He came to the 1985 NBA dunk contest in sneakers that were banned, wearing a warm-up suit that wasn’t team-issued, and accessorized with a pair of thin gold chains looping around his neck like Saturn’s rings.
This immediately caused a stir. It then became an uproar, and soon enough, a perfect storm.
And to think, all a rookie named Michael Jordan wanted to do that weekend in Indianapolis, his first as a certified star, was to quietly fit in.
“I didn’t want to be perceived as having an arrogant attitude,” he said.
This particular revolution began unintentionally before it developed spectacularly. By every metric, Jordan and the company he represented, the industry they wanted to dominate and the league that needed him were never the same again.
Because when you begin to chart how the sport’s most successful pitchman helped make Nike the biggest player in the shoe game, their push that weekend put everything in motion.
But that moment in 1985 goes deeper than Jordan and Nike. This is about a young Jordan’s entry into the stratosphere of fellow stars like Magic Johnson, Julius Erving and Larry Bird, who at the time had bigger basketball cred. It’s also about the clumsiness caused by that dunk contest outfit on All-Star Weekend (which led to the monster of all NBA conspiracy theories: The Freeze-Out).
Understand that the basketball world was different then, completely foreign to anyone born after, say, “Space Jam.” All-Star weekend wasn’t the celebrity-infused spectacle it is today. ESPN showed strongman competitions. Social media was more than 20 years away.
Jordan was a rising star for sure, but nobody saw the Babe Ruth of basketball or a trend-setting king of product endorsement in his future. That’s important for the purpose of context. And more incredibly, there was also this: Jordan wanted no part of Nike initially.
Jordan played at North Carolina, which was then a Converse school — ironically, UNC now wears Jordan Brand — and Jordan also loved Adidas. After being named college player of the year and then starring for the 1984 Olympic team, Jordan was in demand by the shoe companies — and he wanted Adidas.
Howard White, a Nike executive who became close to Jordan, knew the company needed a big name to get traction into the basketball culture, but the turf was taken. At the time, the status basketball shoe was probably the Converse Weapon, worn by a handful of NBA stars including Magic and Bird.
“Converse was the pre-eminent shoe brand,” White said. “Anyone who was anyone wore Converse: Magic, Bird, Isiah [Thomas]. Then Nike came along. We got a few players but we still needed more.”
Jordan’s agent was David Falk, a 33-year-old who worked for an agency that repped tennis players and was not yet the powerbroker he soon came to be. As Falk recently recalled, he tried to convince Jordan to weigh all offers.
“He didn’t want Nike,” said Falk. “He didn’t even want to get on the plane to meet with Nike. I appealed to his parents that it was important he go on the trip and they finally talked him into it. He went and they did an amazing job in their presentation.”
Nike made a highlight montage of Jordan in college while “Jump” by the Pointer Sisters and another version of “Jump” by Van Halen played in the background. It was a music video, back when young people actually watched music videos, this one starring Jordan.
“He loved it,” said Falk. “When the meeting was over, he said he didn’t want to take any more trips. But we did. We met with all of them. Then I told Nike they would have to come out with a line of shoes and clothes. They asked me what they wanted the line to be called. I thought for about 30 seconds and it just popped into my mind: Air Jordan.”
It was borrowed from “Air Coryell,” the nickname given to the Don Coryell-coached San Diego Chargers who threw the ball often. But it was a better fit in the case of Jordan. The NBA game was still dominated by big men and therefore most players were gravitationally challenged, with few exceptions, such as Erving and Jordan’s idol, David Thompson.
Suddenly, “Air Jordan” tapped into the fantasy of a culture that was changing demographically and where the congregation dreamed of being suspended high above heads and shoulders, a place where spectacular happens — essentially, to be able to fly.
Nobody had a clue he’d make the kind of impact he made in marketing. Nobody.”
David Falk, Michael Jordan’s agent
With Jordan playing above the rim and also sensationally as a rookie, he was fresh and different and Nike, which mainly catered to runners, was also fresh and different to the basketball world. Falk was also smart to demand constant marketing of Jordan, and his commercials (some by Spike Lee and his alter ego, Mars Blackmon, yelling, “Gotta be the shoes!”) were done smartly. The timing of the partnership couldn’t be more right.
Nike gave Jordan $500,000 a year for five years, five times more than any NBA player earned in shoe endorsements. There was a catch: If Jordan didn’t sell $4 million of shoes by the third year, Nike could void the deal.
Nike sold $70 million worth of Air Jordans the first three months they hit the stores.
Falk said: “In the first year they sold $126 million worth. They outsold every basketball shoe in the first year.”
Back then, the league had strict dress code rules that applied to sneakers as well, and initially refused to allow Jordan to wear a color-coded style of the Air Jordan I. Of course, that ban was like Elvis shaking his hips. It appealed to rebellious teenagers, which meant sales kept soaring.
Since the dunk contest wasn’t a sanctioned NBA game, Jordan wore the shoes without catching heat from the league. And rather than represent his team as others did in the contest by wearing a Bulls warmup, Jordan went against the trend a second time.
