Meet the Real People Who Inspired the Key Characters in ‘Air'

From Sonny Vaccaro to Deloris Jordan, here is what you need to know about the real people who inspired the characters in Ben Affleck's 'Air.'

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight
Image via Amazon Studios
Ben Affleck as Phil Knight

The Ben Affleck-directed Air, now in theaters, reveals the behind-the-scenes of the industry-shifting sneaker deal between Nike and then-rookie Michael Jordan, which created what we today know as the Jordan Brand.

The creation of the Air Jordan became a first-of-its-kind revolutionary collaboration that shifted the way athletes and sports companies did business forever. While the basketball giant is not involved in the film, and doesn’t appear in it either, he made sure to set some ground rules to ensure that this portion of his legendary story was told correctly.

He requested for certain details and for specific and influential people to be included in the film before giving Affleck the greenlight to produce and direct the film. Jordan wanted his mom, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), to be a focal point in the story, and asked for the inclusion of key people like Howard White (Chris Tucker) and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) who helped facilitate the partnership.

The idea from the script originally came to writer Alex Convery while watching the Jordan documentary The Last Dance in 2020but the script began to shift and take a different shape after Jordan’s input and Affleck and Matt Damon’s involvement. Air tells the story of how talent scout Sonny Vaccaro’s larger-than-life idea to sign Jordan as the face of the brand’s basketball division helped rescue the sportswear company from bankruptcy in 1984, even if it meant blowing the entire budget on just one player.

There were a lot of significant people involved in the pitching, decision-making, and creation of the Nike deal with Jordan, and Air does its best at highlighting its impact in permanently changing the world of sneakers and sports. Now that the movie is available to stream on Prime Video, check out our explanation for each one of the real people who inspired the characters in Air and their part in making the deal a reality. 

This story was originally published on April 7.

Sonny Vaccaro

Sonny Vaccaro Air Movie

Played By: Matt Damon

Real-Life Impact: John Paul Vincent “Sonny” Vaccaro, a former marketing executive, should be credited for jumpstarting the entire basketball division at Nike. Vaccaro, excellently played by Matt Damon in the film, was the one who was dead set on landing a sneaker deal with Michael Jordan, before he even set foot on an NBA court. That’s called having foresight, something not a lot of people have. Vaccaro went out of his way to build a connection with the Jordan family to seal the deal, and went the extra mile to see his vision come to life.

Not only that, but the budget for the deal at the time was $250,000 and was meant to be distributed among a group of basketball players, but according to the film, Vaccaro convinced Nike CEO Phil Knight to spend the entire sum to land Jordan. And boy, did it pay off. Nike went on to to outdo its competitors—Converse, who was the No. 1 basketball shoe at the time, and Adidas—thanks to Vaccaro’s vision and determination. 

Matt Damon Sonny Vaccaro 'Air' Movie

After signing Jordan to his first sneaker deal, Vaccaro left Nike for Adidas, and then move to Reebok. Air tells the story of Air Jordan’s beginnings through Sonny’s perspective and Damon really shines as the lead, adding layers of tenacity, heart and deep rooted belief to the character and the film overall. —Karla Rodriguez

Deloris Jordan

Deloris Jordan Air Movie

Played By: Viola Davis

Real-Life Impact: Deloris Jordan was instrumental in Nike securing the deal with her son. Not only that but she pushed for Jordan to receive a cut from every Air Jordan sold, setting a precedent for all athlete deals to come. Because of that, Jordan had some requests before allowing Affleck to tell the Air Jordan story. The basketball star wanted the film’s focus to be on his mother and her involvement in securing the Nike deal, and he also wanted Viola Davis to play her. Landing the Oscar winner for the role seemed like a difficult task for Affleck who feared he might have to abandon the project if Davis wasn’t down to play the role. But EGOT or not, when Michael Jordan requests for you to play his mother, there’s no other option but to say “yes.” And she did.

Deloris Jordan Viola Davis 'Air' Movie'

Davis serves as a vehicle in the film to show the power of a mother’s strength and determination in protecting their children, especially when they are the most promising athlete in the world. It goes to show the importance of what having a strong family unit can do for those who are on the brink of experiencing worldwide fame and about to amass massive amounts of wealth. Without a strong foundation at home, it’s easy to get lost in the hype of it all. But Deloris and James were key in helping their son stay grounded and to keep any potential leeches or bad deals at bay. The interactions between Deloris and Sonny that we see in the film become the heart of the story, and it was the connection that they made with one another that became the reason why Jordan chose Nike in the end. —Karla Rodriguez

Phil Knight

Phil Knight Air Movie Ben Affleck

Peter Moore

Peter Moore, creative director of Nike and Adidas, in 2008

Played By: Matthew Maher

Real-Life Impact: Meet the man behind the shoe. Designer Peter Moore (who Complex spoke with in 2015, by the way!) is responsible for the original silhouette of the Air Jordan 1. He was also inspired by a set of Pilot Wings to come up with the now-iconic winged-ball logo and also created the Jumpman logo. After designing the 1s, Moore left Nike in 1987 to join Adidas and eventually became the chief executive officer of the brand. Sadly, Moore passed away last year before the film went into production.

