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How Sonny Vaccaro’s Unforgettable Speech at Nike HQ Helped Seal the Deal With the Jordan Family & the Accuracy of ‘Air’

Sonny Vaccaro
Sonny Vaccaro.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Famed sports marketing exec Sonny Vaccaro, while talking from his home in Palm Springs, Calif., admitted with a laugh that he has done far more interviews in recent weeks than he has in years — and that’s with good reason.

“Air,” the highly-anticipated movie chronicling the game-changing partnership between NBA icon Michael Jordan and Nike, has finally arrived in theaters. With the film’s release, the story of Vaccaro — who was a key figure in Nike’s signing of Jordan in 1984 — is being presented in a fresh and new way to the masses.

With the Ben Affleck-directed film here, Vaccaro — who was played by Matt Damon — offers insights to FN on the accuracy of the film and some of the creative liberties taken. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What were some of the creative liberties taken? Were some of the mannerisms of the people involved or particular situations embellished?

“There were some embellishments, but this isn’t a documentary. This is based on a true story. There were exaggerations, but the premise, that happened to me. I was a college guy, I brought all the colleges to Nike — and we had won the national championship at Nike, the year Jimmy Valvano won [with NC State in 1983]. I was sure that world but I didn’t know crap about professional basketball. I was the outsider in that [1984 NBA Draft] meeting [scene in ‘Air’]. When I said ‘I bet my job,’ that happened. But I don’t think they would have fired me because I was too successful in the college basketball world. Pam and I had just got married, she was earning more money than I was doing commercials, and all of a sudden her husband just told her boss, ‘Well, fire me.’ Where the hell was I going to go? And no one cared who was wearing what shoes at that time. Magic [Johnson] wore Converse — everyone wore Converse — and a few wore Adidas. Until Jordan and Spike [Lee] started creating the greatest commercials in the world, no one knew about it. I swore in the movie, and [realistically] there was some swearing, but I would never have done that much out of respect for Phil. The realest part is my relationship with Mrs. Jordan [Deloris Jordan, the mother of MJ] and all the things that happened up to it. And the [MJ agent David] Falk things were absolutely true. The actors were so believable, the scenes were accurate, and it was basically how it happened.”

Ben Affleck at the World Premiere of "AIR" held at the Regency Village Theatre on March 27, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Ben Affleck, who plays Nike co-founder Phil Knight in “Air,” at the film’s world premiere at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles.Gilbert Flores for Variety

The irony of the scene in ‘Air’ of the meeting discussing which player from the 1984 NBA Draft to sign was that Charles Barkley, who was discussed as an option, eventually became a Nike signature athlete.

“They told me after we signed Michael that we were going to sign Charles. But Michael was my project my whole life. Michael and I traveled the world together. My personal opinion, in another world, Charles would have been the one they picked. I remember his agent was an idiot and Nike had a problem with him. And he did eventually fire his agent for some reason. The draft also had [John] Stockton, it had Hakeem [Olajuwon], it had Sam Bowie, and those picks weren’t the wrong picks at that time. There was just something in my mind that said, ‘Why don’t we just go all in with this kid [MJ]?’ That scene where I remembered everything Michael did [with UNC in the 1982 NCAA men’s college basketball championship game] when they beat Georgetown [Hoyas] — which was my favorite team — he crushed me that day in those last 18 seconds.”

In the scene where the Jordan family met with Nike execs in Beaverton, Phil Knight and Rob Strasser were painfully awkward and seemed nervous. How accurate was that scene?

“Everyone was nervous. It was all up to Mrs. Jordan. From that first day at Tony Roma’s [when I met MJ], I knew that Michael’s parents were his guiding light. To tell you firsthand, until she OKd it, it wasn’t a done deal. [Nike co-founder] Phil [Knight] didn’t know, I didn’t know. That was a great scene. But being a betting man, I would have bet they were going to sign because she made the trip to Beaverton [Oregon]. That was seminal. That’s when everyone could take a big breath.”

Speaking of gambling, there were moments early in the film referencing you and gambling, including Phil Knight mentioning your stops in Las Vegas on scouting trips. Did you have any apprehension in talking about gambling in the film? Was there more of a story to tell?

“I’m so happy they did the gambling scene because I’ve never run away from that. I played poker. That scene where I played dice, I did shoot dice, but I would have preferred that Matt played poker like he did in ‘Rounders.’ But that was accurate, I gambled. I was around gambling since I was a child. Back into the ’50s and ’60s, poker was the element. And Vegas is my second home. I got married at Caesar’s Palace to Pam in ’84. I’m glad it’s in the movie because that would have been something that someone would say, ‘I get it, the guy don’t want to talk about that past.’ [‘Air’ writer] Alex [Convery] drove up to Palm Springs [California], 140 Miles, and spent the day with Pam and I at a hotel. We talked about all these particular things. I never saw his script in full until after everything was over, but that scene with Phil actually happened.”

