Reviewing the Air Jordan XX9, after testing the shoes at Michael Jordan’s house

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Jordan Brand touted ground-breaking performance and innovative design when the company unveiled the latest version of its flagship basketball shoe back in April, and now that we’re less than a month away from the release of the Air Jordan XX9, it was time to see if the company kept its promise.

A group of media members were invited to Chicago recently to get a first look at the shoes in person and test them on the court — but this was no ordinary wear test experience.

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THE EXPERIENCE

We were told to dress for basketball in the base layers that were provided the night before, even though we would be outfitted in additional gear once we arrived to the court. After breakfast at Wishbone, a spot in Chicago’s West Loop frequented by Michael Jordan in his playing days and one which came personally recommended by the brand’s namesake, we were loaded onto a minibus to be transported to what turned out to be a very special location.

The ride of more than 40 minutes out of town didn’t seem suspicious, considering that Jordan Brand’s open run they hosted in New Orleans during All-Star weekend was a similar distance from the town’s center. Once we exited the freeway and took a couple of turns into a residential area, however, things began to fall into place — especially once we came to our stop.

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We had arrived at Michael Jordan’s house.

Jordan no longer lives here, and his former home is currently on the market; he spends his time these days in Charlotte in an ownership role with the Hornets. But the sprawling estate still has many of his personalized touches — including a regulation-sized indoor basketball gym where the day’s festivities would take place.

As we walked down the long and winding pathway, we passed the main home and were ushered into a guest house. Once inside, two quick right turns landed us into a locker room space that was specifically created for our special event.

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Once everyone was in uniform, it was time to head into Jordan’s personal gym, where he spent so many hours perfecting his game. It was left untouched by the folks handling the event, because as one staffer quipped, “you don’t paint the Sistine Chapel.”

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THE SHOE 

The Jordan XX9 had big shoes to fill, so to speak, because it was going to be extremely difficult to improve upon the performance provided by the Jordan XX8. The company introduced its Flight Plate technology into the sole of the shoe, and by almost all accounts, the XX8 and XX8 SE were routinely reviewed as some of the best basketball shoes to play in over the past 18 months.

The Flight Plate returned for the XX9, but was rotated and adjusted slightly in hopes of providing even better overall cushioning in the forefoot of the shoe. And, a “tendril” was added to bridge the front and the back of the sole to provide what the company hoped would be a smoother heel-to-toe transition. You can see the differences here, with the XX8 on the left and the XX9 on the right.

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The adjustments to the Flight Plate gave the shoe a different feel than its predecessor, but that was only a minor tweak from the previous iteration. The real change in the XX9 is the woven upper, which feels more like a snug slipper than it does a traditional sneaker.

“The performance-woven upper delivers superior abrasion resistance, along with an entirely new look on the outside of the shoe,” the company described at April’s unveiling. “The structure and fit of the shoe are engineered through Flight Web tunnels, and strategic panels of stiffer and softer flex to enhance natural motion. The absence of numerous layers and adhesion technologies creates an incredibly comfortable, sock-like interior lining with superior breathability.”

Michael Jordan and the shoe’s designer, Tinker Hatfield, discussed the woven upper at April’s event, while explaining its significance and the way it affects performance.

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THE REVIEW

My initial impressions of the Jordan XX9 haven’t changed much since the first couple of games I played in them, even though I’ve tested them out many times since.

I originally thought my normal size might have been too small when I first put them on, and actually checked to see if a half-size up was available. It wasn’t, and that was fine, because it didn’t take more than a few minutes for the upper to stretch a bit, to the point where it was extremely comfortable and didn’t feel like there was anything there at all.

The word “sock” was thrown around a lot that day to describe the feel of the upper, but after discussing it with others at the event, we agreed that term simply doesn’t do it justice. The fabric is firm enough to provide support when you need it, but doesn’t feel too tight or constricting, and it’s undoubtedly the shoe’s key feature.

As previously mentioned, the Flight Plate has changed a bit in the XX9, and for those who enjoyed the feel of the extreme level of forefoot bounce in the XX8, it’s worth noting that in the newest model, that has been downgraded a bit, and is much more subtle. There isn’t a greatly noticeable difference once you begin playing in them from a performance standpoint, but you will notice it when first putting the shoes on, which may be viewed as a negative by some.

While the Flight Plate was the game-changer in the previous version, the fact that it’s now combined with this woven upper is what will keep players reaching for this shoe time and again when heading to the court. There are obviously tons of factors that go into declaring which shoe is the best to play in, and ultimately, it comes down to a player’s individual game, body type, and personal preference. But it’s tough to envision anyone playing in the Jordan XX9 and coming away with anything other than positive overall thoughts.

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Pacers erase 17-point deficit to take 2-1 lead over Cavs

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 points, leading the Indiana Pacers back from a 17-point halftime deficit for a 92-90 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night for a 2-1 lead in their first-round series.

Cleveland was 39-0 during the regular season when leading after three quarters and kept that perfect mark intact with a Game 2 win.

The incredible second-half charge came exactly one year after Indiana blew a 26-point halftime lead in a historic playoff collapse against the Cavs.

This time, the Pacers delivered a devastating blow to the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs – on a night LeBron Jones joined Michael Jordan as the only players in playoff history to record 100 double-doubles. James finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Cleveland from losing its first game this season after leading following the third quarter.

The biggest reason for the collapse: Bogdanovic.

