Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort, Air, chronicles the formation of a pop-culture partnership that now rivals peanut butter and jelly: Nike and Michael Jordan. Today, it seems so obvious. Nike Basketball is The House That Jordan Built, but back then, as the movie suggests, it was a gamble for both sides.
Mike was not yet Mike. Rookie of the Year in ’85, 63 at the Boston Garden in ’86, taking flight in the ’87 Dunk Contest, “The Shot” in ’89, the first three-peat (including 41.0 ppg in the ’93 Finals), and leaving. “I’m back,” dropping 55 at MSG, another three-peat (including 72 wins in ’96), The Flu Game in ’97, and The Last Dance in ’98. Taking down the Showtime Lakers and Bad Boy Pistons and Barkley’s Suns and Malone & Stockton’s Jazz and the Intergalactic Monstars.
All that was nothing but potential. A very remote possibility.
And Nike was not yet Nike. They had the market on running shoes, but the NBA? A pipe dream. This was long, long before Eminem’s “Nike shoes crispy and fresh laced” or Frank Ocean’s “these b*tches want Nike, looking for a check” or Drake’s “shout-out goes to Nike, checks all over me” or Macklemore’s “stick out my tongue so everyone could see that logo: Nike Air Flight” or Logic’s “I got them Nikes on my feet as we speak.” Before 1984, the coolest person to wear Nikes was Steve Prefontaine.
The film is about making those dreams a reality. Matt Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, a basketball talent scout for Nike, who mulls around in a basketball department that doesn’t do much. Tasked with finding the right person to wear their shoes on the court (a court dominated by Converse-wearing Magics and Birds and Doctors), he fixates on Jordan after his performance in the 1982 NCAA Championship Game. “I can’t give you an exaggerated claim that I researched him and watched film,” says the real-life Vaccaro in Pete Croatto’s book, From Hang Time To Prime Time. “I didn’t know sh*t other than he took the shot. The kid took the goddamned shot. Not James Worthy.”
Sonny (the character) wants the department to put all of their eggs (and their entire $250,000 endorsement budget) into the Jordan basket, even though, as Croatto puts it, “Nike and Jordan’s marriage was far from guaranteed.”
Mike likes Converse, but they made it clear that he’d be fourth on their roster behind Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving. The film depicts Adidas in a state of shock after the death of founder Adolf Dassler.
Nike feels like they can swoop in.
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of dramas for adults, and that’s the kind of film you’ll get as the story plays out. There are some bad wigs and dad bod bellies and a little Jason Bateman and more than a few needle drops and lots of talking and more than enough bending the truth. It’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer Dad Movie. The kind that used to play on Saturday afternoons and Thursday nights on TNT. And don’t we miss those?
The real star of the show, however, is Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother. You see very little of Damian Delano Young’s MJ, as it’s his mother who calls the shots. Davis is an All-Star scene-stealer and does just that in this film.
Croatto writes that Deloris “set her son on a path of incalculable influence,” and that’s just what we see play out in the crux of the film. Damon’s Vaccaro is warned to not approach the North Carolina door of the uninterested Jordans, but he knocks undeterred. Convincing Mrs. Jordan to at least take a meeting in Oregon (in a scene between Damon and Davis that gives us one of cinema’s gifts: two great actors playing one-on-one) is the easy part. From there, the folks at Nike Basketball have to (damn near) roll out the red carpet for the family.
It’s a difficult challenge for a film, as we already know how it ends. We know Jordan will fly high from the free throw line in the Dunk contest and Spike Lee will tell Mike that “it’s gotta be the shoes!” We know LL Cool J is “cold sportin’ Air Jordans.” We know that Jordans will dominate the sneaker market and pinpoint the exact intersection between sports and popular culture. We know about the billions of dollars in revenue and the complete change in NBA footwear and sneakerhead fandom.
So the film is very much about the journey rather than the destination. It’s about Viola Davis doing what she does best (acting circles around everyone else) and Matt Damon doing what he does best (leading dramas for adults) and Ben Affleck doing what he does best (looking like an idiot). They practically skip over the actual invention of Air Jordans because it’s a movie about feeling. About feeling like you can live up to your potential or feeling like you can do more with your life or feeling like you have a great idea or feeling like you can make everyone proud.
It’s about the feeling you get while watching Michael Jordan play basketball and the feeling you get wearing Air Jordans and how those two things are a match made in heaven.
Like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Or Viola Davis and great characters. Or you, a bucket of popcorn, this movie, and a pretty good time.