Matt Damon Air premiere
Matt Damon, who plays Sonny Vaccar in “Air,” at the movie’s premiere at The Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas.Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SXSW

There was tension in the scene when you and Michael Jordan’s mother discussed the terms of the deal with Nike on the phone. Was there ever a possibility of it falling apart?

“The only possibility of it falling apart was if we didn’t share the profits. Deloris made sure there was no backtracking. The scene with the Adidas meeting, it happened, they did talk to Adidas. They bullsh–ed the whole time. That scene when Deloris said my son is a part of this, you’re going to get rich and we’re going to get rich because my son is special, that happened. I’ll go to my grave with that. And I believe that day [when the Jordan family traveled to Beaverton] sealed it. I believe that they wanted to do the deal because they would not have flown across the country, just knowing a little bit about her.”

How did the conversations with shoe designer Peter Moore and Nike marketing exec Rob Strasser around creating the Air Jordan 1 and building a shoe line around MJ play out in real life? Was it similar to what the movie portrayed?

“They gave me more credit in the movie, but it’s basically what happened. I was involved because I was the only one personally close to Michael, but it was their idea, it was something Peter and Rob pushed. I was the only person that could deliver it. That’s why Rob went to his death and Peter went to his death always giving me credit, but I didn’t think of designing it. I didn’t know the shoe was going to be Air Jordan and it was going to be red, black and white. All that was Peter and Rob. I only knew about the shoe when Peter and Rob told me they were going to design a shoe. I said, ‘That’s what you’re going to do and we’re going to market him, right?’ That happened. When I gave Michael my word, I was speaking for Rob and Peter.”

Matt Damon delivering the speech you made to the Jordan family in Beaverton, urging them to consider Nike, was captivating. How accurate was this scene?

“I swear to God, a guy who has known me for 25-30 years — who just left the theater with a couple of his employees — called me and he said, ‘That’s Sonny, he can make a speech.’ What everyone from Amazon is telling me is my speech was one of the most popular in the movie. There was two of them — Viola [Davis, who played Deloris Jordan] and mine. That actually happened. Everything I did, I had permission to do. I stopped the meeting to say all of those things.”

Viola Davis at the World Premiere of "AIR" held at the Regency Village Theatre on March 27, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Viola Davis, who plays Michael Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan, at the “Air” world premiere at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles.Gilbert Flores for Variety

Are there stories in ‘Air’ that would have liked to see developed more? Were there stories not included in the film due to time constraints?

“No, because it was five meetings. I was the only one present all five meetings.  I was invited to the first meeting [discussing recent NBA Draft picks at Nike HQ in Beaverton], which I never should have been invited to because my job was colleges. From there, I met MJ at Tony Roma’s in Santa Monica, that was with [then Olympic men’s basketball assistant coach] George Raveling. Then, Rob and I met with Falk at the meeting at the Hermitage [hotel in Santa Monica]. That was the first time Falk heard the deal. David Falk actually changed the terms of the real money at the Hermitage. We offered him more, he took less. Even though Michael made a trillion dollars, that was a bad deal for David [on behalf of MJ] because the first year Nike did pretty good with those sales. Then was the meeting at the Olympic Games in L.A. on the beach where Phil and I met with [famed sports broadcaster] Billy Packer. Phil wanted to see Billy Packer because he knew everything about basketball and he saw Michael play 99 times. And then I ended up at the meeting [with the Jordan family] in Oregon.”

What were the terms of the first contract Michael Jordan signed with Nike?

“Our first bid was $250,000 in cash on the contract and 20% of the sales of the shoe that he was going to wear. Then Falk went away, came back and said, ‘I want $500,000 and 10% of the sales.’ He always ran away from that and I’m the only one who ever spoke about it. It was never said again. Now, it’s all forgotten. Why? Because Michael made $1 billion eventually, but it was the wrong thing for Falk to take for his client at the time.”

It was amusing to see both you and Rob Strasser in the film, while working for a sneaker giant, wearing brown shoes and boat shoes. Were you not a sneaker guy?

“That was part of my attire. I very seldom wore sneakers, even in later years. My dress in the movie, that was pretty common in my life. I thought my apparel was me, and even Pam laughed at it.”

Do you wear sneakers today?

“I do, but not an Adidas, a Reebok or an Under Armour. I wear New Balance now. I’m sure at one of my camps or something like that I’d wear a shoe from a brand I was obviously working for. Sweat suits, that was — and still is — my attire. I’ve got a Youngstown State sweatsuit on right now.”

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Sonny Vaccaro on the Accuracy of 'Air' & His Unforgettable Speech
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