‘Air: Courting A Legend’: A slam dunk of a film

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4 out of 4 stars

Long before he won his first MVP, scoring title or NBA championship, he was just a kid, albeit one oozing of potential basketball greatness, from Wilmington, N.C., who every athletic shoe company coveted.

Ben Affleck plays NIKE founder Phil Knight in “Air: Courting A Legend.” (Amazon Studios)

Michael Jordan – maybe you’ve heard of him? But in 1984, he was just the third pick in the NBA Draft by Chicago Bulls who were hoping the shooting guard out of the University of North Carolina could lift their franchise out of mediocrity.

But Sonny Vaccaro didn’t see that. He envisioned something no one else saw: that one day anyone who ever dribbled a basketball would want “to be like Mike.”

But Vaccaro, the head talent scout for Nike, had a major problem: Jordan really didn’t like Nike, refusing to wear its uncomfortable shoes. He was an Adidas guy, and didn’t mind Converse, which at the time, were the two biggest manufacturers of basketball shoes on the planet.

And Nike? A distant third, a company known for its running shoes that was on the verge of shuttering its basketball division altogether.

Think about that.

“Air: Courting A Legend” chronicles perhaps the biggest battle over an athlete in any sport at any time because Nike’s partnership with Jordan not only changed athlete endorsements, but revolutionized sports and contemporary culture that resonate today.

Now, do we know the “Air: Courting A Legend” is completely accurate in how Nike landed Jordan? No.

Don’t be surprised if Matt Damon, who plays Sonny Vaccaro, and Viola Davis, who plays Deloris Jordan, receive Oscar nominations for their performances in “Air: Courting A Legend.” (Amazon Studios)

But director Ben Affleck took liberties in how American embassy workers escaped Iran in “Argo,” which won the 2013 Academy Award for best picture, and the audience didn’t care.

And they won’t care if he did the same with “Air,” a phenomenal movie that should be nominated for several Academy Awards next year.

Affleck plays quirky Nike founder Phil Knight, who is counting on Vaccaro, played exquisitely by Affleck’s buddy Matt Damon, and advertising genius Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), to find the faces of Nike basketball’s division.

Vaccaro’s unorthodox solution: Take Nike’s entire endorsement budget of $250,000 and instead of spreading it among three players, go all-in on a rookie named Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

But it isn’t that easy. Before even talking to Michael, Vaccaro has to get past Jordan’s protective parents — mom Deloris, played outstanding well by Viola Davis, and dad James (Julius Tennon). And let’s not forget Jordan’s trash-talking agent David Falk (Chris Messina), who goes out of his way to hinder Vaccaro by promoting Converse and Adidas to the Jordans.

Falk’s reasoning is sound. Converse already has Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius “Dr. J” Irving wearing its shoes, while Adidas – already Jordan’s favorite growing up – had rappers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wearing its kicks.

But that didn’t stop Vaccaro from doing one of the biggest no-nos in sports – go behind Falk’s back and drive to North Carolina to pitch Nike directly to Jordan’s parents.

Vaccaro’s pitch was completely opposite from that of Converse and Adidas. Instead a company paying Jordan to wear its shoes, Nike was going to create a shoe line completely around Jordan. And that’s only the start of the deal.

What makes “Air” such as terrific film is under Affleck’s role as director, the movie takes three of Hollywood’s biggest names — Affleck, Damon and Davis – and lets them develop their own characters through their role in negotiating the contract that forever changed sports.

You know how the story ends.

But the ride to get there is well worth taking.