Iconic Sports Commercials: Michael Jordan and Mars Blackmon

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Sometimes the commercial breaks during a big game provide more entertainment than what happens between the lines. Iconic Sports Commercials is a Yahoo Sports series highlighting some of the most unforgettable spots, from how they were conceived, to behind-the-scenes tales from the set, to what made them so influential.

Mean Joe Greene’s ‘Hey kid, catch!’ | Michael vs. Larry | Chicks Dig the Long Ball | Lil’ Penny | Tiger’s ‘Hacky Sack’ | Charles Barkley: ‘I am not a role model’ | Bo Knows | Mars Blackmon | Grandmama

How it came about

The luckiest break Jim Riswold and Bill Davenport ever caught was watching a vapid romantic comedy together in Los Angeles 33 years ago.

Only because they went to see About Last Night did the Wieden + Kennedy duo stumble across the inspiration they needed to conceive of Michael Jordan’s most recognizable ad campaign.

A trailer that aired before the movie began showed a little-known filmmaker on a Brooklyn street corner hawking tube socks 3 for $5. Spike Lee told viewers he would be peddling socks the rest of his life if they didn’t go see his low-budget debut movie, She’s Gotta Have It.

Intrigued, Riswold and Davenport sought out Lee’s film and discovered that the young director also played a fictional character practically created to star in a Nike commercial. A fast-talking, Michael Jordan-obsessed bicycle messenger named Mars Blackmon hardly ever removed his Air Jordans during the movie, not even when he finally bedded the woman of his dreams.

“Bill and I looked at each other like, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking? You better be thinking what I’m thinking,’ ” Riswold recalled with a laugh. “We both recognized this super fan character would be the perfect foil to pair with Michael.”

For Riswold and Davenport, the timing of that discovery could not have been more perfect. Nike had been clamoring for a fresh approach to marketing its most valuable commodity.

Most of Jordan’s early Nike ads followed a familiar pattern. They showcased the elegance of his body and his staggering athleticism, but they did not explore the type of person he was, whether he was someone you’d only want to watch play or someone you’d also invite over for dinner after the game.

Nike awarded Wieden + Kennedy the Jordan contract in hopes that the innovative little Portland firm could dream up something more creative than a slow-motion dunk video. Riswold and Davenport were responsible for figuring out how to reveal Jordan’s likability and charm in less than 60 seconds, potentially enabling him to reach a broader audience than just teenage basketball players who wanted to jump higher.

“We’d almost already worn out the concept of getting a great NBA player and showing a slow motion shot of them dunking the basketball,” former Nike director of advertising Scott Bedbury said. “We had to keep moving into fresh territory.”

When Riswold and Davenport called Lee to gauge his interest in co-starring with Jordan in a series of Nike commercials, they didn’t have to go through an agent, publicist or secretary to reach the young filmmaker. Lee’s phone number was listed in the Brooklyn directory, and he answered when Davenport dialed.

“I introduced myself and told him I wanted to talk to him about doing a Nike ad with Michael Jordan,” Davenport said. “I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of ‘F--- you. You’re bulls---ing me.’ He thought this was one of his buddies pranking him. He kept saying, ‘For real? For real?’ ”

Eventually, Lee realized this was a legitimate offer, and he quickly accepted. All that was left was for Nike to greenlight the campaign, no small hurdle considering Jordan had to approve and he was often selective about who he worked with or how he would be used.

“At that time, Mike had not see She’s Gotta Have It,” Lee told Mediabistro in 2012. “He didn’t know who I was. I had never directed a commercial in my life.

“Michael Jordan could have easily said, ‘Look, I can’t take a chance on this young gun, this young boy. Just give me one of the top guys on Madison Avenue.’ But Michael Jordan didn’t do that. I still haven’t asked him his reason, but for some reason he decided to give me a shot.”

How the campaign altered Jordan’s image

Before the Spike and Mike campaign debuted in 1988, the public perception of Michael Jordan was largely two-dimensional.

He was primarily known as the world’s most dominant basketball player, an athletic marvel with otherworldly physical gifts and the competitive drive to take the most innocuous slight and use it as motivation to lay waste to opposing teams.

By pairing Jordan with Mars Blackmon, Nike was able to gradually humanize its most valuable commodity. Opposing NBA teams got the assassin, and viewers watching Nike’s commercials got the charmer with the charismatic smile and playful sense of humor.

The campaign’s first spot begins with Lee standing on Jordan’s shoulders and holding onto the rim. Moments later, Jordan flashes a mischievous grin and walks away, leaving Lee hanging helplessly in midair.

In the second commercial, Jordan tires of hearing Mars gush that covering him is impossible, so the Bulls star smiles as he puts his hand over Lee’s mouth and jokes, “It’s easy to cover Mars Blackmon.” In a later commercial, Jordan dons Mars’ trademark Brooklyn cap and thick glasses after a genie grants the bike messenger’s wish to become his hero.

