Michael Jordan was on February 17, 1963 in Brookly New York. His family moved to Wilmington North Carolina when he was small. In his sophmore year in high school he became a star of his junior varsity team.
Widely regarded as the greatest basketball player in history, Michael Jordan was a consistent top scorer and league MVP during his career with the Chicago Bulls.
He led his team to an unprecedented six NBA championships and was also a member of two gold medal-winning US Olympic basketball teams. Jordan was also a successful college athlete prior to turning professional.
He retired from basketball in l993 to pursue a career in professional baseball. Though he made a credible effort, his relative lack of success in baseball propelled him back to basketball to lead the Bulls to three more championships before retiring in 1998 for a career in commercial endorsements and other business endeavors.
Michael Jordan was born on February 17, 1963, in Brooklyn, New York, one of James and Deloris Jordan's five children. The family moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, when Michael was very young. His father worked as a General Electric plant supervisor, and his mother worked at a bank. His father taught him to work hard and not to be tempted by street life. His mother taught him to sew, clean, and do laundry. Jordan loved sports but failed to make his high school basketball team as a sophomore. He continued to practice and made the team the next year. After high school he accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina, where he played under head coach Dean Smith.
In Jordan's first season at North Carolina he was named Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Rookie of the Year for 1982. The team won the ACC championship, and Jordan made the clutch jump shot that beat Georgetown University for the championship of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Jordan led the ACC in scoring as a sophomore and as a junior. The Sporting News named him college player of the year for both years. He left North Carolina after his junior year and was selected by the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association (NBA) as the third pick of the 1984 draft. Before joining the Bulls, Jordan was a member of the Summer 1984 United States Olympic basketball team that won the gold medal in Los Angeles, California.
The real story of MJ’s baseball career
The catcher called for a slider. Kevin Rychel shook him off.
Rychel still asks himself, all these years later, why he did this. He rarely shook off the catcher back then, in the midst of a seven-year Minor League career in the Pirates’ organization. But on this muggy July night in Birmingham, Ala., in a Double-A ballgame that would remain memorable only for this moment, Rychel’s mind was in a haze, his shoulder was already ailing with what would turn out to be a torn labrum and his faith in his fastball was, only in retrospect, overly ambitious.
[Note: A version of this story originally ran on MLB.com in 2014.]
And so he left it over the middle for the lanky outfielder with the Mendoza-level batting average, and the bat connected with the weight of its 33 ounces and the anticipation of the thousands of eyes upon it. The ball sailed over the left-field fence, the crowd erupted and Rychel hung his head.
“What did you just do?” he asked himself.
Back in the visiting clubhouse, now pulled from the game, Rychel faced the same question from the manager of his Carolina Mudcats squad. Bob Meacham had been ejected from the game, and so the roar of the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium audience was his only clue to what had just transpired. Rychel wasn’t prone to giving up the long ball. In fact, he allowed them at an entirely reasonable rate of 0.5 per nine innings in the course of his career. So Meacham never would have suspected that Rychel would be the one on the wrong end of this meaningful moment, that his image would be the one plastered on “SportsCenter,” that his hotel phone would be the one ringing off the hook the next day.
“It happened?” Meacham asked.
“Yeah,” Rychel replied, “it happened.”
Michael Jordan had hit his first home run.
In 1994, Air Jordan did his time on the ground, in a stint with the White Sox as a light-hitting rookie in Double-A ball.
Jordan’s decision to leave the NBA at the utmost peak of his powers in order to pursue a short-lived career in professional baseball is still a source of curiosity. All the more as ESPN’s “The Last Dance” docuseries about Jordan’s Bulls captures attention in a rare time without live sports.
The story goes that Jordan -- overpowered by the weight of his fame, burned out by his own brilliance on the basketball court and emotionally drained by the murder of his adored father -- pursued baseball as a new challenge and a welcomed distraction. And those in baseball who worked with and played with Jordan walked away impressed and convinced by the earnestness of this endeavor.
“He respected the game,” says Indians manager Terry Francona, who managed Jordan with the Birmingham Barons. “I love the guy. And I don’t love the guy just in the press. I love the guy. I respect him. I appreciate how he handled everything.”
Francona is not alone in his opinion that Jordan could have made it to the Majors. Probably not as a star, mind you, but at least as a reserve, given the will and work ethic he put into refining his God-given talents.
The then-31-year-old Jordan invested his heart and soul into a sport that fundamentally flexes different fast-twitch muscles, a sport he had abandoned as a teenager, a sport his dad would wistfully muse about in those contemplative conversations between father and son. Sports Illustrated famously begged Michael to “bag it” in the headline that would cost them future quotes from the iconic figure, but Jordan’s quest in this and every athletic pursuit was to conquer the conquerable, attain the unobtainable.
