GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – The movie opening this week about Michael Jordan does not actually include an actor who plays Michael Jordan, and certainly not Jordan himself or even actor Michael B. Jordan. None of this was filmed in North Carolina, and none of the primary actors or even the non-family members among the characters have much attachment to the state.
But the movie “Air,” launching nationally on Friday is a quintessential North Carolina story, the tale of how Nike created the Air Jordan brand just after Michael Jordan had left the Tar Heels and begun the professional basketball journey that led him to be considered by most the Greatest Of All-Time (or GOAT, in the modern vernacular).
But, no, outside of perhaps video, Heir Jordan is not present in the story of his creation, and the only real GOAT associated with this project is really an EGOT, actor Viola Davis, so labeled because she is one of 18 entertainers (not all actors) who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
And although the movie is based on events that occurred in Chapel Hill and Wilmington and in the regions of Oregon around Portland and in Washington, D.C., the scenes were filmed exclusively in and around Los Angeles.
The plot, you may know well. Michael Jordan, a native of Wilmington, was a 19-year-old freshman in 1982 when he rose in the final seconds of the NCAA championship to hit the shot that beat Georgetown and give Coach Dean Smith his first title. He starred for three seasons at UNC before deciding to enter the 1984 NBA draft. He was taken third (you can guess who went first and second in a highly talented group) by the Chicago Bulls. Then came Nike, even before his legend as a high-flying, tongue-wagging artiste of championships.
The movie to depict that next chapter is the collaboration of two old and successful friends, actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (think “Good Will Hunting,” “Gone Baby Gone” and “Jay and Silent Bob”), who star, respectively, as Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, and Sonny Vaccaro, the world’s first known hustler of basketball shoes. Affleck also directs, FYI, so blame him if you don’t like something.
“In all honesty, I never wore Nike shoes until I signed with Nike,” Jordan told USA Today in 2015. “I was a big Adidas, Converse guy coming out of college. Then actually my parents made me go out to [Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.] to hear their proposal.”
Apparently, Jordan had no role in the movie but then had a major role in whether the movie got made. Affleck said Jordan cared about two major things: that former coach George Raveling would be a key figure in the movie (along with an obscure former player named Howard White, played by Chris Tucker) and that Viola Davis would play his mother, Deloris. Jordan’s father, James, would be played by Julius Tennon, who happens to be married to Davis. So she agreed to the role.
You don’t need those final credits to tell you how this movie ends.
In 2021, Nike footwear sales hit $28 billion, which was more than Adidas, PUMA, Asics, Converse and Under Armour combined, Statista reported. Jordan Brand in 2021 recorded revenue of $4.8 billion, up 31% from 2020, Front Office Sports reported.
And Jordan? He turned 60 in February and has an estimated net worth of $1.7 billion – or nearly 20 times what he made as a player – making him the richest of the former athletes. He is the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, which he said he is planning to sell.
Still, he doesn’t appear in “Air,” so we decided to provide you with a starting lineup of the people who do. Pardon the old-school names for the positions.
‘Point guard’ David Falk (played by Chris Messina)
If you have read anything about the story of Michael Jordan since he left UNC, you likely have seen the name of David Falk, an attorney who evolved from a tennis agent for Donald Dell’s firm to be a renowned representative for NBA players who signed with Jordan in 1984. When Falk first was approached by Nike, he told the company that Jordan would have to have his own signature line of shoes and apparel, not just be another endorsing player (which had been common for years). At a meeting in Washington in the summer of 1984, that deal was hammered out. And it was Falk who first suggested the name: Air Jordan. What happened thereafter was that ghost of a flying Jordan, ball held high, to be the representative logo of a brand that started with a pair of red-and-black basketball shoes and evolved to fill the classic NikeTown store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
‘Shooting guard’ Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon)
He was the marketing genius behind Air Jordan. If Falk suggested the name, Vaccaro is who made it all work – and ultimately changed college and high school sports forever. Now 83, Vaccaro is the person who created the ABCD Camp, the place to be for basketball players who aspire to college and professional stardom. That led to AAU-based summer leagues, travel teams, basketball academies, college contracts (see Adidas and the FBI) and, today, name-image-likeness deals that athletes until two years ago couldn’t sign until they left college. All of that evolution ultimately led Knight in 1991 to fire Vaccaro, who also played a role in O’Bannon v. NCAA, the landmark Supreme Court decision from 2016 that led to the NIL world we have today.
