‘Air’ takes leaps but stays true to Nike’s actual chase of Michael Jordan
New movie depicts the people and events instrumental to the company signing the future basketball great
While The Last Dance told the Chicago Bulls’ reign through a documentary lens, and Winning Time strayed from the facts in portraying the “Showtime” Lakers era, director and actor Ben Affleck said his newest movie, Air, is somewhere in between.
“This is not a documentary,” Affleck said at the Austin, Texas, premiere of the film. “This is not meant to be the absolute, perfect history of who did what and who said what.”
“For those of you out there who happen to know that this happened at 3 a.m., and so-and-so said that,” he said, “You’re right.”
The movie retells one of the most famous storylines in the business of sports – Michael Jordan signing with Nike in 1984.
“The idea is that it’s the inception of the whole idea of sneaker culture,” said Affleck.
After watching The Last Dance during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, screenwriter Alex Convery realized it glossed over the competition between Converse, Adidas and Nike to sign Jordan in 1984. He recognized that an entire movie lay in the story behind the pursuit.
Air weaves a detailed account of four months in 1984. After the NBA Draft in June, the chase to sign Jordan began, with key meetings taking place with sneaker companies in August, and Jordan signing his contract in October. In the movie, the timeline spans a few frantic weeks.
Affleck stars as Nike’s co-founder Phil Knight. Other company executives in the movie include player rep Howard White (Chris Tucker), former college coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans), talent scout and college dealmaker Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), marketer Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher). The Jordan family and Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) make up the other side of the negotiating table.
“Those were the people present,” said Affleck. “A lot of it was picked up from the real details, and some of it, we obviously wrote. This was fictionalized, to an extent.”
Before filming began, Affleck met with Jordan to get his blessing for the project. Once he was given the go-ahead on the idea, they talked specifics.
“I asked Michael, ‘What needs to be in it?’ ” Affleck recalled.
Jordan responded, “None of this would have ever happened without my mother.” Asked if he had anyone in mind for the role of Deloris Jordan, Jordan didn’t hesitate.
“It has to be Viola Davis.”
Vaccaro, credited as a consultant on the movie, said he sat for a series of interviews with producers and held Zoom conversations with Damon but had no final say or direct input on the script.
What makes the retelling in Air difficult on the surface is that each of the pivotal Nike employees has long held onto an alternate account.
Nike fired Vaccaro after he had a falling-out with Knight and Raveling in 1991. However, he is widely regarded as the lone person recommending that Nike, a struggling running shoe brand, bet the house on the rookie Jordan. Affleck knew as much and decided not to incorporate those currently at the company.
“I didn’t want to have any communication, contact or accept anything from Nike, because I didn’t want to be accused of making propaganda or a commercial,” he said.
Convery was a production intern on Sole Man, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on Vaccaro’s life, and later accessed unused raw footage of Vaccaro from The Last Dance to help craft his script.
Within the first 15 minutes of Air, Vaccaro is seen placing bets on games and playing craps. “The first thing I did, with Matt specifically, is admitted that I love to gamble,” said Vaccaro. “I love to play poker, and I used to bet on games. I said, ‘Matt, don’t do this story without me gambling.’ ”
What isn’t correctly portrayed, he said, is his residence.
Throughout the film, Vaccaro is shown backing out of a driveway and pulling into the parking lot of Nike’s then-modest headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. He is often seen taking phone calls from his desk or combing through game footage in the adjacent film archive room.
“I only went there a couple times a month,” said Vaccaro. “I didn’t live in Portland.”
Liberties were also taken with the portrayal of David Falk, who appears in sharp suits with a full head of well-maintained hair. Falk’s memoir is unironically titled The Bald Truth.
“He always was bald,” said Vaccaro. “And he always looked good bald.”
The Strasser character, played by a slim Bateman, is perhaps the biggest physical reach. Nicknamed “Rolling Thunder” by friends, profiles from the era described him as “all beard and bulk,” estimating that he was nearing 300 pounds.
An emotional scene weighing Vaccaro’s “bet the house” approach to signing Jordan with the real-life risks at stake includes Strasser lamenting his weekend visitation windows with his daughter. They could be out of a job if the Jordan signing went wrong.
In reality, Strasser was married. His wife Julie worked at Nike as the brand’s first advertising manager. Julie Strasser eventually published Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There in 1993, a 556-page book chronicling the history of Nike, including a chapter on the company signing Jordan.
While the Strasser and Falk visuals might not quite match, and Affleck’s Phil Knight sometimes takes on a preposterous persona, the portrayal of Howard White feels more connected to reality.
Then a Nike Basketball player rep and the daily contact for the brand’s top stars, White eventually became vice president of Jordan Brand. He’s a beloved figure on Nike’s campus in Beaverton, known for his high-pitched laugh and mentorship.
