Ben Affleck has been known to make the kind of old-school, supremely entertaining movies that make you want to bang your fists on the table and let out a “This is how you do it!”. And Air, unsurprisingly, is another one of his gambles that turns out to be a win for him and the everyone else involved. Without infusing his creation with too much gimmicky tension, Affleck makes you swoon over his instinctive mastery, with the story of a win echoing through the lobbies and the offices instead of the wild uproar of people witnessing Jordan’s magic on the court. There’s no big reveal to be found down the line with Air, which has found its name in the groundbreaking foundation of Air Jordan, a pair of shoes worn by a legendary basketball player. It’s about the wild passage one risky sports marketing deal provided for Michael Jordan to be the epoch-making sports and cultural icon his mother, Deloris, and the charismatic basketball guru, Sonny Vaccaro, believed him to be.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘Air’?
The 80s sure wasn’t the best time for Nike. With the board breathing down CEO Phil Knight’s neck and the competing brands Converse and Adidas disrupting his hard-earned Buddhist zen, Phil had a hard time sticking to the rules he had etched on his office wall. So you can imagine the trouble he would have trusting his billion-dollar company’s fate to the gambler that was Sonny Vaccaro. But there’s one thing Phil and Nike’s long-suffering marketing executive Rob Strasser earnestly acknowledged about Vaccaro: the man had an unmatched instinct as he scouted promising high school rookie basketball players for their brand. Now, Michael Jordan was, at least according to ‘Air,’ mostly overlooked and overshadowed by the first picks of the NBA roster. So there was no one other than Vaccaro betting his entire career and reputation on the lanky 18-year-old that Nike deemed too risky to pool their entire basketball budget of $250,000 for. With Knight playing safe with the running shoes that keep them in business and Strasser leaning towards thinning out the budget between 3 to 4 players, Vaccaro was taking on a career-suicide kind of battle by betting on Jordan, and the risk grew tenfold if you consider that Jordan didn’t even like Nike back then.
Why Did Sonny Vaccaro Believe In Michael Jordan?
There’s a reason why an individual’s X-factor is almost inexplicable. There’s no way for you to know if there’s something special in the water they drink or if they’re just born with the gift that makes them stand apart. Vaccaro was evidently one such special guy with a gift to fish out what was invisible to most. And that is precisely why something clicked in Vaccaro when he was watching the historical basket that Jordan made in the 1982 championship game. You can even say that no one other than Howard White, Nike’s V.P. of basketball athlete relations, saw something worth backing in Vaccaro’s vision about Jordan. And even White had his reasonable doubts. Knight was by then the farthest from the “throwing caution to the wind” kind of guy that he was when he built Nike from the ground up. And yet, Vaccaro was willing to bet his life on the warrior that he believed Michael Jordan to be.
Why Did Vaccaro Meet Deloris Jordan?
Call it the rush of the gamble or the worrying lack of self-doubt, Vaccaro was convinced that Jordan was the player with whom Nike could have the most mutually beneficial, trailblazing relationship. So not only did he dispense with all the warnings from Knight and Strasser, but he also didn’t believe the U.S. Olympics basketball coach George Raveling when he said that nothing Nike could offer would make Jordan change his mind about Adidas. If anything, Raveling’s moving anecdote about the time he took a giant leap of faith and ended up literally pocketing the original Martin Luther King Jr. speech from the man himself pushed Vaccaro into pursuing his own gamble. One more thing that he picked up on during the meeting was that Deloris Jordan was the matriarch of the Jordan family and that she was the one who called the shots. The phone call with Jordan’s terribly unpleasant yet curiously impressive sports agent, David Falk, only gave Vaccaro the unusual and risky idea to go behind his back and speak to Deloris directly. Although, in reality, Vaccaro did make multiple phone calls to Mrs. Jordan prior to meeting her in ‘Air,’ for the sake of elevating the charm of the drama, Vaccaro was shown to be showing up at the Jordans’ North Carolina home unannounced. He was strikingly engaging from the get-go, and being invited for a proper chat only gave Vaccaro an opportunity to pull just the right strings with the mother, who believed in her son the same way he did. Sure, he faced a lot of flack from Falk and his own colleagues for pulling the stunt, but he also ascertained that he got through to Deloris, who could, in turn, nudge her son in the right direction.
‘Air’ Ending Explained: Why Did Michael Jordan Choose Nike?
For a cynic like me, a story of a win needs to be convincingly inspiring for me to even believe that it was truly achievable. What truly makes Vaccaro’s struggle and its highs and lows a story worth telling are all the hurdles that truly did stand in his way and made it a near-impossible journey for him quite a few times. He did have quite a rapport with Deloris when he met her, but to even set a definitive meeting through Falk, Vaccaro would need Knight to sign off on the $250000 offer. Now that seemed too dicey a risk for Knight to take, and that too on the basis of the words of someone he didn’t even have a lot of faith in. But Vaccaro’s determination was strong enough to move even the most unfaltering of mountains.
