Ben Affleck is once again taking on the dual role of director and actor in his new film, “Air,” which hit theaters on April 5. The film, filled with a star-studded cast that includes Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Viola Davis, and Marlon Wayans, digs into the origin story of Air Jordans, the sneaker and basketball shoeline that revolutionized athletic apparel as well as the overall Nike brand.
At the center of the film is Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), a Nike salesman that is driven 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 that the only way Nike would become the next greatest shoeline is with a rising athlete behind it, aka Michael Jordan. Though the partnership did not come easy at first, Jordan and Nike would eventually join 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 that made the deal happen.
Who is Sonny Vaccaro?
Born in Trafford, PA, on Sept. 23, 1939, John Paul Vincent “Sonny” Vaccaro got his start in the world of sports in the early 1960s, when at just 24 years old, he founded the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, a high school basketball tournament, with his then college roommate, Pat DiCesare, as reported by NSS Magazine. After a few years, the tournaments drew the attention of coaches like Dean Smith, which helped him build a network of meaningful connections in the sports world.
By the end of the 1970s, Vaccaro was hired by Nike, a lesser-known company at the time, to expand their brand and compete with other companies that were beloved by basketball athletes, per The New York Times. In 1977, he pitched Nike executives a new idea for a shoe, which captured the interest of Rob Strasser, who asked him to market Nike sneakers to collegiate and professional basketball circles. The arrangement was detailed in the memoir, “Michael Jordan: The Life,” by Roland Lazenby. “He hired Vaccaro for a monthly wage of 500 dollars, put 30k dollars on an account at his disposal, and asked him to turn the coaches into Nike testimonials,” it read, continuing, “For him it was a piece of cake: he proposed to the coaches simple deals with Nike, signed checks and sent them free sneakers to be worn by players.”
During this time, Vaccaro learned of a rising UNC player named Michael Jordan, who he knew would be a worldwide phenomenon.
How Did Air Jordan Come to Be?
According to “Michael Jordan: The Life,” Vaccaro witnessed the magic of Jordan in 1982 at the Final Four, which is where he was struck with the idea of having a shoe based around a single athlete, rather than a team. At the time, Nike had a $2.5 million budget for professional basketball endorsements and had planned to disperse the money amongst 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 collaborating 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 Revolutionary Multi-Million Dollar Deal
Shortly after Jordan’s appearance in the 1984 Summer Olympics, Vaccaro connected with the basketball star with the help of his friend, George Raveling, head coach of Washington State’s men’s basketball team. Pitching the idea to Jordan wasn’t 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 president Phil Knight, he presented Jordan with Nike’s deal, a $2.5 million package that was to be paid over the span of five years, which also included a signing bonus, annuities, and a 25 percent royalty paid directly to Jordan for every pair of shoes sold. Though it took some negotiating, Jordan agreed to the deal and signed one of the most important contracts of his career.
Air Jordan, as a brand, has had incredible success since its launch in 1984. Over the past five fiscal years alone, it has earned $19.4 billion in revenue (via Front Office Sports). As for Jordan himself, the NBA legend reportedly makes an estimated $100 million a year from Nike royalties, per Insider.
Where is Sonny Vaccaro Today?
After working for Nike and pioneering arguably one of the most important brand deals of all time, Vaccaro created the ABCD Camp, a basketball program that centered around the nation’s most talented and highly-ranked basketball athletes, in 1984. Alumni of the camp include stars LeBron James, James Harden, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant, as reported by Biography.
He was ultimately pushed out of Nike in 1991 amid power struggles within the company. “I feel like a gunslinger in the Old West,” Vaccaro reportedly told Knight in a meeting about his firing, according to the L.A. Times. “The townspeople hired a gunslinger — me — to clean up the town and turn it into something they were proud of. Now, those townspeople no longer want the gunslinger around because he just doesn’t seem to fit their new image.”
Vaccaro continued to work as a marketing executive for other athletic apparel companies, like Adidas and Reebok. He notably helped negotiate a deal between Bryant and Adidas in 1996, and later pushed forward a lawsuit against the NCAA that questioned compensation restrictions for college athletes.
In 2015, he was the center of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary and has not 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 over 50 years with the company, according to Forbes. Since stepping down, Knight has continued to be involved in a number of sports 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 store shelves. He went on to work for Adidas and later became the chief executive of Adidas America in the early 1990s. On Nov. 2, 1993, he died in Munich, Germany where he was attending a sales meeting, as reported by The New York Times.
Where Is Howard White Today?
Howard White, played by Chris Tucker in the film, is the only executive who’s still a key figure at 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 youth.
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 his legacy.
While Jordan’s father was tragically killed in 1993, Deloris continues to nurture youth to reach their full potential through the James R. Jordan Foundation she founded in her late husband’s name in 2000. The organization aims to empower underprivileged youth and families through education and partnerships. “I founded the James R. Jordan Foundation to demonstrate to the 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 simply need direction and a strong support system. With these goals in mind, the A-Team Scholars and Vision for Families/Parent Partnerships began.”
“Air” highlights 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.