The Birth of Air Jordans

Inside the meeting that marked a hinge point in the history of sports business

By L. Jon Wertheim
Michael Jordan’s soaring exploits in college and the Olympics made him a massive star upon entering the NBA in 1984.getty images

When Michael Jordan returned home to North Carolina in the summer of 1984, friends and family assumed that he would be exhausted from leading the United States to a gold medal at the Olympics and the increasing demands on his time that came from his swelling profile. He smiled and disabused them of that idea. “I wish [the NBA season] opened tomorrow,” he said sunnily. “That’s how excited I am.”

Jordan was less excited, though, about getting dressed up and sitting in conference rooms taking boring meetings. Donald Dell, the head of ProServ and, notionally, Jordan’s agent, was hashing out his client’s playing contract with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan’s leverage having increased after his Olympic showing. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got the Bulls over a barrel,” Dell told the Chicago Tribune. “[But] they certainly know Michael is a dynamic young man who turns people on. He’s never going to be a head case or get involved in drugs.” 

ProServ’s David Falk paid a visit from Washington, D.C., to discuss Jordan’s marketing plan. He was growing close to James and Deloris Jordan. Unlike so many parents Falk encountered, who thought their kid was a unicorn, the Jordans “pushed Michael to improve at everything he did.”

Falk’s spirits were further lifted when he popped by the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. Though Jordan had spent the entire summer playing basketball, he went to Woollen Gym to play pickup with a group of former Tar Heel players already in the NBA, among them James Worthy, Walter Davis, and Dudley Bradley. Falk watched slack-jawed as Jordan looked to be playing an entirely different sport. He recalls thinking, “He made these guys look like a high school team. And these were established NBA players — the same guys he’d be going up against soon.”

By this point Falk was beyond eager for his client to sign with Nike. It was, as he saw it, the perfect match of a creative, entrepreneurial, ascending company and a creative, up-and-coming athlete. Besides, Falk had already named the damn shoe the company would make for him the “Air Jordan.” When Falk broached the subject, Jordan cut him off, still preferring a different brand. “Just get it done with Adidas,” he told him.

Jordan’s parents had explained to him that there was more to being a professional basketball player than putting a ball in a hoop. “Take care of your business,” James Jordan told his son with a laugh. “And be happy you have business to take care of.” Specifically, Jordan Sr. told his son that he needed to attend meetings about what product would adorn his feet. The next of these “shoe meetings” was at Nike, and Michael would be attending, whether he wanted to or not. So it was that the day after Labor Day, Jordan accompanied his parents and Falk on a cross-country flight to Portland.

To say that Nike unfurled the red carpet for the Jordans would be selling short their hospitality effort. When the family arrived, a limousine was waiting and Sonny Vaccaro, whom Nike had initially hired for $500 a month to help penetrate youth basketball, got out and held the door open for Deloris Jordan. There were fancy meals at the downtown Portland restaurant Broadway Revue and a golf outing at the posh Oswego Lake Country Club.

The Jordans arrived to the pitch meeting at Nike’s campus, in Beaverton, held at the “Murray Two” building. (Eventually Nike would begin naming buildings after the top athletes it shod, Jordan included.) They were greeted by a printed banner: THE NIKE FAMILY WELCOMES THE JORDAN FAMILY.

Agent David Falk came up with the shoe’s name, which soon became a nickname too.getty images

The Jordans sat with Falk. The Nike contingent included Vaccaro, Rob Strasser, Nike’s director of marketing, and Peter Moore, the star Nike designer. But Phil Knight, Nike’s eccentric CEO, told colleagues he would “pop in later.”

The meeting started inauspiciously. Howard White, the lone Black Nike executive, arrived late. The Nike team had created a highlight video of Jordan’s various dunks and anti-gravitational moves, scored to the 1984 pop song “Jump,” by the Pointer Sisters. When an executive popped the cassette into the video player, the machine jammed. Awkwardly, the Jordans waited.

The video finally played, ending with the logo of two unfurled wings bracketed by a basketball that Moore had designed and the tagline “Air Jordan, Basketball by Nike.”

Rightly proud of his handiwork, Moore smiled, as did everyone else in the room. Except one 21-year-old. While the design was in keeping with the color scheme of the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was a tough critic. “Devil’s colors,” he muttered, adding that he wished the prototype of the shoes could be tinted in Carolina blue.

Late in the meeting, Phil Knight walked in. There was uncertainty whether it was a good thing that the CEO of the company had arrived, or a bad thing that he’d walked in late, clearly having prioritized something else.

