How a puffy basketball recruiter signed Michael Jordan for Nike in Air

Back in the early 1980s, Michael Jordan was a college basketballer showing signs of greatness.

Those close to him – his family, his coach, his teammates – knew how good he was, and the sports recruiters were circling.

This included the big sporting companies looking for players to endorse – namely Converse, which had the lion’s share of the sports sneaker market, Germany’s Adidas, which had signed good players already and was doing well with a leather running shoe, and Nike, whose basketball division was struggling to exist.

Jordan, who ate up the court with unmatched grace, wore Converse through college and he loved Adidas because it gave him free clothes.

Nike wasn’t in his thinking. The story of how a puffy basketball recruiter at Nike, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) – who ate junk food and knew player stats by heart – came to sign Jordan to Nike is the stuff of legend, something Hollywood loves.

Stellar performance by Damon

The film is, in one sense, Ben Affleck’s baby; he directs and stars in it as Phil Knight, the head of Nike who paid a student $35 for its trademark swoosh. Knight didn’t love the swoosh, by the way, but thought it might grow on him.

Affleck over-eggs his role as a free-spirited Buddhist in a sports car running a billion-dollar company, but the backbone of the film is the stellar, temperate performance from Damon as the recruiter who takes the initiative and drives to North Carolina to talk to Jordan’s family.

In doing so, he enrages Jordan’s agent but gets to meet Jordan’s mum, Deloris (Viola Davis), who is the guiding hand behind her son’s budding career. Davis matches Damon in a skilled performance as a woman who lives modestly but has a determined streak and understands her son’s potential worth.

Jordan is not part of the story. He is off to one side, seen from the back, a voice on the phone, but not a presence that might distract from the main game. He was at the time a 21-year-old budding basketballer who was happy to let his mum sort it out, as long as he got a red Mercedes.

The film is inexplicably laced with tension, even though the outcome was as sure a thing as the ubiquity of Facebook was during The Social Network. It is the way it unfolds that makes the story great – a Jerry Maguire for a new age.

Vaccaro watches old tapes and understands the play; Jordan is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. He convinces Knight to spend the recruiting budget for that year not on three players but one. The sum, $250,000, was easily matched by the other sporting companies but by now he has met Deloris and started to convince her to come to Nike, which would launch a Michael Jordan shoe, call it the Air Jordan, and back him all the way.

The film works because it takes us back to 1984, when anything was possible, and we relive the uncertainties, the doubts, the plays and the realisation that the Jordan-Nike partnership might not have happened at all. Deloris might have refused to see Vaccaro; Jordan could have done his knees a year later and been out of the game; Adidas could have come in over the top with double the money.

Deloris’s foresight in wanting conditions no player had asked for before was another sliding-doors moment, and Vaccaro was in despair. Back then, everything was up in the air.

This article first appeared in InReview


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