Matthew Maher as Peter Moore

In an obituary for Complex, writer Brendan Dunne summed up Moore’s impact elegantly, stating, “Though Moore submitted his genius to ideas bigger than himself and did not seem keen on collecting any grand accolades, there is no doubt that time will know his name. To those in his orbit, he was a hero.” Moore is a legend for those in the sneaker world, and his legacy will now live on forever for everyone to learn about thanks to Air and actor Matthew Maher, who plays him in the film. —William Goodman

Howard White

Howard White Air Movie Chris Tucker

Played By: Chris Tucker

Real-Life Impact: After serving as an assistant coach to the Maryland Terps, Howard “H” White worked at Nike as a field representative, developing relationships with up-and-coming athletes—notably Michael Jordan. After bringing MJ to Nike, White became an essential part of the Jordan Brand at Nike. He continues to work with the company to this day as the senior vice president of the Jordan Brand. Additionally, White founded the “Believe to Achieve” program, a traveling seminar to help encourage youth to believe in themselves and for adults to provide mentorship accordingly.

Chris Tucker as Howard White

White wasn’t in the original script for the film but Jordan asked Affleck to make sure he was included. The role went to Chris Tucker, who wrote a lot of his own lines for the film, and became one of the best performances in the film. The deal wouldn’t have happened without White’s connection to the Jordan family, so featuring him in the film was essential. — William Goodman

George Raveling

George Raveling Air Movie

Played By: Marlon Wayans

Real-Life Impact: Another stern request Jordan had before giving Affleck his blessing to make the film was for the inclusion of one of his coaches at the 1984 Olympics, George Raveling. Raveling and Vaccaro were also close friends, and the basketball coach was instrumental in making the Nike deal with the Jordan family a reality by putting in a good word and vouching for his friend with the Jordans. He also worked as the Director for International Basketball for Nike at one point after retiring from his career as a coach.

Marlon Wayans George Raveling Air Movie

The Raveling character, played by Marlon Wayans, only appears momentarily in the film for a conversation between him and Sonny in which he breaks down why Jordan did not want to sign with Nike. But then it’s understood that because of his closeness to the family, Raveling was able to make a call and orchestrate the initial meeting between Sonny and Deloris in her home in North Carolina, which ultimately led to making the historic and groundbreaking deal happen. —Karla Rodriguez

David Falk

David Falk Air Movie Chris Messina

Played By: Chris Messina

Real-Life Impact: David Falk is a legend. For those who don’t know, Falk was Jordan’s sports agent for his entire career and then went on to represent more than 100 other NBA players. He is considered to be the most influential agent in NBA history, and was regarded as one of the most powerful people in the basketball industry, second only to NBA Commissioner David Stern, during the peak years of his career. He was instrumental in ensuring that Jordan signed the best possible sneaker deal and went head to head with Vaccaro and the Nike team to secure a formidable and now historic deal for the basketball legend. Aside from Jordan’s mom, Falk was the one fighting tooth and nail to make sure his client was getting exactly what he deserved—and he should be viewed as an example for all athletes to understand the kind of people they should have on their corners.  

Chris Messina as David Falk

“That role is important,” Affleck said about the character during a discussion about Air with Entertainment Weekly. “That cutthroat, agent person should be there on behalf of those athletes driving as hard as they can against whoever it is—Nike, any of these companies. That’s a heroic role in my mind.”

Casting Chris Messina to play the role was also a solid decision from the Air team. He delivers one of the most captivating and exhilarating performances in the film, showing the intensity and ruthlessness an agent should possess in order to get things done for their clients. —Karla Rodriguez

Rob Strasser

Adidas exec Rob Strasser in 1992 wearing a red Adidas Equipment sweatshirt

Played By: Jason Bateman

Real-Life Impact: As Nike’s director of marketing, Rob Strasser was critical in helping to market and sell the Air Jordan 1—not only to consumers but to MJ himself. On the latter, Strasser made an impact; Jordan told US Today in 2015 that he “absolutely fell in love with” Strasser during the initial presentation of the shoe. Furthermore, it was Strasser who told Jordan to continue to wear the shoes after they were initially banned by the NBA, leading to the famous “Banned” ad that would help Nike revolutionize the sneaker industry. Strasser eventually left Nike for Adidas and was only with the three stripes for a few years before passing away while in Germany on a work trip for the brand.

Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser

Jason Bateman plays Strasser in the film, and he fit right in with the rest of the cast. Screenwriter Alex Convery told Complex that the actor also used his experience as a director on Ozark to give input throughout the filmmaking process, making Air a true collaborative effort from everyone involved.  —William Goodman

James Jordan

James Jordan Air Movie

Played By: Julius Tennon

Real-Life Impact: James Raymond Jordan Sr. was Michael Jordan’s father, who married the athlete’s mom, Deloris, in 1956. Jordan Sr. was a diehard basketball fan and his love for the sport played a role in inspiring his son to become the all-star athlete that he is. His love for baseball was also credited as the reason why Jordan eventually pursued a career in the sport after his retirement from basketball.

Julius Tennon James Jordan

Jordan Sr. supported his son throughout his college basketball and NBA careers until he was shot and killed in North Carolina in July 1993 at the age of 56​. In the film, James is portrayed as a supportive and protective figure for both his son and his wife amid their negotiations with Nike. He beams with pride about his son and his accomplishments, and the promise of what the potential deal could mean for his future. The best part? The role is played by Davis’ real life husband, Julius Tennon, which adds an endearing level of intimacy between the characters. —Karla Rodriguez

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