Strasser, the companionable, rotund marketing man, took it upon himself to break the ice.

“We know you like cars,” he said to Jordan.

Jordan nodded, expressionless.

“Well,” Strasser said, dramatically reaching into his pocket, “I thought you might like this.”

Other Nike executives, not least Knight, weren’t sure where this was going. It was not beyond Strasser to reach into his pocket and hand Jordan — whom the company hadn’t even signed — keys to a new car.

As suspense mounted, Strasser pulled out two plastic toy cars and said words to the effect of, Sign with us and you’ll have plenty of money to buy the real thing. Everyone laughed. Except for Jordan.

The meeting was mostly about Jordan becoming his own brand, having, yes, a signature shoe, and also having an image all his own. But it also came with the potential for vast wealth. Falk made clear that Jordan wanted more money from Nike up front, even if it meant less in back-end earnings. Still, if the Air Jordan shoe took off, the royalties alone could pay Jordan more than his NBA contract.

Jordan’s signature shoe caused — and capitalized on — controversy.getty images

The other key to the meeting: Nike asked for Jordan’s input and opinion, making it clear that this was a partnership and that Air Jordan would truly be his signature line. No one, of course, knew it then, but the meeting marked one of the hinge-point moments in the history of sports business, never mind in Nike’s corporate history.

Falk wasn’t sure how to read his client. He knew that Jordan was less than thrilled about having been dragged across the country, a few weeks after the Olympics and a few weeks before his first NBA training camp. He didn’t smile once during the meeting. Then again, Falk also knew that — a legacy of all those late-night poker games his young client had played at UNC, perhaps — Jordan was masterful at negotiating and revealing nothing with his expression. Falk would call it “Michael’s business face.”

When the meeting broke up, Falk asked Jordan what he thought of the presentation.

Finally the young man smiled: “I don’t want to see anyone else.”

As a courtesy, Falk reached out to his contact at Adidas and explained what Nike had offered, aware that Adidas would not be able to match the offer. As another courtesy, Falk and James Jordan took one last meeting at Converse in Massachusetts.

It was as though they had gone from watching color TV to black-and-white. Converse whipped through a dutiful presentation. They showed images of all the other stars they represented, which included Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Magic Johnson. Nike was determined to make Jordan a stand-alone star and give him a signature shoe line. At Converse, clearly he would be just another car in the garage. James Jordan couldn’t restrain himself. “Don’t you have any new, creative ideas?”

By the first week in September, Michael Jordan had signed with Nike, and Air Jordan had gone into production.

On October 15 — a month to the day from the date he signed his five-year contract with the Bulls worth almost $6 million — Jordan played an exhibition game against the New York Knicks in Glens Falls, N.Y. Wearing his red-and-black Nike Air Ship shoes, which served as his stand-ins until the Air Jordan model rolled off the assembly line, Jordan caught the disapproving eye of NBA shoe police, who had two concerns: The shoe was not predominantly white, and it violated the “uniformity of uniform” rule demanding that “a player must wear shoes that not only matched their uniforms, but matched the shoes worn by their teammates.”

The Bulls played the Knicks again three days later at Madison Square Garden. Word came down that Jordan couldn’t wear the shoes. Falk called Rob Strasser, deeply concerned. Did this mean the entire Air Jordan concept needed to be rethought? When Falk told Strasser about the potential for a $10,000 fine for each game Jordan wore the offending Nike shoes, he heard gleeful cackling on the other end of the line.

“Great!” Rob Strasser yelled.

“Great?” asked Falk.

“Write a check for $82,000,” said Strasser, whose math skills weren’t the equal of his marketing skills. (A $10,000-per-game fine over an 82-game NBA season would come to $820,000.) “It’ll be the cheapest marketing campaign ever!”

The controversy would be sorted out by adding a band of white. Though, as Strasser predicted, this bit of controversy was marketing gold. When the Air Jordan was released weeks later, it was accompanied by a television commercial beginning with a faux-ominous voice intoning, “On October 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can’t keep you from wearing them.”

By then, the Bulls had won their first six preseason games and Michael Jordan was already achieving cruising altitude.

L. Jon Wertheim is a writer and editor at Sports Illustrated, an analyst at The Tennis Channel and a correspondent on 60 Minutes. This is his 10th book.

Excerpted from Glory Days: The Summer of 1984 and the 90 Days That Changed Sports and Culture Forever by L. Jon Wertheim. Copyright 2021 by L. Jon Wertheim. Published and reprinted by permission of Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. Click here for more information and to purchase this book.

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