“SI completely missed the story,” says David Falk, Jordan’s agent. “Michael Jordan gave up everything he had earned as the king of basketball to play Minor League baseball and subject himself to criticism. He put everything on the line to compete, with nothing to gain. That is the essence of sports. To this day, SI has never apologized to Michael, and he'll never talk to them.”
Such is the competitive instinct of His Airness.
“If you told him no,” Francona says, “he was going to find a way to make it a yes.”
Jordan hit .202 in Birmingham, and that number means different things to different people.
To some, .202 was confirmation that Jordan was in over his head, that he wasted a year of his basketball prime in order to humiliate himself in the dregs of the Minors.
To Francona, .202 is a source of pride, because he knows how hard meeting round ball with round bat inherently is and how much Jordan improved as the long summer wore on.
To Walt Hriniak, the former White Sox hitting guru who worked intensely with Jordan that spring, .202 was actually a source of disappointment.
“I didn’t expect him to tear it up,” Hriniak says, “but I expected him to do better.”
Hriniak’s seemingly unusual opinion doesn’t sound so unusual at all when you dig deeper into the work that went into getting Jordan ready for his Double-A debut.
Once Jordan had publicly announced his retirement to a stunned NBA community and privately announced to Bulls and Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf his intentions to switch sports, one of the first people to learn of the experiment was Herm Schneider, the longtime athletic trainer for the Sox. Reinsdorf called Schneider with word of a “special project” just before Thanksgiving in ’93, and soon Schneider was instructing Jordan on rotation workouts to tighten up his core and palm training to toughen up his hands.
“He’s a great athlete in basketball,” Schneider says. “When it came to baseball, he was a little bit like a duck out of water. He loved baseball, but he didn’t necessarily have that body awareness that you need. So we had to teach him.”
Here is the greatest basketball player of all time, and he’s looking at me to say, ‘Teach me.’Mike Huff, former White Sox outfielder and Jordan's training partner
Another tutor brought in for that winter work was Mike Huff, one of the outfielders against whom Jordan would actually be competing for a roster spot in camp.
As a Chicago-area resident with superb defensive skills, Huff was directly requested by Reinsdorf to assist in the effort with M.J. in the bowels of Comiskey Park and at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s massive gym. This was an inherently awkward arrangement, given that the Sox had yanked Huff back and forth between the bigs and the Minors the previous season and he had his own position to compete for (he would, in fact, be traded to Toronto at the end of the upcoming spring). But Huff came to the conclusion that the Sox weren’t going to take anything other than the best 25 guys when camp broke.
Besides, this was Michael freaking Jordan. Who could say no?
“For me, having grown up in Chicago and watched him win those first three championships, the whole thing was surreal,” Huff says. “Because here is the greatest basketball player of all time, and he’s looking at me to say, ‘Teach me.’”
Huff taught him how to properly hold a baseball, how to throw, how to slide, how to train his feet to be ready for the footwork of the position. Jordan was an eager and tireless learner, so much so that Huff would, at times, forget what level of celebrity he was dealing with.
There was one Friday morning when Jordan showed up with Richard Dent, the great defensive end for the Chicago Bears, and said the two would be flying to Phoenix that afternoon for a weekend of golf with Charles Barkley. As the day wore on, Huff kept looking at the clock and kept worriedly asking if Jordan was going to have enough time to catch his flight at O’Hare. Jordan finally had to set him straight.
“Mike,” Jordan said, “I have my own plane. It’ll leave when I get there.”
“Oh, right,” Huff thought to himself, “this guy’s got lots and lots of money.”
So much money, so much fame and so little experience in baseball that there would have been ample reason for guys like Huff -- grinders just trying to attain some level of big league stability -- to be resentful of this undertaking. When Jordan’s decision became public in early February of ’94 and he reported to Spring Training camp in the middle of the month, he didn’t just have to prove himself to the prying eyes of the public but also to the men he’d be suiting up alongside.
If everybody was like M.J. the game would be better.Walt Hriniak, former White Sox hitting guru
Hriniak arrived to that camp, found it packed with reporters and curious fans and worried what kind of dog and pony show the Sox had just gotten themselves into. So he waited for Jordan to finish his first round in the cage, went to the outfield where Jordan was shagging fly balls and looked the new acquisition in the eyes.
“I just want to know one thing,” Hriniak asked him. “Are you serious about this?”
“Dead serious,” Jordan replied.
“All right,” Hriniak said. “If you want some help, I’ve got time in the cage for extra hitting practice at 7 a.m. If you’re one second late, you don’t hit.”
Jordan never missed a day, and he was never late.
“If everybody was like M.J.,” says Hriniak, “the game would be better.”
Jordan’s devotion extended to his interactions with teammates, with fans, with the media.
When Sox manager Gene Lamont caught wind of the team’s plans to only make Jordan available to reporters every third day that spring, he asked Jordan to reconsider.
