How Ben Affleck courted Michael Jordan for Nike drama ‘Air’

So you wanna make a movie about MJ? First challenge: a round of golf with His Airness

In 1984, Michael Jordan was a college basketball star destined for greatness, an athlete who already possessed stellar all-round skills on the court. ‘Hir Airness’ – so called due to his enviable aerial abilities – was drafted by the Chicago Bulls as he entered the NBA, the pro-league he would help popularise around the globe across the next 15 seasons. But in the same year, he also signed another deal that would change his life – and those of many other sports stars – when he joined Nike.

It feels almost impossible to think that, back in ’84, Nike was not a big name when it came to basketball apparel. Adidas and Converse were the market leaders. Until, that is, Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro convinced his CEO Phil Knight to go all-out and blow their annual budget on recruiting one player: Michael Jordan.

Vaccaro had a hunch that this rookie was going to be a superstar and convinced him to come to Nike by designing a basketball shoe for him. The now-iconic Air Jordan made a staggering $162million in its first year alone. This story forms the centrepiece in Ben Affleck’s new film Air, which cast the actor-director’s old pal, and Good Will Hunting co-star, Matt Damon as Vaccaro. Affleck co-stars as the Porsche-driving Knight, who is forced to risk it all when the Jordan camp – driven by his mother Deloris – wants to strike a landmark deal for the athlete. Every shoe sold that bears his name would see him get a cut of the revenue, a radical move at the time that changed the way athletes were compensated for endorsing products. Yet for Affleck, Damon and his team, it was never going to be easy to bring this story to the screen.

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan in his iconic Chicago Bulls kit. CREDIT: Getty

It all started with The Last Dance

Back in 2020, budding screenwriter Alex Convery was stuck inside during the pandemic with little else to do but flick through Netflix. “Like everyone else I was locked up during those first couple months of quarantine watching The Last Dance,” he says. Like Tiger King or Normal People, The Last Dance was one of the must-see shows during those early days of COVID-19 that everyone had on their watch lists. This Emmy-winning docuseries chronicled Jordan’s career, focusing on his final season with the Chicago Bulls. “There’s a little five minute clip about Nike and just how Air Jordan came together,” explains Convery, who began to investigate further into the background of this momentous deal. Originally called ‘Air Jordan’, the script landed on the influential Black List of 2021 – the compendium of the best-loved unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.

As Convery adds, “You can explain the movie in one sentence, right? It’s a story of how Nike got Michael Jordan… It has that ability, it goes to the top of the pile, and people will give it a bit more of a chance.” On the surface, though, the story doesn’t sound that dramatic. “This is just a movie about a shoe deal, right? And it takes place over a week or so. And it’s small in scope,” he admits. “But the big part is when you say, it’s about Nike and Michael Jordan… You can talk to a hundred people on the street and all of them are going to know who Michael Jordan is and what Nike is. And to me, that’s what kind of elevates it above just a movie about a shoe.” Even so, he needed to find a way into the story. “Everything comes down to character. So the question was: who can be the protagonist and the engine of this movie? And finding both Sonny and Deloris was really what, to me, elevated it. It’s finding the human element.”

Matt Damon
Matt Damon plays Nike employee Sonny Vaccaro. CREDIT: Universal

Michael Jordan had to be courted

When Matt Damon and Ben Affleck came on board, the project began to fly like Jordan on a basketball court. “The first step was getting [his] blessing,” explains Damon. “Before we got too excited, Ben said, ‘We should go see him.’ And my kids were up to something in New York and I couldn’t go. So Ben went to Florida to see Michael.” Affleck was casually acquainted with Jordan – they’ve periodically played cards together in the past. “I’ve been lucky enough to come across him a few times,” says Affleck. “I’m not gonna act like me and him are friends. I idolised the guy. And every now and again, I’ve had a chance to spend time with him. It’s been very memorable for me. Probably he’s forgotten it! So I had at least enough of an ‘in’ to say, ‘Hey, can I come see you and just run this past you.’”

Affleck took the trip to the Sunshine State to see Jordan, who invited him to swing by the golf course. No fan of the game, Affleck waited until he’d shot his round. “This is a very intimidating, powerful man,” he says of Jordan. It’s sort of like being on [Mount] Olympus. You’re around somebody who is as close to a deity as you’re going to find.” The actor-director, whose films include the Oscar-winning Argo and Gone Baby Gone, was fully prepared to dump the project if Jordan had been opposed to it. “The stupidest thing in the world would be to go make a movie that… invokes his name and tells a part of his story that he was opposed to. So if he said, ‘Don’t do it’, I just was gonna not do it. That would be that. Over. Last conversation. And I was very, very prepared for that to be the result, because I had no reason to think that he would be open to it or that he would welcome it, particularly since it wasn’t the Michael Jordan story where they’d bought his rights. However, what I found was that he was very gracious.”

Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck on the set of ‘Air’. CREDIT: Universal

His Airness had some suggestions

Wisely, Affleck asked Michael Jordan what he’d like to see in a film that touched on a part of his life story. “I said, ‘I don’t want to violate anything that’s fundamentally important or true to you. If you would, please tell me what those things are… I promise you, they’ll be sacrosanct.’ It was telling that… he wasn’t somebody who was like, ‘Well, we got to talk about when I did this, and I did that.’ He’d only talk about other people. He wanted to make sure that other people [who] were meaningful were included in the story.”

To make Air, the script was going to need some retooling to include some folks Jordan felt were crucial to his success in those early years. The first was George Raveling, an assistant coach on the USA team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when Jordan and his teammates won gold. The second was Howard White, who worked at Nike in athlete relations, and was instrumental in smoothing the path between the company and Jordan. The third essential was Jordan’s parents, James and Deloris Jordan. It was his mother who urged Jordan to visit Nike, despite the fact he was more of a Converse man.

“Initially, to be honest, I was going to have it be a story about Michael himself, saying, ‘This is what I’m worth,’” says Affleck. “His parents weren’t so much a part of the story.” Then Affleck saw the “awe and reverence and respect and adoration” Jordan had for them, particularly his mother. “It just shocked me. And shame on me for not kind of assuming this was the case. But when I heard it, I realised right away, this is the story. And it’s a beautiful story. It’s a story about Deloris Jordan, and what she means to Michael and that she’s emblematic of what so many mothers must have meant to so many athletes, entertainers and people in this business who are oftentimes very young and thrust into a world of fame and money [which] can be confusing.”

Viola Davis as mum Deloris Jordan. CREDIT: Universal

Viola Davis was the clincher

When Affleck casually asked Jordan about casting – Damian Young plays MJ for the brief moments he appears – he got the shock of his life. “I said offhandedly – which is always a mistake – ‘Who do you think should play your mother?’ He said, ‘It has to be Viola Davis.’ OK! So that’s kind of like saying, ‘Can I get a basketball team together?’ Sure. It has to be [with] Michael Jordan! With that I thought, ‘This is very typical of who this guy is – it has to be the very best.’ Amen to that. Davis, a four-time Oscar nominee, who won Best Actress for Fences in 2017 and, frankly, should’ve been nominated this year for The Woman King, is probably the GOAT acting equivalent to Michael Jordan.

Damon remembers getting the phone call from Affleck after he’d taken the meeting with Jordan. “Michael’s an icon… and he has all this meaning for all of us. But Ben said he had this look on his face when he spoke about his mom that [he’d] never seen before. So we felt, ‘Now we know what the movie is. Right?’ And he said, ‘The only bad news is, we have to get Viola Davis. If we don’t get Viola Davis, we can’t make the movie.’ So that was when we started thinking about how to expand [the role of] Deloris.”

Word got to Davis that Jordan wanted her to play his mother. “It is flattering,” she admits. “Because I do go in with a sense of ‘Do I belong?’ – imposter syndrome! So it’s nice to feel wanted. But then the next part is now I got to step into the role. And if you watch videos on Deloris Jordan, she is a study in Zen neutrality. The woman is very, very steady and quiet. I mean, I would imagine that even when she gets mad, she’s probably very, very, very steady. So to really just envelop that spirit in everything was a challenge for me, because I’m the woman who always has a chip on her shoulder. I go in bombastic.”

Marlon Wayans plays George Raveling, USA assistant coach at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. CREDIT: Universal

George Raveling really did have a dream

As Affleck began to cast, he found Chris Tucker to play Howard White and Marlon Wayans to play George Raveling. Jason Bateman, meanwhile, joined as Nike exec Rob Strasser. But it didn’t stop there, as Affleck fine-tuned the script. He added the remarkable fact that in 1963, Raveling volunteered as security for the ‘March on Washington’, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. On the podium with King, the young Raveling asked if he could keep the typewritten version of the speech. King duly obliged. Years later, he was offered more than three million dollars to sell the speech (he refused). When Affleck found out that was real, he knew he had to include it as part of Raveling’s encounter with Vaccaro in the film. “When I read the monologue – the fact that that was real, that he still has the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech in his possession – I just thought that it was an amazing character to play,” says Wayans.

Just like Jordan, Air is giving agency to artists

Air marks the first film for Affleck and Damon’s new company Artists Equity, which operates on a profit-sharing basis for not only directors, producers and actors, but other crew as well. It’s an echo of Jordan’s own deal struck with Nike, says Affleck. “The movie thematically kind of paralleled the things we were trying to do, that we had ambitions for philosophically,” says Affleck. “We wanted to raise money to create a mini-studio and in some ways [do] what Nike wanted to do, which was change the rules a little bit… I certainly don’t liken myself to the profound and significant way in which that deal not only changed Michael’s life, but had a ripple effect for hundreds of billions of dollars for athletes down the way and down the line. And I don’t believe it is yet even an equitable relationship. But it was a step in that direction. And we’re trying to take a similar step, really, because I think that’s how you get the best work.”

‘Air’ will be released in cinemas on April 5

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