Courageous youth designs Air Jordans after conquering cancer

Eric Adelson
Yahoo! Sports

After weeks in the ICU with a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his stomach, 9-year-old Cole Johanson's parents looked down at him in that Oregon hospital bed and they weren't sure whether their son would live or die. There was so much pain, and the boy was hardly speaking. Were they losing him?

Then one night, Cole told his dad in a soft voice that when this was all over, he was going to do something special.

Doug Johanson had no idea what that might be.

Cancer came swiftly and viciously to the fourth grader. His stomach started growing during the summer of 2008 and he thought he must have eaten too many cheeseburgers. Then, during a family vacation in Utah, he had trouble breathing. The family went to the ER and got horrible news: it was a rare and aggressive lymphoma. Cole would need intense chemotherapy right away. 

Cole Johanson’s Nike X Doernbecher Air Jordan 3 Retro.
Cole Johanson’s Nike X Doernbecher Air Jordan 3 Retro.

"Those weeks in the ICU were so scary," Cole said by phone on Tuesday, "because I felt so sick."

The treatment worked, and Cole began to get better. So much better, in fact, that by the time he had his Make-A-Wish day – a visit with Chris Paul the next summer that was filmed by ESPN – he was cancer-free. Doug was asked on camera what his son's special gift turned out to be, and he said it was simply his survival and his courage through withering pain. 

Dad was right, but there was something else on the way.

Cole was treated at the Doernbecher Children's Hospital at the Oregon Health and Science University, and he was chosen as part of the Doerbecher Freestyle program in which kids are allowed to design a pair of Nike shoes. Organizers of the program knew Cole loved basketball, so they gave him a pair of 2010 Air Jordans.

"When I first made them," he said, "I knew it was a Retro 3 and there would be some demand. I didn't expect so much reaction."

Cole's shoes were a brilliant red – the only Air Jordans with that color – and he put the words "strength" and "courage" on the insoles. He also had laser designs of spaghetti and chocolate imprinted into the pull-tabs. 

"I used a cool design but kept the varsity red – the core of Jordan," Cole said Tuesday. "I decided to leave it as it is but I made a subtle change that doesn't take over the shoe."

To say the shoes were a hit wouldn't be saying enough; soon they were selling on eBay for more than $1,000. Last season, Bulls guard Nate Robinson wore Cole's design in two games.

Cole's parents went to New York when the shoe was released, and they were approached at the Nike store by customers who noticed the couple was taking a photo of their son's cardboard cutout. Doug and Kristen explained what they were doing, and the shoe buyer blurted, "You're Cole Johanson's parents?!"

Now, this week, with Cole about to go into high school for his freshman year, his fire engine red shoe is the first Doernbecher Jordan ever to be re-released. The extra 3,000 pairs are actually bringing the price down into the $600 range on eBay. Proceeds from the shoe (at $160 per pair retail) will go to the Doernbecher Children's Hospital Foundation.

"The rarity is definitely part of it (all Doernbecher Jordans tend to go for a lot)," said's Russ Bengston in an email, "but I think it's also because the [Retro] 3s are most people's favorite Air Jordan, and the Doernbecher is the only red version. Perfect storm."

Cole still can't believe his good fortune, even though it came out of harrowing misfortune.

"I've just gotten pretty lucky," Cole said. "Well, having cancer was not lucky."

He deserves to be lucky, though there might also be some envy when his new friends at Beaverton High realize the new point guard can get his Jordans "whenever" he wants.

Considering Cole is 14 years old and already a cancer survivor and the designer of an insanely popular shoe, you'd think he's going to coast through high school. Not so. He's got big dreams to chase.

"I really like to cook," he said. "I'd like to be a chef. I'd like to be a writer. A lawyer sounds good. We have debates in class and I always win."

Cole Johanson made a promise to his dad from the agony and fear of a hospital bed. Five years later, he's become something special in his own right.

Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
Why don't the 76ers have a new head coach?
Delonte West is on the outside looking in
Why Kent Bazemore stitched '499' into his shoes
Is Paul George to the Lakers inevitable?

What to Read Next