“I think [Jordan was concerned] he was taking away from the other guys if he [talked] more than that,” Lamont says. “But I didn’t think Frank [Thomas] or Robin [Ventura] or the other players needed to talk about Michael the days he wasn’t talking. He was receptive to that.”
He was also receptive to the ample requests for autographs, both from his teammates and those in the stands.
“It was incredible,” says David Schaffer, the Sox’s former director of park operations. “He’d be at the game all day, it would be 80-90 degrees, the sun is out, the humidity is about 300 percent, and he would stand there and just sign and sign and sign. Everybody else had already showered and gone home, but he’d be standing there every day. And it wasn’t just because the press was there, because they’d already be gone, too.”
Jordan would tell his teammates to leave anything they wanted autographed in Schneider’s office and he’d take care of it at the end of each day. When guys would inquire about shoes or gear, Jordan would reach out to his Nike contacts, and a package would be delivered within a day or two.
“A guy from Venezuela asked him to sign a basketball for him,” Schaffer remembers. “He said to Michael, ‘If you autograph a baseball for me, it’s worth $100. If you autograph this basketball and I take it back home, I can feed my family for a month.’”
Naturally, Jordan signed it, just as he would sign for those fans who would swarm his red Corvette when it stopped at a red light in the streets of Sarasota that spring or in Birmingham that summer.
The Barons drew over 467,000 fans at home and played to packed houses at every stop on the road that season, establishing attendance records that won’t soon be broken. So baseball did not provide the basketball burnout with much opportunity to be inaccessible.
But the long bus rides that came with life in the Southern League gave Jordan a needed chance to tune out the outside world, and he welcomed them, just as his teammates welcomed the plush new rig he provided in exchange for an endorsement with a local bus company.
Jordan also didn’t complain about the accommodations at the various La Quinta Inns where the Barons bunked.
“I don’t know about now,” Francona says with a smile, “but they didn’t have suites at the time.”
Decades later, any analysis of Jordan’s time in baseball is admittedly incomplete. We know he hit .202, struck out 114 times and committed 11 errors that summer in Birmingham. We also know he stole 30 bases and drove in 51 runs. He followed up the Birmingham season with an encouraging effort in the Arizona Fall League, batting .252 against some of the game’s elite prospects.
What mars the story, though, is the abruptness of the ending. Jordan reported to Spring Training camp in 1995 but vowed not to cross the picket line should the ongoing war between the owners and players’ union not be resolved by the time exhibitions began. Where some players in Jordan’s circumstances might have seen opportunity in the strike, Jordan was a past NBA player representative who appreciated the integrity of the union. So as replacement players were summoned, Jordan slid out of Sarasota in early March. He was back in the Bulls’ lineup roughly two weeks later.
We’ll never know if Jordan’s baseball career would have continued much longer had the strike not intervened. Francona, for one, got the sense, by the end of that summer with the Barons, that Jordan was getting the itch to return to his first love, to be a superstar again.
But baseball -- and its inherent demands for patience and perseverance -- seemed to teach Jordan something elemental.
Bulls coach Phil Jackson would remark, years later, that the Jordan who returned in ’95 was different than the one who departed in ’93. This Jordan was more generous with his time, more encouraging to his teammates. And Jordan himself would admit that watching guys who were, in some cases, 10 years younger passionately pursue their baseball dreams in that unpretentious setting of Double-A stirred something in his soul.
“[I realized] I had kind of lost that in the realm of what was happening to me in basketball,” he once said. “I was on the pedestal for so long that I forgot about the steps to get to that. That’s what Minor League baseball did to me.”
And the stint certainly left impressions on those around him.
Huff looks back fondly at those winter workouts as a perfect precursor to the work he’s done as the longtime vice president of operations for the Bulls/Sox Academy, a youth development facility. Francona’s experience with a superstar at that early stage of his managerial career was a perfect precursor to what he’d encounter when he took over a Red Sox club loaded with outsized personalities a decade later. Lamont admits that, for all the distractions the Jordan situation could have caused for his defending division champs that spring, he simply got a kick out of it. Schaffer considers Jordan one of the classiest people he dealt with in more than 30 years with the Sox.
And then there’s Rychel. He long ago gave up his big league dreams and went into a career in the food industry, where he is currently the vice president of operations for a fast-casual Mexican chain. To this day, he still wishes he had thrown that slider to Michael Jordan.
In the weeks leading up to July 30, 1994, word had gotten around the Southern League that Jordan was showing improvement, hitting the ball harder, capitalizing on more mistakes. And that night, Rychel made a costly one. He can laugh now about the night he got “posterized” by Air Jordan, and, looking back, his pitch selection isn’t his only regret.
“Through it all,” Rychel says with a laugh, “I never even got an autograph.”
But like so many others in baseball who crossed Michael Jordan’s path in 1994, he got one heck of a memory.
