“Air” is an entertaining dramatization of how Nike signed Michael Jordan in 1984

Air 2023

In 1984, the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan with the third pick in the draft. Many fans and basketball experts thought he would be special, but few staked so much on their analysis as Nike marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro.

The Nike of 1984 wasn’t the Nike that we know today. The company was built on running shoes, not basketball shoes. The market for basketball shoes was largely dominated by Converse and Adidas. Converse had Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Nike wanted to grow their basketball market share, and they knew they needed to sign some rising NBA stars to help elevate the brand.

“Air,” released earlier this year, tells the story of how Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon) became obsessed with signing Jordan to Nike, despite incredibly long odds. Jordan had zero interest in signing Nike. He was choosing between Converse and Adidas. And his agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), had no interest in helping Nike even get a meeting.

Meanwhile, Vaccaro and the basketball division didn’t have a ton of money to work with, and, according to the film, marketing director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) wanted to spread their budget across several first round picks, which made signing Jordan impossible. CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) was a visionary, but he agreed with the more conservative approach.

But Vaccaro persisted. Getting into more details here would spoil the fun. I had no idea how Nike pulled this off until I watched this film. Affleck does a good job directing, adding suspense and drama to a story where we know the ending. He packs the film with songs from the 80s which add to the fun, though at some times it seemed a bit much.

The entire cast is excellent, particularly the amazing Viola Davis who plays Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother. The story isn’t told from Michael’s perspective, so he’s mostly a prop in the film. Chris Tucker is also excellent as Howard White.

Of course, this is a movie, not a documentary, so the writer and producers take dramatic license and there are plenty of disputes around the facts. Check out the articles here, here and here for more perspectives on what really happened. Everyone wants to take credit for the Jordan signing, and some argued that Vaccaro’s role is overstated. Most seem to agree that Rob Strasser’s role is unfairly downplayed in this film.

We now know that Nike’s deal with Jordan changed the sports world forever with the staggering success of the Air Jordan shoe line which became a cultural phenomenon. The deal transformed the shoe industry, elevated Nike to a dominant player in the market, and contributed significantly to making Michael Jordan a global icon.

“Air” does a great job of capturing the drama leading up to this historic partnership. Check it out and enjoy the ride.

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