Air Jordan 2012 | Six Different Paths to Performance

words & images // Zac Dubasik

“We always start with performance. We always start with trying to make a better basketball shoe. We are always trying to improve performance for the best basketball players in the world, knowing that if we can achieve that, then of course people at all levels in the world of basketball will get a better shoe.” – Tinker Hatfield

Jordan Brand may be best known these days for their frantic, riot-inducing Retro releases, but even those shoes were the performers of their day. So it’s always refreshing to hear that the direction of their modern on-court shoes has kept that performance focus. But while modularity certainly has performance potential, it still feels like a bit of a gimmick. In practice, though, does it actually offer performance options that are as good as its non-modular competition? Because if not, is there really any point in being able to switch out a single shoe when you could buy two different shoes for the same price? It doesn’t matter if it’s simply a good modular shoe when there are such outstanding standard shoes out there.

When rumors and leaks started, indicating that Jordan Brand would take their dual-midsole Air Jordan 2011 to a whole new level of modularity, I’ll admit I was skeptical. As details started to emerge that there would be six different combinations rather than two, it just seemed like a bit much. Who really needs all those options on a single shoe? The basketball world has been surviving on single-option shoes forever, and I can’t really recall an outcry of complaints from players about their lack of modular choices. In fact, most of the previous attempts at modularity have either been shunned (Nike MORF), or short lived (Air Jordans XX1 and XX2). But that doesn’t mean options are a bad thing. If it could be done right, it’s easy to see potential. But again – these shoes can’t be judged on the fact that they are modular. They have to play as well as their competitors. And from my very first run, all that skepticism was put to rest. The only thing that reminded me that they were modular was the fact that I was excited to try out more combinations and options.

The initial setup I chose was the low-cut bootie combined with the Fly Over midsole. This was the closest to my usual preferences, and seemed like a natural starting point. The first thing to note, though, is how impressively made this shoe is. Materials, construction and finishing are all top-notch. It is an essential element of this shoe, though, because that kind of precision is an absolute necessity with all of these loose parts. If everything didn’t fit perfectly together, it would be an unacceptable performance compromise. Not only do things fit perfectly together, though, they are relatively easy to switch in and out. What that meant, for me at least, is that I was more likely to switch out from game to game and try more options.

Before I look at the individual options, though, I’ll comment on the constants. Beginning with the outsole, I found solid traction and outstanding flex. The grooves mimic your foot’s natural motion, as designed. Jordan Brand’s Tom Luedecke explained that, “it’s zonally engineered to actually match a footprint. We are looking at a footprint and where abrasion happens the most, and [we] place just the right amount of traction pattern there – taking rubber out wherever we can.” What also aids in transition is the shoe’s outstanding Flight Carbon shank. The proprietary weave developed by Jordan Brand doesn’t necessarily function any differently than standard carbon fiber, but the size and shape are as good as it gets. It offers just the right amount of rigidity, while still allowing the foot to flex naturally. The flex and court feel are so good, actually, (regardless of which insole is selected) that the shoe plays and feels much lighter than its weight would imply.

Moving to the shoe’s main upper, Flywire provides the primary support. Regardless of which bootie is selected, I found that the shoe cinched up perfectly and provided excellent fit despite its modularity. Lockdown was excellent, just as it would be on a well-fitting standard shoe. My only real complaint was that I felt the shoe needed a more rigid heel counter. I’d guess that ease of use when switching components in and out led to this softer heel, but it wasn’t a major issue. When fully laced, my heel was secure – just not as secure as the best examples out there.

The booties themselves were where I found the most pronounced effects of the shoe’s modularity. Sure, there were noticeable differences between the midsoles  – more on that later – but those didn’t give the feel of an entirely different shoe like switching booties did. Between the low-cut bootie and the thin collar of the main shoe, I experienced range of motion much more similar to a low-top when using that setup. It was my preference between the two, and once again, felt just like any other shoe as far as not suffering any ill effects due to being modular. But when I switched to the hi-top version, I was shocked. I almost expected it to feel like I had a glorified higher-cut sock on.