Michael Jordan in high school and college
6. At Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, NC he played three sports: baseball, football and basketball.
7. Contrary to legend, Jordan wasn’t cut from his high school team. He actually tried out for the varsity basketball team as a 5” sophomore and wound up passed over in favor of his friend Leroy Smith who was 6″. (Laney was in dire need of tall players.) He was placed on the junior varsity team instead.
8. The true part of the slighting legend is that Jordan used this perceived “slight” as motivation to work hard to improve and he also grew four inches before starting his junior year. His father was known to say that Michael was born competitive and the person he tried to best the most was himself.
9. Before he began his senior year of high school, his father advised him to be a mechanic because those who worked with their hands always had a good job. Then Jordan had a breakout senior year in basketball and his future changed course. As a senior averaging a triple-double (29.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 10.1 assists) he was selected to the McDonald’s All-American Team.
10. In 1981 Jordan enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a basketball scholarship, majoring in cultural geography. He helped his team win the NCAA Division I championship in 1982 and scored the final basket needed to win against Georgetown University. Before Jordan’s enrollment, the North Carolina Tarheels’ last national championship had been in 1957.
11. Jordan was named the NCAA College Player of the Year in both 1983 and in 1984.
12. Jordan was selected as a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team for the first time in the summer of 1984. The team won the gold at the Los Angeles games that year.
13. One year short of graduation, Michael Jordan was chosen third overall in the NBA 1984 Draft. He joined the Chicago Bulls in 1984.
The Story Behind Michael Jordan's Air Jordans
If you haven't been watching The Last Dance, ESPN's 10-part docuseries about Michael Jordan's career with the Chicago Bulls, well, you're missing out. Even as a non-sports fanatic (I'd consider myself a dabbler), I've thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the iconic athlete, his storied career, and, of course, his famous Nike sneakers. Episode five delves into the history of the Air Jordan, some of the most famous footwear in history.
How the Air Jordan Was Created
The shoe was born after a deal signed in 1984. At that time, Converse was the official shoe of the NBA. The company told him they couldn't put Jordan above the other athletes they sponsored, which included players like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, so Jordan decided against partnering with them. His favorite shoe at the time was actually Adidas, but the brand told him they just couldn't make a shoe work at that time. Jordan's agent, David Falk, wanted him to go with Nike, which at the time was known more for track shoes, but Jordan wasn't interested. So Falk, appealed to Jordan's mother, Deloris. "My mother said, 'You're going to go listen, you may not like it, but you're going to go listen,'" Jordan remembers. Nike offered him a great deal, one that was unheard of for a rookie, and his father said he'd have to be a fool not to take it. So Jordan did.
How the Air Jordan Got Its Name
From there, it was all about getting Jordan his own shoe. "Nike had just come out with this new technology for their running shoes called air soles," says Falk. "And obviously Michael played in the air, so I said, 'I got it, we're going to call it Air Jordan.'"
"Nike's expectation when we signed the deal was, at the end of year four, they hoped to sell $3 million worth of Air Jordans," Falk recalls. "In year one, we sold $126 million."
'The Last Dance' on ESPN
The 10-part Michael Jordan documentary "The Last Dance" is available on the ESPN App.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams is watching "The Last Dance" and remembering when he recruited Mike Jordan. Roy grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, raised in poverty by a single mom. A few years ago, he found himself driving from Chapel Hill to play golf in Wilmington. He was alone and he slipped off the interstate and drove over to the house on Gordon Road. If you're driving down Interstate 40, there's a sign at the Pender-New Hanover county line announcing that this stretch of road is named in honor of Michael Jordan. But if you're Roy Williams pulling off 117, your mind's eye focuses on Michael's father working out front of Gordon Road. Most likely on a car engine, his tongue stuck out in concentration, a habit he acquired from his grandfather, and his son acquired from him. "Every single time I go down there," he says, "I drive down Michael Jordan Highway. It just reminds me of those times. James and Deloris were so good to me. You can't give the parents all the credit, but they led him by example. They taught him hard work."
Michael Jordan has become so public it can seem as if he were born fully formed. Of course, that's not true. His family spent at least six generations in one small patch of swamp and cropland in the rural outskirts and farm towns near Wilmington, on and around Highway 117. He remembers his grandparents still eating dirt and clay -- a now little-known practice brought to the South from Africa -- getting needed iron from the land. Michael used to eat the orange and red clay for dessert when he'd visit them.
He grew up not only hearing about a vanishing world, but he saw the last pieces of it too, a kind of life that died for much of America at the turn of the century but somehow kept going around U.S. 117 for 70 more years. He left that history behind and yet carries it all inside him too. Which means maybe the way to unravel Mike from Michael is to look at where and when his rural North Carolina roots quietly molded his career, and to consider how the land where he grew up shaped his ancestors, who shaped him.
