A Nike Historian Weighs In on What Air Got Right—and Wrong
Watching Air in a Portland-area movie theater is likely to inspire a game of Spot the Nike Person. That guffaw at a seemingly unfunny character introduction? Maybe the person sitting behind you worked with them. A sudden Leo DiCaprio–style finger point of recognition? Maybe they had a Rubik’s Cube and a Rolodex on their old Nike desk, too.
Set in 1984, the film presents an origin story for Air Jordans, and how a young, out-of-the-way running shoe company headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon, with a struggling basketball division, landed the player who would come to be revered as one of the biggest talents of the century. Anyone familiar with Portland sneaker history will wonder why one member of Nike’s marketing team, Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon) appears to be credited with a lot of what Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and others actually did.
“People have told me a million times, ‘Scott, it’s not a documentary.’ I understand that. I’m a writer, I fully get literary license,” says retired Nike corporate historian Scott Reames. But it’s still frustrating to see people reacting to the film or even quoting it as if it were a documentary, he says. “Because that’s my job—that’s all I did for 17 years, was try to get stories straight—I had my arms crossed a few times” over the details in Air. The who-did-what mix-ups aren’t limited to his former employer, either. Without doubt a formidable figure, Deloris Jordan is depicted in the movies as being the one who secured royalties for her son from the sale of every pair of Air Jordans, but in reality she didn’t negotiate the details of the contract, Reames notes.
The first time he saw the film (he's seen it three times), everyone else in the audience was a Nike Person, too. He went to a special screening with other Nike alumni, many of whom had been at the company in the 1980s. “One of the first half-‘oh, right’ moments was when they pan back and they show the home office in this sea of green forest, and we’re all like, ‘Dude, that was on Murray Boulevard right near TV Highway, across the street from a Kmart,’” Reames says. “I actually started in that building where Michael’s contract was signed. It was not a verdant green treescape in every direction.” The building, once called Murray II, is now home to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
The greenery with a mountain in the distance, as well as shots of a few Portland Bridges, Reames says, might help “sort of telegraph, ‘Hey, we’re in Oregon!’” In general, though, the film is more serious about showing that it’s set in the 1980s than in or around Portland, with nods to Garfield, Wham!, and Mr. T. Songs by Cyndi Lauper, the Violent Femmes, Dan Hartman, and Mike + The Mechanics add to the ’80s feel. At one point Matt Damon even dons a Members Only jacket. The alumni screening included some murmurs of approval at period details like Rubik’s Cubes, Coleco games, and décor details.
Reames didn’t start working at Nike until 1992, eight years after the events in the film. Before he became the corporate historian, he worked in sports marketing and public relations. His department had a staff of seven when he retired in 2021. He’s researched and written about the famous “Revolution” ad, the launch of Nike Basketball, the company’s relationship with Dan Wieden and Dave Kennedy, and more, interviewing former employees and going down countless rabbit holes for internal reports and presentations.
Among his old colleagues, he says, the consensus was that the film “caught the spirit or the vibe,” he says. “There’s obviously a lot of liberties taken. For example, Peter Moore, Rob Strasser, and Phil Knight all worked in different buildings in real life. Collocating them was an understandable plot device.” They weren’t just in neighboring buildings on the same campus, Reames adds: in real life, Moore’s design team was in downtown Portland and Strasser’s marketing office was near Washington Square Mall, far from Knight’s home base on Murray Boulevard.
Part of the vibe was the casualness of the office, down to Matt Damon’s khakis and polo shirts. “I worked there almost 30 years. I wore a tie three times. I literally can remember the three times,” Reames says. “There’s probably a little too much suit and tie going on in the movie, but it wasn’t that far off.”
It was on the characters that the filmmakers were very far off, Reames says, including Nike cofounder and longtime CEO Phil Knight, played in the film by an occasionally barefoot Ben Affleck, who also directed Air. “The scene where he walks into the meeting late was just kind of cringey to watch for anybody who really knows Phil. That wasn’t Phil at all, to be blustery-slash-narcissistic, and [saying] ‘People are gonna remember me!’—ew, ew, ew, ew, that is so not Phil.” (Reames says he helped with Knight 2016 memoir, Shoe Dog; if that ever gets made into a movie, he says, he’s available for fact-checking.)
“Peter Moore and Rob Strasser were both head-scratchers in terms of the way they were portrayed. Rob Strasser’s nickname at Nike was Rolling Thunder. The man weighed over 300 pounds, he was a gigantic person in many different ways, including personality. I absolutely love Jason Bateman; he’s one of my favorite actors, but not even close. You don’t have to match somebody’s body type, but his personality was just so different from the way he was portrayed.”
Reames says that Chris Tucker, who plays former Nike vice president Howard White, reached out to the company during Air’s preproduction, but he’s not aware of anyone else doing so as the movie was first taking shape. “I don’t think they took the time to get to know Rob. They would have made him a little more bombastic and a little less urbane.”
In one screening Reames attended, there was a crowd of 20- and 30-somethings near the front of the theater, who laughed a lot more than the older Nike vets in the back. “I think a lot of us were doing simultaneous enjoying/processing,” Reames says of his contemporaries. “The laughter came from the people who didn’t know Nike history well.”