ONCE UPON A TIME, NIKE, WIEDEN & KENNEDY AND MICHAEL JORDAN WEREN'T YET A TEAM. IN THIS EXCERPT FROM HIS NEW BOOK, DAVID HALBERSTAM DESCRIBES HOW IT ALL CAME TOGETHER, WITH A YOUNG FILMMAKER.: BIRTH OF AN ICON
In 1986, two basketball junkies connected with each other to create a series of commercials that greatly enhanced Michael Jordan's fame and helped take it far beyond the bounds of sport. Jim Riswold was a young and irreverent writer for a very small Portland, Oregon, advertising agency called Wieden & Kennedy, and Shelton Jackson (Spike) Lee was a struggling filmmaker in Brooklyn, and just beginning his career.
Riswold was originally from Seattle, where he had gone to the University of Washington; uncertain of exactly who and what he wanted to be, he took seven years to get through college, in the course of which he earned three separate degrees in philosophy, history and communications. Because he loved basketball, he worked part time for the Seattle SuperSonics, doing some promotion and local advertising. That drew him into the world of advertising, and since there seemed to be no ads in the local help-wanted columns for companies demanding in-house philosophers, he decided that advertising might be a place where his talents, whatever they might be, could finally blossom. In 1984, the year Michael Jordan entered the league, Riswold left Seattle and went to work for Wieden & Kennedy.
Portland was essentially Nike's home. At that time, however, Nike gave almost all of its major advertising business to Chiat/Day, one of the . . . agency powerhouses well known for the talent of its people. To the degree that Wieden & Kennedy had a share of the Nike account early on, it was relatively small and somewhat mundane in nature. It was known at the time as Nike's other agency, a less than desirable designation. About the time Riswold joined them, however, Wieden & Kennedy got the contract for a Honda motor scooter commercial. With Riswold as the talent on the shoot, they came up with something quite original, an offbeat, grainy commercial showing Lou Reed on his Honda, cut to his song "Walk on the Wild Side." It was tough to say whether it was shot by the most skilled professional or the rankest amateur, but it was hip and oddly compelling, in part because the scooter message was pitched only at the last minute.
WINNING OVER NIKE
There were more Honda commercials to come, all of them equally interesting. This series of commercials turned out to be a very good signature line for this little firm so far from the center of the action in New York, and it helped Wieden & Kennedy get the contract from Nike for the Michael Jordan commercials. And when Jim Riswold heard that his firm was going to do commercials with Michael Jordan, he was so sure he was the right man for the assignment that he went to see his superiors and literally begged for it.
The previous commercials done for Jordan by Chiat/Day had been quite conventional. They showed his sheer athletic brilliance, as well as the beauty of his body. Who he was-what kind of man he was, whether he was someone you wanted to watch play and then have dinner with or just someone you wanted to watch play, and, finally, whether there was some great inner mystery to him-had not yet been explored. But Riswold had other ideas. He had once read that Bill Russell thought that Michael Jordan was a very good human being and had once congratulated Mr. and Mrs. Jordan for raising not just a great basketball player but a fine son as well. That intrigued Riswold, for like anyone who had ever been around Russell, he knew that Russell did not lightly compliment contemporary players, even former Celtics. In fact, his tour as general manager of the SuperSonics had not ended happily for many people, in no small part because a number of the team's younger players, originally thrilled by the idea of playing for the great Bill Russell, soon felt only his scorn and his open contempt.
But if Jordan was so exemplary a human being that he earned the praise of the lofty Russell, then he posed an intriguing challenge for an advertising man: how to reveal this special quality in a movie that lasted all of thirty seconds. So far, the only given had been how brilliant an athlete he was, which had made millions of young American teenagers who wanted to jump a good deal higher buy the shoes, but there was a ceiling on that kind of message. If the Nike people could show that he was a likable human being as well, if they could reveal the innate charm that so many people, including Riswold himself, felt soon after meeting Jordan, then they would have a "main character," whom they could begin to unveil through a story line. About that time, in 1986, Riswold and Bill Davenport, his executive producer, were in Los Angeles shooting another commercial, and they went to the movies. The movie they saw, "About Last Night," was highly forgettable, but there was a trailer for another movie that intrigued Riswold greatly. It was for a movie called "She's Gotta Have It." It showed the director and putative star of the movie, a slim young black man named Spike Lee, hawking his own film and selling tube socks, two for five dollars, and saying that unless people went to see his movie, he would be selling socks on the street for the rest of his life. Tube socks, two for five dollars, he said, as the trailer faded out.
