The Rise of Air Jordan Comes to Life in the Hit Movie ‘Air’

Award-winning director Ben Affleck does it again, with his spectacular new movie, Air, a true story about the meteoric rise of the iconic Air Jordan. Affleck directs and stars in the film, playing Nike owner, Phil Knight. Air, written by Alex Convery, also co-stars Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Viola Davis as Michael Jordan’s mother, Deloris. Jordan’s only request for the film was that actress, Viola Davis, play the role of his mother. Other notable actors in the cast include Chris Tucker as Howard White and Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser.

Michael Jordan: The Basketball Player Who Changed the Game

In the 1980s, then-rookie Michael Jordan, who does not appear in the film, was a rising star in the world of basketball, having just completed a successful season with the Chicago Bulls. Already demonstrating the skills and flair that would later earn him the title of the greatest basketball player of all time, Jordan was beginning to make waves in the NBA. His talent and magnetism attracted the attention of major sportswear brands, including Converse and Adidas, who were eager to capitalize on his potential as a game-changing spokesperson for their products.

However, it was ultimately the underdog, Nike, who would win over Michael Jordan in a historic deal that would forever alter the landscape of athletic endorsements. The company’s persistence and vision, led by founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) and driven by the passion of key figures like Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) would ultimately pave the way for the Air Jordan brand’s unprecedented success.

The Birth of the Air Jordan: From Concept to Reality

The idea for the Air Jordan sneaker was born out of a combination of Nike’s innovative approach to design and Michael Jordan’s desire for a shoe that would match his high-flying style on the basketball court. The first Air Jordan sneakers, designed by Peter Moore, made their debut in a preseason game in October 1984, featuring a sleek silhouette, the now-famous “wings” logo, and a distinctive red and black colorway.

At the time, the Air Jordan sneakers were considered rebellious and provocative, going against the NBA uniform rules, which required players to wear shoes that matched their uniforms and the rest of their teammates. Despite facing fines for every game he wore the sneakers, Michael Jordan persisted, wearing them proudly and defiantly on the court.

The controversy surrounding the Air Jordan sneakers only fueled their popularity, and in April 1985, they were released to the public at a retail price of $65. The demand for the sneakers was overwhelming, with customers lining up outside stores for a chance to get their hands on a pair. The Air Jordan brand was officially off to a flying start, and there was no turning back.

The Role of Michael Jordan’s Mother in the Historic Nike Deal

A lesser-known aspect of the Nike-Michael Jordan partnership is the crucial role played by Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan. As the story goes, Michael Jordan initially favored Converse and Adidas over Nike and was reluctant to entertain the idea of a partnership with the Oregon-based company. However, his mother insisted that he hear Nike’s proposal, urging him to keep an open mind and consider the potential benefits of working with a smaller, more innovative brand.

In the end, it was Jordan’s mother who fought for an unprecedented deal structure that would give Jordan a percentage of the sale of each Air Jordan shoe. The offer, unheard of at the time, represented not just an endorsement, but a true partnership that would give Jordan a vested interest in the success of the brand. Jordan’s mother understood the full worth of her son, even then.

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Viola Davis in "Air".
Viola Davis in Air

Michael Jordan agreed to the deal, and the rest, as they say, is history. Deloris Jordan’s role in this pivotal moment cannot be understated, as her strong will and intuition ultimately helped shape one of the most successful partnerships in the world of sports and fashion.

The Evolution of the Air Jordan Brand

Over the years, the Air Jordan brand has evolved beyond just sneakers, expanding into clothing, accessories, and collaborations with other popular brands and celebrities. Each new edition of the Air Jordan sneaker has been eagerly anticipated by fans and sneakerheads alike, with the shoes often selling out within minutes of their release.

The popularity of the Air Jordan brand has been fueled, in part, by its association with various cultural icons and moments in time. The 1990s, in particular, were a golden era for the brand, with director Spike Lee’s memorable ad and commercials featuring Michael Jordan and the character Mars Blackmon helping to cement the Air Jordan’s status as a symbol of cool and success. Additionally, the Jumpman logo, also created by Peter Moore, has become synonymous with Michael Jordan’s gravity-defying athleticism .