Michael Jordan's security team was a group of retired and off-duty Chicago cops, guys who knew what it was like to work for a living. "They became my best friends," Jordan says. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
FIVE SUNDAYS AGO, in the last hour before "The Last Dance" premiered, Michael Jordan got a text message. He looked down at his phone and saw it was from the son of one of his old security guards. Those guys cross Michael's mind a lot. During the pinnacle of his fame, a group of retired and off-duty Chicago cops kept him both insulated and connected. The Sniff Brothers, they jokingly called themselves. As in jock sniffers. There were five or six core guys. Jordan took care of them long after his playing career ended, and he deeply misses the three who have died in the years since: Gus Lett, Clarence Travis and John Michael Wozniak, whose son Nicholi sent the text. Nicky sent a picture of Michael holding the NBA championship trophy, and there, in the background as usual, was his father. The Sniff Brothers were always around. On family vacations, in hotel suites playing cards, out in Los Angeles shooting "Space Jam," hiding out beneath the United Center in the hours before a game.
Nicky wished Michael luck and thanked him for all the support over the years. Michael wrote back immediately.
I love it. I will watch with him, Gus and CT on my heart.
The public Jordan, the symbol, needed constant security protection as the game's greatest player. The private person felt most at home around a bunch of middle-class Chicago cops, guys who'd worked narcotics and gang squad, who'd taken bullets and kicked in doors and who knew what it meant to work for a living and to live by a simple code. Guys who reminded him of home.
"They became my best friends," Jordan told me years ago.
How Nike landed Michael Jordan
All Michael Jordan wanted to wear was adidas in the NBA.
Although he wore Converse at North Carolina, because his coach Dean Smith was getting paid about $10,000 a year to put the brand on his players, the German make was his dream.
But adidas wasn&rsquot making an offer. It wasn&rsquot that they thought Jordan wasn't worth anything they were just caught at a bad time. After company founder Adi Dassler died in 1978, his wife, Kathe, took over the business. But she had her son, Horst, and her four daughters each running separate divisions.
The husbands of the daughters also were closely involved, which didn't make things easy. By the time of the Jordan negotiations, tensions were high and thoughts of a succession plan were a top priority as Kathe was not in good health. She died later that year.
&ldquoThey were definitely in a state of flux,&rdquo said Frank Craighill, who represented Horst at the time. &ldquoIt wasn't an easy thing to split."
Jordan was extremely disappointed.
Michael didn&rsquot want to show up at Converse headquarters, but because of his relationship with Smith, he went.
&ldquoWe&rsquore sitting in the conference room and they&rsquore saying things like, &lsquoWe are basketball,&rsquo&rdquo Jordan's agent David Falk recalled. &ldquoThey&rsquore telling us that they have Magic, Bird, Dr. J and Mark Aguirre.&rdquo
According to Joe Dean, who was in charge of Converse&rsquos marketing at the time, Michael was supremely interested in the company&rsquos pitch.
&ldquoI give him a lot of credit,&rdquo Dean said. &ldquoHe was asking, &lsquoWith all these stars, where do I fit into the conversation?&rsquo&rdquo
John O&rsquoNeil, the president of Converse, took that question.
&ldquoWe&rsquoll treat you like all our other superstars,&rdquo Dean remembered O'Neil saying, offering him a financial package of about $100,000 a year, commensurate with what the top players were earning at the time.
Michael&rsquos father, James, wanted in.
&ldquoDon&rsquot you guys have any new, innovative ideas?&rdquo he asked.
Converse had no chance. At the time, the brand was beginning to lose its spot as the nation&rsquos top producer of athletic shoes. Converse was slow to use leather, and although Nike was signing coaches for bigger dollars, Converse didn&rsquot have the desperation it should have had in negotiations with Jordan.
&ldquoWe were in a tough spot,&rdquo Dean said. &ldquoIf we gave Michael more, what would we have done with Magic, Bird and Dr. J?&rdquo
It was O.J. Simpson, of all people, who called it: Michael Jordan would be the best new star in sports.
If Jordan had his druthers, he would have chosen adidas after leaving North Carolina. AP Photo/Alan Mothner
&ldquoThis kid at North Carolina, he&rsquos the next me,&rdquo O.J. said in the summer of 1984. &ldquoWe should go for him.&rdquo
At the time, Simpson was vice president of promotions for the Spot-Bilt brand, a shoe owned by a company named Hyde Athletic that had paid Simpson to wear Juice Mobiles while he was in the NFL. Now he was drawing a regular paycheck from the company that made its money off selling its cleats to teams.
So John H. Fisher, then Spot-Bilt's vice president of marketing, went to his father and asked him what to do.
&ldquoHe told me, &lsquoDon&rsquot leave a dime at the door,&rsquo&rdquo the younger Fisher said.
So Fisher went to meet with Michael, his father, James, and Falk in Washington, D.C., at the headquarters of ProServ, the agency where Falk worked.
