You may have never heard of Jim Riswold before, but you’re certainly familiar with his work. Riswold was a copywriter at Portland-based ad agency Wieden & Kennedy when they landed the Nike account, and he was responsible for some of the most memorable Nike campaigns ever. Griffey ‘96? That was Riswold. Lil Penny? Ditto. But the most memorable of them all? Linking Michael Jordan with Mars Blackmon, his biggest fan, in a series of black-and-white commercials now just known as "Spike and Mike." Spike and Mike started in 1987 and have outlasted most relationships. And, if Spike has his way, the relationship hasn’t ended yet.
She’s Gotta Have It not only introduced the world to Mars Blackmon, it introduced Blackmon to Nike (and Jordan) via Riswold. It’s a story he’s told "43,291,019 times," as Riswold says in an e-mail. But the story he tells is so compelling, it’s worth hearing again and again. Riswold has since left Wieden & Kennedy, fought cancer, established himself as an artist, and wrote a book. But the memories remain as fresh as they were when they shot the very first spot on Riswold's 30th birthday, 30 years ago today.
We’ll let Jim take it from here.
Spike and Mike may be the single luckiest thing that ever happened to me in my career.
Bill Davenport and I were in Los Angeles editing our first Jordan spot. It was pretty much standard fare for a Nike spot circa 1987: show the athlete being the athlete and have Pytka shoot it. Anyway, during some downtime we went and saw a fairly dreadful movie called About Last Night. The movie was a complete waste of celluloid, save for a trailer for some movie we never heard of called She’s Gotta Have It from some filmmaker we never heard of named Spike Lee.
Long story short as possible: Davenport and I go see the movie in Portland. There’s a character in the movie named Mars Blackmon who so loves the man Air Jordan and the shoes Air Jordans, when he has the chance to sleep with the girl of his dreams he won’t remove his Jordans.
Now that’s a fan.
Now that’s a commercial.
We called Spike the next day. Back then, he answered his phone. His only question was, “I get to direct the spots, right?” A few months of blah, blah, blahing and we were shooting the first round of Spike and Mike commercials.
We called Spike the next day. Back then, he answered his phone. His only question was, “I get to direct the spots, right?”
I guess the spots worked for a number of reasons. It was the first time humor ever made its way into a Nike spot. But more importantly, I think it demystified and humanized Jordan. They were a counterpart to the Jordan we saw on sports reports every night, Jordan the total predator, the assassin who went out a couple nights a week and laid waste to enemy teams. Opposing teams got the killer, and the fans watching these spots got the charmer, the smile, a man of humor and intelligence, someone everyone seemed to like.
Most important of all: It celebrated the fan and there was no bigger Jordan fan than Mars Blackmon.
Executing the spots was easy; we took a page out of our Lou Reed spot. We wanted to make believe that Mars Blackmon, Air Jordan and Air Jordan’s number-one fan, was actually making these commercials and, yes, he knew they were commercials. We wanted to make the film look like Mars, not Spike, shot it. We wanted the music to sound like Mars wrote, produced and recorded it on some rinky-dink Casio in his Brooklyn apartment. We wanted the words to sound like Mars, not some aging white guy copywriter from Portland, wrote them.
Dave Kindred of The Sporting News once wrote, in something that made my parents awfully proud, “Mars Blackmon saved the NBA from extinction. His rescue of a drug-infested, money-poor, moribund league is a story so obvious it has been missed by analysts who credit Jordan Himself. Filmmaker and actor Spike Lee, working as Mars Blackmon and directing seven (sic) Nike commercials featuring Jordan, gave the NBA an identity at once positive, playful and powerful.”
We shot Round Two the next year. We had to fight for Mars every year after the first year. Some people thought Mars got in the way of Jordan, but that’s like comparing a particle generator to a flower. It was worth fighting for Mars. Plus, I like fighting.