Now that the Nike Air Jordan is trending again among kids who have only been able to see Michael Jordan play in old videos uploaded to TikTok or YouTube, let’s remember this name: Deloris. To understand that the recently released Air film is not about shoes, nor about who is still the NBA’s biggest star. It’s about having managed to make teenagers born many years after Michael retired want to have a pair of Jordan shoes, with the same design and colours of the eighties.
And why Deloris Jordan. Because she was the mother of the man who would become the best basketball player in history, and who changed the relationship between players and brands. The author of part of his success. This is the central plot of Air, directed by Ben Afleck and starring Matt Damon, a story whose outcome we know well. Adidas or Converse were the star brands in basketball, Nike a company that was going downhill, reduced to making running shoes and with less and less market share. How the hell was I going to convince Jordan to sign with them, if he was more of an Adidas guy. And a rising star who was expected to be as successful as Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, already established stars at the time. So talking to his mother. Air not only tells the story, it does it so movingly under Affleck’s direction, that it doesn’t really matter that we know the story that followed.
Ben Affleck has focused on this part of the story, keeping Jordan out of the film, and leaving just enough time for Deloris’ appearances. On Rotten Tomatoes, which is the site for what the public, not the critics, thinks of the film, the audience has put it over the top, and the contributors’ opinions only slightly below. Now, a film labelled as a “sports drama” and which is, indirectly, about a black American icon might be too American for us to like. Even if its director is the talent that brought us Argo and with Robert Richardson in his team, the cinematographer and favourite of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Anyone who has seen Venom: There Will Be Carnage, or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, will be able to get an idea of how great Air looks, eighties even in the light of its offices. But it is precisely what could be its great weakness, another American-style entertainment film, that is its great virtue. Let’s not get tired of repeating it, this is a feature film about marketing and sports management. So said, it sounds like a dull slog, but Affleck has managed to make it entertaining, and the character played by Matt Damon, Sonny Vaccaro, gripping.
As a historical figure, Sonny Vaccaro deserves a place among the people who have defined our culture. Seriously, you don’t usually think of executives and marketing people for that, but today our way of life is as much shaped by them as it is by writers, artists, filmmakers, comic book authors, and so on. Vaccaro not only has the merit of having convinced Nike to sign Jordan when nobody had any idea what he was going to become. But also the genius of not adapting an athlete to the prefabricated products of a brand, but the other way round. Not even Andy Warhol would have dreamed of turning a pair of trainers into a pop culture icon. But it ended up happening. Thanks to those basketball shoes with the player’s name on them, whose design and colours allowed them to be worn as stylishly on the street as they were on the court. They changed the way we dress. It’s the reason why some people now wear trainers with a suit. It’s why millionaires and stars don’t give up wearing them at galas. All the brands ended up copying Nike, and all the players ended up imitating Jordan in their relationship with the brands that sponsored them. Because thanks to whatever, there are mothers and also individualistic dreamers like Vaccaro who know when to bet everything on double or nothing.
On top of all that, Air is 112 minutes that you not only spend waiting to see what will happen next, I insist, even if you know the ending. But they allow you to learn a lot about the culture of your time. A perfect eighties recreation set in 1984, with a fantastic soundtrack to match, classic rock and pop, Dire Straits or Cindy Lauper, and all the aesthetic nods that we remember from Stranger Things but much more global. Ideal for those who lived through the decade and for the children they have had who want the Air Jordans. All this with two fantastic final messages. We will never remember the corporate moguls, nor the brand promises, but the idols who made us dream that we could look like them. And perhaps like them, when we understand our own value, we will be treated as we deserve to be. These two sentences are a spoiler suggestion without being so: when you watch the film, pay close attention to Matt Damon’s speeches.