SALT LAKE CITY — When you green-light a script and direct a movie about the most important shoe deal in sports history, there’s really only one way to describe it and title it:
Basketball fans and sneaker heads will instantly connect with the world changed by the subject of the movie and the athletic company that revolutionized the business. Ben Affleck, the Academy Award-winning actor and accomplished director, connects the story about how Nike and Michael Jordan came together to create the Air Jordan brand and the rest, of course, was history.
Scheduled for an April 5 release date, Affleck plays Phil Knight, the chairman and co-founder of Nike, and Matt Damon is Sonny Vaccaro, who recruited Jordan. It’s another cooperative project by the long-time friends who first splashed on the big screen, and spectacularly so, in “Good Will Hunting.”
So the obvious question is: Who plays Jordan?
And the not so obvious answer is: Nobody.
Jordan is never seen on the screen, a strategy Affleck felt was crucial to the meaning of the film.
“I thought the minute I turn the camera on somebody and ask the audience to believe that person was Michael Jordan, the whole movie falls part,” Affleck said. “When somebody is that powerful, where just their silhouette s a globally recognized phenomenon, you lose people.”
Anyway, as Affleck stressed Friday at the start of All-Star Weekend, where he introduced the starters at the Ruffles All-Star Celebrity Game, “It’s not a story from any one person’s point of view, it’s really my own look at these events.”
Michael was not paid, his rights aren’t being authorized. That would be a different movie, the Michael Jordan story, and that’s not what he wanted to do either. I wanted to make sure and tell him that what is meaningful to you is not overlooked.”
— Ben Affleck, on Michael Jordan’s place in “Air”
He added: “If it’s about anything, it’s about what Michael Jordan meant to the sporting world, the world at large, and who he was and how it transformed sports and sports marketing and how athletes were compensated and treated, how he was supported in that process. It really about the vastness of what Jordan meant to the game of basketball and people in general.”
In the early 1980s, Nike was not the Goliath it is now. The company mainly catered to the running community, but Knight wanted to stretch the business. Along came Vaccaro, a shoe salesman who knew the basketball turf from the grassroots level and up.
Jordan wore Adidas at North Carolina and as a rookie originally wanted to stick with the brand, which was more popular than Nike — which, again, didn’t have a basketball division. But a number of people, most notably his mother, Deloris, convinced him that Nike was best.
Affleck said he valued Jordan’s cooperation for the film, which wasn’t overwhelming or overbearing.
“I wouldn’t have touched this movie if I did not think, without approaching and seeking out Michael Jordan,” Affleck said, “and letting him know that there’s no story without him. I’m not interested in doing a movie that Michael feels is inappropriate or doesn’t reflect how he feels about the story. By the same token, when I reached out to him, one of the things that was really telling with Michael is that I got the sense he was not interested in somebody doing a self aggrandizing. He was like, ‘here are a few things that I know and are meaningful to me.’ He didn’t seek to have any input that he didn’t have first person information about. He had integrity that way.
“Michael was not paid, his rights aren’t being authorized. That would be a different movie, the Michael Jordan story, and that’s not what he wanted to do either. I wanted to make sure and tell him that what is meaningful to you is not overlooked.”
Jordan did have one very firm request that Affleck had no choice but to grant:
“Viola Davis is gonna play my momma.”
Davis is one of the few artists to win the triple crown: Oscar, Emmy and Tony awards, and the only black person to do so. She bears a striking resemblance to Deloris Jordan and the actress is an obvious favorite of Michael Jordan.
Still, Affleck had some apprehension: “I was like, ‘Mike, you just can’t get Viola Davis.’ He was like ‘nope.’ So I had to get her. Thank goodness she said yes. I was very happy I was able to do that. He didn’t have a whole laundry list. He left it at that. It was important that I honor that.”
And there was another issue for Affleck about the film: He’s from Boston and fiercely loyal to Boston sports teams.
“Yeah, I heard from someone who said, ‘What are you doing from Boston making a movie about a Chicago guy?’ Well, Michael Jordan kind of transcends rivalry and sports. He means something more to people. It’s about greatness.
“Every so often someone comes along who is so extraordinary they impact the whole world. At the time I don’t think it was the agreed upon consensus opinion about Michael Jordan.”
The film has been heavily promoted lately, even during the Super Bowl. Affleck has big expectations and believes “Air” will connect not just with sports fans, but with business people and families. The 2020 Bulls documentary “Last Dance” which was heavily about Jordan did big numbers when it was streamed.
“I want Michael Jordan to have the effect in this story as the effect he had in the world,” Affleck said. “In a way he’s a presence that’s felt and discussed. Everybody else around him is there, but you never see his face. The only pressure I felt was to really do justice to who he is and what he means to people. That is meaningful to me.”
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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