Sonny Vaccaro on Why Michael Jordan Is ‘Bigger Than Bill Gates’ & Matt Damon’s Portrayal of Him in ‘Air’

Although he stepped away from the sneakers business long ago, Sonny Vaccaro is once again the talk of the shoe world.

Vaccaro, a longtime sports marketing executive, was involved in some of the biggest sneaker deals to date. However, none were bigger than helping convince Michael Jordan — and MJ’s mother, Dolores Jordan — that he should sign with Nike in 1984. The story of this game-changing partnership and the journey to make it happen is the basis of the Ben Affleck-directed film “Air,” which will debut in theaters on April 5.

“Air” features a star-studded cast that includes Affleck as Nike co-founder Phil Knight and Viola Davis as Dolores Jordan, plus several others. As for Vaccaro, award-winning actor Matt Damon took on the role of the famed sports marketing executive.

With the film’s release on the horizon, Vaccaro shared his thoughts on “Air” with FN, and offered his opinion on what a sequel would look like. The interview has been edited for clarity.

How well did Matt Damon portray you in the film?

“I never in my wildest dreams ever thought this would happen. How do you react when you’re this kid from Trafford, Pa.,  100 years ago, that had no idea what the hell the future was going to hold, and you’re being portrayed in a movie by Matt? And Matt was with Ben, with Viola, with all the cast. It felt like when Frank Sinatra got the old gang together for ‘Oceans 11.’ You have all these people in one movie with Matt being me, and then spending personal time with him, I never would have believed or dreamed that any of this would have happened. But there was a natural connection between me and Matt. I got to know him a little bit. We talked on the phone and on a Zoom for like an hour and a half one time. And [my wife], Pam, and I were invited to watch when they were still filming, so we were on set for six hours with the whole staff. The strangest thing about it, I have always had an affinity for Matt’s films, but the one that made me closer to him — and we had a few laughs about it — was the gambling movie, ‘Rounders.’ I love gambling, I love playing poker, so we had a connection. Also, he was born about six blocks from where [NBA icon] Patrick Ewing grew up, and they went to the same high school, although Patrick’s older than him, so he had this connection to basketball. I was always comfortable with Matt Damon from the minute I met him. He’s at the top of his game.”

You are essentially portrayed as a heroic figure in the film. How comfortable were you with how your character was written?

“The reason I’m comfortable is because I had nothing to do with their portrayal. This is what [writer] Alex Convery, this is what [producer] Jon Weinbach , this is what Ben and all the other people wrote of my image off the information they had. This isn’t my version of me. This is a version of me through their eyes on a remarkable story. When you’re talking about advertising, [Michael] Jordan is much bigger than being a great basketball player. No one in this world would ever be able to do what Michael Jordan did, getting a piece of Nike and opening the door for mostly Black athletes who never had ownership. Jordan actually ended up with a piece of his legacy. He owns a piece of Nike now. Jordan’s legacy is not only the greatest basketball player, but he also opened the door for athletes to be in partnership with the owners. That’s why the shoe industry is as big as it is. If it wasn’t for Jordan, the shoe industry would not be selling replicas for millions of dollars. It was Michael Jordan who did that.”

How involved were you in the making of the film?

“Very involved in the sense that Alex and Ben had asked me for my opinions, and I met the whole cast. Jon brought me to this film because he did ‘Sole Man,’ that [ESPN] documentary on me. They said, we’re going to ask you questions, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to use what you’re saying. I wasn’t part of Alex’s writing. When we went down to the set, we were there for six hours. I met all the actors who were working that day — I didn’t meet Viola, she came in after. I met the guy that played David Falk [Chris Messina], I watched a scene between me and Falk while they were filming the damn thing, they were repeating it and repeating it. So Pam and I knew what was happening and they listened to me, but Alex put it in his terms in his movie.”

Have you spoken with anyone at Nike or Jordan Brand since “Air” was completed? 

“No, I haven’t. But there’s nothing in ‘Air’ that I’m hesitant about. Alex did a great job of going through the information, and I must have provided him with enough background on me. Michael was the perfect human being to do this. He opened up that marketing door that can never be replicated. No one’s ever going to create Air Jordan again — ever. There ain’t no more air nothings.”