Riswold had been weaned on Mad magazine and Monty Python as well as Jack Sikma and Gus Williams, and the trailer hooked him immediately. So he went to see Spike Lee's first movie, which was very low budget, shot for about $175,000. It was, Riswold thought, funny and almost sweetly innocent. Years later, Spike Lee reflected that Riswold and Davenport had liked the movie because of a certain funky style, which was not too slick because he could not afford slick in those days; it was what he came to call involuntary pauvre. To save money, Lee not only played the lead himself but shot the movie in his own apartment.
The great surprise of the movie for Riswold was that it featured a kind of Jordan cult-indeed, an Air Jordan cult. The lead character of the movie, Mars Blackmon, was a messenger in New York City and deeply in love with the beautiful Nola Darling. The only thing he loved more than Nola Darling were his Air Jordan shoes, and when it was time for him to make love with Nola, he refused to take them off. This was manna for Riswold: a movie with a commercial already built into it. ("The only thing Nike ever gave me for the film," Lee said with some irritation years later, "was the poster of Michael which hung in Mars's apartment. I had to buy two pairs of Air Jordans out of my own pocket-part of the budget.")
A MOREHOUSE MAN
Spike Lee, talented and innately hip, was hardly a ghetto kid. He was a third-generation Morehouse College man, which marked him as part of a black elite. Lee had a profound sense of the richness of black culture and talent, as well as the degree to which larger white society had in general either suppressed it or ignored it. His father was a jazz musician, a purist who refused to use electrified instruments, and his mother taught English and black history at Saint Ann's, an exceptional private school in Brooklyn.
Lee was a lifelong Knicks fan, and one of the great crises in his childhood had come when his father was giving a jazz recital at the same time as the New York Knicks were playing the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals at Madison Square Garden. He went to the Garden, of course.
Lee's Mars Blackmon character was, like Lee himself, a devoted Knicks fan and a man who had a hard time choosing between his love of the sport and his love of a woman. In Spike's real life, for example, in the spring of 1985, his relationship with his girlfriend was steadily disintegrating, and she wanted to talk seriously about their future. He, however, was too excited by the fact that the Knicks had just drafted Patrick Ewing to focus on her. The relationship with the girlfriend quickly came to an end, but the one with the Knicks intensified greatly-Lee rushed down to the Garden the day after the draft to buy season tickets, tickets he could ill afford. He started with poor tickets up in the nosebleed section, but in time, as his role as Michael Jordan's Sancho Panza increased his fame and his leverage (the Knicks used a video clip Lee made to help lure Allan Houston from Detroit a decade later), his seats got steadily better. Eventually, he had the best seats in the house, better even than those of another basketball-crazed film director, Woody Allen. To Lee, the game was nothing less than an art form, and he saw Michael Jordan not so much as an athlete but as an artist, one in a pantheon of black geniuses whose skills transcended not just the circumstances of their birth but the category seemingly allotted to them in life-men such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Louis Armstrong.
When Lee wrote "She's Gotta Have It," it was tough for him not to make his alter ego's hero a Knick, and for a time he favored the Knicks' Bernard King. In the end, though, Lee knew that Michael Jordan was unique, the next great superstar, and so the fateful choice was made.
Of the three young black men pursuing the rather promiscuous Nola Darling in the film, Mars seems at first the least attractive-a little goofy, a little hyper, hardly the gentleman of choice. Her odds-on-favorite, Jamie Overstreet, is light skinned and handsome, if a little too smooth, but he is also-and with Lee basketball is always a metaphor for something larger-a Larry Bird fan. Lee has Mars say at one point, "Bird is the ugliest motherfucker in the league." In some way, Mars is the most likable person in the film, or at least the most endearing; he talks a certain impassioned, juiced-up, pleading street language.
