Sneaker Theater: Inside the Commercial That Inspired the New Air Jordan 7

The Jordan Brand’s retro division has become extremely lucrative over the years, in large part due to nostalgia. After all this time, what Michael Jordan accomplished while wearing his iconic sneakers still resonates for scores of Gen Xers, and for younger people with a respect for basketball history.

That said, there’s only so many times we can torture poor Craig Ehlo. In recent years, the Jumpman has begun to harvest some previously unexplored moments from Jordan’s oeuvre, from the United Center statue to the teams he vanquished during his first three-peat.

The latest example is the Air Jordan 7 “Nothing But Net” (now officially called the “Bright Concord”), which calls back to a relatively flamboyant shirt M.J. once wore in a commercial. And if that seems trivial, consider that the shirt made its appearance in what was one of the most significant ads of its generation.

While Jordan and Nike were the driving force behind revolutionizing how athletes are marketed, M.J.’s ad wizardry was hardly limited to sneakers. With apologies to Gatorade’s infectious “Like Mike” spot, McDonald’s came up with perhaps the most impactful non-Nike sports campaign in 1993 with “The Shootout,” which became a sensation when it aired before Super Bowl XXVII.

The concept was simple but effective: With a Big Mac and french fries at stake, Jordan and fellow basketball demigod Larry Bird played a game of H.O.R.S.E. with a steeply escalating degree of difficulty. Eventually, Jordan and Bird ascended the towering Hancock Center in Chicago, where M.J. set the parameters. Off the expressway, over the river …

“The funny thing is, the commercial almost didn’t make it, because at the last second our lawyers realized we didn’t have commercial clearance to use the Hancock Building,” former Leo Burnett creative director Jim Ferguson told CNBC in 2010. “Eventually I think we traded the rights to use it for a basketball autographed by Jordan and Bird and I think $100. Nobody ever thought it would turn into what it did.”

The ubiquity of the ad and its leading men has been imitated, but never duplicated. Five years ago, Joe Pytka returned to direct the sequel, featuring LeBron James and Dwight Howard facing off while Bird swiped their value meal. The YouTube clip has more than six million views, and yet in no way did it resonate on a level even close to the original. Jordan and Bird had a special presence and chemistry that resulted in organic Madison Avenue magic.

Part of why the ad resonated was that Bird was one of a select few players anyone might think could reasonably hang with Jordan, leading to a mutual respect. Bird famously called his friendly rival “God disguised as Michael Jordan” in 1986 after his 63-point masterpiece; years later, M.J. fondly recalled a specific play Bird made in a Dream Team scrimmage. (“Making a great play like that,” Jordan told SI’s Jack McCallum, succinctly, “That’s Larry Bird.”)

The stories behind the ad became larger than life, matching its participants. Ferguson recalled that Bird — reluctant to rely on editing — attempted to determine whether he actually could bank in a shot off the scoreboard. Frankly, who would bet against him?

And of course, Jordan’s matching shirt/shorts ensemble took on a life of its own.Air Jordan 7 Nothing But Net

“There’s a story about the awful outfit Jordan is wearing,” Ferguson said. “Larry showed up in regular workout clothes. At the time, Michael was designing his own line of clothes. This was one of the outfits.

“According to the contract, Michael could pick his wardrobe. (Director Joe) Pytka, known for his temper, ridiculed Jordan continuously about the outfit. But to no avail. Jordan refused to wear anything else but his creation.”

Jordan clearly favored the very 90’s-ish outfit, also wearing it in Barcelona while there with the Dream Team. Frankly, it looked ridiculous. But with M.J. at the very height of his powers, who could possibly tell him anything? Jordan could have shown up in a burlap sack and dropped 40 points. It did portend some of the questionable fashion choices he’d make over the years, though I’d contend he maintains the personal cache to wear whatever he wants.

The “Nothing But Net” AJ7 — which you can purchase at Champs Sports on Saturday — tastefully sprinkles the shirt’s pattern throughout the sneaker. Having seen it at the Jordan Brand Holiday Preview, I can confirm it looks good in person, especially considering the unique nature of the outfit it borrows details from.

More so than the literal design inspiration, the best part of the sneaker is the timeless commercial it calls to mind. For those of us who came up in the 90’s, the concept of “going viral” had nothing to do with forced hashtags or fleeting trending topics. Regardless of actual athletic ability, pretty much everyone spent a good chunk of the 90’s calling “nothing but net” on our jump shots.

“The Showdown” ends with no winner having been crowned, while the two titans flung basketballs off the top of a building and swished mythical shots in perpetuity. More than two decades later, that “nothing but net” remains a part of our on-court vernacular — not to mention our sneaker rotation — shows that the right marketing campaign can pay dividends long after Super Bowl Sunday.

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