Discover more from Bald Faced Truth by John Canzano
Canzano: 'Air' makes me think about Phil Knight sequel
What comes next?
I’ve known Sonny Vaccaro for years. I can’t wait to see “Air” and watch actor Matt Damon play the so-called godfather of grassroot hoops.
The film hits theaters on Wednesday.
Ben Affleck plays Nike founder Phil Knight. The movie portrays the company’s pursuit of Michael Jordan and the sneaker partnership that shaped culture and changed the sports world.
Vaccaro pointed to a scene in the movie where the gifted Viola Davis — playing the role of Jordan’s mother, Deloris — agrees to bring her son to Beaverton to meet with Knight, Vaccaro and Nike’s team.
“If she doesn’t make that call and we make the appointment for them to come to Oregon,” Vaccaro said. “If it doesn’t happen — there’s no Jordan story. The world changes.”
Is there an Air Jordan without Nike?
Is there a Nike without Air Jordan?
Depends on whether you believe in destiny, I suppose. Jordan was gifted and driven by laser-like focus. Likewise, Knight was shrewd, maniacal and smart. I’d like to think those two unicorns would have eventually found each other, regardless. But the release of “Air” has me thinking — what comes next for Knight?
More on that in a bit.
First, a bit about “Air.”
Vaccaro told me this week that he first saw Jordan, the North Carolina product, in the 1982 national championship game. The Tar Heels were a Converse-backed school playing against Georgetown, a Nike program that Vaccaro had worked closely with.
What did he see in Jordan?
“Guts,” Vaccaro said.
I have a couple of friends in the movie business. They’ve explained to me over the years how difficult it is to get a film made. You need a marketable concept, piles of funding, the interest of a major studio and some dumb luck. Also, a successful project requires a producer capable of attaching high-profile actors and talented writers. Even then, the vast majority of Hollywood projects never get made.
“Air” made it, mostly thanks to Damon and Affleck.
Vaccaro, 83, said he’s watched the movie twice. He plans to slip into a theater in the coming weeks and secretly watch it alongside a live audience. The early reviews are glowing, but Vaccaro wants to see the reaction of moviegoers.
I’ve been told by Nike executives over the years that Knight is an obsessive thinker who doesn’t like to get played in a negotiation. His global success isn’t accidental. Former Oregon athletic director and long-time UO booster Pat Kilkenny told me once, “Phil possesses the ability to see around corners.”
Nike didn’t just see the athlete/endorser angle before anyone else. It cornered the market and eventually launched an in-house sports agency that helped line up top endorsers with other brands. Fred Schreyer, the director of sports marketing at Nike, founded the Nike Sports Management Division in the early 1990s.
Nike was busy creating personalized campaigns that boosted the profile of athletes such as Jordan, Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jerry Rice. The last thing Knight and the company wanted was for those athletes to diminish the branding work by doing underwear commercials.
“It kind of grated on us that Hanes would be doing stuff with Michael that we didn’t feel necessarily complemented the image that was being presented in basketball through Nike’s marketing,” Schreyer told me in an interview in 2020.
Nike essentially became the first collective. It took control of the marketing and guaranteed athlete-clients a set amount of annual compensation. The aim was to protect Nike’s assets while delivering additional endorsement compensation to the clients.
“This was coming directly from Phil,” Schreyer said.
None of that will make the movie. But the maneuver demonstrates Nike’s forward-thinking blend of logic and ambition. Knight’s genius wasn’t just in the creation of Jordan Brand, but also recognizing the next evolution.
The whole thing has me thinking more about Knight’s influence and passion. It’s evident in his love of the Oregon Ducks. The school is currently focused on trying to give Knight a return on his billion-dollar investment. The Ducks would very much like to make the College Football Playoff again and win a couple of games.
Meanwhile, last summer Knight and Dodgers co-owner Alan Smolinsky wrote a $2 billion-plus offer to buy the Trail Blazers. It was spurned by trustee Jody Allen. As you watch “Air” in a theater maybe ask yourself what Portland’s NBA franchise could become with Knight in the owner’s seat.
I’d like to see a real-world sequel that features Knight in his 80s, applying decades of Nike-cultivated concepts, marketing principles and energy to the brand that is Trail Blazers, Inc. Nike and Knight have done some big things in Eugene. Imagine NBA free agency with Uncle Phil invested.
It would be the ultimate encore for Knight.
“He’s brilliant,” Vaccaro said. “There’s no question about it. He’s a bright man, my god. What he’s created with the help of Jordan — with that guest star — what he’s done is hard. It’s hard to maintain success. It’s hard to maintain what you’re going after and (Knight has) done it.
“He got an empire. He got what he wanted.”
I’ll watch the movie. Can’t wait. But I’m already thinking about the sequel.
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