“I think it really helped bring out a more fun, playful side to him,” Davenport said.

“Nike was nervous about it at first. Jordan was the key to everything for Nike. In many ways the fate of the company was riding on him, so I think there was a lot at stake in terms of us getting it right. It was a very radical departure from what Jordan had been doing before and what Nike basketball had been doing before.”

The way the Spike and Mike campaign boosted Jordan’s image persuaded Nike to try similar concepts in the future.

Humor became a staple of subsequent Nike campaigns as the company stopped marketing only to serious athletes and sought to broaden its reach. Nike also discovered the value of providing athletes a comedic sparring partner, from Jordan’s subsequent pairing with Bugs Bunny, to Penny Hardaway’s loud-mouthed alter-ego Lil’ Penny, to Tiger Woods’ cartoonish talking golf club headcover, Frank.

“Spike and Mike was the first time that Nike tried humor,” Riswold said. “It taught us how to tease an athlete and give an athlete a foil because most athletes have better things to do than become actors. It kind of set things in motion for the future of Nike advertising.”

Did the F-word make it into one of the commercials?

Listen closely to Lee’s reaction to Jordan dunking on him in the campaign’s first spot, and you’ll faintly hear a word that isn’t exactly suitable for network TV.

“Oh, f---,” Lee begins to shout. He then catches himself in time to add, “Mike, man. That’s cold, man.”

Riswold’s script had called for Jordan to leave Lee hanging helplessly from the rim overnight until the janitor found him like that the next morning. Unbeknownst to Lee, Jordan instead called an audible and proposed an alternate ending.

“Michael was like, ‘I’m going to dunk on him,’ ” Riswold recalled. “Spike had no idea that was coming. That’s why if you listen very carefully, it’s probably the only time on network television that the word, ‘f---,’ made it into an ad.”

The story behind the campaign’s strangest cameo

Little Richard. Chris Mullin. Nola Darling. Stan Musial. Bill Buckner.

There were a handful of notable celebrity cameos during the course of the Spike and Mike campaign, but the most memorable might have been from someone who isn’t famous at all.

In the eighth installment of the campaign, Mars consults an actual professor of aeronautics in hopes of learning the secret of how Jordan defies gravity. Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Kirkpatrick of the Air Force Academy’s Department of Astronautics draws confused stares from Mars and Jordan by explaining that “Michael has overcome the acceleration of gravity by the application of his muscle power in the vertical plane, thus producing a low-altitude orbit.”

The premise for that commercial struck Riswold when he read a 1988 New York Times article analyzing how Jordan plays above the rim more than any of his peers. Kirkpatrick is among the scientists quoted in the story, which inspired Riswold to seek him out and ask if he wanted to participate in a Nike commercial.

“Somehow Jim found this guy and we went to Colorado Springs to meet him,” Davenport said. “He was great. He was a total non-actor and none of us knew anything that he was talking about, but he was a really good sport and I think he had a good time shooting it as well.”

Why not use an actor instead of actually tracking down Kirkpatrick?

“Jim always believed in authenticity,” Davenport said. “He wanted to find a real guy, and he did.”

Three Fun Facts

1. Riswold was careful to clear his ideas with Jordan before commercial shoots and to listen to his feedback, but sometimes he had to stand his ground when the Chicago Bulls star made a dubious suggestion. Said Riswold, “I’d be like, ‘Do you want me to teach you about free throws?’ He was like, ‘OK, I get it.’ ”

2. For Riswold and Lee, the writing process was often collaborative. Riswold would try to write in Mars Blackmon’s voice, but he’d often ask Lee for feedback on how the bike messenger might phrase something. So was it Lee or Riswold who came up with “It’s gotta be the shoes,” the campaign’s most oft-quoted catchphrase? Riswold says he can’t remember. “Just say Mars Blackmon wrote it,“ he joked.

3. While both Nike and Lee agreed the Spike and Mike campaign had run its course by 1991, Mars Blackmon returned a few times to comment on significant events in Jordan’s career.

There was this clever 1995 spot during Jordan’s short-lived foray into professional baseball.

And this nostalgic farewell spot when Jordan finally retired for good in 2003.

How the campaign fueled the Air Jordan craze

Ask Bedbury when he knew the Spike and Mike pairing was a hit, and he’ll cite a letter that Nike received from a mother of two young basketball players soon after the first commercial debuted.

Seeking to settle an argument that had erupted over family dinner one evening, she asked Nike, “Who was that darling little black boy in that new Michael Jordan commercial?”

“Well, Spike was 30,” Bedbury said. “She had no idea who Spike was, but it worked for her. She and her boys thought the commercial was the coolest thing they had ever seen.”

