The Nike LegacyWithin the walls of the Nike empire live many stories. Most of these tales will never see the light of day. However, the ones that have become historically relevant to business and sports. Perhaps one of Nike’s greatest tales to tell is that of signing Michael Jordan to their lackluster basketball division. Nike was at one point scraping the bottom of the barrel for market share in the basketball market. Nike struggled to put their shoes on the feet of world-class basketball players. This move to sign Michael Jordan placed a massive risk on the future of Nike's basketball division. The story behind overcoming this adversity to build the Air Jordan empire exists as required reading in the sneaker space. It isn’t, however, widely known to the general public. Fortunately, Amazon Studios just released the film ‘Air’ to bridge that gap. After going to see the film, I have some thoughts.
Overall ThoughtsLet me get the most important bit out of the way first. ‘Air’ was nothing short of spectacular. The film is entertaining, surprisingly hilarious, and to a large extent informative. It didn’t pander to the sneakerheads that clamor to make the Jordan line what it is today. I wouldn’t expect it to. This film is meant to tell the story of Michael Jordan’s shoe deal in a manner that would bridge the gap between sneakerheads and the general public. It is meant to be entertaining, and it met that purpose with room to spare.
Ben Affleck as Phil Knight. Photo By: Amazon Studios
Sneakerologist OpinionsI, however, have a shoe problem. I’m a Sneakerologist (my old Finish Line uniform says so). I can’t leave a movie like this alone. It was under a magnifying glass from the moment it started. All-in-all, I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of the story being told. I also loved the Easter Eggs planted throughout the film. There were some aspects, however, that were either false or greatly exaggerated for the point of entertainment.
Sonny VaccaroLet’s start with the protagonist of the film, Sonny Vaccaro. Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, presents as a basketball-savvy mastermind that is the glue and driving force behind the Jordan deal. While Vaccaro certainly had his hands in the pot, those involved with the Jordan deal, including Michael himself, have publicly downplayed Vaccaro’s role. In fact, the real-life Vaccaro didn’t even finish his career at Nike. He was eventually fired in 1991. What might have led to this Sonny-centric narrative is Vaccaro’s marketing of himself. In a 2021 interview with Complex, Sonny said, “This does not happen—this isn’t self-glorification—if they don’t invite me to the meeting. The world changes.” Vaccaro is also the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called “Sole Man”. Let’s not forget Sonny Vaccaro’s real-life claim to fame is the creation and marketing of the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic basketball tournament. Marketing is in his DNA.
Rob StrasserThe film depicts Sonny as having equal or greater standing within Nike as one Rob Strasser, played by Jason Bateman. Rob Strasser, as depicted in ‘Air’, is a manager who is slow to take risks and caves to Sonny Vaccaro’s enthusiasm. This could not be further from the truth. To understand the significance of Rob Strasser fully, I highly recommend reading Phil Knight’s biography Shoe Dog. Rob Strasser is a former attorney who represented Knight’s blossoming Blue Ribbon Sports against Onitsuka in an infamous breach of contract trial that nearly killed Nike. Knight was so enamored by Strasser that he offered him a job with Nike just to retain his skills. Strasser was a Nike OG and had the direct backing of the CEO. He was also known to be enthusiastic, loud, and possess a short fuse. Strasser would have never played second fiddle to an idea guy like Sonny Vaccaro. On top of all of this, accounts of the deal by Jordan, Phil Knight, and Peter Moore emphasize Strasser’s role in the process.
Phil KnightPhil Knight, played by Ben Affleck was relatively accurately portrayed. The early-scenes portrayal of Knight as a risk-averse CEO concerned with the opinion of a board is predominantly false. This portrayal directly contradicts Phil’s actions as outlined in his book. Knight lived life on the edge in the upbringing of Nike. Even that is an understatement. Knight had a habit of requesting insanely large loans while saving no capital. This habit led Nike’s original bank, The First National Bank of Oregon, to cut ties with the Swoosh. Phil also waited until the last possible moment to make his company public in fear of ever having to answer to a board of directors.
Peter MoorePeter Moore is an interesting character in the Jordan-Nike saga. Both in the movie and in real-life. There is much discussion regarding Moore’s career outside of the design of the Jordan 1. Regardless of his career trajectory, Moore has a place in the sneaker circle of honor. His work on the Jordan 1 and 2, the Dunk, and future projects transcends his industry. In the film, Moore asks Vaccaro and Strasser if the Jordan 1 should check the box of form or function. This completely contradicts part of Moore’s philosophy that “form follows function.” I was happy to see in the scene in which Moore presents the initial design of the shoe that it was the Air Ship. Nike has hidden behind a façade that the original “banned” Jordan 1 was that Jordan 1 we know and love today. It wasn’t. The Nike shoe originally worn by Jordan was the Air Ship. The infamous shoe that Nike foot the bill in covering Jordan’s fines for wearing was the Air Ship. For a moment, I was pleasantly surprised that the film would make note of this. Finally, in the scene in which Nike presents the shoe to Jordan and his family, a prop pair of Jordan 1 OG Chicago appears. *sigh*
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Howard WhiteThis film exists with the direct consent of Jordan himself. Amidst the Studio’s discussion with Jordan, he revealed three details that he felt pertinent to the story. The first is the inclusion of Howard White, played by Chris Tucker. Howard White would eventually become an executive at Jordan Brand. The shared affinity between White and the Jordan family is most prominently displayed in the movie via the scene in which the Jordan's visit Nike HQ for Nike’s endorsement presentation.
George RavelingJordan’s next request was the inclusion of George Raveling, played by Marlon Wayans. Raveling was an assistant coach on USA Basketball’s 1984 Olympic Team. A team which Jordan was a member of. Raveling’s depiction in the movie was short lived and seemingly forced. In hindsight, this makes sense knowing that his presence was soloely the result of a request from MJ himself.
Deloris JordanFinally, Jordan made it abundantly clear that the movie should highlight his mother’s role in not just the Nike deal, but his life in general. Deloris Jordan, played by Viola Davis, presents in the movie as the keystone of the Jordan family. She is strong, knowledgeable, caring, and empathetic. The movie makes it abundantly clear that the Air Jordan legacy would not exist if it wasn’t for Deloris Jordan. This is not a surprise as Michael has made it known publicly that his mom was the driving force in convincing him to sign with Nike instead of Adidas.
Sonny Vaccaro and Deloris Jordan. Photo By: Amazon StudiosOf course, what is a work of historical fiction without a few Easter Eggs? ‘Air’ housed more than a few Easter Eggs that might not have synthesized with hypebeasts and sneakerheads, but sparked excitement in Nike historians (like me).