Phil Knight’s Role in Air Jordan

Nike co-founder, Phil Knight, who played a pivotal role in shaping the company’s success and transforming it into a global powerhouse. Knight, born on February 24, 1938, in Portland, Oregon, attended the University of Oregon, where he was an avid runner. During his time as a student, Knight began cultivating his entrepreneurial spirit by selling shoes from the trunk of his car, importing them from Japan. This venture laid the foundation for what would eventually become Nike.

Ben Affleck stars as Phil Knight in the "Air" Movie.

In 1964, Knight and his former track coach, Bill Bowerman, co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports, which later evolved into Nike. Initially, the company focused on distributing Japanese athletic shoes in the United States. In 1971, they introduced the Nike brand, named after the Greek goddess of victory, and began designing and manufacturing their own athletic footwear.

In 1984, Nike signed a then-unprecedented endorsement deal with Jordan, a promising rookie who had just entered the NBA. This collaboration gave birth to the Air Jordan line, a collection of sneakers and apparel specifically tailored to Jordan’s style and performance needs. The Air Jordan line not only revolutionized basketball footwear but also transcended the sport to become the most popular shoe in sports history.

Sonny Vaccaro’s Role in Air Jordan

Sonny Vaccaro, a former sports marketing executive, played a pivotal role in the rise of the Air Jordan brand and the formation of the partnership between Nike and Michael Jordan. Known for his keen eye for talent and his expertise in the sports marketing industry, Vaccaro was instrumental in identifying the potential of the young Michael Jordan and recognizing the value he could bring to a brand like Nike.

At the time, Nike was struggling to compete with established sportswear giants such as Converse and Adidas. As a marketing consultant for Nike, Vaccaro was tasked with finding a way to help the company gain a foothold in the basketball market. He believed that by aligning themselves with an up-and-coming athlete like Michael Jordan, Nike could differentiate itself from its competitors and make a name for itself in the lucrative world of basketball endorsements. He insisted that the best way to do this was to pour the entire budget into one star athlete as opposed to three or four mediocre athletes.

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Matt Damon in "Air".

Vaccaro was instrumental in convincing Nike and Phil Knight to pursue Jordan aggressively and helped facilitate the initial meetings between the two parties. He was a staunch advocate for the idea of offering Jordan a groundbreaking deal structure, one that would provide the young athlete with a percentage of the sales of each Air Jordan shoe, as per his mother’s request. Thus started and unbelievable game-changing partnership.

Howard White’s role in Air Jordan

Howard White, a former NFL player, also played a significant role in the rise of the Air Jordan brand and the nurturing of the partnership between Nike and Michael Jordan. As the company’s marketing director and later the vice president of the Jordan Brand, White was instrumental in fostering the relationship between Jordan and Nike, helping to ensure that the collaboration would thrive and reach its full potential.

One of White’s key contributions to the Air Jordan brand was his ability to build and maintain a strong personal relationship with Michael Jordan. White’s rapport with Jordan went beyond their professional interactions, as the two developed a genuine friendship that was based on mutual respect and understanding. The close bond between White and Jordan allowed for open and honest communication, ensuring that the Air Jordan brand would continue to evolve and grow in a manner that was true to Jordan’s vision.

In addition to his work on the interpersonal aspects of the partnership, White was actively involved in the marketing and promotion of the Air Jordan brand. He worked closely with the design team, providing valuable input and guidance on the development of new Air Jordan sneakers, as well as overseeing the creation of marketing campaigns that would help cement the brand’s place in popular culture.

The Lasting Legacy of the Nike-Michael Jordan Partnership

Today, more than three decades after the release of the first Air Jordan sneakers, the partnership between Nike and Michael Jordan continues to generate impressive revenue for both parties. The Air Jordan brand, now a subsidiary of Nike, is estimated to have a revenue of around 3 billion per year, while Jordan himself is said to have an estimated net worth of 1.7 billion. Jordan earns $400 million a year from sales of Air Jordan sneakers and apparel alone.

As the Air Jordan brand has grown, so too has its influence on the world of sportswear and fashion. The shoes have inspired countless imitations and homages, with their designs and colorways becoming a source of inspiration for other brands and designers. Moreover, the Air Jordan’s success has also paved the way for other athletes to secure lucrative endorsement deals and create their own signature lines, further expanding the reach and impact of the brand.

The movie, Air, starring Ben Affleck (of Argo fame) and Matt Damon, currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes score of 92% and is now streaming on Amazon Prime video.