The way that Sonny Vaccaro discovers Michael Jordan’s potential for greatness in Ben Affleck’s AIR is a little bit different from how it happened in real life, according to screenwriter Alex Convery. But the way Convery changed the story provides a great example of how to compress and dramatize a moment for the big screen.
AIR tells the story of the once-in-a-lifetime deal struck between Nike and Michael Jordan in 1984, with Matt Damon playing Sonny Vaccaro, the man who convinced Jordan, and especially Jordan’s mother, Deloris, to sign up for a sneaker line with Nike instead of Adidas or Converse. Affleck directs the movie and plays Nike co-founder Philip K. Knight.
In a memorable scene in the movie, Vaccaro plays and replays a VHS tape of Jordan’s game-winning shot at the 1982 NCAA Championship game. As he rewinds the tape again and again, he realizes how special it was that Jordan, then a freshman at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, got the ball instead of an upperclassman. And he notices Jordan’s total lack of fear.
It’s in that moment that Vaccaro gets the brilliant idea to devote the entire $250,000 budget for Nike’s basketball shoe division to Jordan alone, instead of spreading it out between multiple, less promising players.
But that’s not exactly how it happened in real life, AIR screenwriter Alex Convery tells us on the MovieMaker Podcast, which you can listen to on Apple or below on Spotify.
How Sonny Vaccaro Actually Watched Michael Jordan’s Game-Winning 1982 Shot
“Sonny was actually at that game. He was at the championship game and saw Jordan hit the shot,” Convery says. “Cut to two years later when they’re having to pick a player [at Nike] — Sonny always says, ‘It’s just something about that shot that stuck in my mind, the fact that he got the ball as a freshman.'”
But Convery didn’t want to potentially take audiences out of his propulsive 1984-set narrative by flashing back to 1982. So he ended up showing Damon watching the winning shot over and over on VHS tape.
“Obviously, you’re not going to flash back to him at the game and try to explain, ‘I was there, but now I’m here.’ You want to try to be a little more creative than that,” he says. “So let’s just take everything that he’s talked about in that shot and kind of instill it into that moment.”
Convery also says it was actually Matt Damon’s idea to mention Linwood Robinson, the player at UNC Chapel Hill who announced he would be playing for North Carolina on the same day as Michael Jordan. Linwood made more headlines that day than Jordan did, but Linwood ended up transferring out two years later and is far less remembered than Jordan.
It’s a small moment that underscores for the audience that Vaccaro was really a visionary and that few people actually recognized Jordan’s greatness at the time.
“Matt [Damon] found that, which I really love. Because it is like, ‘Who’s Lynwood Robinson?’ You know, I just love that that’s the way they start that scene,” Convery says.
“All of the rest of it was just talking to Sonny and taking all his thoughts on that moment and kind of mashing them together. Because it’s funny — he says the movie, ‘I have this feeling.’ And when you ask Sonny, how did you know about Michael Jordan? Why Michael Jordan? He’s like, ‘It was that shot. I don’t know, I can’t explain it to you other than I watched that shot, and I just knew.’ So it was finding the way to best capture the truth of that sentiment, while also making it make sense in the linear structure of the movie.”
AIR is now playing on Prime Video, and this story, previously published at the time of its theatrical release, has been updated accordingly.
Main Image: Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in AIR Photo: ANA CARBALLOSA © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.