Review: ‘One Man and His Shoes,’ starring Sonny Vaccaro, David Falk, Peter Moore, Julia Strasser Dixon, Jemele Hill, Antonio Williams and David J. Stern

March 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

A photo of Michael Jordan in “One Man and His Shoes” (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images/OMAHS Ltd.)

“One Man and His Shoes”

Directed by Yemi Bamiro

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “One Man and His Shoes,” a racially diverse group of people (African American, white and a few Latinos and Asians), who are all connected in some way to professional basketball, discuss the story behind the massive business of Air Jordan athletic shoes, inspired by Michael Jordan and made by Nike.

Culture Clash: As Nike’s Air Jordan shoes became more popular as a status symbol, criticism increased over the higher retail prices for the shoes and the violence caused by Air Jordan shoe thefts. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Michael Jordan and Air Jordan shoes, “One Man and His Shoes” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about shoe culture and how popular brands are marketed to consumers and the down sides of brand popularity.

Air Jordan XII shoes (launched in 1996), in a scene from “One Man and His Shoes” (Photo courtesy of Vice)

“One Man and His Shoes” offers a fairly comprehensive look at the highs, lows and everything in between for the popularity of Air Jordan athletic shoes, made by Nike. This documentary’s biggest void is not having the participation of Michael Jordan or anyone in his family. “One Man and His Shoes” has an epilogue stating: “Nike and Brand Jordan did not to requests to be interviewed in this film.”

However, “One Man and His Shoes” admirably doesn’t sugarcoat or ignore that behind the glamorous image of the lucrative Air Jordan business is a very ugly truth: There have been deadly repercussions of how the Air Jordan brand has been marketed as a status symbol. Certain people have literally been killed for Air Jordan shoes. Most of these murder victims are African Americans. “One Man and His Shoes” brings up issues of corporate and celebrity responsibility when a people are killing each other to get a celebrity brand product that’s marketed to low-income people who might not be able to afford that product.

Directed by Yemi Bamiro, “One Man and His Shoes” has interviews with mostly sports journalists; cultural experts/historians; and former Nike executives who have been involved with making and selling Air Jordan shoes. The movie begins with this striking statement: “September 15, 1984: Nike created Air Jordan. On October 18, 1984, the NBA [National Basketball Association] threw them out of the game.” For people who don’t know why, it’s because in 1984, Michael Jordan, the future superstar Chicago Bulls player, was wearing the first version of Air Jordans, which violated the NBA’s rules of not having enough white on the shoes.

The Air Jordan 1 shoes were boldly designed in mostly black and red, with some white, but not enough white to meet NBA standards. Of course, Jordan still got to play in the NBA and went on to become the most famous basketball player in the world. In the early days of Air Jordan, he was fined for wearing the shoes during NBA games. However, Nike (which is headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon) happily paid the fines, which were a tiny fraction of what would become the multibillion-dollar Air Jordan business. In 2022, Nike had an estimated $5 billion in sales from Jordan Brand (Nike’s division for Air Jordans), and those annual revenues are expected to increase.

Jordan getting fined for wearing Air Jordans was a clever marketing strategy for Nike, since the fines immediately created a “rebellious but cool” image for Air Jordans. In addition, he wore the Air Jordan shoes for five or six months before they went on sale at retail. The NBA “ban” on the shoes helped fuel sales.

Peter Moore, the original designer of Air Jordans, comments in “One Man and His Shoes” about how Air Jordans saved Nike from declining sales and cultural irrelevancy. Before the invention of Air Jordans, “Nike started out as a running [shoes] company. By 1984, they weren’t doing well.” (Moore died in 2022, at the age of 74.)

Before the invention of Air Jordans, the company that had the largest market share for basketball shoes in 1984 was Converse (which had NBA stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as celebrity spokesmen), followed by Adidas. Nike was in a distant third or fourth place. It’s a well-known story that in 1984, 21-year-old NBA rookie Jordan was leaning toward signing with Adidas, which was the leading athletic shoe brand at the time for hip-hop culture.

However, Nike won over Jordan and his parents because Nike promised an entire shoe franchise named after Jordan, as well as Jordan getting a share of the revenue. It was a deal that was unheard of at the time for any NBA player, let alone a rookie. The documentary mentions that Jordan currently makes about $130 million a year from Air Jordan sales. David Falk, who was Jordan’s agent at the time, reiterates this story in the documentary. Falk is also widely credited with coming up with the name Air Jordan for the shoe brand.

Sonny Vaccaro, a former Nike executive, is credited with being the one to come up with the idea to have Nike make this huge investment in Jordan. He is also credited with changing the business of college sports sponsorship by paying National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) colleges for their teams to wear Nike shoes. In the documentary, Vaccaro shows a pair of Nike shoes that Jordan wore when he injured his toe in the 1991 NBA playoffs between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Rob Strasser (who died in 1993, at the age of 46) was the Nike marketing executive who decided to market Air Jordans to inner city kids. Julia Strasser Dixon, Rob Strasser’s widow, is a former Nike marketing manager. She says in the documentary: “Everybody in the business knew that the main consumer[s] for athletic shoes [are] 16-year-old boys. The biggest sport to get to the masses is basketball.”

