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How Nike Took A Bet On A College Basketball Player From North Carolina and Won

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 23, 2024 3:01 am

How Nike Took A Bet On A College Basketball Player From North Carolina and Won

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 23, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, no one knew for sure just how great Michael Jordan would be in the NBA. One underdog sneaker company - yes, Nike was an underdog then - took a bet on him. But the turning point came when they zeroed in on a fledgling director - Spike Lee. The rest is history.

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This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. If you were to think of the most popular sneakers in sports, the name that comes to mind is Nike. But this brand wasn't always a top choice for athletes. In fact, in the 1970s and 80s, Nike was an underdog compared to other big brands like Adidas and Puma.

Up next, Nicholas Smith, author of Kicks, The Great American Story of Sneakers, brings us the story of how Nike took a chance on a college student to build their brand. Take it away, Nick. What makes Cinderella special at the ball? It's that glass slipper. What makes Dorothy return back from Oz to Kansas?

And tap your heels together three times and think to yourself, there's no place like home. It's the red ruby slippers. What makes Michael Jordan fly through the air? It's that Nike Air Jordan. So they were selling an idea that had been with our culture for a very long time.

That shoes can transform you into something else. Now Nike at the time had some success in the running shoe market and was trying to move into other sports. Of course, they were competing with the Converse's and with the Adidas's and with the Puma's in the world that kind of controlled that market. Now Nike had made some inroads in getting college basketball players to wear their shoes, but by the time those players turned to the pros, they went to one of the bigger brands.

So they thought, okay, well we need to change up our strategy. It's the early 80s, it's 1984, let's look at the draft and kind of pick the best players that we think and then we can kind of approach them for their own shoes and then that will be our big success story. Some of the Nike executives said, okay, well let's not look at four, let's look at one. And that one basketball player that they saw was Michael Jordan.

Now we all know the success that Michael Jordan had, but at the time he was a rookie, he was an unknown quantity, very, very good, but it wasn't clear if it would pan out or not. So they decided to take a gamble and make not only a shoe, the Air Jordan shoe after him, but also a line of different products, clothing. And after a couple of years, the Air Jordan shoe became very, very big and very, very famous because Jordan started to become a better, better player. Now of course, other brands started to become interested in Jordan and Jordan wasn't sure if he was going to stay with Nike or move to Adidas or Converse, which he also liked. And Nike said, okay, we're going to have to change up our strategy here. We're going to have to get a new shoe designer to design a third version of this Air Jordan shoe.

We're going to have to have a brand new marketing campaign to go with this. And two of the Nike executives just happened upon a first time director named Spike Lee, who made a very inventive first movie. And they thought, okay, well let's try to get this guy in to write and direct some commercials with Jordan. And these commercials ended up being a very pivotal moment for Nike because they kind of solidified not just the myth of Jordan, the player, but the myth of the shoe itself.

They were in black and white. They had a very young Michael Jordan there, and they also had Spike Lee in his character that he played in his first movie, Mars Blockman, this kind of geeky, nerdy, basketball obsessed guy who was just enamored and in love with Jordan. Even though he loved the New York Knicks, he saw that Jordan was still the best player around in those days.

So the commercials were kind of a straight man and a joking man going back and forth. Jordan played the, you know, I'm just going to say how it is in Mars Blockman was kind of the goofball there. So one of the first commercials, Spike Lee and his characters, he's trying to get Jordan to say, you know, what is it that makes you so great? Yo, Mars Blackman here with my main man, Michael Jordan.

Yo, Mike, what makes you the best player in the universe? Is it the vicious stunts? No Mars. Is it the haircut? No Mars. Is it the shoes? No Mars. Is it the extra long shorts? No Mars. It's the shoes then, right?

Nah. It's the shoes, Michael, the shoes make you great and like, no, no, it's not the shoes. But of course the point of the commercial is it is the shoes. They want you to buy the shoes that Jordan wears, the same shoes that this professional player that's so electric that everyone's talking about, you can have the very same thing that he's wearing on the court. Is it the short socks?

No Mars. Money's gotta be the shoes. Shoes? Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. You sure it's not the shoes? I'm sure, Mars. What about the shoes?

No, Mars. Money's gotta be the shoes. And this is kind of a very unique way to approach that marketing in a way that other brands had kind of touched on but hadn't really nailed it in the same way that Nike and that marketing was nailing it. And whether this was conscious at the time or not, they were tapping into a very old idea, the idea of a magic shoe. And when players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan became really big, you wanted to emulate them as much as possible.

And it wasn't just on the basketball court, it was in the school yard, walking down the street, in your spare time. You wanted to have that association there with somebody famous. I mean, it's kind of the oldest idea now is what we like is because we saw it on somebody else that we want to emulate.

People wearing a certain sneaker want to capture that cool that whoever is having that sneaker has. Now, in those days, of course, it's an athlete because athletes wear sneakers. But over time, it became musicians, it became celebrities.

You would start to find them on TV or in the movies or other sorts of things. So of course, in the 1970s, Charlie's Angels is a big, big show. And Farrah Fawcett is probably the biggest star on that show. Well, in one episode, she is, I think, escaping from a bad guy on a skateboard and she's wearing a pair of white Nike sneakers. Same pair, incidentally, that Forrest Gump wore in the movie To Run Across America. Well, of course, you know, people watching this episode or people seeing the posters or anything of Farrah Fawcett in those sneakers immediately wanted a pair because of that connection there to, you know, a very famous celebrity. And after a while, more and more brands started to sponsor more and more non-athletes. And you know, this is what leads us to the world of today, where if Rihanna has a sneaker deal, you're not looking at it weird like, oh, well, she's not an athlete.

You're like, oh, yeah, of course, she's Rihanna. Of course, she would have her own sneaker line. And a terrific job by Madison Dereckhout on the production and storytelling and a special thanks to author Nicholas Smith, a terrific business, culture, sports and history story all wrapped into one, the story of Air Jordan here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith and love, stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-04-23 04:39:03 / 2024-04-23 04:44:06 / 5

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