‘Small forward’ Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman)
Strasser was 26 when he was assigned as an attorney to work with Knight, then a running shoe distributor, in a lawsuit brought by a Japanese shoe company. Knight hired Strasser, and then he renamed the company “Nike.” Now it’s worth billions and has far outlasted Strasser, who died in October 1993 at age 46. But Strasser had made deals before Jordan – he signed tennis star John McEnroe to market Nike’s “tennis” shoes – and brought along many after Jordan. Strasser actually had left Nike in 1987 after 15 years to start his own company, Sports Inc., which eventually was bought by rival Adidas America, which he then led. That caused many to label him a “traitor.” A behemoth of a man, about 300 pounds, he died of a heart attack during a corporate retreat in Germany, where Adidas is based. He is perhaps the most anonymous figure in this picture. In fact, there are few photos of him still in circulation.
‘Power forward’ George Raveling (Marlon Wayans)
Raveling was a former college basketball player and coach who worked at Nike as a talent procurer. Jordan in 2015 said it was Raveling who talked him into signing with Nike, because Raveling, then coach at Iowa, was an assistant to Coach Bobby Knight on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, which Jordan led to a gold medal. Raveling introduced Jordan to Vaccaro, and Jordan told USA Today that Raveling kept telling him, “You gotta go Nike, you gotta go Nike.” Raveling played at Villanova and coached at Washington State, Iowa and Southern Cal, winning 336 games against 292 losses before retiring to work for – you guessed it – Nike in 1994, as director of player procurement. In 2013 the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame presented Raveling with the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the game.
‘Center’ Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis)
Given that this movie may not have been made had Davis not been cast, then she definitely was in the pivotal role. Deloris Jordan, though, was a driving force in Jordan’s life. A native of Rocky Point, Deloris Jordan, now 81, served two decades as the president and founder of the James R. Jordan Foundation, which was established in the memory of her husband, who was murdered nearly 40 years ago, in July 1993. The charity supports families and children. She also is the author of “Family First: Winning the Parenting Game,” which she said involved the seven principles of parenting. She was the person who drove the contract negotiations with Nike, which landed Jordan $2.5 million for 5 years ($500,000 per), which now would feel like tip money. Here’s what Davis said about Deloris Jordan: “I know Michael Jordan but didn’t know that Deloris brokered this deal to get him a huge stake in the shoe and in turn, protected her son’s legacy. I wanted to know more about this woman who had the strength and courage to fight for her son’s worth,” Davis told Bang Showbiz.
‘The coach’ Phil Knight (Ben Affleck)
Where to place Knight in this lineup is affected slightly because Affleck was the person who put the whole movie together. Knight, 85, was the person who created Nike out of whole cloth. He was inspired by a paper he had written at Stanford about the shoe business in Japan. He had been a track runner at the University of Oregon, and he and his coach, Bill Bowerman, each put up $500 to start what they called Blue Ribbon Sports, which imported shoes and sold them in the U.S. After a lawsuit (see Strasser), they changed the name to Nike, which is generally defined as the name of the Greek goddess of victory. But legend has it that it is the Greek word for “victory” that Pheidippides uttered just before he died after completing the 25-mile run from the battlefield in Marathon to Athens (you can figure that one out). The swoosh logo was designed in 1971 by a student Knight had when teaching at Portland State. Knight retired in 2016 as president and CEO of Nike in, and he is said to be among the 20 richest people in the world (net worth north of $45 billion). There’s a book about how all this came to be, called “Shoe Dog.” If you want to know how “Air” really unfolds and more details about everyone in this lineup, that’s your game program.