Professor Antonio Williams, a sports marketing lecturer at the University of Indianapolis, comment in the documentary: “Marketing the Jordan brand to the African American community has been the core of success of the Jordan brand.” Sports journalist Jemele Hill adds, “Black people have always been the arbiter of cool.”

Rick Telender, author and Chicago Sun-Times basketball columnist, has this observation: “You could say it was about race and ethnicity. But as always, it’s about poverty, it’s about economic disparity, about hope, and about a chance to move ahead to become a part of the Great American Ladder, where you can start anywhere and make it to the top.”

The success of the Air Jordan brand had a lot to do with Jordan’s star power and how Nike marketed it. Spike Lee’s association with Nike (he has directed and starred in Air Jordan commercials) are mentioned as being part of the effective marketing campaign for Air Jordans. DJ/music producer Clark Kent describes Lee as “the father of sneaker culture.”

David J. Stern, who was commissioner of the NBA from 1984 to 2014, mentions that the Puma Clyde shoe (inspired by former NBA star Walt Frazier) was the first “cool” player/shoe alliance. Jordan and Nike took that concept to a whole other level. Other people who offer comments about the marketing of Air Jordans are sneaker analyst Matt Powell, Michael Jordan biographer Roland Lazenby and Jim Riswold, a former creative for advertising firm Wieden & Kennedy, which has created the most well-known Air Jordan ads, including “It’s Gotta Be the Shoes” for the Air Jordan 5.

But there were also other cultural forces that made the Air Jordan brand a huge business success. Jordan came along at a time when young people, particularly African American youth, were looking for a new basketball hero. Jordan’s celebrity name also helped increase tourism in Chicago, according to basketball/sneaker writer Russ Bengston, who says: “Until [Michael] Jordan came, Chicago really wasn’t a destination for anybody.”

From the beginning, Air Jordans have been marketed to inner-city youth. However, the prices for these shoes are often out of reach for this target audience, thereby causing a phenomenon called “Air Jordan envy.” And envy for material things often can result in theft and violence. Meanwhile, filmmaker/author Robbito Garcia notes that even though Nike wanted to get a lot of money from certain communities, Nike didn’t show enough concern about how Nike products (specifically Air Jordans) were negatively affecting anyone in those communities: “There was a gap in the support for the youth,” says Garcia.

In all fairness, “One Man and His Shoes” mentions the charitable causes that Jordan and Nike have contributed to, in order to help underprivileged youth. But the documentary also mentions that Jordan and Nike have been slow to respond to murders that were directly related to Air Jordan thefts. People have also continued to question the prices for Air Jordans. Critics of Air Jordans have described these shoes as overpriced and overrated.

One of the people interviewed in “One Man and His Shoes” is Dazie Williams, a Houston mother whose 22-year-old son Joshua D. Woods was murdered for his Air Jordans in 2012. Williams says that even though her son’s murderers are solely responsible for this heinous crime, she believes that her son would not have been murdered for any other shoes. She also says that Jordan gave her a tone-deaf sympathy gift of a pair of Air Jordans after her son was killed. Williams compares this sympathy gift to giving candy to a crying kid.

Sports journalist Scoop Jackson and other people in the documentary say that even though Jordan could have done more to address the violence connected to Air Jordans, it’s really Nike that bears most of the burden to have a responsible reaction to this violence. It’s because Nike is the entity that markets Air Jordans and make the most profits from Air Jordans. Williams doesn’t mince words when he says, “Nike has a little blood on their hands too.”

“One Man and His Shoes” isn’t all gloom and doom. The documentary also shows the fun side of Air Jordan fandom. Some people who are Air Jordan collectors are interviewed in the movie, including entrepreneur Hawaii Mike Salman and Paris-based print designer Air Ruddy. A Detroit-based collector, who did not want to be identified on camera, says he’s been collecting Air Jordans since 1985.

At the time this documentary was made, this unidentified collector had more than 1,175 Air Jordan shoes, and his Air Jordan collection was insured for more than $1 million. A female Air Jordan collector in Tokyo is also interviewed, but she did not want to be identified on camera. This secrecy gives more credibility to the belief that people who go public about owning many valuable Air Jordans could be putting their own lives at risk.

The origin story of Air Jordan shoes has been made into the 2023 dramatic film “Air,” directed by Ben Affleck, who co-stars in the movie as Nike founder Phil Knight. It’s a very glossy version of the story that makes the Nike executives the main heroes. “One Man and His Shoes” is worth watching for more of the real story that’s not included in “Air,” including the harsh reality that people have died because of greed for Air Jordan shoes.

Vice premiered “One Man and His Shoes” on May 25, 2020. The movie is available on digital and VOD, as well as free streaming on Crackle, The Roku Channel and Tubi.

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