Tucker wrote all of his lines in the film, capturing the spirit of White based on their decadeslong relationship.
“Howard White is a good friend of mine, and he helped me out so much,” Tucker said of the role. “He really schooled me, and it was a blessing to be in the movie.”
Despite some minor fabrications, Vaccaro says the film accurately depicts how the deal went down.
“Everything that I saw, they were 80% on board,” said Vaccaro. “What isn’t always correct, is the scenes weren’t necessarily where they were in the film.”
For starters, the fear Falk planted early on with Nike that Jordan preferred Adidas was entirely real. Though Converse sponsored the University of North Carolina, Jordan’s college team, he often wore Adidas sneakers during practices and on campus.
With Nike not yet guaranteed a meeting with Jordan, one of the defining scenes in the movie depicts Vaccaro disregarding Falk’s ban on contacting the Jordan family directly.
“David and I had those phone calls, and those conversations happened. Now, did he swear that much? I don’t know,” recalled Vaccaro.
Vaccaro arranges for plane tickets and brazenly pulls up on the Jordan home in Wilmington, North Carolina. He is shown greeting Jordan’s father, James, then meeting with Deloris Jordan in the backyard, where he pleads for the Jordans to meet with the company in Oregon.
“That didn’t happen,” said Vaccaro. “What did happen is I had those conversations with Deloris on the phone.”
Another scene that was embellished depicts Vaccaro at home, watching, rewinding and rewatching as a freshman-year Jordan drains an 18-foot jump shot in the closing seconds of the 1982 NCAA championship game.
The scene didn’t happen in real life. However, the game left an impression on Vaccaro.
“I never saw Michael Jordan in my life until he played against Georgetown in the ’82 game,” said Vaccaro. “Georgetown, at that time, was coached by John Thompson, one of my best friends. We were selling a lot of shoes because of Georgetown.”
Of course, Vaccaro wanted Georgetown to win because they were a Nike-sponsored basketball program.
“I didn’t give a damn about Dean Smith, because they didn’t wear Nike shoes. They wore Converse,” he said. “I knew every kid on Georgetown.”
Still, Jordan’s confidence to take and make the game-winning shot to give his team the national title impressed Vaccaro.
“It was Matt and Alex’s idea to show the actual NCAA film of that shot,” said Vaccaro. “This kid hit the damn shot. It told the story in two minutes of why I liked Michael Jordan.
“It’s about the killer and the belief in himself,” he continued. “That’s what I saw with Michael Jordan that night.”
From there, the movie shifts to the late-summer pitch “window.” Viewers see the Jordans and Falk guided around Portland, Oregon, Boston and Germany to meet with Nike, Converse and Adidas, respectively. In reality, the Jordans didn’t fly to Germany. And Run D.M.C.’s song “My Adidas,” which scores the moment, wasn’t released until 1986.
Adidas didn’t have a signature shoe to present and offered $100,000 per year – the same amount it was paying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Converse said Jordan would be featured alongside NBA stars Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and “Dr. J,” Julius Erving, though not above them in individual marketing campaigns.
Regarding Nike’s timeline, a series of events shown in the movie occurred.
At Falk’s office, a pre-meeting was held during the first week of August in Washington with Strasser and Peter Moore. Falk had just negotiated a five-year, $3 million contract for Jordan with the Bulls and was now turning his attention toward landing endorsements for the rookie.
Strasser and Falk had worked on nearly 50 endorsement agreements for Falk’s clients. Falk outlined his expectations for a signature shoe line, with royalties from the sales of every product bearing Jordan’s name and a marketing commitment to promoting the shoe series. He compared the potential format to the kinds of endorsement deals that tennis stars had.
The agent even had a list of brand names. As the trio looked through each option, Moore and Strasser stopped at the same line – “Air Jordan.” In the movie, Falk suggests the name over the phone, while Moore also says the name as he reveals his design during a brainstorming session at the Nike offices before the presentation.
“The world knows that David was involved in naming it Air Jordan. But Peter Moore had it different,” said Vaccaro. “The first thing he did originally was ‘Wings,’ and it was always about the Air. Wings was the first thought, but they couldn’t do it because one of the airlines had it [trademarked].”
Days later, Falk, Strasser and Vaccaro met at the L’Ermitage Beverly Hills Hotel in California, outlining deal points and discussing specific figures for the first time.
“That was where Rob gave him the two [deal formats of] $250,000 and $500,000,” said Vaccaro. “That’s where we made the oral commitment to that much money. We offered 10% and $250,000, or 5% and $500,000.”
Falk opted for the $500,000 annual payment, the 5% royalty and an award of Nike stock, which meant the value of a potential Nike endorsement deal could exceed Jordan’s five-year Bulls contract.
