Words: Russ Bengtson

Photos: @RalphyRamos

Whenever a kid learns how to ride a bike, he or she is given a gift — the ability to get from point A to point B. Nigel Sylvester was once one of those kids, yet he’s used that gift to go further than most. His bike has taken him around the world and back to where it all started, New York City.

In 1985, the Air Jordan 1 also represented the start of a journey, not only for its namesake athlete and Nike, but for many others. It was the birth of Air Jordan, a shoe that would become both a brand and a global phenomenon.

Eventually, the ball and wings logo came to symbolize another kind of flight. After the shoe had its day on the hardwood — capped off by 63 points in Boston Garden — skateboarders and BMXers adopted it to master other terrains.  And just like modern basketball shoes, modern skate shoes owe a debt to that original Air Jordan.

As long as I’ve known Nigel, since he was a teenager riding the Brooklyn Banks, he’s used his bike to take him beyond BMX. He became a Nike athlete 13 years ago through the 6.0 program, but even then he rode in Air Jordan 1s as a way to stand out from the crowd.

Now, with an Air Jordan 1 inspired by him, Nigel pays homage to those who came before him and gives something to those who will follow after. The Air Jordan 1 Hi OG NRG is a hand-distressed, pre-aged flip of the original red, black and white that’s re-imagined for a different journey.

But let’s let Nigel tell it.

Let’s start out with your first memories of the Jordan 1.

I saw dudes in my ‘hood rock them. I used to watch Jordan highlights on YouTube before riding, too.

What was the first pair of Jordan 1s you actually got?

It was the retro Breds. Immediately, I was like, “I’m going to ride my bike in these kicks.”

A lot of people would change into Jordans after they rode. They’d go riding in something else and then change into Jordans afterward.

I connected with the Jordan 1 so much, the clean and simple silhouette. It felt good on my pedal. I was like, what if I just rode in these Jordans? What would people say?

What did people say?

People were tripping. They couldn’t believe I was doing it. I got a little history lesson from seeing BMX guys riding in Jordan 1s back in the ‘80s. Paying tribute to that was also an incentive for me. I’m always conscious of what happened before me.

You did the Nike SB x Nigel Sylvester Dunk High “S.O.M.P.” in 2014. Where did the process for this Jordan 1 start?

DJ Clark Kent and I sat down and designed that Dunk. Throughout the process, thoughts of doing a Jordan 1 were already on my mind.

When it came to this project, we thought about how dope it would be to do a distressed Jordan 1. When I ride in my Js, they get all messed up, but they still look super dope.

The process started late last year. Jordan footwear designer, Frank Cooke, and I sat down in Portland and started to design it. We decided to go with the traditional red, black and white — executed differently, of course — and then distress it.

You also looked back at your older Jordan 1s, right?

The main inspiration was a pair of Shadow 1s that I rode in for months. Man, I loved them. They are definitely well worn-in. I’ve taken several bike trips with them and filmed a lot of clips in those joints.

Frank was like, “Yo, send me those shoes.” He studied them and said, “These points on your shoe get beat up the most.” My bike has no brakes; my shoes are my brakes. I ride left foot forward, so my right foot usually acts as my brake. It gets a lot of damage back in the heel area, because it’s closest to my back wheel and frame.

You have a couple different hits on here. What are the ones that stand out for you?

We did the reflective Swoosh inside. Reflectivity is associated with bike riding culture; it helps drivers identify bike riders at night. On the lateral side of the shoe, we took the Swoosh off, to really drive home the distressing story. We added outlines of the Swoosh, as if we were trying to draw the Swoosh and Wings logo back on. Each shoe is hand-distressed, which makes every pair unique.

One of my favorite parts of this shoe is the mini Swoosh on the toe box. The response for that detail, in particular, has been crazy. I think it’s the first time Jordan Brand has put a mini Swoosh on the 1. I’ve always been a huge fan of multiple Swooshes and the mini Swoosh. This was my opportunity to do it, and we did it.

Has the existence of this shoe fully set in for you yet?

DJ Clark Kent called me last night, and we spoke for a little bit. The day before, I posted a photo of the shoe. He was like, “You’re holding your dream in your hand.” He’s so right. I dreamt about working on a Jordan 1 for years, and what would it would feel like, since I started riding in them.

The meaning of this shoe really connects to why they are distressed. When I’m riding and doing tricks, traveling around the world or getting my ideas out in the pursuit of making dreams a reality, my shoes naturally get beat up. This shoe is a reflection of the dedication, hustle and love I put into everything I do.

It’s that DIY attitude, which is key within BMX. It’s that “I will not lose” attitude. That story is told through this shoe. This shoe defines my journey, from when I started riding BMX up until this point and beyond.

This also ties to the brand story of GO. Whatever your dream is for yourself, take the necessary steps and create it. It will take work, and it will be a process. The path may not be cut out for you, so make your own and don’t ask for permission.

Have you gotten to ride in these yet?

I rode in them today. They feel great. We took photos in Queens, in my old neighborhood.

We went to Jamaica Avenue, to the Colosseum block where I used to go after school to buy jerseys, hats and sneakers. I used to leave Cardozo, my high school, and jump on the bus from Bayside to Jamaica Avenue. I hadn’t been there in years. It felt surreal shooting there, but it was great. It was a tribute, in a sense — a way of showing love and saying thank you.

Then we shot in my neighborhood, where I grew up, in Laurelton, Queens. We went to “The Bello” Park, which is the spot where I would ride for hours, learning how to grind and stuff as a kid, before I ventured into the other boroughs. I rode there, learning how to smith and feeble grind on the benches. The benches still have all the marks from when my crew and I rode there.

Then we rode up and down Merrick Boulevard, which is a boulevard that I’d ride up and down for hours in the summertime. I would jump over dividers, in between traffic. That’s where I started to develop my love for riding through traffic and having fun with it. I rode around the ‘hood, just reflecting on the journey from that point to this shoe.

What’s next for you?

Hopefully making more Jordans! I’m always on the hustle, always on the grind, always cooking up something and building the GO brand. Right now, I really want to embrace this moment. Yesterday, I went to my mom’s house and gave her a pair of these Jordan 1s. That feeling was unbelievable. Like, “Mom, do you understand what this is?” She got it, for the most part. She’s not into sneaker culture, but she got it. She understood how excited I was about it, and that made her very happy.

This still feels dream-like to me. When I got the shoes, I took them out of the box, laced them up, put them in the middle of my living room and looked at them for like 30 minutes. Then I left to Malibu for a trip. I left them on the kitchen counter, so that when I walked back into the house, they’d be the first thing I’d see. They were just there waiting for me.

The Air Jordan 1 High OG is available starting September 1 at select retailers globally.