkids one day.”
Vaccaro’s thinking recently changed.
“This comes at a time in my life,” Vaccaro explained, “when I have no more contact with Michael. Everyone’s lives have moved on. There is no sentimental value to me in these shoes, and there is no connection between Michael and me. I honestly feel they would be best appreciated by the public.”
Vaccaro, who also worked with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Tracy McGrady, refrained from criticizing Jordan during the phone interview. However, his decision to place the sneakers up for auction comes months after ESPN aired The Last Dance documentary on Jordan’s career. Despite Vaccaro’s well-documented role in the business side of Jordan’s career, Vaccaro was noticeably omitted from the series—even during segments on Jordan’s endorsements and marketing deals. Jordan was involved in the production of The Last Dance.
“Things happen,” Vaccaro explained. “I formed a relationship with Michael when he was 22 years old. Ours was a personal relationship. I knew him as an adult, whereas with LeBron and Kobe and Tracy and Brandon [Jennings]—I knew them more as kids. I stayed at Michael’s home and we travelled the world together. I never asked for anything from him.”
Vaccaro recalled Jordan calling him a few months after the 1991 NBA Finals had ended. Nike had cut ties with Vaccaro.
“He called me and said, ‘Is there anything I can do for you, Sonny?’”
Over the years, Vaccaro and Jordan grew apart. Vaccaro would join Adidas, then Reebok, and more recently has championed a legal and policy effort to reform college sports.
The decision to move on from the famous sneakers, Vaccaro mused, perhaps wryly, “was my last dance.”