Tinker Hatfield Relives Michael Jordan Almost Leaving Nike After Foot Injury

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistMay 19, 2020

FILE - In this Sept. 29, 2009 file photo, the famous Nike Michael Jordan image graces the front of the Niketown store in downtown Portland, Ore. Basketball legend Michael Jordan is not leaving the Nike Inc. board of directors and his namesake brand, the Air Jordan sneaker, remains with the sports shoe and apparel company. Jordan has never sat on the Nike board of directors, said Mitch Germann, a spokesman for Jordan Brand, which Nike owns. The false claim, which originated on an online satire site, began circulating widely after Nike’s launch of a new ad campaign featuring former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)
Don Ryan/Associated Press

Michael Jordan has been synonymous with Nike for 35 years, but there was a time when a foot injury nearly ended their partnership. 

Per ESPN's Wright Thompson, Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield noted that Jordan "soured" on the brand early in the 1985-86 season when he suffered a broken foot in the Chicago Bulls' game against the Golden State Warriors. 

"Phil Knight was pretty well convinced that Michael was gonna leave Nike," Hatfield said. "Phil was very, very concerned. I think he thought for sure we had lost him. There was this one last meeting. It was in this hotel."

Thompson noted Jordan was listening to offers from other shoe companies, with those brands "whispering in his ear that Nike didn't have the design chops or the marketing expertise to actually deliver on the forest of promises it had made him."

Hatfield noted it was after meeting with Jordan at a tailor shop where Jordan was being fitted for a new suit that he went back to his home in Portland to work "around the clock" on a new sneaker design

As executives at Nike were waiting to have that last meeting, Hatfield recalled everyone waiting "for four hours" for Jordan to show up because he was out playing golf. 

"From what I understand, Michael was out on the golf course with some prospective partners, and Howard (White, a Nike employee) was with them but he was trying to get Michael to leave the golf course and go to the meeting," Hatfield said.

According to Thompson, when Jordan finally arrived, Tinker pulled out the Air Jordan III, which changed "the whole tenor of the meetings, as did the models who came through wearing the corresponding apparel, and the rest is history."

Hatfield also recalled that Jordan's father played a role in keeping his son under the Nike umbrella. James Jordan Sr. told Michael his actions on the day of the meeting were "embarrassing to your mother and I" and Nike's commitment to him was apparent because of how long it waited for him to show up. 

As explained in The Last Dance, Jordan initially planned to sign a marketing deal with Adidas or Converse coming out of college until his mother, Deloris Jordan, pushed him to take a meeting with Nike. 

"My mother said, 'You're going to go listen (to Nike's pitch). You may not like it, but you're gonna go listen,'" Jordan said in Episode 5 of the documentary series (h/t Robby Kalland of Dime). "And she made me get on that plane and go listen. I go into that meeting, not wanting to be there. Nike made this big pitch, and my father said, 'You have to be a fool not to take this deal. It's a great deal.'"

Jordan wound up missing 64 games during the 1985-86 season due to the broken foot. It was the only time in his 13 years with the Chicago Bulls that he missed more than four games in a season due to an injury. 

The Air Jordan III is one of the most iconic basketball shoes of all time. The sneaker was featured in the famous commercials with Spike Lee as his Do The Right Thing character Mars Blackmon. 

Since helping keep Jordan with Nike 35 years ago, Hatfield has been credited with designing the Air Jordan III through XV.