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
1975: Soccer City, USA | A Vet Shuts Down Nuclear Power
1976: A Home for Refugees | Intel Changes the Economy
1978: Bill Walton Sits Down
1979: Busing Ends in Portland Schools | Oregon Wine Gets Famous
1982: Courts Pave Way for Nudie Bars | The Other Daily Paper Folds
1984: Satyricon's First Show | A Bartender Becomes Mayor | The Air Jordan Saves Nike
1985: First Female Police Chief Ousted | Wieden+Kennedy's Most Important Ad
1986: Dark Horse Comics' First Issue
1988: Inaugural Oregon Brewers' Fest | Rise of Hate Groups
1989: NW Rowhouses Burn | Gus Van Sant's Portland Hits Screen
1990: Our First Great Restaurant | Oregon's Longest Tax Revolt
1991: Cleaning up the Willamette
1995: Bicyclists Sue Portland
1996: Vera Katz Builds a Wall | March to Save City Nightclub | Powell's Rebuffs Amazon
1997: Path Cleared for Pearl District
1999: Stumptown Coffee Opens | Fight Club Hits DVD
2000: Largest Union Pension Fraud Ever
2003: Fred Meets Carrie | Suicide of Elliott Smith
2004: Gay Marriage Legalized (Briefly) | Goldschmidt Exposed | Eastside Portland Rises
2006: The Death of James Chasse Jr.
2008: Our Fanciest Restaurant Ever Bombs
2009: Sam Adams Admits Lying
2011: Occupy Portland