The movie Air, the story of Nike signing Michael Jordan as its premier basketball athlete in 1984, premiered yesterday.
The story is well-known: Nike was a long third globally in basketball shoes to Adidas and Converse. Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike point person for basketball athletes, convinced Phil Knight to bet their entire endorsement budget on unproven 18-year-old Michael Jordan, who was newly drafted by the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.
The rest became history, and propelled Nike into the athleticwear stratosphere (with a current valuation of almost $200 billion), the Air Jordan brand to iconic status, and Michael Jordan to ‘greatest of all time’ as an athlete in any sport. From a standing start, the Air Jordan shoe sold over $165,000,000 in just the initial year.
A very interesting part of the story is that Michael’s mother, Deloris, was the person who made the deal with Nike (which was then a nonentity in basketball shoes) over the two then-global players. He didn’t even want to make the cross-country trip to Beaverton, Oregon to meet the Nike folks, but his mom insisted.
The movie, based upon learning more about her, I believe accurately portrays her as an intuitive, loving, visionary, protector of her exceptionally gifted child. She chose Nike based upon what we might call ‘soft’ factors; her feelings about the people involved. Nike seemed to see Michael as she did: a once-in-a-lifetime talent with an unprecedented work ethic and commitment to winning. She wanted his commitment matched by his partner in basketball shoes. She trusted Sonny Vaccaro, the innovative approach taken to launching a brand with his name a part of it from the start, and one other thing. It was a personal insight on her part that her son would be one-of-one with Nike; and one-of-several with Adidas or Converse. (Converse was ultimately acquired by Nike.)
But it was business too. She insisted on a never-before-agreed term in the contract. Michael was to receive a percentage of all revenue produced by products sold with his name associated with them. This was revolutionary at the time, and Nike’s agreement to this provision changed the course of athletic endorsements, Nike’s trajectory from a running shoe company to the global athleticwear entity it is today, and Michael Jordan to a billionaire. (The estimate offered in the film is that in 2022 Nike sold over $4 billion in Jordan-branded products and Michael Jordan likely received over $400,000,000 in royalties for just that single year.)
Unsurprisingly, Deloris Jordan is accomplished and long-celebrated, both in her own right, and as Michael’s mom. What comes through Viola Davis’s wonderful portrayal of her in Air is a strong, intelligent, fiercely loyal, consistently warm and loving, mother. She trusted her judgment in a pivotal moment in her child’s life, to do what she saw as in his best interest with people she thought believed in him much the way that she did.
Michael’s mom was right about her son. So were Sonny Vaccaro and Phil Knight. To learn more about ‘Michael’s mom’ is one of the good reasons to see Air. Streaming available after the run in theaters.
[More about Deloris Jordan’s life: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/deloris-jordan ]