After charging back with striking distance, he completed a four-point play to finally give the Pacers an 81-77 lead with 6:10 left. Bogdanovic followed that with another to make it as seven-point game.

Then James answered with the next seven to tie it.

Bogdanovic came right back with a layup and another 3 before Thaddeus Young scored to give the Pacers a 91-84 cushion with 53 seconds left.

James knocked down a 3 to cut the deficit to four, and the Cavs got another 3 from Kevin Love with 7 seconds left to make it 91-90.

Darren Collison made 1 of 2 free throws with 5 seconds left, giving Cleveland one more chance. But J.R. Smith‘s long desperation heave came up short..

Shaq attacks verse in new TV series "Poetry in America"

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shaquille O’Neal called himself “The Big Baryshnikov” and “The Big Socrates” in his days in the NBA. Now he can add “The Big Shakespeare.”

The basketball Hall-of-Famer, TNT TV analyst, commercial pitchman and onetime rapper is putting poetry on his lengthy resume as part of a new public television series.

He brings his best bard to a dramatic reading of a poem in his episode of the 12-part “Poetry in America ,” then discusses it with Elisa New, a Harvard English professor who hosts the show.

“I’ve always been into poetry,” O’Neal said in an interview with The Associated Press in a sunlit conference room overlooking the Los Angeles skyline. “I’ve been writing rhymes all my life.”

“Poetry in America,” distributed by American Public Television and presented by WGBH in Boston, is airing at various times on local public TV stations. Some episodes, including Shaq’s, are already available to stream.

On the show the 46-year-old former All-Star from the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat recites “Fast Break,” a poem by Edward Hirsch from his 1986 book “Wild Gratitude.” It describes some very imperfect players who manage to put together a perfect basketball play.

“A hook shot kisses the rim and hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,” the poem begins, “and for once our gangly starting center boxes out his man.”

O’Neal, whose 350-pound bulk would never be called “gangly,” still related to the center in the verse, but said he initially missed the poem’s point.

“The first mistake I made was thinking it was about basketball,” he said. “I read it real quick I said `fast break, shovel passes, sure, this is what I do.”‘

He said New, who sat next to O’Neal in the interview and like almost everyone is utterly dwarfed by him, gave him whole new insights that led to a fast friendship.

“When she broke it down intelligently for me, I was very astounded and very amazed,”

The poem is written for a close friend and playing partner of Hirsch’s who had just died. That’s easy to miss if you skip past the dedication at the top, as most readers do.

“It’s fun that only later as you’re reading, you look back at that dedication,” New said. “One line can change everything.”

Suddenly it becomes an examination of transcendent moments and human connections.

“It’s about friendship, it’s about caring, it’s about emotions,” O’Neal said. “I had missed that.”

His latest learning experience took O’Neal’s thoughts back to high school, where he had a 69 percent in English after blowing a test during the basketball playoffs, and needed a 70 to stay eligible for sports.

The teacher allowed him a retest, and suggested a tutor.

“This guy, his name was McDougal, he was a geek, he saved my academic life,” O’Neal said. “Everybody bullied him in school, except me.”

O’Neal said he took the work and “broke it down, made it seem so simple.”

“I retook the test, got an 80, and we won the state championship,” O’Neal said.

“Now,” he said, “I always tell kids I’m a geek.”

The professor had another name for him. “He’s a learner!”

O’Neal partly looked the poet during the interview in a polo shirt and jeans, having traded his basketball sneakers for a pair of slip-on Toms shoes, size 22.

When he wanted them, a company executive told him “it wouldn’t be worth it to make them in my size unless I bought 500 of them,” O’Neal said. “I told him to give me 2,000.”

 

Rumor: Grizzlies had to choose between Marc Gasol and David Fizdale

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David Fizdale has been linked to most of the NBA’s head-coaching vacancies.

He developed a legion of backers as lead a Heat assistant, and he did good things guiding the Grizzlies before they unexpectedly fired him. He deserves consideration.

But he also must explain his fractured relationship with Memphis star Marc Gasol. They weren’t speaking for a while.

And maybe the problem was even worse than that.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to a source close to Fizdale briefed on the Grizzlies’ decision, it was ownership having to make a choice — trade their All-Star center Marc Gasol, who has fallen in love with its small-market city, or fire the coach. Their relationship had gotten that bad.

If Grizzlies ownership felt it had to choose between Gasol and Fizdale, it’s not clear why.

Fizdale benched Gasol down the stretch during the coach’s last game, and Gasol publicly expressed his frustration.

But Gasol denied issuing a me-or-Fizdale ultimatum. Fizdale said focus on his relationship with Gasol was “overblown,” adding he cared far more about whether he could win with a player than whether they got along personally.

Memphis obviously sided with Gasol – probably too strongly.

LeBron James bought Cavs teammates matching designer suits to wear to game tonight

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I’m still trying to decide if this is cool or a little too Stepford.

The Cavaliers rolled into the Bakers’ Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis tonight wearing matching designer suits, all paid for by LeBron James and custom fitted to each player.

If a college team rolled into a game in four-digit designer suits, the NCAA would have questions. And not about the vests.

The Cavaliers are LeBron’s team, and if he wants to buy his teammates suits and tell them to wear them it’s going to happen. Is it a bonding thing that helps bring them together? Sure. Is it in place to make sure LeBron remembers which ones are his new teammates? Probably not.

Do the suits help on the court? No. And the Cavaliers better bring it in Game 3 because if they go down 2-1 in this series — something that is a realistic possibility — the whispers of doubt are going to get a lot louder.