Before Ben Affleck directed Air, the new film about the origin of Nike’s Air Jordan shoe line, he wanted to sit down and have a conversation with His Airness himself: Michael Jordan.
“I just wasn’t going to make this movie without asking him, ‘What matters to you?’” Affleck said during the March 18 world premiere of Air at the SXSW Film & TV Festival in Austin, Texas. “Interestingly, and tellingly, he had a few things that mattered.”
Jordan, who is famously protective about controlling the narrative of his life, had just two specific requests for the film, according to Affleck. He wanted Howard White, longtime vice president of Nike’s Jordan Brand, to be included in the movie. And he wanted EGOT-winning actress Viola Davis to play his mother, Deloris Jordan.
“That’s like saying, ‘Can I play basketball on your court?’ ‘Yeah, if you get Michael Jordan,’” Affleck said, according to Variety. “Viola Davis is the best actor I’ve ever seen.” Nevertheless, Affleck was able to grant both of Michael Jordan’s requests.
What Is Air About?
Air, which is now in theaters, depicts the true story of the origin of Nike’s Air Jordan line of basketball shoes and athletic apparel. Matt Damon portrays Sonny Vaccaro, the shoe salesman who worked to sign Jordan to his first sneaker deal during his NBA rookie year in 1984.
Nike’s basketball division was fledgling at the time, and the $15 million partnership with Jordan was initially met with skepticism, but Air Jordan became one of the nation’s most recognized brands, revolutionizing the world of sports and marketing alike. In addition to directing and helping produce the film, Affleck co-stars as Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight.
Early reviews have been positive, with IndieWire’s Marisa Mirabal calling it “a slam dunk and ultimately one of the best sports movies ever made.” Audiences reacted enthusiastically to Air during the SXSW screening, giving it a standing ovation.
Casting Viola Davis
Although a constant off-screen presence throughout the film, Jordan himself does not appear in Air. His parents James and Delores Jordan, however, play major supporting roles. When Affleck discussed the film with Jordan, he noticed a powerful look come over Jordan’s face when they discussed his mother.
“It was a look of reverence, of awe, of love, and gratitude, and innocence,” Affleck said at the SXSW premiere. “He said, ‘None of this would have ever happened without my mother.’”
Affleck considers Davis “the best actor in the world,” according to Variety. The two appeared together in the political thriller State of Play (2009), and Affleck had a cameo in the DC superhero film Suicide Squad (2016), in which Davis starred. Nevertheless, Affleck felt awed when Davis agreed to appear in Air.
“This is a hard business. It’s hard to know if you’re successful. It’s hard to know if you’ve accomplished something,” Affleck said. “But honest to God, I always felt that if I was a director one day, and I had Viola Davis in a movie, that would really be something. That would mean the world to me. And it does.”
Davis didn’t know Jordan personally recommended her for the part until Affleck announced it at SXSW. “I’m just hearing about it now,” she told People. “So yeah, it blew my mind. I’m glad I didn’t know about it before.” Davis’ real-life husband, Julius Tennon, portrays her on-screen husband, James R. Jordan Sr., in the film.
Who Is Howard White?
A standout point guard for the University of Maryland in his youth, White had dreamed of becoming a professional basketball player himself and was selected by the Washington Bullets in the 1973 NBA draft but was forced to leave the game due to knee injuries. Instead, his career led him to Nike, where he has worked for about four decades.
White is the vice president of Nike’s Jordan Brand and the founder of Believe to Achieve, the company’s national youth program. He has also been a close friend and mentor to Jordan since early in his career, helping Jordan set and achieve goals both in basketball and in life. White has been described as the Alfred the Butler to Jordan’s Batman.
It stands to reason, then, that Jordan would want such an important person to him included in the film. Upon learning about White, Affleck realized it would be a good opportunity to cast Chris Tucker, an actor with whom he had long wanted to work, according to Variety.
As it turns out, Tucker was a good friend of White as well. When contacted about appearing in Air, Tucker said White wasn’t formally part of the script yet, and the actor was going to be given a great deal of flexibility in deciding how the part would be played, according to People.
“I talked to Ben and Matt, and they said, ‘Hey man, we want you to come in, have fun. This is what we are doing. It’s like making a movie with your friends,’” Tucker said, “And I said, ‘Okay.’ I love Michael Jordan. It’s my friend Howard White. Ben said I can do whatever I want to do. I love the brand, the Jordan brand. Let’s do it.”
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.