In 1984, Nike was floundering. Reebok had captured the aerobics shoe business, and the running shoe market was flattening. Nike's earnings were off, the stock price was in the tank, and there was a sense the company was stalled. Then, an obnoxious, overweight lawyer from the company's marketing department had the idea that saved what is now Oregon's largest company.
The line of shoes and apparel Rob Strasser created for a rookie shooting guard playing for the Chicago Bulls became the most successful single brand in Nike's history. "A whole lot of people are responsible," Nike co-founder Phil Knight told WW in 1985, "but Rob is the MVP."
The Air Jordan made the Nike we know. Michael Jordan was originally signed by Nike to a five-year, $2.5 million deal. Last year, 10 years after Jordan retired from the NBA, the line had retail sales of $2.7 billion. Beyond sales, the shoes cemented Nike as a backboard-shattering force of marketing.
Then-NBA Commissioner David Stern in 1985 levied a $5,000 fine every time Jordan wore his black-and-red Air Jordan 1's on the court, a violation of the league's dress code. Jordan, it's worth noting, originally didn't even like the shoes' design. But he honored his contract with Nike, which happily paid the fines, reaping priceless publicity for their outlaw shoes.
Before Air Jordans, shoe-endorsement deals were considered to be a minor piece of Nike's strategy. Today, more than 300 NBA players are represented by Nike divisions, more than three times as many as represented by Adidas. Nike also controls about 90 percent of the U.S. basketball shoe market.
Before Air Jordans, Strasser was simply a loud guy whose nickname was "Rolling Thunder," a man who screamed at this reporter when he was asked why he didn't sign Czechoslovakia-born Ivan Lendl, then the No. 1 tennis player in the world, to an endorsement contract: "BECAUSE HE'S A FUCKING COMMUNIST!"
But with Air Jordans, Strasser became "The Man Who Saved Nike"—the headline of a story that appeared in WW in 1985.
Strasser died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 46, after taking a job running Adidas America—a move that infuriated Nike. On his gravestone is a verse that captures the spirit of his work at Nike:
1974: Mt. Hood Freeway Killed
1978: Bill Walton Sits Down
1995: Bicyclists Sue Portland
2009: Sam Adams Admits Lying
2011: Occupy Portland