Words: Russ Bengtson

Throughout the years, countless basketball players have worn No. 23 to honor Michael Jordan. Yet back in 1995, when Jordan returned to the game he loves wearing No. 45, he wore it to honor a childhood tradition and signal a new chapter. Soon after, he introduced the Air Jordan XI.

45 was Jordan’s baseball number, worn both while growing up in North Carolina and during his stint in the minor leagues. He wore it while playing junior varsity basketball, because it was the same number that his older brother, Larry, wore on the varsity team. When Michael finally made the varsity himself, he switched to 23, which was as close to half of 45 as he could get.

When MJ returned to the Bulls in 1995, rather than revert to 23 — which the Bulls had retired at the start of that season — he stayed with 45. He was content to see 23, the only number his late father had seen him play in, stay in the rafters. And for a while, 45 worked. In just his fifth game back, after more than a year away, MJ dropped that legendary double-nickel on the Knicks. In his first playoff game since the deciding game of the ‘93 Finals, he scored 48 points against the Charlotte Hornets.

For the opening game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Orlando Magic, Jordan broke out something truly new: the Air Jordan XI. With a white, ballistic mesh upper and a shiny, elegant black patent leather wrap, the shoe had No. 45 on the back. MJ laced them up and went out to play one of the worst playoff games of his career. Afterwards, Nick Anderson, a Chicagoan who’d been selected by Michael to wear Air Jordans in the NBA, had this to say: “Number 45 is not number 23.”

MJ didn’t speak to the media after that game or the next. He didn’t have to. He came out for Game Two in his familiar 23 jersey and scored 38 points. In Game Three, he had 40. His Bulls would go on to lose the series but wouldn’t lose another series over the next three seasons.

During that summer and the following season, MJ made the Air Jordan XI iconic. He wore it in Space Jam, of course, and then throughout the 1995-96 season, as the Bulls won a then-NBA record 72 games and their fourth NBA championship. Perhaps none of that would have happened without No. 45 and the 1995 Playoffs. In a commercial, Jordan famously said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” No shoe embodies Jordan’s resilience more than the Air Jordan XI Concord, particularly the one with No. 45 on the back.

Since its commercial introduction in 1995 (with No. 23 on the back), the Air Jordan XI Concord has become The Grail. The XI Concord with “45” on the back is truly unique. It’s not a pair that MJ wore while winning a championship, but it’s the first XI that he wore in a game — an integral part of his comeback and one that led to so much more. These shoes honor the fact that MJ never lost, he learned.

The Air Jordan XI Concord is available globally on SNKRS and at select retailers starting December 8. Learn more about the Air Jordan XI on Jordan Collection.