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Not even retirement can separate the man from the shoes

It's been 20, count 'em, 20 long years since Michael Jordan launched Air Jordans. So why do kids today still buy them?

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In any size, it made a mighty footprint. Twenty years ago, the Air Jordan basketball shoe squeaked onto polished hardwood and scuffed across urban pavement.

It has stuck around. Earlier this month, Air Jordan XX was unveiled at the NBA All-Star Game, a testament, observers say, to meticulous brand management and perennial product reinvention.

In the sports-marketing arena, where stars inevitably fade, along with their marketability, the Michael Jordan story stands apart. The player that launched the shoe has so far withstood personal trials and celebrity's big enemy - the passage of time.

"Jordan is no longer a person, it's an icon," explains Drew Neisser, president and chief executive officer of Renegade Marketing Group in New York. "Today's teens aren't buying Air Jordans because of Michael, they're buying them because of what the brand represents - unparalleled greatness."

Jordan, His Airness - the elegant athlete who inspired the shoe and a subsequent clothing line - has become as much a symbol of Nike as its famous "swoosh" logo.

In fact, the Beaverton, Ore., sports-apparel giant spun off Jordan as its own division in 1997. That arm has become a $500 million baby. Its logo, the Jumpman, renders Jordan's in-flight silhouette - that familiar, splayed-legged form he assumed during those tongue-wagging, leap-from-the-foul-line dunks.

Nike owes much to the high-flying Jordan. By 1985 Converse had won a cult following for its canvas-sided Chuck Taylor All Stars. But these new Nikes - high-topped and a little clunky in leather, often in Chicago Bulls red and black - swiftly became the wider youth market's first must-have pair of kicks. Urban youths, in particular, clamored for a chance to be like Mike in the $100 shoes, and sometimes clashed over pairs.

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