For an inside edge, Spot-Bilt had hired Nike&rsquos old ad agency, John Brown & Partners. They showed Falk and the Jordans some storyboards and ideas. They used O.J. as an example of what they could do and explained that Jordan would be the most important athlete in their portfolio if he wore the Spot-Bilt brand.
Nike was a fast-rising star. The company's revenue went from $28.7 million in 1973 to $867 million by the end of 1983. But things had started to turn on them toward the end of the year. In February 1984, the company reported its first quarterly loss ever. The Olympics in Los Angeles that summer provided a nice morale boost -- most notably, Carl Lewis won four gold medals in Nikes -- but there wasn't an immediate translation in sales.
Converse and adidas weren't ready for Jordan, but all of a sudden, Nike needed him. If the company could only get him on the plane.
He had just come back from the Olympics, and after a full college basketball season, he told Falk he was exhausted.
&ldquoI have no interest in going there,&rdquo Falk said Jordan told him. &ldquoJust do what you need to do to get me with adidas.&rdquo
Falk wouldn&rsquot have it. Although he was the least senior partner at his firm and had met with Jordan in person only a couple of times, he had to have Jordan at Nike with him.
Nike was Falk&rsquos go-to company, and he had a tremendous relationship with Rob Strasser, the guy who did all the deals. &ldquoI&rsquod tell Rob how much I needed to have a player sign with Nike, and he made it work,&rdquo Falk recalled. Most of Falk's clients wore Nike, including Bernard King, Phil Ford and Moses Malone.
Falk didn&rsquot want to push his luck, and he wasn&rsquot getting through to Jordan, so he called Jordan&rsquos parents, James and Deloris. He told them he needed their son at the presentation. And the next thing Falk knew, Jordan was packing his bags with his parents in tow.
When they arrived in Beaverton, Ore., they went into an office in one of the two buildings that stood at Nike at the time. The group met with Strasser, designer Peter Moore, and those responsible for basketball at the company, Howard White and Sonny Vaccaro.
Jordan was shown a highlight tape of himself to the Pointer Sisters "Jump," a song that had recently debuted. Moore showed him a red-and-black shoe design. Jordan said that one of the reasons he liked adidas was because they were lower to the ground than the higher shoes that Nike was making. Moore said he could tailor them to Jordan&rsquos liking.
No one was doing that at the time. You were given what the company gave you.
"They really made a great effort of trying to have my input on the shoe," Jordan told me five years ago, adding that he had never put on a Nike shoe to this point in his life.
Then they moved into another room, where Jordan was shown more potential plans. During the talk, Nike president and co-founder Phil Knight walked into the room. Strasser knew that Jordan was a car nut, so he said to Jordan, "If you come with Nike. "
It was at that point that Falk's head swiveled to the back of the room and saw Knight clutching his chest, as if Strasser had the keys to a car in his pocket. Strasser reached in and took out two die-cast Mercedes cars.
"I think Phil almost had a heart attack," Falk said.
Later that night, after the group went out to dinner, Falk asked Jordan -- who was emotionless the whole trip -- what he thought.
"I don't want to go to another meeting," Jordan told Falk.
On the advice of Vaccaro, Nike offered Jordan $500,000 a year in cash for five years, which was a ridiculous number at the time. The previous highest contract was James Worthy's deal with New Balance, an eight-year deal worth $150,000 a year. Adding stock options and other parts of the deal, Falk said Jordan would earn $7 million over those five years, as long as Nike didn't sever the contract.
It took some work to persuade Michael Jordan, including a phone call to his parents, but in the end, he chose Nike. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
In order to protect the company, Nike included a clause in Jordan's deal that said if he didn't accomplish one of three things -- win Rookie of the Year, become an All-Star or average 20 points per game -- in his first three years, it could end the deal two years early. Falk then asked, "What happens if he doesn't do any of those three, but still sells shoes?" Nike's response, according to Falk, was if Jordan sold at least $4 million worth of shoes in his third year, he'd get the final two years of the deal.
When Jordan was told the terms, he said he made one last private pitch.
"I was very loyal," Jordan said at the time. "I went back to my adidas contract and said, 'This is the Nike contract -- if you come anywhere close, I'll sign with you guys.'"
As for Spot-Bilt, Fisher knew going up against Phil Knight was going to be hard. Nike was almost 10 times as big as his company. The Spot-Bilt brand made shoes in the U.S. Nike made shoes in Asia.
Knight was also killing the team business that was so profitable to Hyde&rsquos Spot-Bilt brand by giving shoes to teams for free.
&ldquoOur shoes were good, but they weren&rsquot better than free,&rdquo Fisher said.
Fisher saw the writing on the wall when the equipment manager at the University of Oklahoma, a big account, called him and said they didn&rsquot have any choice but to wear Nikes.