But instead, it truly gave the impression that I’d switched out to a hi-top. Increased padding, as well as a taller stance and strap, produced a very perceivable difference in support. We all know at this point that a low-top can provide just as much ankle stability as a hi-top by controlling the heel. But the higher cut provides that extra level of padding and reassurance that some players prefer regardless. And while it wasn’t my first choice, I thoroughly enjoyed playing in the higher bootie. Even though range of motion in the ankle may have been limited in comparison to the lower version, you still get all of the excellent transition and court feel from the main shoe.

Moving on to the cushioning, I’ll first mention that each midsole took a run or two to break in. But once they did, it allowed the flex of the main shoe to shine even more. While I initially chose the Fly Over (heel Air, forefoot Zoom) midsole, I found that it wasn’t my favorite option. As much as I like forefoot Zoom, the articulation used in this particular bag, coupled with the fact that it just had such low volume, made for an uneven feel. I’ve personally never had a complaint about a standard Zoom bag not flexing well enough, and I would have liked to have seen one used here.

The Fly Through option (full-length Air) provided, as expected, the most protective ride and was probably my personal preference. The Fly Around was a close second, though, whose heel Zoom and forefoot foam I found to be very smooth and soft once broken in. One note on all of the midsoles is that this season the Air units are bottom loaded, as opposed to how they were top loaded on the AJ2011. I preferred last year’s as far as cushioning, but Luedecke explained that by bottom loading the units, “you can control the contour a little bit better. … We were about [getting] better contour around the foot, which makes for better fit.”

I would agree that the 2012 fit better than the 2011, but I definitely miss the cushioning of last year’s shoe. At certain times, and on harsh cuts, I could feel the edge of the midsole not quite being tight enough to the inside main shoe. It didn’t produce any stability issues, and probably is a result of ease of use once again. I wouldn’t call it a major issue, but it is worth noting. It will probably be mostly noticeable only to players with wider feet.

So there you have it. The Air Jordan 2012 not only has six different options, but six different usable options. As I said at the beginning, the modularity is a moot point if I can get a better playing experience out of a standard shoe – especially when you could buy two standard shoes for the price of this. But once you’ve made your choices, it’s really a matter of lacing up and going about your business as usual. Sure, there were traces of modularity that leaked into the shoe’s playability, but nothing that materially harmed the experience.

Thanks to the overall comfort and supportive-yet-natural flex, it’s become one of my favorite shoes of the season. At $223 for the complete system, this is easily the most expensive Air Jordan yet. The biggest question will be one you have to ask yourself: Do I need all these options? If not, the single-option versions are available for $180. That’s still on the pricey side, but there’s always a premium to be paid to wear an Air Jordan. While it may not be the best value out there, it’s an excellent performer and an easy recommendation for almost any player.

Grade Breakout:

A (94/100)

comfort & fit: 5/5

cushioning: 4/5

ankle support: 4.5/5

breathability: 4/5

heel-toe transition: 5/5

traction: 4.5/5

weight: 4/5 (15.5-17.4)

best for: Most players will find some combination that works.

colorway tested: Wolf Grey/Black/Ice Silver/White

key tech: Interchangeable booties and midsoles that include Air and Zoom; Flywire; Flight Carbon midfoot shank

pros: Comfort, transition, adaptability, traction, plays lighter than it weighs

cons: Heel counter too soft; articulated Zoom in Fly Over forefoot felt lumpy

improvements: Add rigidity to heel counter even at the expense of ease of use for switching out parts; use standard Zoom unit rather than articulated.

buying advice: Just because modularity may be a bit gimmicky doesn’t meant it isn’t entirely effective. I was pleasantly surprised at how switching booties and cushionings yielded such different results – all of which were usable depending on your playing style and personal preferences. If you don’t need modularity, single options of the Air Jordan 2012 are available, and are excellent choices. But if modularity is of use to you, the AJ2012 Deluxe is the “System” to go for.

Available: Air Jordan 2012 Deluxe