Riswold loved the movie and sensed that the immensely talented Lee could be the person, the Jordan idolater, who might help them solve the equation of how to shoot commercials that would show Michael Jordan's remarkable qualities without turning him into something he was not, an actor.
IS THIS A PRANK CALL?
Riswold called Lee the next day. He found his director-to-be a little wary at first, suspicious that this might be a prank call from a film-school classmate. ("Spike still answered his own phone in those days," Riswold noted with some amusement.) Riswold liked Lee over the phone immediately. He told him that he was hoping they could put him in the commercial, as Mars Blackmon, and that in fact he hoped that Lee would direct it as well. For Lee, only recently out of film school, it was the call he had long hoped for. In his innocence, having won a prize in film school for his class's most exceptional film, called "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads," he had expected all kinds of phone calls from people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Those phone calls, of course, never came. "Do I get to work with Michael Jordan?" Riswold remembered him asking. Yes, of course he would. Lee was then very receptive to the idea of directing a commercial, a field that had been largely closed to black directors in the past. Besides, he would make some $50,000 for his efforts. After getting Lee aboard, Riswold and Davenport went to Jordan, who gave his approval.
Years later, Riswold reflected that being in a small, offbeat agency in Oregon, so far from the advertising capital of the world, had been a great boon for all of them. There were fewer obstacles in their way: fewer inhibitions, fewer rules, much less tradition. There was no one going around telling Riswold what he couldn't do and why he couldn't do it-usually because it had never been done before. There was no one telling him that he dare not use Nike's money and Wieden & Kennedy's reputation to take a chance on a young black film director whose name no one knew. And race was not a factor in Portland. Portland was a Northwest city without, by the standards of the Northeast, a classic ghetto, and it seemed far less burdened by racial consciousness than other places. Many of the black players who played for the Trail Blazers stayed on after their careers were over because it was so comfortable a place to live and raise families. Indeed, the first time the Kennedy family lost a primary was in 1968 in Oregon, when Robert Kennedy lost to Gene McCarthy and the Kennedy people complained bitterly afterward of the lack of a ghetto that probably would have helped create the standard Kennedy coalition.
The commercials worked for a number of reasons, Riswold thought. The first was that both he and Lee were demented fans, and they brought to their work the same wonder that any fan would have. Race, he thought, did not factor in. He did not think of Jordan as black. He had always loved the game, and the game was black, and he had the assumption, like many young men of his generation, that if others could only see what he saw in the game-the artistry and the beauty-they would love it as much or more than other sports then seemingly more popular. And of course, the more they enjoyed it, the less they would see race as a factor. And here was this young man who was not just a great player but simply beautiful.
Michael Jordan tested Spike Lee, as was his way. In their first meeting, Jordan, already famous, had looked Lee over carefully and said only, "Spike Lee," but he said it as a challenge, as if, Lee remembered, he was saying, show me what you can do. But they got on well. The courage in the Nike commercials, Lee later thought, was that Nike let him direct them as well as act with Jordan. It took no courage to portray Jordan as the hero-he was already a star, and he was beautiful. You could do things with him that you could never do with Larry Bird. But here he was paired with a scrawny, nerdy guy who was black and a little hyper. Most of America was not necessarily prepared to accept Spike Lee as partner to an icon.
But it worked from the start. Jordan was a little stiff and tentative in his early shoots-he grew more confident through the years-but he was ready to be a wonderful straight man. The first commercials were shot with Mars doing the talking as a kind of Every Fan. The first one they shot had Lee standing on Jordan's shoulders, holding on to the rim and wearing a giant gold "MARS" chain. In the middle of it, Jordan, the coolest smile imaginable on his face, mischievously left Lee hanging there and dunked right through him and the hoop.