&ldquoPhil understood that the bigger prize was the promotional value instead of the revenue from the team business alone,&rdquo Fisher said.
Knight had boldly proclaimed at a shoe industry conference in Chicago in the mid-'70s that he wasn&rsquot in the shoe business. He was in the entertainment business. He might have given away his secret, but he was the best at it.
That's why when it came time to give an offer, Fisher gave it his best shot.
"Phil was who he was and Falk was a great negotiator, so I only had one time to do it," Fisher said. When the numbers were revealed, Falk was impressed. In straight-up cash, Spot-Bilt's deal would be worth more than what Nike offered.
If it came down to which company offered top dollar, Spot-Bilt would have landed Jordan, but Falk knew Nike had the marketing muscle. In fact, he said he made them commit to putting $1 million into marketing Jordan's shoes in their first six months on the shelves.
In the coming weeks, Falk came up with the Air Jordan name and Nike was working hard to make a splash.
No one comes close to selling as many shoes as Nike's Air Jordans. Mario Tama/Getty Images
But first, Falk had to call Fisher to tell him that Jordan would not be wearing Spot-Bilt.
"David called me and told us we had the highest bid, even though I always assumed Nike did," Fisher said. "He was very respectful to me and said that Michael and his father really appreciated the time we spent with them."
So what would have happened if Spot-Bilt had landed Jordan?
"We wouldn't have had Jordan wear those black-and-red shoes," Fisher said. "We were a family company, more conservative. We would have probably made a white shoe with a red stripe on it."
As for whether the brand would have been able to keep up with the Jordan craze, Fisher said he'd like to think it would have, but not at the pace of Nike.
When the 1984-85 season rolled around, everything went right.
The shoes were banned by the NBA because of their lack of uniform color scheme. Nike paid the fines and made a commercial.
"On October 15th, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe," the voice in the commercial said. "On October 18th, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can't keep you from wearing them."
Jordan played every game of his rookie season, averaged 28.2 points per game, and won the Rookie of the Year award. Kids wanted to "Be Like Mike."
The Air Jordan Is, at an unheard of price of $65 a pair, hit stores nationwide in March 1985. By May, Nike had sold $70 million worth. By year's end, the Air Jordan franchise had yielded more than $100 million in revenues.
In the company's annual report that year, Knight called it "the perfect combination of quality product, marketing and athlete endorsement."
In 2012, the Jordan brand sold $2.5 billion worth of shoes at retail, its best year ever, according to market retail tracking firm SportsOneSource. Air Jordans made up 58 percent of all basketball shoes bought in the U.S. and 77 percent of all kids' basketball shoes. Most of those kids didn't even see Michael Jordan play.
"Sonny kept saying, 'He's the guy, he's the guy,'" White said. "But we didn't know what that really meant. None of us thought it would be like it has been."
"Would the brand have been as strong if it was adidas?" Jordan asked. "We'll never know."
But Jordan is thankful that adidas made it easier for him to walk away from the brand he always loved.
"In hindsight, it was perfect for me because it made my decision that much easier, and I ended up with Nike."
The Swoosh has pretty much been synonymous with Michael Jordan. Despite its impressive stable of the best athletes in the world today, “His Airness” remains as Nike’s biggest, not to mention most lucrative, investment of all time.
What began as an initial five-year, $250,000 deal he signed in 1984 — which also marked as the release of Jordan’s now-iconic signature shoe — evolved into a disruptor of the shoe injury now known as the Jordan Brand.
Jordan’s Jumpman logo has become a massive standalone business, which hauls in $3 billion in revenue each year for Nike. MJ rakes in around $100 million a year from Nike in royalties alone.
The Air Jordan line continues to bring in big bucks, as the NBA’s brightest young stars like Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum, and Rui Hachimura currently represent the brand.
Michael Jordan: A Player Who Changed the Culture of an Entire City
No other player in NBA history has meant more to the city and team he represented than Michael Jordan.
Jordan’s importance stretches past the confines of just basketball. When an average sports fan thinks of Chicago sports, Michael Jordan is most assuredly at the top of the list.
There is no other team in the history of the NBA for which one athlete has become synonymous with the team itself. Throughout NBA history, players have passed the torch of their legacy on to the next generation of up-and-coming superstars to carry the team in the future.
Most of the NBA powerhouses have gone through various phases in which a new superstar was leading the team. The Lakers and Celtics in particular have long lists of Hall of Famers that have all contributed to the franchises’ successes as a whole. However, no one player has truly stood above another within the time line of those teams and others.
Michael Jordan single-handedly shaped and molded the Chicago Bulls into a winning organization. In the years prior to his arrival in 1984, the Bulls were far from being considered a contender and this remained true even in his first few seasons with the team.
The league at the time was under the control of the Big Three in Boston, the Showtime Lakers, and the Bad Boys of Detroit. On paper, the Bulls were easily the underdogs but that’s the beauty of Michael Jordan’s leadership.
