Air: The true story behind Ben Affleck's Nike Air Jordan film

Affleck and Damon play footsie with a remarkable merchandising story

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in Air. (Prime Video)
Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in Air. (Prime Video)

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are back on the big screen with Air, a dramatised take on the remarkable true story behind the creation and legacy of the Air Jordan — Nike’s best-selling shoe that changed the game for sports star-endorsed merchandising.

Directed by Affleck, the film once again reunites him with his long-time (and Oscar-winning) friend Damon, with the pair playing two figures who were each integral in making these iconic kicks must-have items.

Joining them is an ensemble cast that boasts an eye-watering array of talent — from Viola Davis and Jason Bateman to Marlon Wayans and Chris Tucker — in another Affleck movie that’s already sprinting its way to the top of Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer.

Read more: Ben Affleck's Air receives rave reviews: 'One of the best sports movies ever'

With that in mind, what better time to look back at the crazy true story behind this foot-shaped phenomenon and the real people who helped bring it to life?

What is the plot of Ben Affleck’s Air movie?

Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser in Air. (Prime Video)
Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser in Air. (Prime Video)

In essence, Air is all about Nike’s signing of a then-little-known basketball player named Michael Jordan and the impact this had on the world of sports endorsements and merchandising spin-offs.

Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, the eagle-eyed sports marketing executive who saw potential in Jordan as Nike’s latest big brand asset. To get him on board, Vaccaro must convince Nike’s co-founder and chairman Phil Knight that this newcomer is worth gambling everything on while the company is experiencing a rocky spell throughout the 1980s.

Chicago Bulls All-Star forward  # 23 Michael Jordan file photos. (Photo by Tom Berg/WireImage)
Chicago Bulls All-Star forward Michael Jordan in 1984. (WireImage)

While Jordan is at the centre of Air, he’s not actually seen on screen. Instead, we meet his mother Deloris (Davis) and father James R. Jordan Sr (Julius Tennon), with the former acting as Michael’s most trusted confidant in ensuring that his name and likeness are used in the most ethical way possible as Nike try desperately to win her personal approval.

Surrounding this story are all the trappings of the decade of excess, the 1980s, with its flurry of celebrity endorsement deals, bad haircuts and the synthwave music scene.

Is Ben Affleck’s Air based on a true story?

Sonny Vaccaro at the Advancement of Blacks in Sports (ABIS) Champions and Legends Awards in 2022.
Sonny Vaccaro at the Advancement of Blacks in Sports (ABIS) Champions and Legends Awards in 2022. (Getty Images)

Today, Nike may be best known as one of the leading sports brands on the market but back in the early 1980’s it was very much seen as the underdog. However, all that changed thanks to Voccaro, a marketing executive who spotted huge potential in a then-rookie player.

Before Air Jordans changed footwear forever and even led to the unlikely creation of hit kids' movie Space Jam, Vaccaro was someone who dedicated his career to spotting new talent and setting them up with life-changing brand deals. As such, he had strong relationships with many basketball coaches across the United States in order to identify new players with big potential before anyone else.

It was through one of these connections that he ultimately crossed paths with Jordan while he was still playing at the University of North Carolina. Immediately impressed, he was convinced that this player with huge promise should be the focus of Nike’s newest sports range — but it was far from a guaranteed deal.

Read Variety's Air review: Ben Affleck’s Michael Jordan sneaker story is 2023’s first slam dunk awards contender (5 min read)

For starters, rival shoe brand Converse had dominance in the world of basketball at the time and Jordan’s then-coach, Dean Smith, had already inked a deal with these shoe giants that meant his star player had to wear this specific brand whenever he entered a basketball court.

Nike President and CEO Phil Knight in 1995.
Nike President and CEO Phil Knight in 1995. (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, at the same time, Nike was far from in the best shape. After going public in the early 1980s, their stocks had dramatically plummeted and considering Adidas had the budget and sway to outbid any offer they may make to any new face they’d like to lure into their fold, their outlook didn’t look great.

In fact, company co-founder Knight was almost ready to pull the plug on their whole sneaker division when Vaccaro came to him with his big plan. His idea was to invest Nike’s entire, lofty basketball budget into one individual player instead of spreading it out among many different sporting hopefuls.

Needless to say, it was highly risky.

WASHINGTON - 1985:  Detail of the
Detail of the Air Jordan Nike shoes worn by Michael Jordan during a game against the Washington Bullets at Capital Centre, circa 1985. (Getty Images)

Undeterred, Knight got his team to work. Through a production development meeting with Nike’s Director of Marketing, Rob Strasser, and in-house creative guy, Peter Moore, the duo whipped up the first initial designs for the debut iteration of Nike’s Air Jordans, with Jordan’s coach, David Falk, believed to have come up with the product’s slick and catchy name.

From here, Vaccaro and Knight’s next task was convincing an Adidas-leaning Jordan to sign up with a sporting underdog. To do this, they made him an offer that was surely any rookie player’s dream — a $2.5m payout delivered across five years, with an additional 25% royalty cheque for every shoe sold.

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in Air.
Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in Air. (Prime Video)

With more convincing needed, Nike brought in Jordan’s parents to guarantee ink met paper and ensure everyone involved was happy and on the same page.

As a result of this tense negotiation process, Jordan took his first steps into a basketball court wearing a pair of Nike’s Air Jordan 1’s in 1984. While he received a hefty fine for not wearing the same shoes as his teammates, Nike’s belief in their new recruit was so strong, they covered these $5,000 penalties themselves.

A year later, the company brought the first iteration of the Air Jordan to store shelves with a humble goal of making $3m back.

By the end of year one, they’d made $126m and the rest, as they say, is history.

Is there a trailer for Air?

There is. The first teaser for Air was released earlier this year with a full trailer released shortly afterwards. Watch it below:

Air is out on Prime Video now.