“Nothing was signed, but that day at the L’Ermitage Hotel, that was the number that we gave David, to give to Michael and his family,” said Vaccaro.
The next meeting would be Nike’s official presentation to the Jordan family in Oregon. The movie follows a frantic weekend of Nike staff pulling all-nighters planning for the Monday morning meeting. In reality, Nike had around two weeks to prepare.
In the film, Deloris Jordan brought up royalties after the family met with Nike in Beaverton during a follow-up phone call to Vaccaro.
“Her scene was breathtaking,” said Vaccaro. “She said it eloquently [in the movie] and that was true. She reiterated what she knew that we had promised her.”
According to Convery, Davis improvised the film’s defining line on the spot:
“A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it.”
While the royalty structure had already been formalized with Falk in Los Angeles, Vaccaro said that a phone call did take place, with Deloris Jordan taking a hands-on approach and grasping her son’s value throughout the process.
“Nothing happens unless we agreed to that,” said Vaccaro. “She’s the one that called. She did call me, and she did call Rob, and she certainly did call Phil. I knew before anybody [that they were agreeing to sign with us].”
Though his poker face largely revolved around an insistence that he initially preferred to sign with Adidas, it was also confirmed that Jordan wanted a red Mercedes 380 SL as part of any shoe deal.
Vaccaro had prepared for the question. He pulled two toy cars out of his pocket and rolled them along the conference table toward Jordan.
The actual presentation lasted nearly 90 minutes. A pristine Air Jordan 1 in the iconic “Chicago” colorway is shown during the movie scene, though that wasn’t exactly how things went.
“Did Michael see a potential shoe in Oregon, like in that scene? Yeah, Peter had a shoe to show,” said Vaccaro.
But it wasn’t the Air Jordan 1. A prototype of another shoe — the Air Ship in black and red — was shown, with Moore describing his concept for the eventual “Wings” logo that would be placed along the ankle collar of the Air Jordan model.
“It wasn’t the Air Jordan 1 that Peter ended up with,” added Vaccaro. “We made a deal, but the shoe wasn’t done yet. That was in August, and the shoe was ready for Michael’s first game debut.”
In the movie, Jordan looks at the shoe and says, “Bulls colors.”
Accounts from the meeting in Julie Strasser’s book recalled that he remarked, “the Devil’s colors,” when picking up the black and red sneakers.
Jordan famously wore the Air Ships, not the Air Jordan 1, during a preseason game at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks on Oct. 18, 1984. The pair was infamously “banned” by the NBA for not adhering to the “uniformity of uniforms” rule. Nike’s subsequent marketing campaign celebrated the shoes being “thrown out of the game.”
The following week, on Oct. 24, Jordan officially signed his Nike contract in Chicago, hours before taking the court for his regular-season debut. Weeks later, on Nov. 17, Jordan laced up an Air Jordan for the first time in a game as the Bulls faced off against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Having watched the film twice, Vaccaro said he is comfortable with the film’s storyline.
“There’s obviously some things that they left out, but nothing in there contradicts what happened,” he said. “They may not have happened that way, but there are no flagrant things in there. There’s no flagrant lie.”
With Strasser and Moore no longer alive, the other key stakeholder that Affleck looked to show the film to before its release date was the character he portrayed, Nike’s founder.
“I showed Phil Knight, which, halfway through, I realized might’ve been a gigantic mistake,” he said with a nervous laugh.
Knight’s portrayal as an eccentric businessman heavy on philosophical mantras leaves the impression he was a bit removed from the Jordan chase. The jokes about his purple Porsche and his purple jogging outfits are nonstop.
“I’ve been there myself, and I have been in the occasional meme. People like to make fun of the boss,” said Affleck. “He said, ‘Well, it didn’t exactly happen like that, but that’s the spirit of it.’ ”
As he talked through some of the specifics of the film with Knight, there was one key distinction that Knight called out.
Along with Deloris Jordan’s negotiation tactics and proclamations about her son’s potential, the movie’s other takeaway scene is a passionate plea from Vaccaro during Nike’s presentation to the Jordans, after Strasser’s highlight video falls a little flat.
“The thing about that speech is Rob Strasser actually made that speech, which I didn’t know until [meeting with Phil Knight],” Affleck said.
While the details all these decades later can be belabored and debated, what is not up for debate is the impact that Jordan and Nike had together on the footwear industry and sports marketing with the launch of the Air Jordan series.
“Michael Jordan changed the world. It wasn’t because he was the greatest basketball player in the world, it was because of a shoe,” said Vaccaro. “It was just a shoe until, like Deloris says, her son put his foot in it. I don’t think there’s an athlete, dead or alive, that ever played the game that can replicate what Michael Jordan did with that shoe and with his greatness. That will live forever.”