The union between Michael Jordan and Nike is one of the greatest collaborations that almost didn’t happen. As we heard in “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s expansive documentary about Jordan, he originally wanted to sign with Adidas. It was his parents, James and Deloris, who encouraged him to listen to Nike’s pitch, and he signed the contract on their advice.
It goes even farther than the first contract, though. According to ESPN’s Wright Thompson, James is the reason he stayed with Nike in 1988, a time when he was actively shopping for a new shoe company. And James did it by scolding his son for being late.
Jordan had been unhappy with Nike for several years, starting in 1985 when he broke his foot just three games into the season while wearing a pair of Nikes. The company was hoping to make him happy and pull him back into the fold with his next sneaker, the Jordan 3. The shoe was designed with Jordan’s input, but CEO Phil Knight was convinced that Jordan would leave.
"Phil Knight was pretty well convinced that Michael was gonna leave Nike," Tinker Hatfield, the designer of the Jordan 3, told ESPN. "Phil was very, very concerned. I think he thought for sure we had lost him. There was this one last meeting. It was in this hotel."
It was a full house for that “last meeting.” Knight and Tinker were there, as was Nike’s head of marketing and Jordan’s agents. Jordan’s parents were also there, which is why what happened next is so important: Jordan kept everyone waiting in that hotel conference room for four hours. For four hours, everyone sat there, waiting for him to show up.
What was he doing? Playing golf, of course.
"We waited for four hours," Hatfield said, "which is about how long it takes to play 18 holes of golf. From what I understand, Michael was out on the golf course with some prospective partners, and Howard [White, a Nike employee] was with them but he was trying to get Michael to leave the golf course and go to the meeting."
When Jordan finally arrived, he immediately loved the new shoe design that Tinker had come up with. But it wasn’t until he was in the parking lot with his parents that he got the scolding that kept him from leaving the company.
According to Thompson, James told his son that he and Deloris were “embarrassed” by his incredible lateness. Then Michael asked James what he should do, and like any embarrassed father, he continued the scolding. Here’s how Thompson summarized that father-son interaction:
[Michael’s] dad said that Nike's commitment was on display because Phil Knight had waited so long, and its design skills were on display in the IIIs, and that this seemed like the right move for his future. Michael listened.
Because Knight and the others stayed until Jordan decided to arrive, James felt that they were truly committed to being in business with his son. Jordan heeded his father’s advice, and the rest is history.
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