When Knight does come through quite a bit, it isn’t much of a challenge for Vaccaro to sway Falk, even though he basically loathed Vaccaro for going behind his back and overstepping his bounds. It was all hands on deck since Vaccaro got to know that Michael Jordan was coming to Beaverton. What proved only further that Vaccaro’s faith in the Jordan deal was the perfect blend of emotional and business-minded motivation was his clear instruction to Pete, the designer of the Nike shoes, to create a shoe after the image of Jordan and not for Jordan. The shoe had to scream everything that Vaccaro believed Jordan to be. But the NBA-mandated rule of 51% white did make it almost impossible for Pete to pull off a pair of sneakers that weren’t run-of-the-mill. And therein took place the first of the several rule-bending decisions made by the Nike authorities. Strasser was clearly riding the coattails of Vaccaro’s wild gamble when he suggested that more red get added to the shoes. That would evidently make NBA fine Jordan and involuntarily offer an opportunity to Nike to pay it off while looking like the cool guys who stands against the draconian rule of fining players for being too colorful. The shoe was ready, and so was the Air Jordan line that Nike hoped to sweep Jordan off his feet with.
A sleepless weekend getting ready to attain the unattainable only brought more clarity for Vaccaro regarding the risks everyone was taking and all they stood to lose. Strasser, for instance, had only a few hours a week with his daughter after the divorce. It might not have been the most ideal way for him to gain her love, but the only way that Strasser knew to impress his daughter was by gifting her a pair of Taiwan-manufactured Nikes every week. His acknowledgment of the capitalistic American dream wasn’t just his actualization of Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA.’ But he was in no position to reject the favors that capitalism granted him. And if the deal didn’t go through and he lost his job, he would still remain a cog in the machine and buy the Nikes for his daughter.
A lukewarm birthday, a crucial strategy meeting in the chiaroscuro of the office, Nike was more than ready to walk into the casino with more odds in their favor than they could’ve previously expected. The Jordans’ meetings with Adidas and Converse going exactly as Vaccaro had predicted only won Nike some more points in the eyes of Deloris. Affleck’s wise decision not to place Jordan in the limelight and have him exist in the shadows of the image we have of him already only makes the feeling of him entering a room and quietly owning it much more stirring. Neither the film they’d made nor the strategy of having Knight enter 7 minutes late to establish importance did anything to make an impression on the Jordans. It’s not until Vaccaro whipped out his rousing speech about the revolutionary idol that Jordan would become–someone who would change the landscape of everything he touches for the better—that Nike’s offer truly struck a chord with Jordan and his mother, who knew her son would change the world.
The cards were on the table; all that was left for Vaccaro and everyone who joined hands was to remain patient through the nail-biter of a waiting period. When all hope seemed lost, the phone rang, and Vaccaro’s victory lap came a bit too early. Deloris had a clear vision for her son. And most importantly, she was strikingly confident about all that he would surely achieve with just the right motivation and backing. The clip we see of Jordan heartily appreciating the irreplaceable pillar that Deloris has been in his life brings a warm sincerity to the courage and the faith of the mother we see before us. For her son, who deserved the world, Deloris made a clear demand that Jordan get a chunk of the revenue that Nike would make from selling Air Jordan shoes. That may not seem like much of an ask now, but it was deemed an unreasonable demand back when the brands had stern rules in place about not letting their endorsed players have any involvement in their sales and business. The gloom of defeat unsurprisingly washed over Vaccaro, who knew that Deloris’ demand wasn’t something he could even take to Knight, let alone convince him.
The impulsive, risk-taking fire in Knight that made him the mind that Nike was born out of wasn’t too far gone. Knight summoned his consequential spontaneity just in time to say yes to everything that Deloris asked for, and that included the red Mercedes that Jordan had his eyes on. The deal was signed, and probably unbeknownst to everyone else other than Viccaro and Deloris, history was made. Phil, especially, was in a bit of conscious denial about just how lucrative the Air Jordan sales would be. By the end of the first year itself, the Air Jordan shoes had sold $162 million and had gone on to become the line that would make Nike outrun its competitors and even, down the line, acquire Converse. Despite being the stand-in antagonist of a film that just needed one for the sake of dramatization, Falk turned out to be the embodiment of the crucial lesson: that it’s essential to be okay with the loneliness that his trade comes with. The turn that Viccaro’s life and career took cemented the fact that he wasn’t a risk-taker by his gambling impulses but that he had a keen eye for greatness and a penchant to do right by the players that go unnoticed. So instead of scouting for the next star player, Viccaro invested his expertise in fighting for the rights of college athletes and championed as a pioneer figure who transformed the landscape of sports. He certainly didn’t overpromise when he said that the Air Jordan would be faithfully following Jordan’s achievements. After the first design, Pete went on to replace the Nike logo with a silhouette of Michael Jordan, which looked as though he was flying, and he did. When all is said and done, and the chain reaction of all the good that came from the deal between Michael Jordan and Nike has been appreciated, what remains is the lesson that came from all the high-risk shots that everyone involved with the deal took. Viccaro threw his hat in the ring, and everyone else that followed was better for it.