Ben Affleck is once again taking on the dual roles of director and actor in his new movie, “Air,” which hits theaters April 5. The film, replete with a star-studded cast that includes Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Viola Davis, and Marlon Wayans, delves into the origin story of Air Jordans, the line of sneakers and basketball shoes that revolutionized sportswear as well as the Nike brand as a whole.
At the center of the film is Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), a Nike salesman who is determined to make the company as successful as other dominant shoe brands of the 1980s, like Converse and Adidas. With a crystal clear vision in mind, Vaccaro knew the only way for Nike to become the next biggest shoe line was with a rising athlete behind it, aka Michael Jordan. Although the partnership wasn’t easy at first, Jordan and Nike eventually joined forces to launch one of the most popular and sought after apparel lines of all time.
Read on to learn more about the incredible true story that inspired “Air,” from Vaccaro’s rise to prominence in NBA circles to the other important figures who helped bring the deal to fruition.
Who is Sonny Vaccaro?
Born in Trafford, Pennsylvania on September 23, 1939, John Paul Vincent “Sonny” Vaccaro got his start in the sports world in the early 1960s, when at just 24 years old he founded the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, a tournament school basketball player, along with his then roommate, Pat DiCesare, as reported by NSS Magazine. After a few years, the tournaments caught the attention of coaches like Dean Smith, which helped him establish a network of meaningful connections in the sports world.
In the late 1970s, Vaccaro was hired by Nike, a lesser-known company at the time, to expand its brand and compete with other companies popular with basketball athletes, according to The New York Times. In 1977, he presented Nike executives with a new shoe idea, which sparked the interest of Rob Strasser, who asked him to market Nike sneakers to college and professional basketball circles. The arrangement was detailed in the memoir, “Michael Jordan: The Life”, by Roland Lazenby. “He hired Vaccaro for a monthly salary of $500, put $30,000 in an account at his disposal and asked him to turn the coaches into Nike testimonials,” he continued, “For him, it was child’s play: he offered coaches simple deals with Nike, signed checks and sent them free sneakers for the players to wear.”
During this time, Vaccaro learned of a rising UNC player named Michael Jordan, who he knew would be a worldwide phenomenon.
How was Air Jordan born?
According to “Michael Jordan: The Life,” Vaccaro witnessed Jordan’s magic in 1982 during the Final Four, where he was struck by the idea of having a shoe based on a single athlete rather than a team. At the time, Nike had a budget of $2.5 million for professional basketball endorsements and planned to split the money among several players, but Vaccaro urged the company to reserve it for Jordan. . “Give it all to the kid. Give it all to Jordan,” he told Strasser.
In 1984 Vaccaro began working with Strasser; Peter Moore, Nike’s creative designer; and David Falk, Jordan’s agent, to come up with an effective name and design for the sneakers. After collaboration and brainstorming, the sneaker was named Air Jordan and featured the now-iconic silhouette of Jordan shooting a basketball and the Nike swoosh on it.
The Groundbreaking Multi-Million Dollar Deal
Shortly after Jordan’s appearance at the 1984 Summer Olympics, Vaccaro came into contact with the basketball star with the help of his friend, George Raveling, head coach of the men’s team at Washington State basketball. Pitching the idea to Jordan was not easy, as Nike was not the large-scale brand it is today, and Jordan himself preferred Adidas as a brand.
With the help of Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight, he presented Jordan with the Nike deal, a $2.5 million package to be paid over five years, which also included a signature bonus, annuities and a 25% royalty. paid directly to Jordan for each pair of shoes sold. Although it took some negotiating, Jordan accepted the deal and signed one of the most important contracts of his career.
Air Jordan, as a brand, has enjoyed incredible success since its launch in 1984. In the last five fiscal years alone, it has achieved $19.4 billion in sales (via Front Office Sports). As for Jordan himself, the NBA legend reportedly earns around $100 million a year from Nike royalties, per Insider.
Where is Sonny Vaccaro today?
After working for Nike and arguably pioneering one of the most important brand offerings of all time, Vaccaro created Camp ABCD, a basketball program centered around basketball athletes. the nation’s most talented and top-ranked, in 1984. Camp alumni include stars LeBron James, James Harden, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, as reported by Biography.
He was eventually kicked out of Nike in 1991 amid power struggles within the company. “I feel like a gunslinger in the Wild West,” Vaccaro reportedly told Knight during a meeting about his firing, according to the LA Times. “The townspeople hired a gunslinger – me – to clean up the town and make it something they were proud of. Now those townspeople don’t want the gunslinger anymore because he just doesn’t seem to fit their new picture.”
Vaccaro went on to work as a marketing manager for other sportswear companies, such as Adidas and Reebok. He notably helped broker a deal between Bryant and Adidas in 1996, then filed a lawsuit against the NCAA that challenged compensation restrictions for college athletes.
In 2015, he was the focus of an ESPN documentary “30 for 30” and hasn’t worked with another company since leaving Reebok in 2007.
Where is Phil Knight today?
Phil Knight retired as chairman of Nike in June 2016 after more than 50 years with the company, according to Forbes. Since stepping down, Knight has continued to be involved in a number of athletic activities and donates to several organizations and charities, per People.
Where is Rob Strasser today?
Rob Strasser left Nike in 1987, just a few years after Air Jordan sneakers hit stores. He then worked for Adidas and later became the general manager of Adidas America in the early 1990s. On November 2, 1993, he died in Munich, Germany, where he was attending a sales meeting, as the reported the New York Times.
Where is Howard White today?
Howard White, played by Chris Tucker in the film, is the only executive who is still a key figure in the Nike brand in 2023. According to his official website, White is now the vice president of Jordan Brand. He founded “Believe to Achieve”, a national Nike movement and traveling seminar that encourages young people.
Where are Deloris and James R. Jordan today?
Much of “Air” focuses on how Jordan’s parents, Deloris and James R. Jordan (played by real-life husband and wife Viola Davis and Julius Tennon), helped their son get the best deal possible from Nike and build its legacy.
While Jordan’s father was tragically killed in 1993, Deloris continues to help young people reach their full potential through the James R. Jordan Foundation which she founded in her late husband’s name in 2000. The organization aims to empower disadvantaged youth and families through education and partnerships. “I founded the James R. Jordan Foundation to demonstrate to children that with education, anything is possible,” Deloris wrote in a letter on the organization’s website. “Our students are bright and eager to learn; they just need guidance and a strong support system. With these goals in mind, A-Team Scholars and Vision for Families/Parent Partnerships have begin.”
“Air” shines a light on the incredible true story of one of the most successful brands of all time. Catch the film in theaters on April 5 and watch the trailer below.