Getting To Know The Real-Life Figures Behind Ben Affleck's AIR
Getting To Know The Real-Life Figures Behind Ben Affleck’s AIR

If you’re a fan of biographies, sports drama or simply inspiring real-life stories, you don’t want to miss this movie, now streaming exclusively on Prime Video

Now streaming on Prime Video, Ben Affleck directorial AIR masterfully tells the true story of the iconic Air Jordan — one of sneaker culture’s greatest icons. The Alex Convery-penned script weaves a tale of how Nike — who were struggling to find their footing after going public in the ’80s — ran a daring campaign to sign Michael Jordan for basketball’s greatest-ever branding deal, when the iconic shooting guard was just a rookie in the 1984 season.


The film itself has made headwaves since its release in the US, and has won immense critical appreciation. Here’s what Affleck — who starred in, produced, and directed the film — had to say during its world premiere at the SXSW Festival in Texas this March:


“Tonight is the most important night of my professional life,” the director told the crowd. “This is an optimistic, hopeful movie about people. So I can’t hide behind being an auteur — [as if to say] ‘you don’t need to understand my movie.’ I really hope you like it. … So no pressure, but it’s all on you.”

And like it they did — with the film’s exceptionally talented cast sweeping audiences the world over. With several Emmys and Oscars lined up between the A-lister cast, we’re sure in for an epic acting performance this week. But who are the curious real-life inspirations behind Air? Here’s all you need to know:

Sonny Vaccaro, Sports Marketing Executive

Played by Matt Damon

“I grew up gambling in Trafford, Pennsylvania. Playing poker was a ritual birth. We all did it. We all played in the number games. I went to Las Vegas when I graduated from college. I won. I lost. I was good. I was bad. But I was always Sonny,” — Sonny Vaccaro to Vanity Fair

As one of the most influential men in the history of the sneaker industry, Sonny Vaccaro was no slouch. With a key eye for talent that scouted famous names such as Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Raseed Wallace and more, the talent scout-turned-marketing genius has worked with all the big names in sports equipment, but his most memorable run was with Nike Inc. where he signed Michael Jordan to the Nike AIR sneaker deal — the core of AIR‘s captivating story, brought to life with Matt Damon’s portrayal of the gutsy, innovative Vaccaro.

“The closest to honest thing about the whole movie is my relationship with Mrs. Jordan…that was real,” said to real Vaccaro to Vanity Fair in a recent interview. And true enough — much of the deal that would revive Nike and reward billions to the Jordan estate would all stem from key conversations between the sports exec and the talented player’s mother.

Phil Knight, CEO and Chairman of Nike Inc.

Played by Ben Affleck

“Phil is an interesting guy… He talks about Buddhism, Eastern philosophy. He also talks about being a ruthless capitalist. So right there, I think this is a guy of many contradictions, which is fun to play,” — Ben Affleck to The Hollywood Reporter on playing Phil Knight

Affleck’s character of choice for this period film is none other than the big man on top of the iconic ‘swoosh’, Phil Knight. Currently worth an estimated $47.7 billion, Knight is a larger-than-life figure that rose from relatively humble beginnings as the son of a newspaper publisher in Portland, Oregon. Inspired by early success as a collegiate athlete, Knight kept a passion for sports close to his heart through his career as an accountant and ambitious business student, eventually travelling to Japan where he signed a deal with Onitsuka Tiger (now ASICS), and founded Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964 — which we now know as Nike.

Charismatic and ruthlessly passionate about his work, Knight eventually went on to conquer the world of sports equipment and marry fashion and function in a way few other CEOs could.

Deloris Jordan, Banker and Mother of Michael Jordan

Played by Viola Davis

“My mom, she kept all my letters. It’s somewhat embarrassing, but yet it’s refreshing that I took the time to write a letter to say how much I love my mom and, you know, what I needed in college,” — Michael Jordan on his mother, on the Good Morning America show

The only person on this list to have a special edition pair of Jordan sneakers dedicated to her, Deloris was a key figure in Michael’s life, and was a strong presence behind the many business arrangements that came as a result of his stardom — the AIRs being one of the first. Tough, caring, and sharp-witted, it comes as no surprise that EGOT-winning acting titan Viola Davis would take up the role with great care. She even came up with the signature line of the film: “A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it.

James R. Jordan Sr., GE Supervisor and Father of Michael Jordan

Played by Julius Tennon

“He was my rock. You know, we were very close. He constantly gave me advice,” Michael Jordan on his father in 2020

Though Jordan Sr. tragically passed away in 1993 after a horrific robbery attempt, his spirit lives on in the film — where he’s portrayed by Julius Tennon, Viola Davis’ real-life husband and production partner. As an actor and producer with previous ties to Ben Affleck, Tennon does a great job of portraying the affable, supportive dad that Jordan Sr. was to his talented son, though he would sadly not live to see many of Michael’s stratospheric achievements through the mid and late 1990s. Today, Deloris runs a foundation in his name to help empower impoverished youth.

George Raveling, Olympic-level basketball coach

Played by Marlon Wayans

George Raveling was with me on the 1984 Olympics team (as an assistant coach under Bob Knight). He used to always try to talk to me, ‘You gotta go Nike, you gotta go Nike. You’ve got to try,” Michael Jordan on George Raveling for USA Today

Something of a national icon across the 20th century rise of basketball in the United States, Raveling grew up in difficult circumstances when his father died and mother was institutionalised before his teens — though he would focus on academics and sports, setting many basketballs records at the collegiate level. Apart from championing black representation in sports, Raveling would go on to become head coach of several teams including the 1984 Olympic basketball squad, where Michael Jordan trained under him, eventually winning an Olympic gold.

David Falk, Sports agent

Played by Chris Messina

“A lot of people don’t like David, but he’s the best at what he does. What he does is get underneath your skin, whoever he’s negotiating with, because he figures out what your objectives are, your angles. He understands the market; he understands the players,” — Michael Jordan to USA Today back in 2007

Pretty much the top-dog of all American sports agents, David Falk represented Jordan for his entire career, and also played a crucial role in laying out the deal between the athlete and Nike — which we’ll see front-row during the film. One touted as the second-most influential man in the NBA behind Commissioner David Stern, at his peak, Falk had over 40 players on contract at a time and gradually paved the way for the multi-million salary sports stardom that we see in the NBA today.

Howard White, Nike executive and Jordan brand VP

Played by Chris Tucker

“I locked myself in this hotel for 20 days to take in and go over all this information. Then I had to dissect the script, because Howard wasn’t in it and I didn’t want to mess up the plot. It was fun, but it was hard work,” — Chris Tucker on playing the role of Howard White.

As a youngster in his hometown of Hampton, Virginia, White was renowned as a playground legend and gained a reputation for showing up any defenders who dared to take him on. While an injury cut short his eventual rise to the NBA, he caught the eye of Nike and soon become one of its greatest talent scouts and branding minds. Interestingly, Chris Tucker had an informed experience of playing the character since he was friends with the real-life White for years.

Watch the story behind the iconic Air Jordan, exclusively on Prime Video. The film is streaming in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.

Images by Getty, ESPN, University Library of North Carolina

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