When it comes to athletes, few figures loom larger in the collective imagination than NBA legend, Michael Jordan. Over the course of his storied career and beyond, Jordan, considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time, has also been hailed as an icon of marketing, thanks to lucrative endorsement deals—chief among them, his longtime partnership with Nike, whose gargantuan impact in the sports shoe industry is largely attributed to their initial deal with Jordan.
The trailblazing relationship between Jordan and Nike is the focus of a new film, Air, which releases in theaters on April 5. Directed by and co-starring Ben Affleck, who plays Nike co-founder Phil Knight, the movie centers on how Sunny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a sports marketing executive, signed Jordan to his first-ever shoe contract with Nike, in an unprecedented deal that would change the face of sports marketing and athlete equity in endorsement deals forever. Neither Jordan nor Nike were the household names they are now at the time of the signing in 1984. At the time, Jordan was a soon-to-be NBA rookie ranked third in the draft, while Nike was a veritable underdog in the world of sports shoes, known more for its running sneakers than flashy basketball kicks. The road to their partnership was complex, with Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis) playing an influential role in the life-changing negotiations.
For Air screenwriter Alex Convery, the humble origin story of one of the greatest sports deals of all time provided a wealth of real-life material to draw inspiration from. “It’s hard to imagine now a world where there was skepticism about how well Michael Jordan would transition into the NBA or a world in which Nike was destined to be just a running apparel company,” he tells TIME. “They obviously entered a different stratosphere because of the Jordan deal. We all know how it ended, but to be able to look at how we got there was very compelling.”
Here’s what to know about Michael Jordan’s legendary Nike signing and how it inspired Air.
Sonny Vaccaro and Michael Jordan’s relationship
Much of Air centers on the lengths that John Paul Vincent “Sonny” Vaccaro, a sports marketing executive at Nike, will go to to sign 21-year-old NBA rookie Michael Jordan to a shoe deal with the company. In the film, Vaccaro, a former high school basketball tournament organizer, is in charge of helping to develop the fledgling basketball division at Nike by identifying and recruiting top talent in the league for shoe deals and endorsements. While others on the marketing team suggest doing multiple deals with other players, Vaccaro makes the case that they should put all their resources towards signing Jordan, banking on him becoming an NBA star. With this as his goal, Vaccaro sets out to convince the player—and more importantly, his mother, Deloris, that Nike is the right brand to partner with for a shoe.
Convery says he saw Vaccaro as a captivating figure, an unexpected and unsung hero of Nike.
“He wasn’t the CEO of Nike,” Convery says, noting that he spoke with Vaccaro himself while polishing the screenplay. “He was this guy that didn’t even really have a title at the company, what he did was very kind of opaque and hard to put on a resume, but he was this really compelling character.”
In real life, Vaccaro did architect the deal with Jordan. In an interview with Dan Patrick Show, the former sports marketing executive said that it was no easy feat, taking more than three months to come to the agreement. “The idea for me was to help convince him to believe in this young company to do something that they’ve never done before. That was the chore,” he said. “He had his own mind. He had his idea of what he wanted to do and he didn’t want to go with Nike, that’s for sure. So it was my greatest journey.”
Jordan, for his part, contends that it wasn’t Vaccaro who persuaded him to join Nike, but rather George Raveling (played in the film by Marlon Wayans), a former NBA player and college basketball coach who coached Jordan in the Olympics; in an interview with USA Today, he credited Raveling for kicking off his longtime Nike partnership.
“Sonny (Vaccaro) likes to take the credit. But it really wasn’t Sonny, it was actually George Raveling,” he said. “George Raveling was with me on the 1984 Olympics team (as an assistant coach under Bob Knight). He used to always try to talk to me, ‘You gotta go Nike, you gotta go Nike. You’ve got to try.’”
How Deloris Jordan influenced the legacy of the Jordan partnership and athlete endorsements
In the film, Nike is portrayed as a novice company of sorts, suffering from some serious growing pains after going public, which Knight believes can be solved if they can tap into the basketball market. While the brand was known for their running shoes and apparel, they lacked the athletic prestige or cool factor of companies like Converse, then the leading basketball shoe, or Adidas, a respected international name when it came to pop culture, fashion, and sports—which is why their contract with Jordan was so significant.
Signing with Nike wasn’t Jordan’s first choice. But his parents, especially his mother, Deloris, convinced him that considering the Nike deal could be more beneficial to him in the long run; because the company wasn’t as well-known in the basketball space, he could be a major star for them and leverage his talents for a better deal.
“In all honesty, I never wore Nike shoes until I signed with Nike,” Jordan said in an interview with USA Today. “I was a big Adidas, Converse guy coming out of college. Then actually my parents made me go out to (Nike’s headquarters) to hear their proposal.”
Read more: We Don’t Deserve Ben Affleck
By all accounts, the initial Jordan and Nike deal was unprecedented. In addition to the $2.5 million, five-year contract (more than double what Adidas offered him) that he signed, Jordan also received 25% royalties of all shoes sold with his likeness—an equity push by Deloris that would change how athletes approached endorsement deals for years to come.
Why Michael Jordan isn’t in ‘Air’
Although it would be easy to assume that a film about the watershed shoe deal between Michael Jordan and Nike would center the NBA legend, in Air, the character of Jordan is rarely on-screen. Portrayed by actor Damian Young, Jordan doesn’t make an appearance until the final scenes of the film—and even then, his face isn’t shown, with almost exclusively shots of his back.
In an interview with CBS, Affleck said that the decision to keep the character of Jordan faceless in the film was because of the outsize and omnipresent real-life influence of the actual Michael Jordan.
“The minute I show you somebody and tell you, ‘Hey, that’s Michael Jordan,’” he said. “You’re just going to know it isn’t.”
For Convery, the seeming lack of Jordan in a film about his sports contract was intentional.
“I was just very conscious from the beginning that I didn’t want this to be a Michael Jordan biopic because it’s not really my story to tell,” he said.
While Jordan himself does not appear in the film, actual footage of him is used to great effect, especially in a pivotal scene where a clip is played of the famous NCAA championship-winning jump shot he made as a freshman at UNC. And according to Convery, although Jordan was not involved in the making of the film, he did speak with Affleck ahead of filming to weigh in on the story, including helping land Davis as Deloris.
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Write to Cady Lang at email@example.com