From the start, Jordan impressed everyone with his innate charm and wit, and his obvious confidence. He knew who he was and liked who he was. There was nothing threatening about him. He was judgmental-you had to win his respect, and he was clearly shrewd about how he was used-but there was an innate coolness and elegance about him as a man. If this was yet expressed in anything he said, it was self-evident in the smile, in the deft facial gestures, in the ability to roll his eyebrows at just the right moment. He was beautiful, he was likable, he had that luminescent smile, and he might well be the greatest basketball player in the world.
THE PERFECT COUNTERPART
The commercials were the perfect counterpart for his other incarnation, Jordan the total predator, the warrior who went out three or four nights a week and simply destroyed enemy teams. Opposing teams got the killer, and the fans watching the Nike commercials got the charmer, a man of humor and intelligence, someone everyone seemed to like. "We broke it open, and we did it not by brilliance, but by sensing what felt right, and showing him as a human being," Riswold said years later. "The rest just followed."
"What Phil [Knight] and Nike have done," Jordan himself said several years into the campaign, "is to turn me into a dream."
The Nike commercials were so good, of course, that they fed on themselves, and inspired other companies, such as McDonald's, Coke, Hanes, and, in time, Gatorade, to do comparable commercials. This in turn made the dynamic more powerful and allowed David Falk to go to other companies and tell them that a good deal of their national advertising had already been done for them. Or as Falk once said, "Air Jordan paved the way for all the other deals. Nike spent more than $5 million on advertising, so now we can walk into a designer like Guy Laroche . . . " and say `'You don't have to spend that much because Nike and McDonald's and Coke are constantly putting him on television for you.' " It was what was called the ruboff effect. Phil Knight hated it, but that did not matter.
So it was that an American icon was born. In the modern entertainment culture, in a society obsessed with celebrity, deeds performed on celluloid often seemed to become substitutes for reality, and an ever more careless audience took more and more of its reality off a television screen. Men whose heroism was completely artificial and was limited to acting upon Hollywood sets were increasingly perceived as heroes, and their deeds, however synthetic, had a resonance that lasted and formed its own reality. That had been true in the past: A grateful if slightly deluded Congress had struck a medal for John Wayne as an American hero even though as a young man he had taken a pass on World War Two in order to advance his embryonic film career. Later a young man named Sylvester Stallone, who had not deigned to fight in Vietnam and had spent part of those war years teaching at a girls' school in Switzerland, had made a career for himself by playing an embittered, wronged superhero of the Vietnam War. But now, given the growing power of the popular culture, the line between the authentic and the inauthentic was blurred more than ever.
A UNIQUE ICON
That made Michael Jordan almost unique as a cultural icon. For there he was on the court, night after night, his athletic supremacy on display, again and again winning big games in the last minute, again and again rising above the level of the world's very best players. That gave him a powerful hold on Americans who loved sports, even those whose interest in basketball had once been relatively minor but were drawn more and more to the sport because of word of mouth about the ascent of this superstar. And then there was his other incarnation, which because of the creative force-and frequency with which the Nike commercials were viewed-gave him nothing less than the power of a film star. The commercials were brief, but there were so many of them and they were done with such talent and charm that they formed an ongoing story. Their cumulative effect was to create a figure who had the power and force and charisma of a major movie star. Yet unlike so many people whom the Hollywood fantasy machine projected into theaters and homes who were beautiful but whose deeds were artificial, his deeds were real. Jordan, aware of the stakes, was extremely careful about his off-court behavior, among other reasons lest he cause any damage to the cumulative image now crystallizing and turning out to be so financially rewarding.
Thus did he gradually go beyond the boundaries of sport, carried by his great ability, his looks, and his charm more deeply into the psyche of the American public than any sports star had ever gone before. Success built on success. It was a dynamic that fed on itself: Those who did not know or love basketball were often piqued by the commercials and the beauty of the man in them, and they started to watch the occasional game if he was playing. When they did, he almost always did something exceptional, which meant that in varying degrees, they too were hooked. He was becoming better on the court and more famous off it. In a world where so many stars and heroes were inauthentic, he remained remarkably