“There was no rules; it’s not like you had to wear a team warmup,” said Falk. “So he asks, ‘What should I wear? Would it be cool to wear the Nike stuff?’ No other player could’ve asked that question because nobody else had their own stuff. Nobody else had their own line.
“He didn’t do it to promote the line. He did it because it was his stuff and he liked it and it was an informal contest.”
Given the size of his shoe deal, and the sales of his shoes, and the decision to wear a Nike warmup in the contest, a rookie stirred professional jealousy among other veteran All-Stars.
Howard White said: “For a guy to show up in his own stuff, well, none of those guys had that. He was going against the norm. He caught a lot of flak from the guys.”
Dominique Wilkins, like Jordan, was younger than most of the others in the dunk contest, was from another generation and therefore loved it.
“Man, Michael didn’t do anything wrong from my view,” said Wilkins. “But I could understand if some of the old school guys had a problem with it. It wasn’t traditional. Sometimes, when you’re the first to do something, others might say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ This was probably the case.”
The dunk contest was the perfect laboratory for introducing something fresh because it was all about soaring and improvisation and excitement. The league stole the dunk contest from the ABA a year earlier and used it as a vehicle to exploit Erving. It also discouraged big men, and therefore catered to more normal-sized players that the everyday fan could relate to.
This all played right into the hands of Jordan and Nike.
He didn’t win; the 1985 trophy went to Wilkins, but the exposure was greater than any title, which Jordan would eventually win anyway.
“It was something bigger than all of us coming together,” said White.
Jordan then looked forward to playing the next day in the 1985 All-Star Game and perhaps dunking in game competition, but only took nine shots, fewest among the East starters.
Within hours after the game, word circulated among the media that Jordan was victim of a payback, with Isiah Thomas as the ringleader. To this day, “freeze-out” in basketball is never linked to a road trip in Minneapolis. It’s always about Jordan and Isiah and that game, and because everyone loves a conspiracy theory, it was never put to rest.
Falk believes it, still: “The minute all the reporters asked him the question, Michael has a photographic memory, so he replayed the game in his mind, and on defense they came at him every time, and on offense Isiah never gave him the ball. Can you prove it there was a freeze out? No, it’s not a provable fact. But everybody knows it.”
White believes it: “They were either freezing him out or teaching him a lesson. Like, ‘Here is this rookie, who does he think he is?’ ”
Jordan, when pressed by reporters, initially refused to believe it. He said then: “I think Isiah played it correctly. It’s hard to define why Isiah didn’t give me the ball more. Maybe I didn’t have the easy shot at the time. I’m not questioning that.”
Isiah has always called baloney on this, denying any collective effort to embarrass Jordan, and circumstantial evidence bears this out. It was never evident among the broadcasters on air who didn’t suspect anything was odd; Thomas only ignored Jordan twice on fast breaks, when he passed to Moses Malone (“rewarding the big man,” said Thomas) and then faking to Jordan for his own layup. If anything, Thomas said the East players were trying to feed the ball to Larry Bird, who was back home in Indiana. Bird took 16 shots, one fewer than Terry Cummings.
“I challenge anyone to find spots where we as teammates deliberately chose not to give Michael the ball,” Thomas said.
Whether the freeze-out was real or imagined, Jordan used it anyway as rocket fuel and held a grudge against Thomas for years.
“When we returned to his apartment, he’d turned off the heat and so the pipes burst,” said Falk. “He’s like steaming in the freezing apartment. We’re watching TV and I told him, ‘Don’t get mad, get even.’ By a fluke of fate, the first game back was against the Pistons, and Michael had 49 points.”
The dunk contest wardrobe, the so-called freeze out and the harsh Jordan response against the Pistons was the kind of marketing Nike couldn’t buy. It had a domino effect and launched an empire.
“Nike at the time was tiny, just trying to grow,” said Falk. “The history of the company was in running, not basketball, because the owner, Phil Knight, was a track guy. They were just looking to expand the business and they signed the right guy. There were a lot of great players who had flair. But Michael had everything. He had the basics. He learned under Dean Smith who taught him how to play. He was a cerebral player with a high degree of competitiveness and he had athletic ability.
“Nobody had a clue how great a player he would become. He wasn’t LeBron. He was the No. 3 pick, and people questioned his shooting. People thought he’d probably be exciting. Nobody had a clue he’d make the kind of impact he made in marketing. Nobody.”
Apparently, plenty agreed with Spike Lee that it must be the shoes, because Nike is now a global Goliath. And Jordan is a sports icon who has his own line, Jordan Brand, which has made him a billionaire.
Some 15 years after he retired and over 30 years since the dunk contest that helped create a revolution, Jordan is still selling sneakers. It’s a funny thing, how Falk compares Jordan to Converse, whose sneaker Jordan wore and loved in college.
“Many years ago I told Michael the young people who will be buying his shoes one day will have no idea he played basketball,” Falk said.
“He thought I was crazy.”
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