AIR: How Nike Won Over And Signed Michael Jordan

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in AIR. Courtesy of Amazon Studios. © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC.

AIR shows how Sonny Vaccaro was instrumental in Nike beating Converse and Adidas in signing Michael Jordan to a shoe contract.

I have to get this out of the way right now. Alex Convery’s script is mostly perfect. This goes not just for the screenwriter but director Ben Affleck, actor Matt Damon, and film editor William Goldenberg, too. There’s a scene in the film where they’re talking about athletes and signing them at Nike. I get that it is the mid-1980s but at a time when states are enacting transphobia into law left and right and making it legal to misgender and deadname transgender people, they could have opted not to mention a certain transgender Olympian by name. There are so many athletes so unless Sonny Vaccaro explicitly listed said runner by name, they could have chosen ANY OTHER ATHLETE that wasn’t transgender. And with that, let’s discuss the rest of the film.

Michael Jordan is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. One does not need to be a Chicago Bulls fan to recognize this. Is he the greatest of all time? There are several players in this conversation–including the late Bill Russell. If Michael Jordan ended up a bust, we wouldn’t be talking about AIR right now. To think there was a time when Nike thought about signing Kentucky’s Melvin Turpin just because one of them liked the sixth pick in general. If you know anything about basketball history, Turpin was a bust. Portland’s pick, Sam Bowie, had bad legs and injuries would plague him throughout his career. That’s the thing with the NBA. It’s all a gamble. For instance, look at what happened Greg Oden’s career after being drafted by Portland. He was a #1 overall pick in 2007 and ended up being a bust.

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in AIR.
Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in AIR. Photo credit: Ana Carballosa. © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC.

Would you believe there was ever a time when Nike’s basketball division only had a $250,000 budget to their name? it took one man, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), to bet the house and win. Even when told by Michael Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), Jordan would never sign with Nike, Sonny refused to take no for an answer. His methods were unorthodox to the point in which he personally made an appearance at the Jordan home to talk to Michael’s parents, James (Julius Tennon) and Deloris (Viola Davis). He knew exactly how things would go down with both Converse and Adidas. Ultimately, the Jordan family was willing to listen. At the end of the day, it came down to not a car but revenue-sharing in any product with his name, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) gave the okay and the rest is history.

Sonny was joined in his efforts by Howard White (Chris Tucker) and Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman). At the time, none of them thought the shoe industry would be what it is today. Again, they had a quarter of a million budget to spend and not a penny more. Sonny was a basketball guru so if they didn’t sign Jordan, he was out of a job. His efforts paid off and that’s also because of Michael’s mother, Deloris. As much as one might think this film is about Michael’s shoe deal, Deloris–as played by Viola Davis–is the heart of the film. I fully expect Viola Davis to get a major push for the Oscars during awards season. Yeah, it’s April and we still have a year but I’ll say something if I think a performance is worthy.

Thanks to Ben Affleck consulting with Michael, both Howard White and George Raveling (Marlon Wayons) appear in the film. It helps that Chris Tucker is friends with Howard White because it helps to give the film a more authentic performance. There’s a scene where Raveling talks to Sonny about being in attendance for the I Have A Dream speech in Washington in 1963. Thing is, Dr. King, who gave Raveling a copy of the speech after the rally, pulled an audible when he saw he was losing the crowd. Sonny, during the Nike meeting, sees a similar occurrence and pulls his own audible. Without that audible, who knows what might have happened. Oh yeah, Michael also wanted Viola Davis to portray his mom.

The film runs just shy of two hours but it’s really quickly paced thanks to William Goldenberg’s editing. Of course, the big thing here is how to get around not showing Jordan. The short answer is that it’s impossible. You can’t really have another actor playing Michael. It speaks to how immortal he is as a basketball legend. No offense to HBO and the Winning Time filmmakers but it’s why it’s so hard to watch dramatic takes. Ben Affleck and company have it figured out–the trick is to show him from behind and don’t let him talk. Sure, there are times where you hear something like “Bulls colors” or “Hello.” But at the end of the day, we only see him from behind.

To the film’s credit, they don’t try to recreate the 80s by way of a traditional score. Instead, they fill the soundtrack with music from the 1980s. After hearing Rob explain how Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” pumps him up, only to learn what the song is really about, it’s only natural that the Boss is on the soundtrack.

AIR might not make millions upon millions upon millions but it’s another addition to the Michael Jordan canon.

DIRECTOR: Ben Affleck
CAST: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Matthew Maher, Marlon Wayans, Jay Mohr, Julius Tennon, with Chris Tucker and Viola Davis

Amazon Studios and Skydance Sports will release AIR in theaters on April 5, 2023. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.