THE 'AIR' DOWN THERE
It was 1990 when I first laced my eyes on the shoe when fellow form 1 student Jason Adams walked into our classroom wearing a pair of Air Jordan 5’s.
by Cam Schuster I 11 April 2023
What the hell are those? Astronaut boots? I didn't follow basketball at the time let alone know who his Airness was, but conversations with Jason sparked an intrigue of questions. Who is Air Jordan? Do you pronounce the brand ‘Nyek’ or ‘Nick’? Why the hell did it cost $300? This whiteboy Jason must be rich? I would know the answers to these questions in the following years ahead and we all know Michael Jordan is with Nike but after watching the new Ben Affleck directed movie “Air” I would understand a much deeper significance Michael Jordan's shoe deal had on pop culture, sports marketing, and athlete exploitation.
This is the first movie project from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's newly formed film production company Artist Equity. The collaboration has a business model for production artists and crew to “take ownership…” of their work and be paid accordingly as described by Damon, which parallels the deal outcome at the conclusion of Air.
Set in 1984 when Nike was a bit player in the sports shoe world market, Air focuses on the executives that were behind the signing of Michael Jordan and the creation of his shoe ‘Air Jordan’. Nike exec. Sonny Vaccaro played superbly by Matt Damon is a basketball fanatic whose job is to find 3 NBA athletes to represent the company wearing the Nike brand basketball line. With a small budget to work with, Vaccaro has other ideas when he discovers North Carolina freshman Michael Jordan who is drafted 3rd by the Chicago Bulls IS the man the company should go all in on and nobody else. One of my favourite scenes is where Sonny watches the tape of Jordan’s game-winner in the NCAA Championship Final and reviews it better than any TMO or bunker decision in the NRL. The focus of the story is cemented further when we never actually see the actor playing Michael Jordan besides the back of his head and a couple of words of dialogue, a decision by Affleck to not distract from the Nike point of view.
The nostalgia for the 80s in the film is organic and well-detailed and a big part of why I enjoyed this movie. In the opening credits scene, we are mesmerised by flashes of 80s cinema, music, advertising, and tv over Dire Straits Money for Nothing which sets the tone, reminding me of life during my primary school years. A killer 80s soundtrack supports well with artists like Dazz Band, Dan Hartman, Bruce Springsteen, and Cyndi Lauper.
References to 80s popular and sports culture are made subtle but enough to create a smile on any sports fan's face including Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Nike CEO Phil Knight’s colourful jogging outfit and a scene straight out of Moneyball where Marketing boss Rob Strasser played by Jason Bateman heads a meeting of Nike executives including Sonny who scans a chart of 1984 draft results to find their player ambassador. Should they sign 5th pick Charles Barkley or 16th pick John Stockton from Gonzaga, where the hell is Gonzaga?
Chris Tucker’s casting is nice since we haven't seen him on screen for a while, he plays Howard White who was athlete liaison for Nike at the time. Tucker comes through with dialogue to match his comedic talents when he discusses sports with Damon in another opening scene. But it's when Sonny’s telephone call with Michael Jordan’s longtime agent David Falk played convincingly by Chris Messina is the most hilarious with Falks tirade and Sonny’s reaction making this scene up there in the Auckland Sky-Tower of telephone calls in movies.
Viola Davis makes a strong performance playing Jordan’s mother Delores Jordan and it is Michael himself who suggested Affleck cast Davis for the part.
Air is a movie about the process of successful sales and marketing, and the men who put it together. It's about great risk that comes with great reward entwined in a David and Goliath capitalism story. It is an insight into the origins of the Air Jordan shoe, and the Nike executive who saw a vision and risked his career, and his entire department to make that vision come true. A vision that would set a precedent in the basketball shoe game to this day, a precedent that would earn Michael Jordan 400 million dollars per year today in passive income. (I find a satisfying comfort in knowing Jason Adams purchase of Jordan 5s back in 1990 accounted for 10% per shoe of MJ’s royalties). I found Air inspiring, entertaining, insightful, and nostalgic. Sonny Vaccaro was a gambling man and his bet on one man would take Nike Inc. to the very top of sport shoe manufacturers in the world. What I took out of this movie was knowing your self-worth. If you are good at what you do, passionate, and have that self-belief, all bets are off. 4 out of 5 swishes