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Mother of Mike and the Bigger Game

The recent documentary, Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, chronicled the riveting grass roots effort by the people of Lowndes to organize, register, and vote African Americans into key local offices in the late 1960s.

While they were eventually successful at the ballot box, they soon learned that the vote was just the beginning. Being elected sheriff, tax assessor, coroner and to the school board was still paper without power.

There was a bigger game afoot that they didn’t realize it at the time. True power rested in Lowndes’ economic centers in which they were not part. Business, banking, and land remained primarily in white hands, as it does today.

That documentary came to mind as I was watching the new movie, Air, starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Viola Davis. It’s the story of the campaign waged by Adidas, Converse and third place Nike to woo new NBA recruit Michael Jordan to a shoe deal.

Matt Damon and Viola Davis in Air, 2023

Nike was initially not even willing to put its entire basketball budget behind one player in order to stay competitive with the other brands. But three people knew Jordan’s true worth and potential - his mother, Deloris, and Nike scout, Sonny Vaccaro and Jordan himself.

I’m not spoiling the outcome because we all know Air Jordan put Nike on the map and MJ into the financial stratosphere.

What I did not know was how the deal his mother helped negotiate transformed the leverage of future players in the economics of the sport. She set her sights on the bigger game, and was not afraid to reframe the rules of engagement.

It was thrilling to watch - and you know Viola did it justice - as the Jordans visited the boardrooms of the shoe giants, listening to pitches by their (all-white) leadership.

When they finally selected Nike, Mrs. Jordan calmly insisted on her son receiving the fees offered, a sports car, and (really it was so obvious, she remarked, that it was probably just an oversight in the paperwork) a cut of the profits from every Air Jordan sold henceforth and forever more.

That is not how it was done then, and watching the stunned Sonny Vaccaro character try to talk her out of it was an illuminating display of the poverty mentality.

He mansplained that Nike was taking the bigger risk. Suppose Michael got injured and curtailed his career? Nike was making a huge investment. Surely the endorsement contract was generous enough. (Viola sighed and held the phone away from her ear.)

Then he poor mouthed that they were all mere working stiffs. The true power brokers in the shoe and hoop games would never part with that much of the profits to a player.

Mrs. Jordan countered that the shoe line was being built around her son’s name, talent, and on-the-court execution. He would be held to the highest standard, expected to stay in shape, score high, break records, win titles and secure championships for the rest of his career. He deserved a cut because, “A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps in it.”

The Nike Air Jordan logo is a globally recognized icon.

The rest is history. With that deal, not only were the Jordans’ personal fortunes profoundly altered, they disrupted the way future hoop stars would partake of the fruit of their labor while creating a multi-billion dollar business and philanthropic engine.

The beef about MJ back in the day was that he was not vocal about social and racial issues. Now we can see that Mike and his Mama were firmly grounded in courage, vision and confidence.

They were always playing the bigger game.

Isisara Bey

Artistic Director, March On Washington Film Festival


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