What feedback like that showed Nike was that the Spike and Mike campaign wasn’t just popular with basketball zealots or fans of Lee’s critically acclaimed independent film. The commercials had broader appeal thanks to Jordan’s star quality and Lee’s infusion of humor and urban language and culture.

Of course clever advertising alone doesn’t create a frenzy for sneakers. It took a perfect storm of factors for the Air Jordan III, IV and V to fly off the shelves at more than $100 a pop during the course of the Spike and Mike campaign’s three-year run.

Tinker Hatfield’s artful designs were a factor. In particular, the architect-turned-designer’s use of elephant print and tumbled leather in the Air Jordan III’s gave the shoes a stylish, luxurious feel that helped them stand out in the market.

Jordan’s ascendance on the basketball floor was also key, too. He was wearing the III’s when he took flight from the foul line during the 1988 slam dunk contest and the IV’s when he sunk one of his most iconic shots, a series-clinching jumper over Craig Ehlo in the 1989 NBA playoffs.

It also certainly didn’t hurt that other celebrities brought attention to the line. Will Smith often rocked Air Jordan V’s during Fresh Prince of Bel Air episodes, as did some of the era’s most prominent rappers on stage or in their music videos. Lee also further promoted the shoe with a memorable scene in Do The Right Thing in which Buggin’ Out threatens to fight a Celtics fan in a Larry Bird shirt who steps on his foot and scuffs his white Air Jordan IV’s.

Ultimately, the Spike and Mike campaign was only one of many contributors to the Air Jordan craze but it was a big one. Catchphrases like “It’s gotta be the shoes” and “Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?” were everywhere during the era, from T-shirts, to song lyrics, to newspaper headlines.

“The easiest thing in the world is to say something incredibly relevant to a very narrow niche of the market,” Bedbury said. “That is not hard. But to do something that penetrates that 5 percent of the audience and also speaks to the other 95 percent is really powerful. That’s what we cracked with Spike and Mike.

“You have to realize that She’s Gotta Have It was Spike’s only film that was out at the time. Who the hell knew Spike Lee, let alone Mars Blackmon, the funny character in the movie? To that maybe two percent of the viewers that had seen it, that was like a lightning bolt. But it didn’t matter because the rest of the audience understood Michael and appreciated seeing him in a different environment.”

Did Spike and Mike make Air Jordans too popular?

At the height of the Spike and Mike campaign, some people actually argued Nike was doing too good a job making Air Jordans desirable.

Critics blamed Nike for targeting a young, urban audience with its advertising but jacking up the price of Air Jordans to a range that many inner-city teens and their families could not realistically afford. They insisted the demand for the most coveted limited-release shoes led to a nationwide spate of thefts and muggings and even an occasional murder.

“Your sneakers or your life,” was the sensationalist headline emblazoned on the cover of a 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated. That same year, New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick pointed the finger directly at Jordan and Lee with a particularly scathing — and senseless — piece.

In reality, blaming Nike sneakers for causing violent crime was no more logical than blaming Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for causing obesity. Materialism, a decline in societal values and the economic disparity between the rich and the poor were some of the factors at fault for the violent crimes involving Air Jordans, just as the obesity epidemic in America is a result of changing eating habits and a decline in physical activity during work and leisure time.

Lee defended himself and Nike a handful of times during that era, including in a 1991 Sports Illustrated article.

"I never felt like there was any blood on our hands," he said. "I'm upset by anybody being killed. But you have to look at why it is that way. What is it about these kids' lives that is so bleak that they need a pair of sneakers or a Georgetown jacket to give them self-worth?"

One last behind the scenes story

In addition to his stellar acting and directing throughout the Spike and Mike campaign, Lee also excelled in another area.

“He was pretty good as a negotiator, too,” Nike’s Mark Thomashow said.

Entering the campaign’s third year, Nike co-founder Phil Knight urged Thomashow to try to sign Lee to a long-term deal instead of going year by year. Thomashow proposed that to Lee, who shrewdly responded, “Yeah, I think I’m doing alright doing it year by year.”

Lee made $50,000 for the first year of the campaign, not a small sum for a man who was only a few years removed from film school and had just scraped together $175,000 to fund his first full-length feature film. According to Thomashow, Lee’s salary increased significantly each year thereafter.

“He has talked about how his first Knicks tickets were in the nose-bleed seats at the Garden and then he gradually worked his way down to the front row,” Thomashow said. “I suspect Nike should get some credit for his improvement.”

Of course, Lee earned every penny given that he created the Mars Blackmon character, did the bulk of the talking during the commercials and directed them on top of that. Lee has also been quick to credit Riswold and Davenport for coming up with the idea for the campaign and Nike for taking a chance on him and accelerating his rise to prominence.

“It’s been a great, mutually beneficial relationship,” Thomashow said.