As the 90’s were introduced, so was a newly-transformed Michael Jordan, ready to take over the league.
Jordan was responsible for six of the 10 championships won in the decade, even though he retired for a season and a half during the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons.
Jordan built the Chicago Bulls from the ground up and transformed them into the unstoppable team we witnessed during the championship years.
The Bulls of the 90’s were a team that, regardless of your own team loyalty, you had to watch and cheer for. His achievements during that time span set a bar that has been unreachable ever since.
From the time he announced his second retirement in 1998, sportswriters and other league representatives have been looking for a replacement—someone to fill the enormous shoes of such a legendary figure.
It’s not simply the winning attitude His Airness brought the city of Chicago and its fans, but also his loyalty to the city that decided to take the chance and draft him third overall in the 1984 NBA Draft.
All but two of his 15 NBA seasons were played in a Bulls uniform. He was a part of the team back when they played in the old Chicago Stadium and was there to usher in the new United Center arena upon his return from his initial retirement in 1995.
That type of loyalty is unheard of in today’s NBA. Players have more of a “win now” attitude and are willing to go through every means from free agency to demanding trades to achieve that goal. But MJ stayed true to his first team and stayed with them through the bad times long enough to reach the great times that were ahead.
There have not been too many players in league history for which the same can be said.
How Michael Jordan became a brand
Wilson Smith, Nike Design Archivist, and Kevin Dodson, vice president of basketball footwear, discuss the history of designer sneakers for basketball players.
Michael Jordan remains the OG signature shoe king 16 years after his last NBA game and 21 years after his last championship.
Introduced by the Chicago Bulls superstar in 1984 and later marketed by Nike in 1985 as the Air Jordan 1, created the basketball sneaker branding market. In fiscal 2018, Nike revenue from the Jordan Brand line hit nearly $2.9 billion, the company said, part of it coming from buyers who weren’t alive during Jordan’s last title run.
The Jordan Brand stretches from shoes to clothing and gear, including bags, backpacks and hats. Nike last year opened a mash-up of retail store and consumer experience called Jumpman L.A. on downtown Los Angeles’ South Broadway, which includes shoe and clothing customization, virtual reality training simulation and a rooftop basketball court.
But what today seems like the no-brainer that should have enticed bids from every major athletic shoe brand should be viewed more accurately as a first-of-its-kind gamble that almost never happened. Jordan laughed at the “Air Jordan” name, hated the look of the shoe and almost skipped the meeting with Nike.
“He didn’t even want to fool with Nike,” said Roland Lazenby, author of the 2014 book “Michael Jordan: The Life.”
Jordan’s mother, Deloris, Lazenby said, part of a family of former North Carolina sharecroppers who believed strongly in economic empowerment, insisted he attend. “And Nike gave him an unbelievable deal, a 25% royalty. And it would take years before someone else in the shoe industry would get that,” he said.
Nike too needed a lot of convincing. In 1984, Jordan had been part of a historic NBA draft that included one of the league’s best big men, Hakeem Olajuwon one of its most dominant power forwards, Charles Barkley and the league’s all-time best at dishing out assists, John Stockton.
The fact that Nike would wind up throwing virtually all of its shoe marketing money behind Jordan was hardly assured. Lazenby said it took a small cadre of Jordan backers, including Nike marketing legend Sonny Vaccaro, to convince a very skeptical Phil Knight, one of Nike’s co-founders.
“Phil Knight was mildly interested at best,” Lazenby said. “But Vaccaro was relentless, and he soon formed an allegiance with Rob Strasser and with Peter Moore. They were both at Nike, and they were essential guys in driving the whole Jordan idea forward.”
The third intangible, Lazenby said, was Jordan’s play. “He was the guy who could fly,” Lazenby said. “Ultimately it was his competitiveness that wowed global audiences.”
Jordan has been as surprised as anyone about his lasting appeal.
“‘First I thought it was a fad,’” Lazenby said the normally reticent Jordan told him in 2014. “’But it’s far greater now than it used to be. The numbers are just outrageous.”
That, however, doesn’t fully explain Jordan’s remarkable brand staying power at age 55. Three Jordan Brand shoes remain among the current 10 top-selling athletic shoes: the Jordan XI Low, Jordan 1 High OG and the Jordan IX Mid, according to market research firm NPD Group.
“What you have here is a once-in-a-generation athlete who has transcended his sport and has become ingrained not only in the sports world, but in popular culture as well,” said sports marketing expert George Belch, professor and chairman of the marketing department at San Diego State University.
Jordan is “kind of the epitome of cool in many ways,” Belch said. “His influence just seems to go from one generation to the next. He played before they were even born, yet he becomes this very trustworthy, almost timeless brand image that just really seems to represent winning and excellence and everything else.”