How about the Jordan family or any of the central figures from that time?

“I spoke to Michael after I got fired [from Nike in 1991], and a couple years after, I’d see him at the All-Star games. That was the late-90s. And I knew him those years with the [Washington] Wizards, when he was a co-chair, and I talked to a lot of players. Everything was peace, but I haven’t really spoken to any of them. I saw Phil Knight once or twice at NCAA [games] and just shook his hand, and I saw him at [basketball coach] Cotton Fitzsimmons’ funeral. I haven’t spoken to or seen Mrs. Jordan since we did a film tribute to Michael. But my life changed, too. We were on opposite sides of the shoe world. It was nothing personal. It was just business. I had a job to do with Adidas [after Nike], and then in 2007 I divorced myself from all the shoe companies. I haven’t worked for anybody since 2007 to crusade for the athletes. We were on different sides of earning a living, and then I left everything to fight my last fight.”

At the end of “Air,” there was a nod to your name, image and likeness (NIL) work. How did you feel seeing your NIL work acknowledged in the film? 

“I didn’t know that was going to be up there. I swear to God, I didn’t. I never even thought about credits. That brought a tear to my eye, so I thank those people for doing it. Because of Michael Jordan and Air Jordan, I had the opportunity to walk away in 2007 [from the footwear industry] and do something [with NIL]. My relationship with Michael allowed me to continue a life that I never knew was going to happen. When my time is over, I pray to God that what I helped do for the athletes that were never involved in the financial side of things was the best thing I ever did in life. I mean that sincerely, other than marrying Pammy. There will never be another NCAA like I’ve witnessed for the past 60 years. I’m one of the few people who watched all these presidents go through the NCAA. I know who they are, I know what they’ve done to the athletes. Helping [Ed] O’Bannon and [Shawne] Alston and the states and people who got together because the NCAA cheated and robbed these kids for 100 years, that is something I can put on my tombstone. Jordan gave me the opportunity to be that Sonny Vaccaro.”

Do you still offer advice to young, up-and-coming athletes today?

“I still talk to parents of the young athletes. For the last five or six years, I’ve probably talked to two or three kids every year that were drafted in the first round, and most of them were in the [NBA Draft] lottery. In fact, I’m talking to a kid who’s going to go to the lottery this year, who’s going to go pretty high. And the last three years, I’ve talked to four kids who went to the G-League and then went in the first round [of the draft]. They’re now rookies or second- or third-year guys, and one guy had made an all-star team already. Parents call me for advice. I’ve never meet them, I do everything by phone. They call me out of respect for what I’ve done and knowing that they can get an honest answer. I’m not an agent, I don’t recommend anybody and whatever they do after that, they do. But I’m very involved, vicariously, and that gives Pam and I great pleasure. They just ask me questions and I answer them the best I can.”

If a second “Air” film was made, what story should be told?

“I think there’s only one sequel to this, and maybe someday they’ll do it. The next iteration would be what [Michael Jordan] did for the economy, what he did for the athletes — especially Black athletes. It’s the financial thing of what this individual did, a legendary part of his life that went beyond playing. And the marketing — selling shoes. [Brands are] into the millions and billions of dollars — and Michael did this. Michael Jordan’s real contribution to mankind is he opened up a field where a lot of people made a lot of money, and it wasn’t the original idea. No one thought that the marketing part was going to be the most important part. He’s bigger than Bill Gates and all these other people. The most important part of Michael Jordan is his ability, there’s no question about it, but how they marketed Air Jordan was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Air Jordan is as big as Nike now, but no one wants to admit that. Steph Curry, LeBron James, the new kid Victor [Wembanyama], no one is going to do what Jordan did. No one. That’s what the new movie should be. It should come out of that world — advertising. All this movie was named is ‘Air.’ I got a call from Italy today, I swear to God, and they want to interview me. Even though it’s called ‘Air’ and not ‘Air Jordan,’ they still know what ‘Air’ means.”

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