Sonny Vaccaro on Michael Jordan's Nike Contract: 'Without Me, He Doesn't Sign'

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2020

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - AUGUST 09:  Kemba Walker #26 of the 2019 USA Men's National Team wears Jordan Brand Jordan Jumpman Diamond sneakers during warmups before the 2019 USA Basketball Men's National Team Blue-White exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena on August 9, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Former Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro took umbrage with how The Last Dance portrayed Nike's courtship of Michael Jordan as the Hall of Famer was preparing to sign his first endorsement deal. 

In an interview with The PM Team on 93.7 The Fan, Vaccaro called the documentary "revisionist history." He said he was one of the driving forces inside Nike and that he told his colleagues, "Give the kid all the money."

"Without me, he doesn't sign," Vaccaro said of Jordan. "We don't go through all those romantic stories about Adidas and no one was paying him. That doesn't happen. There's no Air Jordan."

Jordan's agent, David Falk, told Action Network's Darren Rovell in April that Jordan had originally wanted to sign with Adidas and only met with Nike after being convinced by his parents. The rest is history.

Darren Rovell @darrenrovell

Can’t wait. Here’s how the “Air Jordan" nickname was coined by MJ's agent David Falk https://t.co/po2g4imTzE

The Last Dance provided more specifics on the machinations behind the scenes, yet failed to include any references to or interviews with Vaccaro.

Filmmaker Ken Burns outlined one issue with The Last Dance when speaking with the Wall Street Journal's Chris Kornelis. Because Jordan's production company helped work on the series, some will wonder how much input he had on the general narrative and the people director Jason Hehir approached to be involved.

In the case of Vaccaro, his absence was glaring.

Michael Eaves @michaeleaves

I do have one question from tonight though: where was the interview with Sonny Vaccaro?! #TheLastDance

marc tracy @marcatracy

The elision wholesale of Sonny Vaccaro from “The Last Dance” ... I’ve enjoyed the whole thing, compromises and all, but you’re just not telling the whole story without Sonny

The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Sole Man profiled Vaccaro in 2015, and Vaccaro's comments at the time echoed what he said on 93.7 The Fan. He painted himself as a critical figure in Nike's eventual persuasion of Jordan.

Speaking with USA Today's Josh Peter, Jordan disputed Vaccaro's account of what happened and downplayed his role:

"Prior to all of that, Sonny (Vaccaro) likes to take the credit. But it really wasn't Sonny, it was actually George Raveling. George Raveling was with me on the 1984 Olympics team (as an assistant coach under Bob Knight). He used to always try to talk to me, 'You gotta go Nike, you gotta go Nike. You've got to try.' [...]

"Sonny didn't influence me to go to Nike. He got a deal proposed. He talked to (Nike executive Rob) Strasser. Strasser at the time, from what I understood and perceived, he really didn't know the type of player and the type of person I was. He was looking at whoever he could find to fit that mold from what he was trying to do from an Air Jordan standpoint."

Nike fired Vaccaro in 1991, so some will likely argue Jordan has an incentive to minimize his role in the rise of Jordan Brand. Plus, the Chicago Bulls legend is famous for holding longstanding grudges.

Alluding to Jordan, Raveling and Nike co-founder Phil Knight, Vaccaro told Peter the "three of them need to destroy me to live happily ever after."

Peter Moore, who worked alongside Vaccaro at Nike and Adidas, seemed to back up those claims when he said to Peter the "whole episode is very typical of Nike history."

The adage that there are three sides to every story seems particularly apt in this case. There's Jordan's story and Vaccaro's story, with the truth probably somewhere in the middle.