In a collaboration spanning over 30 years, accumulating billions of dollars in revenue and is said to be the source of every three in four pairs of basketball shoes bought in the USA each year, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that Nike’s deal with Michael Jordan and the Air Jordan brand that was given life as a result, might nearly have never happened.
Netflix’s Michael Jordan docu-series ‘The Last Dance’ has been giving basketball fans unprecedented access behind the scenes of Jordan’s glittering career and each episode has provided a bounty of interesting anecdotes. In episode five, one such bombshell is that, had things played out differently, we could be looking at the adidas or Converse Air Jordans right now.
David Falk, Jordan’s agent between 1984 and 2003, had plans early on in Jordan’s career to turn ‘His Airness’ into basketball’s first star and looked towards tennis players as his model.
“Our firm, ProServ had a lot of very high-profile tennis clients, like Jimmy Connors, Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe.
“Ashe had his own shoes and tennis racket. The strategy was to try to take a team sports player and treat him more like a golfer or a boxer or a tennis player.”
Step one - secure a shoe deal.
Falk’s first port of call was Converse, which, at the time, was the official shoe of the NBA and included stars like Magic Johnson, Bernard King and Larry Bird among their roster.
Unfortunately, with so much star quality already signed up, there wasn’t much room for Michael Jordan.
“Converse had big players and told me, ‘We cannot envision you being put ahead of them,’” Jordan reflects.
When asked if he had a shoe company he wanted to go with: “That was adidas,” Jordan says with a smile. Alas, like Converse, it wasn’t meant to be, even if the sports brand were showing some signs of interest.
“Adidas was really dysfunctional at the time,” says Falk. “They had just told me, ‘We’d love to have Jordan, we just can’t make a shoe work at this point in time.”
In adidas’ absence, Falk wanted Michael to go with Nike instead, who were also keen, “because they were the upstart,” but to say Jordan was disheartened to swap the famous three stripes for the iconic swoop would be an understatement.
Howard White, Nike Executive, said: “In the early 80s Nike was, for the most part, a track shoe company - Michael didn’t even want to be at Nike.”
Falk goes on to add: “I couldn’t even get him to get on the damn plane and go visit the campus, so I called his parents.”
“My mother said. ‘You’re gonna go listen. You may not like it but you’re gonna go listen,” recalls Jordan
As they say ‘mother knows best,’ and given the vast fortunes the Air Jordans have brought both basketballer and brand, they should both be very grateful of Deloris Jordan’s intervention.
Deloris wasn't the only parent to have a key role in helping Michael’s decision, with his father also adding his own two cents.
“I go into that meeting, not wanting to be there,” says Jordan, “Nike made this big pitch. My father said, ‘You gotta be a fool for not taking this deal.’”
And it was quite some deal as White recalls, especially for someone completely unproven in the NBA: “Back then, the best guys might’ve gotten $100,000 or so, and he got probably £250,000. It was like, ‘You’ll pay him what? A young rookie that’s done nothing? You must be out of your mind…’”
Falk let Nike know, if they wanted Jordan, they would need to give him his own range.
“Nike had just come out with this new technology for their running shoes called Air Soles. And obviously, Michael played in the air. I said, ‘I got it. We’re gonna call it Air Jordan.’
“Nike’s expectation when we signed the deal was at the end of year four, they hoped to sell $3million worth of Air Jordans. In year one, we sold $126million.”
A cultural phenomenon was born, and the rapper Nas sums up perfectly in episode five what wearing a pair of Jordans meant to anyone growing up at the time.
“For a kid, it was almost like holding a lightsaber from Star Wars. You needed that shoe to be like him. It was more than a status symbol - you knew this guy was the guy.
“The other brands didn’t change too much. Jordans changed with the times.”
Before Jordan, sneakers were for playing basketball. And all of a sudden, they’d come to epitomise fashion and culture.
As for the Air Jordan’s everlasting success, which is still growing leaps and bounds to this day, the man himself puts it down to pure hardwork and graft.
“My game was my biggest endorsement. What I did on the basketball court, my dedication to the game led to all this other stuff. Believe me, if I was averaging two points, three rebounds - I wouldn’t have signed with anybody.
“My game did all my talking.”