The story of how Nike’s successful partnership with Michael Jordan came to be is the thrust of Ben Affleck’s entertaining underdog tale. Looking beyond the sport that brought the two together, the film is the tale of one nation’s driving force.
In 1964, University of Oregon track athlete Phil Knight and his coach Bill Bowerman created Blue Ribbon Sports to develop a more efficient running shoe. In 1971, the name was changed to Nike, Inc. Within a decade, the company had introduced its revolutionary ‘Air’ technology and had successfully gone public. By the mid-1980s, Nike was a billion-dollar company that oversaw production of a successful line of running shoes, worn by some of the greatest track athletes of that era, from Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee to Sebastian Coe and Michael Johnson. But in the equally lucrative basketball market, Nike was trailing behind Adidas and Converse, with a meagre 18% market share.
On its surface, Air regales how one man, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), supported by Knight (Affleck) and a small, savvy marketing team, successfully convinced Michael Jordan, and his unwaveringly direct mother Deloris (a scene-stealing Viola Davis), that Nike was the perfect brand for him.
In 1984, execs in Nike’s basketball division were smarting from having missed out on that year’s top college picks. Undaunted, Vaccaro became hell-bent on making a play for Jordan, who seemed destined to sign with Adidas, with a strategy that was as risky as it was unorthodox. The broad strokes of what happened next have become an integral part of US sport and business lore. Michael Jordan’s own take on the events that led him, a preternaturally talented 18-year-old basketball player, to a deal that would help make him an icon and one of the sporting world’s richest individuals, was laid out in the engrossing 2020 Netflix/ESPN Films series The Last Dance (2020). Air presents the story from Vaccaro’s perspective. In doing so, it shifts the story’s focus from Jordan’s undeniable brilliance to a more universal tale of tenacity in the face of adversity.
Early in the film, we see Vaccaro repeatedly watching Jordan’s game-winning shot, playing for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the 1982 NCAA Championship final. The scene doesn’t so much highlight Jordan’s prowess at such a young age as revel in Vaccaro’s delight at the realisation that the young basketball prodigy is the player he has been waiting his whole life to encounter. He knows that Jordan would secure Nike’s position as the most desired footwear in the world of basketball and beyond. The rest is history. From here, Air is less a film about sport and more about the forces that lay behind the partnership between Nike and Jordan.
Air has been compared to the 1996 sports agent comedy-drama Jerry Maguire. There’s much in common between the two. Both have protagonists whose futures depend on their securing the best deal for their potential client. However, Cameron Crowe’s film made the most of charismatic fictional football star Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, who won an Oscar for the role), whereas in Air Jordan is mostly seen in archive footage. (Actor Damian Young stands in for Jordan in a few boardroom meetings, but he barely speaks and his face is never seen.) It’s a wise move by writer Alex Convery and director Affleck. Had Jordan played a more significant role within the drama, the film would have become his story. But it isn’t. At this point in his life, Jordan has shown great promise on the court, but it is through his subsequent pro success and his relationship with Nike that his public persona truly comes into focus. What Air and Jerry Maguire do share is the recognition that sport is driven by money and the person who controls the purse dominates the game. There is also another factor that plays a key role.
Moneyball, Bennet Miller’s 2011 adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, tells the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, a Californian baseball team. Fed up with his limited budget, he used applied statistical analysis (also known as sabermetrics) to create a winning team. What he showed, according to Lewis, was ‘a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why’. The small revolution he started highlighted that baseball, like so many other sports, was dominated by the teams (or individuals) with the most amount of money to spend. But by taking the sport apart, reconfiguring its essential components, Beane went some way to overturning that idea.
Beane’s success notwithstanding, money remains a dominant factor in sport. The pleasure – and slick sleight of hand – of Air lies in the way that Convery and Affleck give the impression that Nike is the underdog of this story, a ramshackle outfit that deserves its moment in the light. Forget the fact that the company is successful. Its basketball division isn’t. Like Beane, Vaccaro has to rely on ingenuity and sheer force of character. In placing Vaccaro at the heart of the story, Air hits upon another central element of the sports film, once that melds perfectly with the myths the USA is founded upon.
The US sports film arguably remains the purest distillation of the American Dream. Key to its identity is the figure of the maverick. It’s not enough to be a success, many of these films inform us. The acquisition of money alone is no guarantee of greatness. The maverick spirit is what defines real success. Even in team sports. (It’s another reason why Jordan isn’t present in the film – he would eclipse Vaccaro. And it’s the Nike executive, not the player, who is the hero of this story.) Vaccaro is a hero because he breaks rules. Just as Jerry Maguire did. Just as Billy Beane did. It's what defines Ray Kinsella, the Iowa farmer who decides to risk everything to build a baseball pitch, in Field of Dreams (1989). And it is what makes Al Pacino’s head coach a titan in Oliver Stone’s near-hallucinatory Any Given Sunday (1999). These films may be shaped by the way big money dominates their respective games. But they are defined by the maverick spirit of their protagonists.
That the story of Vaccaro’s success has made it to the screen is a testament to the continued veneration of the maverick spirit. But the obsession with it doesn’t end with sport. It can be seen in so many other accounts of American success and – just as often – insurmountable risk; from The Social Network, about the creation of Facebook, and The Founder (2016), which tells the story of salesman Ray Croc, who turned McDonalds into a multinational empire, to the recent spate of miniseries focusing on the young and ambitious entrepreneurs behind Theranos (The Dropout, 2022) and WeWork (WeCrashed, 2022). As many of these dramas highlight, there is a dark side to this obsession. The nation’s reverence for the maverick, which stretches all the way back to the inception of the USA, is often marked by its frequent, unexpected and not always healthy mutations. For every Vaccaro there is a Gordon Gekko (Wall Street, 1987), Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013) and Donald Trump, who highlight that to every dream, there is a dark underbelly.