Michael Jordan wasn’t always the basketball demigod and cultural icon he turned out to be.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, he was raised in North Carolina, and after eventually earning All-American honors—after previously being cut from his varsity team for not being good or big enough—he went to school at UNC-Chapel Hill.
His college career only hinted at his potential success on the hardwood. Jordan averaged 17.7 points and five rebounds per game in his three years at UNC.
His defining moment in college—and self-proclaimed turning point of his career—came in his freshman year when he hit the game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship game.
He was eventually drafted by the Chicago Bulls third overall in the June 1984 NBA Draft. His rookie contract earned him $630,000, but that wasn’t the deal that would eventually change the landscape of basketball forever.
That deal came later in the year, when Jordan’s agent, David Falk, negotiated a shoe contract with Nike.
Falk, by this point, was no stranger to working with elite NBA players, and completing milestone contracts for his clients. His most notable contract was James Worthy’s eight-year, $1.2 million shoe deal with New Balance in 1982 (the first million-dollar shoe contract).
The deal he concocted between Jordan and Nike, however, would mark the start of a new era in basketball, one that revolutionized superstar egos and featured personal images over things like team success.
“I think (the deal) transformed the game of basketball. I think it showed that a basketball player could have impact way, way, beyond the game,” says Brian Sheehan, an associate professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
“All of a sudden, people were wearing Air Jordan shoes, and they’ve never even seen a game of basketball. Everybody’s into Michael Jordan, even if you didn’t like basketball. All of a sudden, Michael Jordan’s doing movies with Bugs Bunny. This was the sort of thing you never saw before.”
Jordan’s $500,000 contract with Nike was unique for several reasons, but most importantly because it was the first time an athlete was going to share the royalties of the deal.
The deal also included a stipulation stating Jordan would receive his own shoe line.
One of the most notable parts surrounding the deal, however, was simply that Jordan was set to earn a major endorsement deal in a time when it was believed African Americans were hard to market.
In his rookie season with the Bulls, Jordan averaged roughly 28 points, six assists, and six rebounds per game en route to winning the 1985 NBA Rookie of the Year award.
His sneaker, the (original) Air Jordan earned Nike $130 million.
Michael Jordan’s popularity was skyrocketing, and so was his super-stardom and marketability.
In his recently released book The Bald Truth: Secrets of Success from the Locker Room to the Boardroom, Falk outlines what made him a triumphant sports agent.
“Don’t try to run a democracy,” Falk writes. “Treat everyone fairly but don’t treat everyone equally.”
Looking back on it, it’s evident this ploy by Falk was quite successful.